Sunday, February 26, 2012

Little House part 3: Almanzo

I don't remember especially noticing this or thinking about how it might have affected their married life previously, but what struck me the most in Farmer Boy was how much more money, and especially food, Almanzo's family had than Laura's. A lot of the Little House books include the Ingallses stretching food, worrying about the lack of animals to be hunted, having bad crops, etc. After the grasshoppers, Pa has to walk East for days on boots that hardly still had any structural integrity at all. There's near-constant sacrifice and saving and frequent disaster. But Almanzo doesn't have these worries. His father is repeatedly referred to as one of the most important men in town, someone whom everyone respects and a leader in the community. The list of their livestock is quite lengthy. And the food Almanzo eats! One unremarkable dinner:
Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham. he bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves, and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he hate a large piece of pumpkin pie.
And then after dinner the family makes popcorn and he eats that with apple cider! Then at breakfast the next morning:
There was oatmeal with plenty of thick cream and maple sugar. There were fried potatoes, and the golden buckwheat cakes, as many as Almanzo wanted to eat, with sausages and gravy or with butter and maple syrup. There were preserves and jams and jellies and doughnuts. But best of all Almanzo liked the spicy apple pie, with its thick, rich juice, and its crumbly crust. He ate two big wedges of the pie.
One afternoon when he's out sledding he comes in "several times" for apples, doughnuts, and cookies. There is just so much food and so much eating, and nobody seems to mind if he eats constantly, without asking, or whether it's mealtime or not. (Incidentally, I like this paragraph about the doughnuts his mother made: "They rolled over, Mother said, because they were twisted. Some women made a new-fangled shape, round, with a hole in the middle. But round doughnuts wouldn't turn themselves over. Mother didn't have time to waste turning doughnuts; it was quicker to twist them." When I was eight, this blew my mind!)

Aside from the abundance of food, there's the two-story house with the fancy parlor (white and gold wallpaper, marble table, haircloth sofa, fine china, fancy knick-knacks), and a much bigger percentage of what the Wilders have and wear is store-bought. They get $200 (apparently fairly regularly) for selling a team of horses, and at the end Father even gives nine-year-old Almanzo his prize colt to train and then sell and keep the money! (Of course, this is basically a bribe to keep him interested in being a farmer instead of a merchant like his brother plans to. But still, hundreds of dollars to a nine-year-old in the nineteenth century?!)

The next time Almanzo appears is once Laura and her family are living in De Smet. He and his brother have claims and a store in town. Laura only seems to know who he is because of his beautiful horses, and they probably never would have gotten married without her desire to ride behind them as the catalyst. What I really don't understand is why Laura Ingalls Wilder felt the need to make him younger in the books. In reality, they were ten years apart, and the way she relates to him up until well into their courting seems to fit with this; she always sees him as a friend of Pa's, as a grown man, as "Mr. Wilder," while Cap, who is "actually" the same age as Almanzo, is a school friend in her own class (though apparently still four or five years older; as I mentioned before, education was a little off). Especially since closing the gap involves requiring Almanzo to lie about his age ("You can put me down as 21"), to explain how he had a claim of his own when he was "really" only 18.

During the Long Winter (seven months of blizzards during which most of the town nearly starved and/or froze to death), Almanzo and Cap were the ones who ventured out south of town to chase down the rumored farmer and his stockpiled seed wheat to live off until the trains can come through in the spring. This was widely seen as heroic, but it rubs me a little wrong. Early on in the winter, Almanzo, who has seed wheat of his own, builds a false wall in the living area behind the his brother's store and pours his wheat in so nobody will know he has it and try to buy it. (Since the trains aren't coming through, he won't be able to buy seed wheat before after he'll need to have planted it and will miss a whole year getting his claim established.) At some point he calculates that even if he were to be generous and sell it all off as food, everyone would likely still starve before spring, which is I guess supposed to make you feel like he's not being a totally selfish jerk (he and Royal still have plenty of food, apparently; they're constantly eating bacon and pancakes even once everyone else is down to nearly nothing), but I'm not sure I buy it. During the negotiations with the farmer south of town when they find him (who is reluctant to sell his wheat for the exact same reasons as Almanzo), he strongarms him with the same arguments Royal and Mr. Ingalls have been using on him: "A man can always buy seed. Most folks out here are going to. You're throwing away a clear profit of eighteen cents a bushel above market price, Mr. Anderson." I think I'd feel better if Almanzo had been more willing to sell a portion of his wheat and thus not push the entire burden onto Mr. Anderson.

Laura and Almanzo's courtship is kind of strange. He starts out giving her rides back home from the country school she's teaching at, but when a friend teases her that he's "beauing" her, Laura says (and apparently actually thinks) "Oh, no! He isn't![...] He came for me as a favor to Pa." She even tells him at some point that he mustn't think he's getting anything out of it because she's only riding with him to get home (but then after she's home for good and everyone else is having such a grand time sleigh riding and he stops by to see if she wants to go, she forgets and says yes). But it really does seem almost throughout their whole courtship that the horses are the driving force. Almanzo basically isn't a character at all; he's just a man. Even once they're going on regular buggy rides every Sunday and then to singing school, their time together is focused on breaking his colts. Once they're engaged Ma says as much: "Sometimes I think it's the horses you care for, more than their master." (But "Laura knew they understood what she was too shy to say." Which is nice and all, but the reader doesn't really see that.) Later Mary asks if she really has to get married and leave "to marry that Wilder boy," and Laura's a little more open: "He isn't that Wilder boy anymore, Mary. he is Almanzo[....]I guess it's just because we seem to belong together." (But why? She doesn't want to live the hard life of a farmer and his wife and they have to drive a bargain that she'll give him three years (later another's tacked on) to make a decent life or he has to move on and do something else.)

The First Four Years really confuses me. It doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of the series in the slightest; in fact, it wasn't written until a decade or so after the other books were published, and it wasn't published until 1971, after her death, when it was found among her papers. But it seems incomplete. It's very short, and while the structure is all there (though rather awkwardly: "It was the twenty-fifth of August. And the winter and the summer were the first year."), there are very few anecdotes filling in. The house Manly (as he's now called) built is described in detail, and their getting settled, and a bit is mentioned about her pregnancies and the birth of Rose (and the son who died almost immediately) and some about their dog, the rides they go on, and her helping Manly in the fields sometimes, but it's very skimpy. (Speaking of the pregnancy, this struck me as rather odd this time through: she had very bad nausea throughout her pregnancy, so "As she went so miserably about her work she would smile wryly now and then as she remembered a saying of her mother's: 'They that dance must pay the fiddler.' Well, she was paying." Oblique, yes, but I still find that a rather risque thing to say, especially since she was so incredibly circumspect about their entire relationship through the courtship.

But most of all, this book is just depressing. Manly is in debt on the house, he goes into debt to buy a pair of horses and a new stove and various new-fangled farm implements, continually asserting that "just one crop" will make everything right and they'll pay for themselves. But crop after crop fails (a dry year, then a horrible hailstorm right before harvest time), and then the house burns down. And that's basically where the book ends! From what I've read of her life, the rest of their time together wasn't so bad, but this book is just so tiring. Basically half of it is Laura doing the calculations in her head of the payments and the interest and how much they owe and what price they'll need to get to be in a good place going into the next year. And then it doesn't even work out.

But going back to the beginning, I wonder if the difference in their stations growing up had anything to do with this. Throughout the whole series it seems everyone is entirely averse to debt (well, except that one time Pa does basically the same thing with building the house before the crop comes in and then the grasshoppers destroy it so it never does) and that the whole ethic is working hard and being self-sufficient and beholden to no one. But maybe because Manly had never lived through rough times (at least, not that we're privy to; even during the Long Winter he and Royal are flush) and his family always had quite the cushion, he was a little cocky and never considered that things could not work out well for him even if he worked hard and did everything right.