Wednesday, May 30, 2012

On Rereading, Part II: Laura Grows Up

Warning: long post. I thought about dividing up the posts, but I'm ready to talk about newer books now and want to wrap up the Little House books. So, on we go.

I'm going to discuss Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years together, because I actually read both books in one night, and I'm afraid the details run together in my mind. In these books, Laura begins her teaching career at the age of sixteen and also begins a courtship with her future husband, Almanzo Wilder.  I'll briefly touch on The First Four Years, mainly because it's a bit awkward to comment on a rough draft never intended for publication. 

For some reason, Wilder's books are sometimes thought of as being "girly" or "books for girls."  I'm uncomfortable with labeling books "for girls" or "for boys," because describing a book as being for girls is usually code for "little action." And that's not fair, for it presumes that all boys want non-stop action and all girls want little fairy sparkly books about having tea parties for their dolls.   With the family facing numerous near-catastrophes and catastrophes, it's pretty much non-stop action and danger throughout the series....until you get to Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years (more so in LTOP).  This is where Laura gets more interested in fashions, autograph albums, name cards, and riding in Almanzo's buggy (although she's more interested in the horses and buggy at first than in Almanzo).  There's also little in the way of action or drama, unless you count the big Friday night entertainments at the schoolhouse.  Spelling bees...history and poetry recitations from the students....charades night...people pretending to be wax figurines....minstrel shows.  Oh, yeah. The minstrel show.  For some reason, I always forget about Pa's big minstrel show, until the menfolk appear in blackface and start singing, dancing "wildly," rolling their eyes, and telling jokes. Oh, my. And the townspeople remark that they can't imagine that anything in New York (or somewhere) could rival their production.  Hooooo wheee. 

Putting aside the unfortunate stereotypes that abounded in minstrel shows, it's easy to poke fun at the town entertainment.  Let's remember that prior to this book, the townspeople and the country folks nearly starved in the brutal winter described in The Long Winter.  If you recently had to endure meal after meal of the same meager rations, could never feel warm enough, could not go to school or visit your neighbors, rarely saw the sun shine, did not have enough kerosene to keep your house lit, and constantly worried about the survival of your family, you would think seeing your neighbors pretend to be wax figurines of historical persons or watching the schoolchildren recite the entirety of American history would be the height of entertainment.  Because once you were done with chores, you had little in the way of everyday entertainment. Books? If you had something other than the family Bible, you were lucky. Radio hadn't been invented yet. Not every family had a Pa who could play the fiddle. The fact that the town had regular weekly entertainment, even for a short period, was quite unique. 

But life can't be all fun and games, for Laura must pass her teacher's examination and leave home to board and teach at the Brewster settlement (These Happy Golden Years).  Here, Wilder touches upon the darker side of prairie life in the late 19th century.  For all the romanticizing of pioneer life and housekeeping in modern times (ironic in the fact that the Ingalls routinely embraced and remarked upon progressive methods of maintaining crops, sewing, and food preparation), the fact that the extreme isolation and hardship took a great toll on many people is often forgotten. We are introduced to Mrs. Brewster, a woman "from the East." Children may think of Mrs. Brewster as being just plain mean to Laura, but adults will undoubtedly recognize that she is probably suffering from undiagnosed clinical depression.  She has little motivation to keep up her very small house, finds little joy in caring for her toddler son, and actually threatens to kill her husband. She regularly tells her husband that she is homesick and hates prairie life.  Throw in a young girl with a teaching career and a handsome land-owning beau with a smart buggy who rescues her from the settlement every Friday, and it's understandable why Mrs. Brewster would resent Laura's very existence.  Brewster family life comes as quite a shock to Laura, who grew up with parents who obviously still had great love for each other, delighted in their daughters, and valued a strong home life.

Fortunately, the Brewster school is only for a short term, and Laura is to be married.  Readers accustomed to modern wedding traditions will be surprised that Laura wears her garnet and pearl (not diamond) engagement ring on her index finger and marries in a black dress, after Ma reluctantly approves of being married in a black dress (brides didn't wear white until Queen Victoria popularized the practice). After all the hardship and heartache of prairie life, These Happy Golden Years ends on a calm and joyful note. Truly a satisfying ending to an epic series.

After the relative peace, frivolity, increase in family fortune, Laura's various wage-earning jobs, and romance of Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years, The First Four Years is very much a depressing letdown.  When Laura was asked why she didn't continue the series after THGY, she remarked that the years after the events in THGY were not happy ones.  The First Four Years is basically a rough draft discovered after Rose Wilder Lane's death; after husband Almanzo died, Laura lost interest in polishing the draft.  There is little joy, other than the birth of daughter Rose and Laura's optimism at the conclusion of the novel, in The First Four Years. The farming is unsuccessful, the family contracts diphtheria (leaving Almanzo permanently disabled), they encounter enormous debt, an infant son dies, and the house burns down. This is truly a chronicle of the heartbreak of prairie life. Gone are the multi-layered coloring and characterizations of characters and evolving plot lines. Just one catastrophe and disappointment after the other.

It is thought that The First Four Years was intended to be a novel for adults.  This makes sense, for Laura writes quite a bit about her pregnancy that she probably wouldn't have intended for children.  She certainly wouldn't have made the famous "those that dance must pay the piper" quip when she discovers her pregnancy, first of all (!). She also writes about her pregnancy symptoms and the fear and pain she feels in childbirth (before apparently being chloroformed). Notably, she (briefly) writes about the birth and death of her infant son.  Other than a brief mention of children dying in a blizzard, children do not die in the Little House series.  Of course, it was not uncommon for families to suffer the loss of a child in those days, and the Ingalls were not spared; before youngest sister Grace was born, infant brother Charles died and is not mentioned in the books. Knowing this brings deeper meaning to the fact that everyone dotes on, adores, and spoils Grace; while all the girls are clearly loved, Grace's beauty and cute mannerisms are remarked upon more and she is allowed more liberties in behavior than the three older sisters were definitely not allowed at her age. When Grace is temporarily lost on the prairie, the family is crazed with their worry and panic; any lost Ingalls daughter would have inspired worry and panic, but the fact that Grace is lost must have been unbearable.  But the reason behind their deep devotion to Grace is never mentioned, nor the time in which they fear that Mary will die from the scarlet fever that blinds her.  Although Laura only quickly mentions the death of her son, the fact that she included it also points to the theory that TFFY was meant for adults.

Although it's a dark and sad contrast to the joyful These Happy Golden Years, completists will want to read The First Four Years, along with On the Way Home (Laura's diary from South Dakota to Missouri, where the Wilder family experienced happier and more profitable times), Farmer Boy (Laura's fictionalized account of Almanzo's childhood), West From Home (Laura's letters to Almanzo while visiting San Francisco in 1915), and  Little House in the Ozarks (which describes her life in the early part of the 20th century). Although the unfortunate depictions of Native Americans and the minstrel show do diminish the series in our 21st century viewpoints and experts can argue until the cows come home about the degree of Rose Wilder Lane's influence on the books, The Little House series is a fascinating achievement in children's literature.  I probably won't reread the books for a number of years, but I've no doubt that I'll discover and rethink the series yet again when I do.




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