Little post in the suburbs.

About a year and a half ago, on a gorgeous summer day, I took the boy and the girl (then nine and five years old) to an entirely delightful historical re-enactment site not far from our home. We watched and asked questions of a working blacksmith (apparently, the software engineer of his day), visited and spoke with a re-enacter in a real log cabin, examined and sat in a real covered wagon (narrower than you might think!), so on and so forth.

And as is my wont, I came home all wound up and geeky and the next day sat on the front porch, on another gorgeous summer day, and commenced to read Little House in the Big Woods to my kids. The boy happily listened through to the end, and agreed to hear the start of Little House on the Prairie, but pretty soon, he drifted off, leaving the Ingalls family to the girl and the mom — though he did later read and enjoy Farmer Boy (and I couldn’t get over the fact that he was precisely Almanzo’s age at the time).

I found it felt as if I was giving my children a piece of my heart.

I have no idea how many times I read the Little House series as a girl, but I do remember when my mother gave me my own set. They were wrapped in butcher block paper that she had decorated with carefully cut-out pioneer figures and a log cabin. The wrapping was a clear spoiler, yet I didn’t care: I was finally getting them, and knowing it ahead of time just increased the wonder.

And to this day, my head is filled with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s world. A bottle of maple syrup feels like a direct link to the trees of the Big Woods, and Jack the Brindle Bulldog still seems the optimal pet. “No great loss without some small gain,” I often say, echoing Pa and Ma, and I wonder if, having grown up without a father, the figure of Pa might not have provided at least part of the template I had in mind when I began to look for love. A few years ago, a good friend finally got her green card, and I sent her three things: a copy of the Constitution, a can of apple pie filling, and the entire Little House set.

Tonight, the girl and I are mere pages from being done with the Ingalls family’s story. It’s something of a blessing, really, that the set now ends with the unfinished manuscript The First Four Years — it’s just not as good (being unfinished and all), and goodbye is always easier when the thrill is, if not quite gone, somewhat muted.

And yet, I know I’ll miss it. For 17 months now, the girl and I have talked about how hard the Ingalls family worked, and about how grateful they were for what seems like very little to us. We got teary-eyed over Jack’s death, and marvelled in horror at the privations of the Long Winter. More than once, as I closed whatever book we were on, my daughter smiled at me and said “That’s what’s so great about Laura’s books! When you’re reading them, you just want to keep reading them!”

Of course, we also talked about how Ma’s attitude toward Native Americans was just plain wrong, and how good it is that women are no longer expected to wear corsets, or to stop working when they get married (or, indeed, to get married). I will confess that I had entirely forgotten an embarrassing minstrel show scene in which Pa plays “a darky,” and was so caught off-guard that I just skipped over it. Time enough to talk about such awfulness when she reads the books on her own…!

The books aren’t perfect.

But they are wonderful. And the fact that when she remembers kindergarten and first grade, my daughter will hear my voice reading Laura’s words, well, that just fills me with joy.

I know that some parents have made the concious choice to put these books aside, to excise them from their children’s education. Not everything in them is to our liking anymore — indeed, the entire “settlement” enterprise is really rather dicey, especially for an Israeli family who went into exile largely because of Israel’s settlement enterprise.

But we can’t wish away that which ashames us by refusing any contact with it, and the Little House books are an inseparable piece of American cultural history. The times were different, and they tell a story that is our own.

And they are marvelously wrought. There is some small gain to be had in ignoring them, it’s true — but the loss would be so very great.

4 Comments

  1. My step-daughters, now young women of 21 and 26, spent two days over Winter break watching the complete mini-series of Anne of Green Gables & Anne of Avonlea. Hot chocolate, endless snacks, and Anne, in all her old-fashioned romance and glory. They were willing to set aside modernity, issues of art, cynicism, and everything else for the story. Why? Because “this was part of our childhood”. Though I was present and a custodial parent for most of those years, I don’t remember Anne: perhaps they watched her after school or at their mother’s house. You’re right to be delighted about this development. I’m envious.

    And for adults, the HBO mini-series John Adams will have a similar effect. I find myself thinking about John and (especially) Abigail Adams at the oddest moments.

  2. Paul in KY

     /  January 12, 2010

    I’m a dude & I read them all when I was a kid. Books were technically my sister’s. Ms. Wilder was a great writer, loved the books.

    Made you think about how easy you had it compared to living out in nowhereland (although the family always made the best of it).

  3. Laulau

     /  January 15, 2010

    This is just the way I feel about the Chronicles of Narnia. I inhaled those books as a child – all seven in one week, in fact – and despite being a very religious Protestant child, totally failed to pick up on the religious symbolism. I’ve since read _Mere Christianity_ and occasionally struggle with my love for the Chronicles. (C.S. Lewis was such a serious dbag.) But they’re amazing children’s books, and I still read them from time to time (as a childless woman in her twenties!!).

  4. Michael Unger

     /  January 15, 2010

    Read them all. Loved them all.
    (and I am laden with a y-chromosome)

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