Tuesday, May 29, 2012

On Rereading

I'm not much of a "rereader." There are just too many new books that I want to read. However, there are times in which I return to my favorites. Looking back, I find that I do this whenever I run into what I call a "reading slump." This happens when I fail to finish several books in a row. I have a "100 page rule"--if I'm not into the book by page 100, then it goes back on the shelf. I used to slog through books whether or not I was really enjoying it, but no more.  I've hit my 100 page rule for the last three books that I've picked up. Not sure what this means or why I do this, but this usually makes me lose interest in any other book I have out. When this happens, I know it's time to reread.

Rereading is comfort reading. However, I've come to learn that rereading is rarely accompanied without new discoveries about the beloved book that I am reading. Let's take A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as an example. I first read this in fifth grade. It was offered in one of those school book clubs--either Scholastic or Troll.  Ignoring the question as to why this book was offered in an elementary school book club and as to why I chose it (don't know if my parents have read it, but my reading was not monitored except for that one book that was taken away but that I later read anyway, and if anyone doesn't know already...TOTALLY FAKE anyway....oh, and that one time that my mother narrowed her eyes at a sexy but now rather tame Sweet Valley High cover), the book was ordered for me and I liked it well enough to keep it.  Flash forward a few grades--probably eighth--and I reread it.  Flash forward to college years and a third reread, and finally figuring out what exactly Aunt Sissy was making in the factory that would make people speak about it in whispers.

Several weeks ago, I once again stumbled across Wendy McClure's HalfPintIngalls Twitter feed, after not having read it in many months. If you're a Little House fan, you'd enjoy her feed and her recent book, The Wilder Life. Reading her Twitter feed made me want to reread Little House in the Big Woods (the first book in the series). There is very little trauma in this book--the children are young and healthy, there's plenty of stored food for the winter (and dead pigs' bladders to play with), relatives are close by (well, close by in a rural mid to late 19th century way), and Ma has a pretty delaine to wear to the big sugaring party. Everything's rather peaceful and cozy, in contrast to the majority of the other books, in which the family has to deal with malaria, grasshoppers falling from the sky and eating crops, Laura nearly drowning, winters in which they nearly starve, Mary going blind, the family nearly losing Grace on the prairie, and Pa marching home and announcing that they're packing up and moving the next day. Not to mention their knack for ruining a perfectly lovely and delightful family moment by airing their views on the local Indians. So, the first Little House book is quite charming.

But that's not what I want to discuss today. Out of all the books I've reread so far, the one that has really struck me the most (I reread everything but Farmer Boy) is By the Shores of Silver Lake

Wilder won her first Newbery Honor for On the Banks of Plum Creek, which preceeds By the Shores of Silver Lake. I can't argue with her earning an Honor citation for Plum Creek, but I find By the Shores of Silver Lake (which earned her a second Honor) quite astonishing.  I'll touch upon the Rose Wilder Lane controversy a bit later, but Silver Lake represents a remarkable achievement in Wilder's career.

Silver Lake was rough. R-O-U-G-H (in a later book, Laura mentions that the town tends to have a weird smell). First of all, there's a saloon, but no church. My stars. Now, the family has usually lived so remotely that regular communal Sunday worship has been quite uncommon, but the fact that a saloon was built, but not a house of worship is quite another matter.  And the change in the family's situation and society at large just makes your head whiplash. I know a little bit more about early train travel than I did whenever I reread this last to appreciate the excitement and very real danger passengers took when they traveled by train.  Not to mention the uncleanliness of train travel, particularly for a family that has always taken appearances and cleanliness very seriously. Right away, I marveled at this great transition in the Ingalls's lives.  Not to mention the fact that that Ma and the girls  travel unaccompanied by Pa. And then--to eat in a hotel, again unaccompanied by Pa (from Wilder's description, it appears that they were the only females in the dining area, save for the waitress) must have been such an awesome experience for the Ingalls ladies. If you're familiar with the previous books, you know what a huge deal it was to Go To Town. Oh, goodness gracious--the bathing, the preparing, the setting out of your Sunday Best....cue the drama. In Silver Lake, the family is but a hop, skip,and jump away from town, so it's just casually suggested that Laura mosey over to town and pick up a little something so that Pa can fix whatever he broke. No need to put on your best Sunday ribbons either--it's only a weekday, for pity's sake.

Secondly, Laura is in early adolescence. Although not nearly as tomboy-ish and conflicted about womanhood as is another great female character in literature, Jo March, Laura is getting a bit long in the tooth to be running around with her sunbonnet dragging on her back, and she doesn't quite like it.  Now that Mary is blind, it is expected that Laura will become a schoolteacher (for as Wilder writes for the children of 1953, there was no other way for her to earn money, although Laura later does work in a store before beginning her teaching career) in order to send Mary to college for the blind (more on this later). Laura (and Cousin Lena...oh, I would love to know what became of dashing, daring Cousin Lena) is shaken to learn that a 13 year old girl has just been married. This is a remarkable passage to read, what with the girls' uneasiness (they had some idea of the intimacies between men and women)  and the girl's mother's cheerful attitude toward the entire situation.  Not only that, Ma is not cool with Laura wanting to go look at the railroad camp, what with the men and their "rough language" (and their shocking rendition of "There is a Happy Land", which only happens to be Ma's favorite hymn).  Not to mention that someone gets murdered.

Wilder's writing, by the time we get to Silver Lake, is much more nuanced and sophisticated. Gone are the pages-long description of preparing foods or making tools/furniture/etc. While such details were interesting, in a historical sense, in Little House in the Big Woods, an abundance of such details tends to kill the momentum of the story. Whether or not this was a case of Wilder growing as a writer (but let's remember that Laura was already an established columnist by the time she started on her novels, so it's not like she was a complete novice when she started her novels), or a greater editorial influence from her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, is for the experts to argue.  Regardless, it's a much more intimate and readable writing style.

In my next post, I'll blabber about Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years. Yes, I'm skipping The Long Winter. It's an extraordinary read, but I was very glad when it was over. Wilder brilliantly captures the near-starvation and emotional hardship of that terrible winter; as someone who is not a winter person at all (I grew up in Louisiana), that book has always been a bit too much for me.

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