Tuesday, December 11, 2012

In Honor of the Library of America's Pictureless Little House Box Set

"A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest. - C.S. Lewis*

I'm sort of thrilled that the Library of America release of the Little House box set has spurred an interest in Laura Ingalls Wilder and, what's more, that people seem to be taking her seriously as a writer (well, her and Rose, I guess), even if I am a little appalled at the idea of reading the books without the Garth Williams illustrations. Still, if that gets a new audience to approach the books, I'm fine with it. (I know the people over at LofA are overjoyed to hear it. I'm sure they've been waiting on me to weigh in.) Anyway, there's been a lot of chatter about the books online lately, and a great post over at The Millions, and frankly, I want in on this conversation.

So I'm re-posting my readings of two books in the series that normally don't get a lot of attention: On The Banks of Plum Creek and By The Shores of Silver Lake. Little House on the Prairie and The Long Winter get the most attention, for being the best-known and the most devastating respectively, though The Long Winter may be tied with Little House in the Big Woods for the way they both seem to stick in readers' memories (say it with me now: pig bladder). But Plum Creek and Silver Lake are both really interesting in their own right, especially, in my view, Silver Lake, since there seems to be a whole lotta subtext happening that I certainly missed the first time around.

Reading 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. 

For the first half of this post, and my musings on Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy, and Little House on the Prairie, click here. Literary critics will be stunned when I refer to LIW's plain-spoken style as sensuous and tactile! I'm provocative like that.

* Found this quote today over at The Marlowe Bookshelf, a blog devoted to children's lit, and thought it seemed apt.


Rachel Creager Ireland said...

OMG I HAVE to reread these now! My daughters will love them. I won't tell them all the underlying meanings.

Andrea Janes said...

Ha ha, yeah I might be way off base but the part where Laura gets all agitated and follows the moonlight straight to the wolves' den? I'm prettty sure that's a period thing. I mean, that's what I do.

Undine said...

I began reading the Little House books when I was a child, but bailed out pretty early in the series because I found them so damn depressing. And I really wanted to smack that idiot "Pa" around.

I'll have to take another look at them. I didn't recall there was so much, uh, *nuance.*

Andrea Janes said...

The fact that you found them depressing indicates you were smarter than the average child. We were all like, yay! maple sugar candy! while you realized that some part of Pa was kind of compulsive and insane. Insightful! :)

Undine said...

Or maybe I was just a naturally depressed child. :)