Thursday, November 06, 2014

Literature Shaped Childhoods, or how every girl I knew growing up wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder

 If I had to choose one series of books that had an outsized place in my childhood it would have to be Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series. Whether is was being read aloud to me or I was sneaking the books off into my room to read ahead, the stories of Ma, Pa, Mary, Laura, and Carrie had a profound influence in shaping my love of reading. I wanted a dog like Jack, I thought that my wardrobe was horribly incomplete because I didn't have a brown and red calico dress (or any calico for that matter), I wished I had opportunities to prove I was adventurous and brave like Laura. And, of course, when I was picked on by a particularly nasty girl, I took solace in the fact that I had my own Nellie Oleson with whom to contend.  Isn't poor Nellie the villain that every girl loves to hate?

My two favorite titles from the series were On the Banks of Plum Creek and These Happy Golden Years and even now I can open those books up to my favorite chapters. Being the purist that I was at age 9, I was horrified to find that the movie versions featured a beardless Pa and swore to never watch them, a promise I have faithfully kept although it didn't take much effort.

I cannot wait to introduce my children to these books and so I was intrigued when I came across this article, Reading Laura Ingalls Wilders is Not the Same When You're a Parent. It's excellent and well-worth reading. The author, Amy Lifson, was similarly obsessed with Little House as a girl and writes about how her perspective on the books shifted when she began reading them as an adult and I can completely relate. The charm of the stories absolutely remains but there is a weightiness that comes when you begin seeing situations more from Ma and Pa's perspective as opposed to Laura's. The Ingalls lived a very very difficult life but I don't remember thinking that as a child. Yes, there were hardships and scary scenes (who can forget the story of Pa getting lost in the blizzard?) but the overarching theme was one of contentment and savoring simple pleasures. Despite the fact that danger and deprivation were often time scratching at the door, everything was fine when Pa played his fiddle long into the night. But now, I see these stories as a bit more harrowing and questions arise like, "Why were the Ingalls constantly moving?"and "How did Ma always remain so calm in the midst of so much constant uncertainty?"

Lifson digs into the history behind the stories and finds some real treasures. Letters between Laura and her daughter, Rose, help fill in glossed over details. These brings new light to something I sensed as a child but only fully realize as an adult and parents: Ma and Pa were truly remarkable parents. As quoted by Lifson:
Charles Ingalls was a hands-on dad at a time when gender roles were more distinct and fathers were often emotionally absent. Between the lines of the family’s travels is a guide for contemporary parents on how to smooth adversity with calmness and optimism. “Her father, particularly, must have been an incredible man who was able to distract them and entertain them and react to these situations as they unfolded with great equanimity, given the conditions,” says Fraser. He was the master of redirection, a code word in modern parenting, and found teachable moments at every turn. When Laura was crying over not getting what she wanted, Pa instructs her to look at the miles of Osage Indians leaving the territory. “Look at the Indians, Laura. . . . Look west, and then look east, and see what you see.” Laura choked down her tears, obeyed her father, “and in a moment she was still.”
As Lifson concludes "...Little House series isn’t so much a story of a young pioneer girl, but a tribute to her parents’ love, steadiness, and endurance." 

Returning to these books as an adult has been such a joy. I know this isn't always the case, but these books only get better. What books have you enjoyed returning to as an adult?

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