Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mortify Me! Scandalize Me!

Have you ever indulged in something that you know is simply going to tick you off, merely to enjoy a sense of outrage? I have that personality quirk in abundance, and I have just seen it rear its lovely little head again today. For, you see, I have just requested Constructing the Little House: Gender, Culture and Laura Ingalls Wilder by Ann Romines from our inter-library loan system.

I came across this title innocently enough. I was trying to find that beloved and oft mentioned volume in the Ingalls Family's petite library, Millbank. What was it about this novel that provoked the emptying of a slender purse for its purchase, I had often wondered. And why not Pride and Prejudice instead? So, in dabbling a bit over at, a search turned up the aforementioned scholarly treatment of the LIW books by one Ms. Romines. Fascinating! Then I read the reviews. And that's when the real fun began!

An excerpt from a review by Jennifer Smith in California: The major problem with the book, and the deal breaker as far as I was concerned, is that Ms. Romines leans heavily on the current academic "women's studies" line of woman as victim of patriarchy and outdated Freudian concepts of feminine and masculine. When Ms. Romines discusses such topics as the Oedipal undercurrents of Farmer Boy, or the "intensely romantic", "potentially incestuous" relationship even the very young Laura shares with her Pa, one wonders what sort of imagination Romines has. Ma is presented as little more than a woman beaten into submission by male dominance and her repressed feelings of resentment. Pa is presented as a pervert, haystacks become phallic symbols... it goes on and on like this.
[I knew a girl at Vivian Webb in Claremont, CA named Jennifer Smith who was particularly brilliant -- could this be she? Of course, there were a million Jennifers born in the 1970's and "Smith" is the stereotypical common last name: "A Mrs. Smith. A widow Mrs. Smith -- and who was her husband? One of the five thousand Mr, Smiths whose names are to be met with every where." Thus spoke Sir Walter Elliot in Jane Austen's Persuasion. Still, this seems to me an especially insightful and skillful review -- one that could have easily been penned by the Jennifer Smith of my memory.]

Another review, this one from Denise Shearer in Maryland, points out: For example, in LHITBW, on the trip to town, Ms Romines would have her readers believe that Pa's motives in urging Ma to buy some cloth for a new apron, and teasing her that he will pick out the pattern if she doesn't, is somehow his way of exercising his 'male' control over his wife, rather than what clearly comes through to the reader of LHITBW as his desire to make Ma happy by buying her something she doesn't expect - a surprise gift! There is nothing in Wilder's narrative to imply that his motives are anything less.
[Charles and Caroline Ingalls always seemed, to me, to have an ideally balanced and sweet and loving marriage. What woman would not want to be married to a "Pa"? And what man would not want a help-meet like "Ma"? Whether this relationship is the product of Laura's sentimentality in her old age or is accurately represented in the "Little House" books seems to me irrelevant. You cannot infer from the books themselves anything in their marriage that was dysfunctional or aberrant -- and if that was Ms. Romines sole source for this claim, then I cannot see how she has a leg upon which to stand.]

The other reviews were scalding and indignant and scintillating, too. And I started to think to myself, "I have to read this book!" But, of course, I did not want to buy it. So, since our library system does not carry it -- surprising, considering the subject matter -- I requested an inter-library loan.

Will this book disgust and enrage me? Probably. But, there is something very fun in raising one's own hackles in response to the rampant slaughter of cows held most sacred. It is an intellectual challenge to re-evaluate my own positions and reactions to a piece of art or literature or theology or music in light of desecration, and I have always found my original appreciation of beloved masterpieces strengthened after witnessing the assaults upon them. For instance, after viewing the cinematic atrocity of Patricia Rozema's Mansfield Park (1999), I was better able to articulate why the original novel matters so much to me. Being able to know exactly why I rejected Rozema's portrayal of what is arguably Jane Austen's greatest novel has made me a more worthy reader of it. It is almost as if I now deserve its splendor more, having had the gut-wrenching, yet ultimately cathartic, experience of seeing its themes and heroine ripped to shreds on the big screen.

There are some things that are so inarguably good and wholesome and wise that it seems inconceivable that anyone should see anything twisted and dark while prodding the deeper layers. I see the "Little House" series by Laura Ingalls Wilder as one of those things. No matter how many times I read those wonderful books of my childhood, I can only marvel more at their strong spirit of determination, family love, indomitability, rugged individualism, optimism, and dogged humor in the face of privation. Of course, these themes are the ones most likely to be frowned upon in this miserable age of defeatism, fractured families, submersion in stress, weak-kneed blame-shifting, pessimism, and cruel humor in the suffocating embrace of material wealth. So, it is really no wonder that someone out there just couldn't resist applying today's skewed lens to a vision of the past. It is sort-of a shame, but also sort-of very funny, and I look forward to reading the copy my intrepid librarian will round up for me (perhaps from Frederick MD, where Ms. Shearer vowed to donate her copy to the public library).

Monday, September 03, 2007

Pa's Fiddle

It would have been worth the trip just to see the fiddle. There was much more to see, of course. The white wooden farmhouse that was custom-built by Almanzo and suited so charmingly for the small stature both of him and of his wife. The stone house that their daughter, Rose, tried to move them into with every modern convenience of the 1920's. (As soon as it was polite to do so, her parents moved back to the farmhouse they loved, and Rose lived in the stone house.) The fenced pasture that my father decided was the exact location where Almanzo threatened to fill a nosey Department of Agriculture agent with buckshot. The two grave markers, side by side, on the outskirts of town, telling us their birth and death dates, while their real history was written in the wind that blew through the trees at Rocky Ridge Farm and in the books that had fed countless imaginations for nearly seventy years. But, it was the fiddle that brought tears to my eyes and constricted my throat.

Somebody must dust it daily, I thought. It gleamed at me, rich and brown and alive. I bowed my head and paid it the homage it was due. And I thanked the Creator who so lovingly thought of music and gave it to man as a part of that sustaining force that bread alone cannot provide. And I thought of the man who used that very fiddle to coax hope from despair, peace from anxiety, and fulfillment from deprivation. This unassuming instrument had played the soundtrack of life for a stalwart family of American pioneers, and it was resting before me, wanting only trained fingers to tune its strings and rosin its accompanying bow.

"I see it now, though I didn't then -- we never could have gotten through it all without Pa's fiddle," Laura recalled for her daughter, Rose's, essay, "Grandpa's Fiddle." And, as anyone who has ever read the "Little House" series by Laura Ingalls Wilder knows, Charles Ingalls's fiddle was the seventh member of the family. On page after page, Laura in her old age remembered for us the songs of long ago, when a fiddle could echo out over the silent prairie and not find another human ear to hear its cry. In fact, the tunes of Pa's fiddle mirrored the circumstances of the family. From the solemn hymns of Sunday worship to the rousing and comic folk songs of a young America; from the Scottish ballads he played for his wife to proud patriotic ditties; it was only when Pa's fiddle was silent that any hardship became too much to bear -- and then, with a spirit of rebellion, Pa would swoop the fiddle back into action to lift the spirits of his family with defiant anthems flung against the impassive and terrible forces of nature.

I wonder if my love of the fiddle were born in those nights spent reading in the forbidden glow of a flashlight the stories of the Ingalls family's trials and triumphs of a hundred years before. Just the sweep of the bow across the strings awakens my heart to furious beating and sets my spine tingling in anticipation of good things to come. Whether it's the music of Spencer Capier*, Andrea Lewis or the Charlie Daniels Band, the fiddle satisfies my soul in a way that no other instrument can match. It's too bad that I'm such a klutz with stringed instruments -- there's nothing on earth I'd rather play than the fiddle.

Charlie Daniels has a song called, "Talk to Me, Fiddle," that is on my exercise playlist. I actually ought not to have put it there, as it always brings tears to my eyes, which leads me to slack the pace of my workout. But, it comes right after "Orange Blossom Special" (which makes me step double-time) on his Greatest Hits album, and I'm always in the mood to hear it, blubbering and all. Basically, the lyrics reflect on the life of the fiddle he's playing; all the hands that his instrument has passed through -- from a Jewish immigrant in a New York tenement house to a Cajun living on the Bayou to a gambler who lost it to a Black man who taught it to play the blues, and so on. And while he sings that song into my headphones and plays the fiddle to the different types of music that it learned and lived, I think of seeing Pa's fiddle in Mansfield, MO back in 2002. How wonderful it is to think that, in the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, that fiddle really does get the chance to talk to us from out of the mists of time. How proud it must be for Laura to have said, years later, ""Whatever religion, romance, and patriotism I have, I owe largely to the violin and Pa playing in the twilight."

*Spencer's site will claim that he plays the violin -- technically true. But, having heard him jam endless times with Carolyn Arends and rock out on Jennifer Knapp's album, Kansas, I can assure you that he swings that violin fiddle-wise without blinking an eye.