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.


Just Jules said...

oh yes, when you read them to Sabin it will be a bit different. See them through her eyes.

What I do appreciate about the books is the sense of simplicity. The playing in the winter stores with a corn cob as a doll and being perfectly happy (although envious).

How they did with so little. This is what I take away from these stories.


McVal said...

I loved those books as a girl. I read some of the Little House books to my 14 year old when she was younger, but she just didn't get into them like I'd hoped she would. She did however fall in LOVE with Little Women after seeing the movies (all versions) and then read the book so many times. One book that I remember my mother reading to me was The Captive Princess and how I loved it so much! I've read it to each of my kids and they've read and reread it themselves many times. Except for my son. Once thru it was enough for him.

Char said...

I wonder if when I read Little Women and Secret Garden with my nieces, will they have the same love for them that I do. Those books took me to a magical place where I thought I could live the same lives as my heroines in the books did. I wanted to be Jo - I wanted to sacrifice for my family as she did and break through the feeling of isolation as in the Secret Garden. I don't know that children now have that sense that we are the last of a generation feel. We saw the misery of world wars and the great depression through our parents and grandparents eyes. Now two generations removed - can our children, in this time of abundance and the over doing that we do, really know what it's like?

And, the children that live in it everyday - are they the new Laura Wilders? Are they jaded being exposed both to abundance and poverty - and therefore they can't learn happiness (or is it just satisfaction) in a corncob doll?

sorry for the blogment.

Molly said...

I almost think I won't read the New Yorker piece, I want to preserve Laura and her books in my heart just the way they are. I've re-read them a gazillion times as an adult and still find new observations and things to ponder in them.
I recently watched some of the original TV series with Frieda and for the first time, as a parent myself, was horror-struck at the thought of Pa & Ma, alone in the wilderness with those little girls and the immense responsibility they must've felt.
I remember my mother refusing to read the fever n ague chapter to us as children, as a Mum she just couldn't handle the awfulness of that situation. For the first time I'm realising where she was coming from.
Ramble ramble ramble ... sorry.
I love the books though and hope I'll still be re-reading them for the rest of my life.

Fidgeting Gidget said...

I loved these books as a child, too. I have a set that I bought for myself a couple years ago to do just as you did with them, I just haven't had time. Now I'm totally intrigued, and I'm going to re-read them and then read the New Yorker piece.

I loved Roald Dahl books as a kid, and I love them just as much as an adult. Some of his word use strikes me as even more funny now that I'm an adult.

I picked up Anne of Green Gables again a few months back, and I found that it has lost its magic, which makes me so sad.

Suzanne said...

I fully agree with Gidget.

I also have mixed emotions of childhood favorites as movies - I saw the preview for "Where the Wild Things Are" and almost cried because I'm not sure how I feel about it. I LOVE that book. I read it daily as a child....will the movie ruin it?

la pianista said...

Little Women, 'House on the Praire, Anne of GG all of them i think provided valuable things for us. Each of us learned and understood and were shaped by those sweet stories according to our circumstances and place in the world.

The Boxcar Children books were very important to me for simple reasons. I felt that I was raising my brothers and sisters and so i related to the characters struggling without parents. I know that reading them now would mean so much less to me, so I prolly will never do that. I had preserved a boxed set for my daughter but she had much less interest in any part of the story or characters. Made me a weensy bit sad, but yeah, I understand. Different world we live in today and so the needs are different. Not better or worse really, just different.

kristine said...

this is funny. i am watching it right now. I am home sick and its perfect lying-on-the-couch-midday-hallmark-channel type TV. I remember watching the TV series when I was about 7. It was on every saturday and i LOVED it. I know I read the books too but I have no recollection of that, I think because it wasnt one of the things my mother had grown up with, i was more in love with the norwegian classic childrens books (and swedish - all the astrid lindgren etc). But I smile now, watching the TV series. It is so very moralistic. Were the books liek that? I can't recall.

Did the anxiety go? Hope so.

Bee said...

What I want is a companion series to these books -- told from Ma's point of view!

Just wait until you get to The Long Winter: horrific.

This really isn't a proper response to this thought-provoking post, which is on a topic I've also thought so much about, but Sig wants my attention NOW!

Sarah Anne said...

I remember those books. My mom used to read them to me and my sisters when we were little. They were really fun.

Anonymous said...

Totally not reading that new yorker article. I refuse to be ruined. We read the books to Charlotte a few years back. I still loved Plum Creek the best. I still hated Farm Boy, and we never even bothered finishing it.

I had a similar experience with Narnia, when I read something that described Lewis as being less than an ardent feminist, and so uncomfortable with women that he refused his female characters entry back into Narnia once they had reached puberty.

spudballoo said...

Ooof now I have the theme tune running through my head. I have no recollection of reading the books, bu I must have...I had a box set collection, think I still do actually...and they were very well thumbed. I adored the TV series!

I'm looking forward to reading something a bit more interesting than pre-schooler books to my boys.Although I'm enjoying rediscovering The Owl who Was Afraid of the Dark (although curiously boring, but I loved it as a child)...strange what time does.


AD said...

Books are such magical things to get lost in.

Especially if you read them as a child, and then later on in your adult life. Your eyes are more open since you're older and you understand a lot more than you did as a child.

That's the beauty of it all.

Laura Doyle said...

What an odd coincidence. I've discovered a new magazine...Mary Janes Farm. My absolute favorite, ever. And I've only read 2 issues. This magazine seems to have awakened in me a new desire for the richness of simplicity, nature, and home. I've been listening to fiddles and harmonicas on my stereo...making plans for sewing aprons...learning to make do or do without. I'm not describing it well enough heart has been glowing.

All this old-timey stuff had me thinking about little house and Laura. Of course I love the books and not just because her name was Laura too. I think I'll make a trip to the library. I don't remember all the austerity you spoke of, but then again, I don't remember much from them. It'll be interesting to see how I feel about them now. And about isolation...I TOTALLY crave isolation from all this so called civilization around me. It's too noisy and jarring. Give me quiet woods over town or city any day.

Kim said...

I can't find it at present, but Laura Cococcia at had a discussion of the book recently.
Hope you enjoyed BBC.

My name is Erin. said...

I read this series as a 5th grader and literally, after I read the last line of the last book, I sighed deeply then put it down, picked up Little House in the Big Woods and started the series all over again. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVED them. I've already started to read them to Abby, but she lost interest quickly. She is only 4 after all. We'll try again someday.

I didn't read the piece in the New Yorker, but I heard the author of the article on NPR and I have to say that while I was a bit surprised, it didn't change my opinion of the books. They will forever be childhood treasures of mine regardless of how little I actually have in common with Laura Ingalls. But then again... I haven't re-read as many of the books as you have. It will be interesting to see how my opinion of them has changed. Everything is different through adult eyes.