Wednesday, August 12, 2009
rereading childhood favorites: can you hold on to the magic?
not long ago, i bought a set with the first five books of laura ingalls wilder's little house books. i had decided it was time to read these beloved books from my childhood with sabin. i had read them dozens of times as a kid, but, unlike other childhood favorites like the chronicles of narnia or little women, i hadn't reread them as an adult.
i had loved the books as a child and spent hours in the mid-70s playing little house. this consisted of wearing the little old-fashioned purple dress and pantaloons mom had made for me for the bicentennial in 1976 and generally attempting to rough it outdoors. i think i may even have spent some time trying to get maple syrup from a tree that, in retrospect, wasn't a maple tree at all. despite the descriptions of harsh winters in the series, playing little house was largely a summertime activity. which may be why i had a longing to reread the books this summer.
i've now reread all five in the set that i got, to myself, i haven't yet read them to sabin (we're in the midst of a junie b jones kick). little house in the big woods, farmer boy, little house on the prairie, on the banks of plum creek and by the shores of silver lake. i mentioned it once before in a post where i said how struck i was by how much pa and ma knew how to do in those days. i'm still pretty amazed by that.
but there are other striking things about the books as well. one is the strictness of the upbringing they experienced. phrases like "children should be seen and not heard," are prevalent and while i wish there was a little more of that around here at times, it's simply not how we look upon children today. there is also a stoicism that takes my breath away. like during the moment in little house on the prairie, when they have driven the covered wagon into a river to cross it and the river suddenly rises and they are nearly swept away, laura remarks that she was terrified, but did not cry because a great big 8-year-old didn't cry. i can tell you that the 8-year-old that lives in this house would definitely have cried, as would her mother.
i was halfway through the fifth book, by the shores of silver lake, when i came across this recent new yorker article on the books. even before i read the article, i had the sense of silver lake having a bit different voice. i chalked it up to the sophistication with which laura had taken into account that the laura in the novel was a bit older, so i took it as the voice of an older girl that was quite natural. whereas little house in the big woods and little house on the prairie have nearly clinical descriptions of how to do things, there's much less of that in silver lake. although the feelings are very controlled and dampened, there is more there of laura's temperament and her resignation to having to become a school teacher to support her sister mary's potential trip to a college for the blind. according to the article, it seems laura might have had some help writing from her daughter rose. i'm not sure whether it matters that she did or not, i still haven't decided how i feel about that.
you have the sense of a number of years passing between the end of plum creek and silver lake. but i'll admit to feeling dissatisfied this time around as to the lack of explanation of those intervening years and the vagueness of the fever which blinded mary and the events that drove them from plum creek out to the dakota territory. the slightly dodgy relatives they followed out to the prairie were intriguing, but never really expanded upon. i guess because of ma's and hence laura's disapproval of them.
but reading the new yorker piece actually ruined the books a little bit for me, though all it really did was confirm an underlying feeling i had that silver lake has a different voice. i've come away feeling that the books don't hold up to a reading in adulthood the way that narnia and alcott's books do. maybe we're just so far from the stoic and religious pioneer ethic that pervades the books. we aren't so harsh with our children, we don't do everything ourselves, we don't crave the isolation from others that so pervades the books. and which laura actually remarks on towards the end of silver lake, when she's becoming very uncomfortable with all of the people who are suddenly around, building up the little town of DeSmet. we are so urbanized that the desire for isolation is rather incomprehensible to us.
of course, the books do surely capture something of the essence of that time - the rush on the land office in brookings, the steady stream of people headed west, claim jumpers, the building of the railroad, the roughness of it all. but this time i felt myself troubled at the way that there's no real insight into what especially ma felt about it, other than fear and wanting to protect and isolate her children from the rough men who came through.
maybe it's just my twenty-first century sensibility, but i miss insight into what pa and ma felt about it all. the hints here and there aren't enough. but perhaps laura herself didn't have it. they were so stoic that they never showed or betrayed their feelings - especially ma. it must have been so hard for her, for she was obviously a genteel woman of a little finer stock than pa. if laura and her own daughter, rose, had as bad and strained a relationship as the new yorker piece indicates, the evidence would point to laura not actually having the knowledge of how her mother really felt. if she was closed and hard to her own daughter, it was surely because that's how she grew up.
of course, there are hints as to ma's opinion. her little china shepherdess is a recurring symbol throughout the first five books. with each new house, the placement of her on the shelf in whatever dwelling it is, be it log cabin, wooden house, dugout by the creek or claim shanty, is a symbol of the civilization of that place and a symbol of her being of another place. it signifies the taming of it. and that's powerful.
i should remind myself that one always has to separate the writer from their work, but it's difficult with autobiographical novels like these. and strangely difficult for me to separate the conservative, randian objectivist politics that i learned from the new yorker piece from my opinion of the novels now. maybe because my awareness of it was there all along and i just didn't give voice to it - the weberian protestant work ethic, and an austere religiousness and fatalistic sense, typified by the other phrase that you read countless times in the books, "all's well that ends well." but i didn't pick up on that as a child, i just lost myself in the stories and really wanted to be laura. but i have to admit that i don't really find the magic there now as an adult that i felt as a child. maybe i can regain some of it when i begin to read them to sabin. i hope the magic might still be there for her.