Suffused with an almost sugary nostalgia, I settled down with my four-year-old daughter to read Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie. This was my favorite book when I was a child, the only book I ever asked my mother to read to me once I was capable of reading to myself, and I still hear her voice as I read it now. It is the only book I can think of offhand that I have reread more than once, and the only book from my youth that continues to interest me as an adult reader. So I was surprised that after reading a few pages I had to put it down. With my daughter on my lap, I found the book -- well, problematic.
This is a book I often feel I have to defend. The 1970s television series of the same title (which, by the way, freely riffed events from one of Wilder's subsequent novels On the Banks of Plum Creek) featured, among other gross indignities: a Laura with enough spunk to turn a generation of stomachs; a curly-haired, smooth-shaven Pa; and a Mary who gets glasses. More recently, the book was snubbed by my children's school, which dropped it from its recommended reading list. I can see that the references to "savages" and the prevalence of guns require a generous dose of historical perspective which 8 to 12 year olds might not be counted upon to administer, and I'll admit there are parts that make me wince. Yet, I have never tired of reading this book and couldn't wait to share it with my own children; my reaction to it as a parent was unexpected.
The basic plot of the book, on the off-chance you're not familiar with it, is as follows: the Ingalls family, at the outset, resides comfortably (as comfortably as a family of five can in a two-room log cabin with no heating or air-conditioning) in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, surrounded by relatives, and a community. Pa Ingalls, however, does not like to live in settled country and manages to convince his wife, Caroline (Ma), to uproot their young family and head West. In the dead of winter, they wrap the kids up in woolens and pack them into a covered wagon -- "We can't get across the Mississippi after the ice breaks," says Pa.
What follows is a litany of near-death events. Their lives are first endangered when the creek they are crossing rises without warning. Thereafter, they face a wolf-pack; poisonous gas (as Pa digs a well); malaria; fire in the chimney; a panther; prairie fire; and, of course, the threat of an Indian massacre. They're nearly killed, on average, about every 43 pages. Ultimately, having survived all these near-catastrophes, they learn they have built their home three miles over the line into Indian Territory and will be forced by the government to leave. The canvas cover goes back on the wagon, and the Ingalls leave behind everything they worked so hard to establish.
What I have always loved about this book, as I grew up, is that it told me different stories. When I was very young, I thought the subjects of the novel were covered wagons, log cabins, and endless waving grasses. The perils seemed picturesque and served only to confirm the infinite protective power of parents and a loyal bulldog. As an older child, I used to enjoy reading the book because it offered adventure, an escape from the convenient and suburban, because the life depicted within was so completely different from my own. But as an adult, I am drawn to the book not because of the contrasts with my life, but because of the similarities. Now that I'm a mother with children approximately the same ages the Ingalls' girls are in the book, I no longer identify with Laura -- the teller of the tale and the rebel of the family -- but with Ma. We are given a clear and concise portrait of Ma, her values, her standards, and her struggles in trying to maintain them in this short passage:
. . . In all the weed-tops tiny birds were swinging and singing in tiny voices. Pa said they were dickcissels.
"Dickie, dickie!" Laura called back to them. "Dickie-bird!"
"Eat your breakfast, Laura," Ma said. "You must mind your manners, even if we are a hundred miles from anywhere."
Pa said, mildly, "It's only forty miles to Independence, Caroline, and no doubt there's a neighbor or so nearer than that."
"Forty miles, then," Ma agreed. "But whether or no, it isn't good manners to sing at table. Or when you're eating," she added, because there was no table.
I'm fascinated by Ma's determination to teach her girls table manners in the middle of nowhere. The Ingalls have three neighbors within a few miles, but the nearest town is forty miles away, a four-day round trip. At this distance, the family measures its conduct by its own yardstick -- there is no community to dictate, judge, or bear witness. As a child, when I read this passage, I thought, How typical of a mom. Now, however, I think to myself, Where does she get the energy to bother? When I was a child, Ma seemed the less interesting of the two parents. It seemed that it was Pa's will, not Ma's quiet but relentlessly held standards, that dictated the fate of the family. But these days when I read this book, I think otherwise.
Now I imagine rousing my small children in the middle of a winter's night to take them away from their home and all the security a community offers. I imagine caring for those children, by myself, in a one-room log cabin for four days while my husband makes the necessary trip to town, and hostile people camp nearby. In the book, Laura watches Ma waiting up on the fourth night for Pa's return: "Then Ma began to sway gently in the comfortable rocking-chair. Fire-light ran up and down, up and down the barrel of Pa's pistol in her lap. And Ma sang, softly and sweetly . . ."
Laura is comforted, and when I was a child, that scene brought me comfort, too. But now that I'm the mother, not the child, this scene reads like something out of a Stephen King novel. I can't see Ma holding a gun and singing as anything but terrifying. I imagine how I would feel in Ma's position, alone and afraid and solely responsible. I think of how fear sometimes catches me off-guard on the subway platform here in Manhattan as I take my kids to school and how I don't know how to react other than to do my best to protect the kids, whatever that may entail, and to somehow hide my fear. The story now seems to be about isolation, danger, and futility, and I'm reluctant to expose my daughter to such literary themes.
Here is the scene that never fails to transfix me. Pa goes out hunting, and two Indians come to the house. It has been established that Ma is terrified of Indians, has dreaded meeting them since her arrival, and their impromptu visit is probably her worst nightmare come true. The Indians, although intimidating, exhibit no hostility beyond motioning for her to cook for them, which she does. Eventually they leave, and Ma collects herself and goes about re-establishing normality for her children.
"Now we must get dinner," she said. "Pa will be here soon and we must have dinner ready for him. Mary, bring me some wood. Laura, you may set the table."
Ma rolled up her sleeves and washed her hands and mixed cornbread, while Mary brought the wood and Laura set the table. . . . Ma made the cornmeal and water into two thin loaves, each shaped in a half circle. She laid the loaves with their straight sides together in the bake-oven, and she pressed her hand flat on top of each loaf. Pa always said he did not ask any other sweetening, when Ma put the prints of her hands on the loaves.
If I had been Ma, a comparable scene might read:
"Now we have to get dinner, of all things," she said. "Pa will be here soon, or at least he should be. Where is he when I need him, anyway? How long can it take to shoot a couple of prairie chickens? Dragged me out here to this dangerous place, then goes out roaming around his precious open spaces, while I'm stuck here cooking. For strangers. Mary, wood. Laura, table."
Grumbling, Ma sloshed the cornmeal and water together, spilling some on her dress and the floor, while Mary meekly brought wood, and Laura quietly set the table. Ma dumped the mixture into the bake-oven in two thin misshapen mounds. Pa always said he did not ask any other sweetening when Ma put the prints of her hands on the loaves. Ma considered imprinting some other part of her body on the loaves, to tell him just what she thought he could do with his sweetening.
So here is the effect of Ma's behavior. She didn't decorate the bread out of necessity, or duty, or even an aesthetic sensibility. It was something else that led her to that act. She had a choice of responses to her situation. She could have chosen to be bitter or passive. She could have chosen not to care about the bread, not to speak gently to her children. Instead, she chose to care. She chose to behave like a full partner in the decision to be where they were and endure what they endured, and she communicated her choice through a lovely gesture. That, to me, makes her palm-print a heroic act, an act of power. Because of their circumstances, their mutual dependence, the choice she made wouldn't have changed the way they lived, only the way they felt about it. Her palm-prints changed nothing, but perhaps they changed everything.
In another few years, no doubt, I'll find a different message between these lines, and I am looking forward to that. In the meantime, I decide my daughter will find in these pages the story that makes sense to her now, so I read the book, letting her take from it what she will.