Children’s Literature (1)
We all have our favourite authors from childhood; and the best ones last into adult life too. Who is your favourite?
Long ago, I put together my top three: and, be warned, I’m going to post about all of them.
(Honourable mentions: AA Milne, Tove Jansson, Arthur Ransome, E Nesbit, Herge – and Beatrix Potter, whose “The Tale of Ginger and Pickles” contains all I really understand about economics.)
Going back to the Big Three – I cannot believe this blog has gone four years without a post about Laura Ingalls Wilder.
As many of you will know, Wilder (1867-1957) wrote a series of books based on her childhood in a pioneering family in 19th century America. Her family (Pa, Ma, Mary, Laura, Carrie and later baby Grace) start off in a log cabin in Wisconsin (“Little House in the Big Woods,” Laura being apparently four going on five), trail west to Indian Territory, which they think wrongly is “open” for settlement (“Little House on the Prairie”), then have to move back east to Minnesota for a few years (“On the Banks of Plum Creek”), and then west again to South Dakota with the railroad (“By the Shores of Silver Lake”, Laura being twelve going on thirteen.) They stay there for the last three books, (“The Long Winter,” “Little Town on the Prairie,” and “These Happy Golden Years”) at the end of which Laura leaves home to be married at the age of eighteen.
Around them, fascinatingly, the town of De Smet grows up from literally nothing but a railroad, a surveyor’s house, and parcels of land open to claim – to a thriving community with church, school, Ladies’ Aid suppers and even an “new” area called “Poverty Flat.” One might say it’s a microcosm of the growth of mid-West US culture.
These books, like the Harry Potter stories later, but surely very rarely at the time, grow up in style and content with Laura. They begin “Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little grey house made of logs,” but do not remain that way. As a young teacher, not quite sixteen, Laura has to board with a family in the outback. The mentally ill wife, maddened perhaps by isolation in the snow, threatens her husband with a carving knife in the middle of the night, and there are equally terrifying stories.
I don’t think it’s possible for me to overstate the influence of these books on my childhood. I read them until some almost fell apart. Our family’s cars were named after the Ingalls girls (Carrie lasted longest, appropriately enough). From them I learned how to make a button lamp or indeed build a log cabin. (What do you mean, I wouldn’t be able to do this in real life?) They taught me words like “astounded,” and concepts like “blizzard” and “covered wagon” – my idea of a wagon is always of the lone Ingalls family, never of the “wagon trains” of Westerns.
Laura’s prose is simple and clear, and yet evocative. Writing about “The Long Winter,” in which the town almost starves, someone described it as “as good as bread.” It was from her that I learned the power of a sentence like “Laura had never been so terribly frightened.” Along with other authors, she also taught me how Christianity can be simply embedded in a story, without fanfare or overt evangelism. For example, the discussion between Laura and her blind sister about goodness and God in “Little Town…” is powerful and moving. Of course, it’s a certain type of Christianity: the portrayal of the town “revivalist meeting” is extremely unfavourable, and may also have influenced me.
They also tell of disasters: almost everything bad that could happen to a pioneer family happens to the Ingalls over the seven books; and the few that don’t then happen to Laura and her husband in the early years of their marriage (told in “The First Four Years.”)
In the US, these books are still huge, and of course were the basis of the longrunning TV series “Little House on the Prairie”, which I didn’t see much of, and about which I of course complained that it wasn’t the same as the books.
As one grows up, one learns strange things. Although the portrayal of the American Indians in the second book is understanding and fair for its time, the Ingalls family were part of a terrible story, arguably complicit – and an early edition of the book apparently says near the beginning “There were no people. Only Indians…” (My current edition changes this, but I think I remember the original.)
The stories are much more fictionalised than I and many of us thought. They leave out a lot of other places the Ingalls family journeyed to and from, and lived in; they leave out Laura’s little brother who died in infancy; they amalgamate three different girls she knew into the one unpleasant Nellie Oleson, which one can’t help feeling was rather hard luck on these real women.
Since Laura’s daughter Rose grew up to be a writer herself and encouraged her mother, there have been allegations that she was in effect a “ghost writer” for her mother. This seems (Wikipedia!) to be an exaggeration.
They are also far more nuanced than one might assume. Yes, they show people leading a simple life happily – but they also show Laura guiltily longing for luxuries she doesn’t need, like name cards. Pa and Laura always get dissatisfied when they’re in the same place too long, and hanker for travelling west again. Since our narrator is Daddy’s girl, it’s easy to sympathise, and find Ma’s sensible desire to settle down with schools and society boring.
But to find a woman who coped with Ma’s life boring is patronising to the last degree. Her husband was sometimes away for weeks on end, and she coped in a cabin with three small children, with only a little help from neighbours. She coped in the middle of nowhere, no matter what. And it’s Ma who says in “The Long Winter”:
“We wouldn’t do much if we didn’t do things nobody ever heard of before.”
(She’s talking about making green pumpkin pie, but still…)
Love from the PPI Blogger
Next post on 24th April.