Thursday, February 16, 2012

Book Notes: January 22-28

At the Museum of Natural History's gift shop in St. Louis, I cracked open the cover of The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure and read, "I was born in 1867 in a log cabin in Wisconsin, and maybe you were, too." There was no way I was not buying this book.

I have started and re-started this write-up several times, because I'm not really sure as to how to go about it.  First of all, this book is very funny in places.  I variously chortled, giggled, and guffawed through the first 2/3.  But, you really have to have read and loved the "Little House" books to get the author's premise.  This book, though it mentions frequently the TV series, is not really about that beardless Pa on the prairie and his telegenic posse.  This is about pig bladder balloons, button lamps, and Ma's delaine.  If none of those things rings a bell for you, then a lot of the humor might be lost on you, poor soul.  I have never seen the TV show, Little House on the Prairie; not even one episode.*

But, oh, I have read the books.  And re-read the books.  And visited some of the Laura sites (though not as many as Ms. McClure).  When, on page four, she writes, " . . . and after Ma bakes the bread she makes a button lamp, because do you remember the button lamp, in the saucer, with the little square of calico that she twists up and greases into a wick?  Shall we go on?" my immediate reaction was, "Yes!  Yes!  And then Pa says his usual thing about 'leaving it to the Scotch,' which he says whenever Ma pulls something truly magnificent out from under her bonnet and saves the day.  And, yes, Wendy McClure, we shall go on."  And on we went.

I, too, was a middle-class suburban kid in the 1970's and 1980's for whom Laura's life held endless fascination and more than a little envy.  Much like Ms McClure's lists on pages 6 & 7, I too, longed  to make candy out of maple syrup in the snow, eat salt pork, milk a cow, tend a garden, churn butter and make little pats of it with designs on the top, hear my Pa play the fiddle to drown out the howling winter wind (I lived in Southern California) and then to lull me to sleep.  I wanted cousins who had exciting stories about family dogs barring paths to wells to protect them from panthers.  I wanted to be excited when Pa brought home a bear and a pig at the same time.  I wanted to feed the smoke log with green woodchips to help smoke enough meat to keep our family fed through the winter.  Heck, I longed for winter -- even a Long Winter -- to add some variety to the endless sunny heat of my lame-o childhood environment.  I think, though, what I wanted most, was that sense of family togetherness -- that idea that nothing was going to tear my family apart.  The Ingallses stayed together through multiple moves, tragic illness, the death of a child, gut-wrenching lost crops and subsequent poverty, unexpected visits by Indians and wolves, and nigh starvation.  My parents couldn't keep our family together with a cushy house in the 'burbs and two stable, benefit-rich, and well-paid jobs in education.  It seemed a better deal to put up with the crazy, unpredictable, often scary, always free world of life on the edge of civilization with your family than to be an only child shuttled back-and-forth between two households in an utterly predictable, blandly constrained, but affluent world.  I wanted to let my bonnet hang low and run home to our dugout with wildflowers for Ma into the big bear hug of my Pa.  I would even have put up with priggish Mary and banal, yet needy, Carrie to have had that life in that world.  And, the first chapters of The Wilder Life are full of similar longing from the author.

So, she sets out to see if the reality is anything close to her imaginings. She bakes Long Winter Bread, finds a butter churn and acts accordingly, tries some maple syrup snow candy.  She visits Lake Pepin, various Minnesota sites, the Kansas prairie.  She makes it down to Mansfield, MO -- which is one of my favorite places to visit.  Though not one of the books is set there, it is where Laura remembered her childhood and set out with her daughter, Rose's, help to record and refine those old stories into the masterpiece series that we know today.  Laura artifacts abound: Pa's fiddle, the bread plate from the first four years, clothes, books, photographs.  Truly a must-see for LIW fans.  Ms McClure also makes it up to DeSmet, SD, the setting of the last four books. 

In between, Ms McClure does some other things, and one of those things is to attend a homesteading demonstration weekend on a working farm in Illinois.  Here is where my sympathy with the author turned a bit sour.  It turned out that a church group booked space for this same weekend that she attended with her boyfriend.  This church happened to be one of those rather obsessed with apocalyptic times.  They were there to learn how to rebuild civilization after the cataclysmic events of the future came to be.  They were into preserving butter in a way that sounded disgusting.

Now, I am a Christian believer.  I do believe that there will be an end of days, as the Bible warns of.  I do believe that Jesus will return; that He will reign one thousand years; that a final showdown will occur between Good and Evil.  I just don't live my life around that, because I am secure in His promise that, no matter what, He is with me and will bring me to Him.  So, I don't get hung up on End Times.  I certainly will not worry about rebuilding civilization.  And, were I to survive well into the tribulation, I think my last concern would be preserved butter.  I'm sure I would have been a little uncomfortable with the church group.  Ms McClure is not a believer; so, I can fully understand her unease.  What I cannot forgive (as a reader who has agreed to go along on this journey with her) is her reaction to them.  And her positively un-Ingalls-like bolting in the face of modicum discomfort.

A story about the Ingalls family that is neither recorded in the Little House books, nor in Ms McClure's book, is that the family was not alone in the building in town during the Long Winter.  They had another family living with them -- a very unpleasant family, apparently, who made the endless freezing snow of Mother Nature a thousand fold worse by robbing the family of a convivial homelife.  The Ingalls family did not bolt. Maybe they could not bolt; but, they could have kicked the other family out.  They did not.  And, Ms McClure would have done well to remember the Brewsters in These Happy Golden Years.  Laura slept on the sofa in a two-room shanty with that gawd-awful, knife-wielding Mrs. Brewster for two months without bolting.  Ms McClure and her feckless boyfriend totally bolted.  First they engaged in silly, over-the-top drama -- like secret notebook messages surreptitiously passed about how terrible these church people were (doing things like *gasp* saying a long grace before dinner; talking about their faith in Jesus; actually using the phrase "end times" -- iiieeee! the horror!).  In fact, Wendy and Chris were so tolerant of others' beliefs that they ran away from the homesteading weekend as soon as possible; because, God forbid anyone ever be exposed to others with differing ideas for more than an hour or two.  I sort of lost respect for her from that moment onward.  I mean, if you're going to the trouble of writing a book about experiencing a Wilder life, be prepared to take one for the team, eh?

I just want to add here that I do not see the Little House books as Christian religious texts.  Some reviewers over at Amazon said that the foul language sometimes used by the author was a degradation to the good, Christian values as extolled in the LIW books.  No doubt, a true and real faith in God permeates the series; however, they are not Christian primers.  They are primers on Americanism.  Neither Laura in her older years nor Rose ever, I think, was a particularly intense Christian.  But, they believed in America and the sort of can-do deity that is particular to America.  Ma and Pa were, I think, rather religious Christians; but, speaking as a child raised in a non-believing household, their religiosity was never so overt as to interrupt my perusal of the series.  That is, the books were written for young Americans to understand and reclaim what it means to be American; not by Christians trying to declaim and instill a Christian worldview.  Which is probably why Ms McClure liked the books in the first place. 

At the very end, she visits the Farmer Boy House up in upstate New York.  Truly an odyssey of sorts, as this rebuilt homage is far off the beaten prairie path.  I am most envious of her travels to the Farmer Boy House, as that is the setting of my favorite book in the series.  Pancakes!  Popcorn and milk!  Fried apples and onions!  A potato baked in a field at dawn!  For a gal who likes her food, Farmer Boy is a dreamland of delight.  And that, of course, is the point made by Barbara Walker who wrote the Little House Cookbook and reiterated by Wendy McClure: Farmer Boy is Laura's dreamworld of abundance and stability as imagined in the childhood of her husband, Almanzo.  She places all of her dormant longings for that sort of "land o' milk and honey" onto her reconstruction of his early life. While she certainly seemed to have loved her ever-westward expanding childhood, there was a little part of her that thought that maybe it might not have been so bad to live on a prosperous farm and eat doughnuts whenever she pleased. 

Would I recommend this book?  Yes, I think I would recommend it to anyone who was or is thoroughly enthralled by the book series.  Though I was a bit out of sympathy with the author by the end -- she and I have come to different conclusions about LIW World -- it is still a pretty fun read.  I mean, anyone who has coffee-mill bread and button lamps inextricably linked in their minds is a person whose voice deserves a hearing.  And much of the book will charm you, even if you would have totally stuck it out at the homesteading weekend retreat.

(*Digression:  When I was a kid and my mom wanted me out of her hair, she would beg me to watch LHOTP on TV.  "No!  No!" I would protest with horror, "I could never watch that!  Pa doesn't even have a beard!"  Years later, in the early days of our marriage when we worked very different shifts and Jason had a lot of unsupervised TV time, he started watching the TV show.  Then, when I would come home, he would quiz me about various foreign ideas presented in the series.  One about Almanzo was very offensive, but now I cannot remember what it was . . . in other words, that just strengthened my resolve never to view that abomination.  I've kept it for 37 years.)


vermon said...

I did not know that Almanzo was raised in Malone, NY--I need to make a road trip this spring! I's only abt 2hr west of me.
I really enjoy your reviews-you have such amazing insites.

vermonster said...

oop--I hit enter too early--that was me :)

Justine said...

Oh man! We probably won't get up to Malone for another few years, at least. You'll have to let me know your thoughts and impressions after you've made your trip.

I love Almanzo so much!

Thanks for reading, vm!