Friday, September 21, 2012

Prairie Tales

On the shores of Lake Thompson, near DeSmet, SD, August 1991.

Two months ago I noticed that the book The Wilder Life, by Wendy McClure, was available for Kindle from my public library.  It was on my to-read list, so I downloaded it and read it.  That, my friends, was  the innocent beginning of an unplanned two-month-long immersion into Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I have read pretty much nothing but things by and about Laura Ingalls Wilder for a number of weeks now.  It's been an enlightening and absorbing time.

The Wilder Life was entertaining.  McClure's book is about her personal journey as she rediscovered the Little House series as an adult, and of her subsequent visits to all of the Little House locations across the midwest and upstate New York.  I could relate to much of her experience.  Like McClure, I was a Little House fanatic as a child, and I, too, reacquainted myself with the series in my early 20s.  Over the years I have visited some, but not all, of the Little House places. (My visit to Plum Creek is blogged here.  My second visit to DeSmet, SD is blogged here.  I have also been to Pepin, WI, and Mansfield, MO.).

I was intrigued by some of the books about Laura that McClure referenced, so a few weeks after finishing her book I read Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder's Impact on American Culture, by Anita Clair Fellman.  This is a very well-researched, scholarly tome that presents some ideas about Laura Ingalls Wilder's motivation in writing the series and how the books may have influenced the political landscape of the second half of the 20th century.  I also read the biography Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, by John E. Miller, and am currently reading another biography, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer's Life, by Pamela Smith Hill.    Each book has been fascinating to me in its own way.  I have learned some things about Laura and her family that I did not know before, and even though by now the facts in each book about Laura are all the same facts, I am interested in the different perspectives and analysis each author presents.

Some of the truths I have learned about the family have stung a little bit.  Laura's daughter Rose edited the books so heavily that she should probably be considered a co-author.  The family's isolation and self-sufficiency throughout the series were exaggerated.  On at least one of the moves, Pa packed the family up and moved them away in the middle of the night to escape creditors. Most of the dresses Ma and the girls wore were not made by them, but were shipped to them ready-made from friends in the East.  Mary's college tuition was paid for by the government.  A carpenter, not Almanzo, built the pantry in the couple's first home. The Ingalls had another family living with them during the Long Winter, but Laura chose not to include them in the story because she wanted the focus to be on her family's struggles and triumph.  Some of these things I knew before, but with all of the reading I've been doing lately,  I felt that the revelations were piling up, and I started to feel sad and overwhelmed by them.

So, I re-read the entire series these past few weeks, something I hadn't done in a long time.  Fortunately, even knowing the truth now, I still felt joy spending time on the prairie with the Ingalls family again.  I was completely absorbed.  When I read these books as a child, the people and places in them would fill my dreams at night, and that was true this time, too!  Every night I am dreaming of the prairie.  Even if the books are more fiction than fact, they are still based on a reality, and they still tell a tale that is worth knowing and living, and even emulating.

I know the Little House books have influenced my life in a positive way.  They stress so many wonderful ideals:  eat good food;  take advantage of opportunities to learn; value education; take care of your family; notice the beauty that surrounds you; sing, dance, and make music whenever you can; take care of your belongings; be fair and gentle; make a home where ever you are.

I noticed some things with this reading of the series that I thought would be fun to share here:

The common dipper.  When Ma and the girls ride the train from Plum Creek to Tracy, Laura is fascinated by the water faucet on the train.  She watches a man fill a cup with water, drink from it, and then replace the cup on a shelf above the sink.  When he is done, Laura picks up that same cup, fills it with water, and drinks from it.  I wanted to gag when I realized what was going on!  Later in the series, Pa takes Laura and Carrie into town for the 4th of July celebration, and all the townspeople drink lemonade from a barrel, sipping directly from one single dipper.  Shudder!  Can you imagine sharing a dipper with every random stranger in your city?  I don't even like to drink from public drinking fountains!

Disgusting food.  I always thought the head cheese and the pig's tail in the first book were stomach turning, but this time in one of the later books I noticed the family sprinkles their tomatoes with sugar and covers them with milk.  That sounds vile to me, but I am strangely tempted to try it.  In Farmer Boy, Almanzo says if you take a cup of milk and a cup of popped popcorn and transfer the popcorn into the milk, the milk won't spill over.  According to Almanzo, popcorn is the only food you can add to milk in an equal amount and not have the milk spill over.  After you've soaked your popcorn in the milk, you eat the popcorn from the milk with a spoon.  This initially sounded revolting to me, but upon further reflection, I'm thinking it probably tastes like corn flake cereal.  And I'll bet that today in these modern times of processed food, you can fill a cup of milk with a cup of dry cereal and not have the milk spill over.  This would be a good science project for young children to try.

Fashion.  The Ingalls women were fashion conscious! When they are preparing Mary for college, Ma worries that Mary's clothes will be out of place in Iowa. Teen Laura wants hoop skirts and bangs and name cards. Endless descriptions are given of what clothing looked like, what material it was made of, and how it was trimmed.  Even when Laura was younger she coveted a fur cape like Nellie's, and when she got one, she was a little bit smug that her cape also came with a muff, while Nellie's had none.  My overall enduring impression of the Ingalls women is that they were practical, so if you had asked me if they cared about fashion, I would have said no.  I was so wrong! And I am happy to have been wrong.  I loved finding out that the adult Laura, who was a farm wife, would dress up to run errands in town.  Some of the other rural woman apparently perceived her as a bit snobby because of this, but I appreciate the fact that she liked and paid attention to her style.

I feel like I've been on a journey these past two months, discovering that my childhood passion and lifelong influence was perhaps falsely portrayed, but realizing that I still love and appreciate it anyway.  As I mentioned in my Goodreads book review of The First Four Years, it's been as if someone told me Santa doesn't exist, but I'm okay with it, because the magic is in the joy the myth brought me.

I have a set of photos of the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites I visited two years ago, and if you care to read my reviews of the Little House books and the books about Laura, you can find them on my Goodreads little-house shelf.


Glenda said...

I've not ever read the books, only seen the tv series, and had no idea it was supposed to be based on fact. That said, I can understand how disheartening it could be to discover some of the things you did. I'm glad you're able to hold onto the joy that came from the magic in the myth =).

Glenda said...

Hmmm, I should clarify -- I knew there was a real Laura Ingalls Wilder, and that the show was based on the books she wrote, and the books were based on her life. But I didn't take the stories to heart in the same way I might have had I read the books in my childhood.

besomom said...

Glenda, if you don't mind reading children's fiction, you should take a crack at Little House series sometime. The first couple of books are almost how-to books, with detailed chapters on how to make things the pioneer way (bullets, hats, butter...), but after that it becomes a well-thought-out series that chronicles young Laura growing up and her family's journey westward. The last 4 books were all Newbery Honor books.

Tricia said...

You two look so young in that photo at the top of the post!

besomom said...

We are young in that photo! (Also, the husband has a head full of hair.)