Sunday, August 23, 2009

Laura Ingalls Wilder in the New Millenium

I grew up in South Dakota, my roots are there, my relatively uncomplicated childhood was spent there, my parents returned there after a 10-year sojourn through increasingly larger Midwestern cities and live there still. My mother read the Laura Ingalls Wilder canon to me before I was up to it myself; I then read every volume by myself several times before my amazing fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Ada Armin (with whom I still correspond, recently profiled at 92 in the local paper as an outstanding lifelong teacher), read the whole set to our class before packing us allon a bus in the spring of 1970 for the 100-odd mile trip to De Smet to see “The Little Town on the Prairie” for ourselves.

I envision the visit through a haze of dust and heat. It was a hot, dry day as we viewed the Ingalls homestead and the historic town buildings we all knew well from the narratives we had been steeped in. I felt a kindred spirit with Laura and her family in the heat, as they beat off their plague of grasshoppers and turned green tomatoes into “apple” pie. (Although I remember finding the race to braid enough wheat into thick strands that would yield a bit of warmth in a blizzard much more exciting.)

I loved these books. Although I would not have identified it this way, they spoke to me of the importance of daily work, of the grounding pleasures and exigencies of routine, of a young girl learning and relearning to keep the essential aspects of life in focus, no matter what her peers might do or say. I found the details of daily life, of making butter and washing clothes and improvising meals from what lay at hand endlessly fascinating, and not so far removed from the prairie experiences of my older immediate family and friends.

I tried several times to engage my modern, suburban daughters in these books I had loved, the very set I read myself 40 years ago. They so wanted to please me, they so wanted to love what I had loved as a girl, but it just didn’t take, and sleep invariably overcame them. The chapter that finally did us in was “The Long Rifle,” detailing the endless and essential maintenance of this indispensable tool, always perched pragmatically above the doorframe. It provided the Ingalls family with food, protected them from predator wolves and wildcats (or Indians, although Pa’s decency always seemed most effective in that instance), required such laborious processes as making bullets by melting lead and pouring it into a fascinating set of tiny molds; it literally put my daughters to sleep.

The challenge of raising daughters in a culture that sends them so many confusing and conflicted messages is not new. Mine have not had an easy time finding books that speak deeply to them about strong, confident, interesting girls making their way in the world. (Although Harry Potter, decent, morally courageous, and “relatable,” whose bedrock friendship is with a whip-smart, fiercely loyal, girl friend, Hermione Granger, has been a powerfully positive influence.) My charter YWWF(a)C daughter has for some years, however, cranked out fiction at a steady rate, and who knows where that may take her, and us?

Mary, for The Poplar Grove Muse

1 comment:

  1. Ahhh. This reminds me of my own gratitude to Laura Ingalls Wilder and stories that took me out to the plains, the front seat of the wooden wagon, the tall grass, and away from my chores that --even in the mid-1960's were SO mundane compared to watering horses, running for the doc,and stitching muslin and moss dollies together. My kids were lukewarm on the series too, much to my astonishment. I'm eager to see what they make of their hours waiting in cars at each other's music lessons, hanging out on swimming pool decks...loading dishwashers...

    Thanks Mary....Beth