Monday, July 06, 2009

A truly insightful reading of "By the Shores of Silver Lake," wherein I see sex everywhere

So apparently some readers thought my last post was "too long." Ha! I say. Ha! Little do you know that was only the first part! I chopped it in half for you and it was still too long! What would Pa say? Something folksy and wise about not quitting before a job is done, I imagine. So read on, if you will, because we're not nearly done yet.

Moving on....

Book Four! On The Banks of Plum Creek! As a child, all I thought was, "Neat, they live in a sod house! Just like a hobbit hole!" Now all I see is an opening sequence riddled with regret and dark foreshadowing as the family rolls their covered wagon into Minnesota. When Pa trades the mustangs, Pet and Patty, for two stout oxen, he tells Laura, "Pet and Patty like to travel. They are little Indian ponies, Laura, and plowing is too hard work for them. They will be much happier, traveling out west. You wouldn't want to keep them here, breaking their hearts on a plow." Of course anyone but a dunderhead could see those two little ponies are Pa and Laura.

Not only does the series get darker at this point, but the writing becomes more self-consciously literary, like Laura's warming up with practice (she really loves foreshadowing, and perfects it in The Long Winter). Incidentally, the first two books were rather fictional -- recollections mixed with historical research, muddled dates -- whereas from this point on it becomes more accurate, with fixed dates that line up with actual events.

From page one, Plum Creek stews in an atmosphere of sadness and dread. There are some amusing episodes, like fixing up the dugout house and swimming in the swimming hole and sliding down haystacks, but for the most part we're just bombarded with Pa's sense of regret at no longer living out west, Ma's dissatisfaction at living in the dugout, and the great deferred reward of the first wheat crop which we all know will never come as soon as we read this passage:

"I never saw weather like this. The old-timers call it grasshopper weather." "Whatever do they mean by that?" Ma asked him. Pa shook his head. "You can't prove it by me. 'Grasshopper weather' was what Nelson said. I couldn't make out what he meant by it." "Likely it's some old Norwegian saying," Ma said.

As if we weren't 100% sure disaster was coming, Pa builds a magnificent house for Ma, all with lumber he got on credit. Credit! He'll pay it back after the first wheat crop comes in. Everything will be all right after that first wheat crop comes in. Oh, Pa.

More in the continuing man-versus-nature metaphor series: When Laura is compelled to go into the rising creek during a flood -- she simply has to feel that strong, rushing water around her -- and nearly drowns, she develops a newfound appreciation for almighty, terrible nature:
"Laura knew now that there were things stronger than anybody. But the creek had not got her. It had not made her scream and it could not make her cry."

Life goes on by the Banks of Plum Creek. School. Nellie Oleson. Church. And then, two summers in a row, terrible plagues of grasshoppers. Grasshoppers everywhere, destroying everything. And drought, terrible drought. Laura couldn't get the creepy feeling off her skin. Pa had to walk 300 miles east in his old, patched boots and work on a farm for a dollar a day to feed the family. The girls are alone without him for weeks at a time. Devastating stuff. And I complained when I found one little old cockroach in my bed.

The book ends with Pa spending four days in a snowbank during a terrible blizzard and coming home just in time to spend Christmas with his family. He had gone to town to get Christmas candy and oyster crackers but had to eat them all to stay alive during the blizzard. (Ironically, the snow-bank shelter was mere feet from the house! Oh, Pa!) But none of it matters, because Pa comes back and the family is together again.

But, characteristically, the sweet ending is merely a brief reprieve from more devastation. The first two chapters of By the Shores of Silver Lake reduced me to tears on the subway: Mary's gone blind from scarlet fever, and Jack the Bulldog dies. The family moves west to South Dakota, settling in a railroad camp, where Ma gets more uptight than ever. And who can blame her, with teams of rough men using rough language around her curious, pubescent daughter. More than once she and Pa warn Laura away from those rough men, and when they take in boarders, Ma gives Laura a sliver of wood to wedge beneath her bedroom door.

Silver Lake is all about Laura hitting puberty, from specific pronouncements of "being grown up now" (after Jack dies) to the horror she feels when she discovers a girl her age had been married, to this slightly mysterious passage wherein Laura is compelled to follow a path of moonlight late at night, and runs straight into a wolves' den:

"I had no idea you would go so far," Pa said. "We followed the moonpath, Laura told him. Pa looked at her strangely. "You would," he said. "Poor girl. You're as nervous as a witch and no wonder," Ma said softly.

Whoa, what's going on here? Is this just more of Laura's irrepressible spirit? Or is it something else that leads Ma and Pa to whisper earnestly once she's out of earshot? Is their wild daughter bursting at the seams with unbidden adolescent yearnings? Did she get her first period? Something is happening. The book is riddled with allusions to Laura's burgeoning maturity and sexuality, and it's no coincidence that it is here we finally see her life intersect with future husband Almanzo Wilder's (she first sees his strong, handsome team of horses and admires them, before she learns whom they belong to... wait, doesn't Freud have a thing about horses? Is that why there's a chapter about her wild older cousin teaching her to ride a horse? Oh my gosh! I never realized the Little House books were so sexually charged!).

Besides dealing with Laura's transition to adolescence/adulthood, the book is also unique for introducing, for the first time in the series, an impressionistic interior monologue. When baby Grace goes missing under Laura's watch and she's terrified that the child might have wandered into a slough, we get the following:
"Oh, Grace why didn't I watch you," she thought. "Sweet, pretty little helpless sister... Grace must have gone this way. Maybe she chased a butterfly. She didn't go into the Big Slough. She didn't climb the hill, she wasn't there. Oh, baby sister, I couldn't see you anywhere east or south on this hateful prairie."

This is the only instance I can find of first-person narration anywhere so far in the series.

Laura will be up to her old literary tricks again in The Long Winter, foreshadowing like crazy. I have to stop here for tonight, and probably won't re-read the book (having devoured it this winter, along with my weight in cheese curds) but if you just can't get enough Ingalls-ania, you might do worse than check out Lizzie Skurnick's compelling reading of it here.


MovieMan0283 said...

Your book choices have been incorporated into the master list for "Reading the Movies", to be found here:

Thanks for participating!

Karen Robarge said...

I loved the Little House books (and detested that God-awful TV series). Anyway, after seeing your post, I think they may merit a re-read with adult eyes! The Long Winter and Farmer Boy were my favorites as a kid -- the former probably because I grew up on the Canadian border and could relate to endless snow, and the latter because Farmer Boy (the book told from the perspective of Almanzo, Laura's future husband) takes place in my hometown of Malone, NY. The Wilder family homestead has been preserved and is worth a visit.

Andrea Janes said...

That's awesome. I can't believe you're from Malone (I think that's' SO cool but then I am a huge dork, obviously). I, too, hated the TV series. Barf.