Sunday, January 22, 2012

Little House part 2

It's weird how my conception of this series is always just the first couple of books, and then I apparently forget that the last five books are all set in the same place, no pioneering really involved, settled down with/in a town, and suddenly shifting largely to buying things and less to making them.

After the break in Laura's childhood to tell a brief segment of her future husband's story in Farmer Boy, On the Banks of Plum Creek picks up rather seamlessly, which is why the abruptness at the beginning of On the Shores of Silver Lake is so disorienting. For no real reason the story skips several years (Laura goes from eight to "nearly thirteen"), picking up with the last few days on Plum Creek and spending a mere seven pages briefly mentioning everything major that had happened (surprise, everything's awful now, there's no food, everyone had scarlet fever, Mary's blind now, Laura's brother was stillborn, though that's not mentioned, and oh, here's another sister) as the sudden decision to take off for the Dakota Territories is made. (Even Jack the brindle bulldog's death gets nearly the next full chapter!)

It's a little strange to me how suddenly the Laura-and-Mary duo gives way to the Laura-and-Carrie one. Carrie's suddenly old enough to be a "real sister," as Laura puts it, and Mary's blindness means she won't be out and about, going to school and such with Laura.

The treatment of Mary's blindness has always made me feel uncomfortable. It may be exactly like it happened in real life (obviously being blind on the nineteenth-century prairie and in twenty-first century cities is very different), but it's still just weird. Mary is of course "patient and brave" and then repeatedly "gentle" and nearly quits being a character for a while. The incessant repetition that Laura "must be eyes for Mary" gets old, and it seems like literary cheating to suddenly replace normal narrator's description with Laura's "see[ing] out loud" of the scenery and the people. (It's particularly strange since both narrators are the same person, so the shift in voice seems rather affected and not significantly different except for added interjections: "and, oh, Mary! the brightest red velvet hat...") It's also a little smug-seeming foreshadowing that Laura chafes at Mary's insistence that her poetic descriptions aren't literally accurate. See, adult Laura seems to say, I was always meant to be an author! (Although she pooh-poohed the idea later on when Mary suggests Laura might fulfill that dream of Mary's as well.) Then there are several occasions where Mary is terribly satisfied with herself that she can sew just as well as Laura despite not being able to see and that she doesn't need the lamp to see to sew by at night like Laura does.

I really wonder if there were truly so many serendipitous re-meetings with old friends and family (and enemies) in Laura's life or if some of those were forced by her rejiggering her life story at the beginning to reduce the number of moves. It seems incredible that Mr. Edwards would reappear so many times (especially that once to fight off a man who wanted the same claim Pa was filing for), Cousin Alice would pop in, Reverend Alden pops by, the Boasts would conveniently appear out of nowhere for Christmas, Aunt Docia arrives to encourage them to make the move to the Dakotas with her, Uncle Tom appears, and Nellie Oleson would show up at school in DeSmet after being left behind at Plum Creek. I'm sure I'm missing a few. I suppose many of those, at least the family ones, could have been precipitated through a series of letters, so at least it was known where they were (though the parents still seem as surprised as Laura), but it seems almost ridiculous, like in Forrest Gump (the book) where every time he turns around he's running into one of the same like three characters from his earlier days.

I've never really enjoyed how much of especially the later books is filled with the songs Pa plays on his fiddle or that they sing in church or elsewhere. I've always found that when only the text of the songs is included and the reader doesn't know the tune, it's just boring filler. I'm sure some of Laura's happiest memories are Pa's playing the fiddle at night, but I think I would be better able to feel that if she didn't feel the need to write in the specific songs. It seems she tries particularly to put in songs where their lyrics further the story (though maybe that's a reflection of Pa; Almanzo later tells Laura, "Your songs are like your father's! They always fit!"), but for me at least, that only works when I too know the song.

Similarly, the later books have rather a few more moments where Laura's political or religious beliefs impinge. (Incidentally, did you know her daughter Rose was instrumental in the formation of the libertarian party?) I've always preferred to skim over the annoying preachy bits of, say, The Chronicles of Narnia and felt especially impatient with them in those terrible Janette Oke books I used to read, finding that they disrupted the actual story. (Sure, the author probably feels that they are the actual story, but they need to do a better job with the integration of it and not just hit pause and preach for a few paragraphs.) One Fourth of July, Laura has the realization, "God is America's king." (Blech.) "The laws of Nature and of Nature's God endow you with a right to life and liberty. Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God's law is the only thing that gives you a right to be free." If you say so. Laura and Mary also have a little chat on one of their walks before Mary goes off to college, which in one way I love because Mary admits that when they were younger and Laura hated how good she was, that she wasn't really being good: "I wasn't really wanting to be good. I was showing off to myself, what a good little girl I was, and being vain and proud, and I deserved to be slapped for it." ("Laura was shocked. Then suddenly she felt that she had known that, all the time"!). But then somehow Mary is "sure [that God is good] in some special way" (because of her blindness, of course). Oh, Barbara Ehrenreich would have something to say about that! (Read Brightsided.)

The politics of everyone are rather more visible in these books since they're largely centered on everyone's claims. I need to do some more thorough research about the Homestead Act, I suppose, since pretty much everything I know comes from these books, and that's unacceptable. And then in The First Four Years, Laura and Manly buy half a flock of sheep from a neighbor who, as a staunch Republican, "was sure the country would be ruined" if the Democrats won as expected, meaning, apparently, homegrown wool would lose its advantage if the tariff were removed; this apparently didn't happen, though, as the Wilders turned a profit later. (This is confusing me, since it would have to be the 1988 election (three years after their marriage), but a Democrat (Cleveland) was already in office!) I'm generally uncomfortable with everyone's attitudes towards their claims (Pa's view of it as a bet against Uncle Sam seems most spot-on). But earlier, Pa had made a case for taking a claim to make up for the one the government kicked them off in Oklahoma. Um, not so much. Similarly, Uncle Tom told a story of being laid siege to by a bunch of Indians while off prospecting for gold, and escaping into the arms of what they thought would be rescuing soldiers but in fact turned out to be arresting soldiers. Because, you see, that was still Indian territory ("strictly speaking"). But they all seemed put out that the government would dare prevent intrepid fortune-seeking young men from seeking their fortune on land that wasn't even theirs. (Pa: "I'll be durned if I could have taken it. Not without some kind of scrap.")

One thing I think as an adult that I never thought about as a child was that I really don't think Laura liked her mother much at all. Ma is barely a character through the first half of the series at least (potentially the whole way through), and it's evident Laura prefers Pa. Part of this is just that she would rather be outside than in, rather helping with the haying than with the housework, and that, I assume, she sees Ma as a civilizing force to be resisted, always making her modulate her voice ("'Her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.'") or behave in more ladylike fashion (Constant reprimanding her to put on her sunbonnet, which inhibited her view, or she'd be "brown as an Indian.") and sew neverending small, smooth stitches (luckily Mary regained her sewing ability after a time). Ma hates Indians, resists moving west, wants to remain in settled lands, while Laura, like Pa, wants to wander further and see more. I think Laura probably started feeling better about Ma about the time Mary left for college: "Laura had never before known that Ma hated sewing. Her gentle face did not show it now, and her voice was never exasperated. But her patience was so tight around her mouth that Laura knew she hated sewing as much as Laura did." And Ma starts actually saying things and being a character, though still a rather dull one. (She did put her foot down once, though, and tell Pa he absolutely was not permitted to be the one to go out in search of the rumored wheat south of town and risk getting caught in a blizzard, surprising everyone with her fieriness.) Laura seems to actually care what Ma thinks by this point, sometimes citing Ma's sayings to herself as rationalization for something. ("Least said, soonest mended," "There's no great loss without some small gain.") And after coming home from her first teaching job, which left her boarding in a terrible situation with a sullen, unhappy family (the woman of which seemed certifiably crazy), Laura is so happy to be at home with her own family that I think she finally appreciates Ma, having until then taken her largely for granted as a permanent, featureless background presence.

Education in these times/places is terribly confusing to me. Laura and Mary didn't start attending school until I think they were seven and eight (I keep getting confused because I think there's only one instance before Laura reaches age 15 that anyone's age is stated straight out; generally they're nearly thirteen or almost nine or something), and Ma and Pa apparently made a bargain that they would stay in civilized lands where they could continue their schooling, despite the fact Ma had been a schoolteacher and could well have taught them at home before this. She teaches them that winter when there's too much snow to go to school, and later on Laura and Carrie do lessons at home in DeSmet, both before there is a school and during bad blizzardy weather during the winters. Yet somehow, despite spotty school attendance and not a lot of years at that, Laura becomes a schoolteacher at age 15! (This description is from Wisconsin schools but seems to roughly fit with Laura's experience and explains a little bit of the difference between first-, second-, and third-grade certificates that were introduced without any context in the books.) Though legally one had to be 16 to teach, Laura was offered a position at a small nearby school ("'Now Laura,' Mr. Boast said to her earnestly, 'there is no need to tell your age unless someone asks you.'") teaching five pupils, three of whom were older than herself, for one term before returning to her own schooling back in town the next term! Then that summer she teaches three small children at another small country school and returns again to the town school again herself. She sits for the teacher examination (a real one this time rather than just the superintendent asking her questions in her sitting room) and gets a second-grade certificate to replace her third-grade one from before and goes off to teach once more before getting married. On the last day of her classes, when her teacher discovers she won't be returning, he says, "I'm sorry[...]Not sorry you are going to be married, but sorry I didn't graduate you this spring. I held you back because I...because I had a foolish pride; I wanted to graduate the whole class together, and some weren't ready. it was not fair to you. I'm sorry." (Laura doesn't care: "It doesn't matter[...]I am glad to know I could have graduated.") It's just weird how totally obsessed they are with schooling at some points and then how little they care at others. When the man is coming to test Laura for the first certificate, Carrie and Ma have the following exchange (which only seems relevant as related to Laura's certificate; at no other point does Ma correct anyone's grammar or does anyone but Pa or whoever the baby is currently speak less than properly):

It was only a moment before Carrie exclaimed, "That's him now"
"'This is he,'" Ma said almost sharply.
"That's he coming It don't sound right, Ma"
"'Doesn't sound right,'" said Ma.
"Right straight across from Fuller's Hardware!" cried Carrie.

Even though the requirements to teach school seem rather lax, the school exhibition (which actually prompted Laura's being offered the first teaching job by virtue of the amazing job she did in it) is entirely impressive. Pupils of every age recited poems and speeches, and Laura and her friend Ida gave a recitation of all of American history from Columbus to present (Rutherford B. Hayes) that, from the part reproduced, seemed rather detailed. In addition, they had to do long division (well, she calls it "short division," but I'm not sure what she considers long, then) in their heads (but aloud, which to me would be the hard part): "Divide 347,264 by 16. Sixteen into 34 goes twice, put down 2 and carry 2; sixteen into 27 goes seven times, put down 7 and carry naught; sixteen into 6 does not go, put down naught; sixteen into 64 goes 4 times, put down 4. Three hundred and forty-seven thousand, two hundred and sixty-four divided by sixteen equalstwenty-one thousand, seven hundred and four." They also had to "parse" sentences, which from her later examination seems rather insane (stupid to require someone to do but reflecting a deeper understanding of language and grammar than we certainly require, at least):

Scaling yonder peak, I saw an eagle
Wheeling near its brow.
"'I' is the personal pronoun, first person singular, here used as the subject of the verb 'saw,' past tense of the transitive verb 'to see.' 'Saw' takes as its object the common generic noun, 'eagle,' modified by the single article, 'an.' 'Scaling yonder peak' is a participial phrase, adjunct of the pronoun, 'I,' hence adjectival. 'Wheeling' is the present participle of the intransitive verb, 'to wheel,' here used as adjunct to the noun, 'eagle,' hence adjectival. 'Near its brown' is a prepositional phrase, adjunct of the present participle of the verb 'to wheel,' hence adverbial."
So Laura can do this at the same time Carrie is being corrected for saying "That don't sound right"? (Carrie is I think five years younger, but I still find this unbelievable.)

This is getting rather long, so I guess I'll save Almanzo for another time.

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