Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Little House part 1

I'm reading the Little House books (for like the twelfth time, but the first in probably a decade) for a rereading project I'm doing this year. It's vaguely unsettling.

First I had the sudden realization that Ma and Pa, who know the answers to everything and how to do everything and make everything, were probably the age in the first couple books that I am now. But I just now looked that up, and in fact they were 27 and 31 when Laura was born, so they were well into respectable-parent age by the time these books are set. Whew. (Good, nobody will expect me to be able to just up and dig a well or make a straw tick or butcher a hog for the next decade or so at least! Or tell poor little girls that "Children should be seen and not heard" or to put on their sunbonnets because they're turning as brown as little Indians and all that whooping and hollering isn't ladylike or to mind, mind, mind, obey, obey, obey.)

It's weird reading now what was probably my first exposure to conflict between pioneers and Indians as the United States grew. I'm not particularly thrilled. Though Pa doesn't agree with this sentiment, it's repeated multiple times by multiple characters that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian," and Ma is permanently scared of them no matter what they're doing. Even Pa, who is largely respectful and friendly to the Indians he encounters and who tries to keep away and give them their space (and later makes a big point of leaving, abandoning the house and barn he'd made and garden and fields he'd planted when it's decided that in fact Washington was not going to open up the area of Kansas where they had already settled, rather than wait to be dragged out by the Army), has some eyebrow-raising views from today's perspective:

"I'm going to sleep," Laura said. "But please tell me where the voice of Alfarata [from a song Pa had just played] went?"
"Oh, I suppose she went west," Ma answered. "That's what the Indians do."
"Why do they do that, Ma?" Laura asked. "Why do they go west?"
"They have to," Ma said.
"Why do they have to?"
"The government makes them, Laura," said Pa. "Now, go to sleep."
"Will the government make these Indians go west?"
"Yes," Pa said. "When white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on. The government is going to move those Indians farther west, any time now. That's why we're here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick. Now do you understand?"
"Yes, Pa," Laura said. "But Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won't it make the Indians mad to have to"
"No more questions, Laura," Pa said, firmly. "Go to sleep."
I mean, as it turns out, he was wrong (in the short term, at least, though I guess right in the long term). But yikes. I guess you're supposed to kind of feel like Laura does, though, although it does feel awfully like they're just sitting around clucking their tongues over it while taking full advantage of it. After all, it's not like they're personally kicking Indians out of their homes, they're just operating under the assumption that some nice soldiers are going to and jumping in to beat the rush. Mm-hmm.

It's weird to read about all the stuff that they did and just knew how to do even though it's unlikely they'd ever encountered it before. Like Pa knowing to start a small fire to meet the big sweeping prairie fire so the house would be ringed with already-burned earth, despite never having lived on the prairie before. Or knowing that the Indians regularly burned off the prairie grasses and weren't actually (probably) trying to kill them all, like the neighbors thought. Or (if Laura is a trustworthy reporter, which obviously she's not) being able to build an entire log cabin and fit a door to it and (presumably) cut the windows exactly the right size for the glass panes he didn't buy until months later (at least she didn't mention any problems with the fitting) doing no more measuring than some pacing out the outer dimensions of the house. He just held up the door and it fit perfectly and snugly? He just chopped out the wall against the fireplace he'd just build perfectly, without making it too far one way or the other? A couple days after getting out of bed with "fever'n'ague" (malaria), he was weak and "wasn't able to work, so he could make a rocking-chair for Ma"? (Show-off.) I guess he did at least do a poor job of the chimney, seeing as it caught on fire later...

One really interesting thing that I of course didn't notice as a kid (apparently being an adult makes me think more about other kids reading this and how it's beneficial or harmful for them) is how many really detailed explanations there are for how things worked and fit together and everything. If there were no illustrations* it would take rather a lot of effort to puzzle out exactly what they're talking about. Today, reading about the latch Pa was making for the new door, I still couldn't really make out what was going on, even though I know how such things work.

I'm also not especially pleased with how basically the only thing Ma does is say "Oh, Charles!" with "shining eyes."

Of course, they are still largely exciting, and the little anecdotes (Ma slapping the bear, the sugar snow, Charley crying wolf) are quite vivid and amusing (I love where Laura and Mary each only eat half of their cookie and save the other half for Baby Carrie, realize each time that that's not fair because now she gets a whole cookie, but still can't quite figure out how to make it quite fair) and combine pretty well to give the idea of what it feels like to be a little girl living this adventurous life where you never know what's coming next pretty well. But obviously, decades of children (well, I'm guessing mostly girls) have loved these books, myself included, so what sticks out to me are the ways they're not quite living up... (That being said, I think I'm probably going to pack them off to my little cousin in a year or two when she's of the appropriate age.)

So far I've read two of the Little House books in two days. Not too shabby (at least considering I've been experiencing full days of work and cooking and such as well; I'm sure that's pretty much always been my pace with these books). Though I do feel pretty self-conscious reading them on the train when there are pictures on almost every page.

* It seems the illustrator is the same person who illustrated Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan. Which are coming up soon in my rereading!


  1. What? Yes. So I'm old enough to have a baby and correspond with them, which is fine. It would not be fine if I was supposed to be the parent of three small girls, farming and haying and building houses and chasing away Indians and making headcheese and heading off with all my possessions in a little wagon at this current point. (Give me five years!)