"I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world." -Richard Dawkins

Thursday, March 19, 2009


I find that much of my adult thinking has been dictated by things I read in books, but no source moreso than the Ingalls family. She's with me, that Laura, almost every day. I always seem to be looking back on the days spent in each of those little houses, or should I say the days I felt I spent in them because of Laura's innate ability to show by telling.

Whenever I see my stepfather come in from a morning spent working in the garage or yard I think of Pa blowing through the front door, ready with something to tell Ma- my mother, in this case- about whatever it is that just happened out there.

Especially in the winter, though, when he stamps in, brushing snow off and making some witty remark about how cold it is and how hungry he is- I think about the beans Ma spent all morning boiling in The Long Winter, when she drained off the broth to drink with their bread for lunch and then set them in the oven to bake for dinner that night. I think about the hot buckwheat pancakes the Wilder boys were cooking up day in and out. I always want to gather snow into pans and put some maple syrup on the stove to make candy like they did at the sugaring off in the big woods of Wisconsin.

Canned peaches and soda crackers are synonymous because of On the Shores of Silver Lake. Every rag doll I sew I think of beloved Charlotte. Every time I was sick home from school I would make paper dolls. The first serious 'garb' I ever sewed with my grandmother's help was a late 19th century calico prairie dress, with a big wide white cotton apron. Every moment alone playing in the woods, every moment alone cooking in the kitchen, I used to pretend I was her- or someone like her.

"We must cut our coats to fit our cloth," I think of Ma's wisdom literally, every time I struggle with a length of fabric a few inches too short for the pattern at hand, and figuratively when I need to budget things like groceries a little bit slimmer because of finances one month to the next. I anticipate the Christmas when Ro has read these books and I can give her a tin cup and a pair of red mittens and little paper bag with striped candy inside. I hope she'll appreciate their meaning in the same way I do.

I'm now finally having a chance to reread the books from the point of view of a parent and couldn't help laughing aloud all to myself when Laura and Mary get in trouble in On the Banks of Plum Creek for not sliding on the hay.

"Laura." Pa said, dreadfully, "come here." Slowly Laura went out from behind the door. "Come here," said Pa, "right over here by Mary." He sat down and he stood them before him, side by side, but it was Laura he looked at. He said sternly, "you girls have been sliding down the straw-stack again."
"No, Pa," said Laura.
"Mary!" Said Pa. "Did you slide down the straw-stack?"
"N-no, Pa," Mary said.
"Laura!" Pa's voice was terrible. "Tell me again. DID YOU SLIDE DOWN THE STRAW-STACK?"
"No, Pa," Laura said again. She looked straight into Pa's shocked eyes. She did not know why he looked like that.
"Laura!" Pa said.
"We did not slide, Pa," Laura explained. "But we did roll down it."
Pa got up quickly and went to the door and stood looking out. His back quivered. Laura and Mary did not know what to think. When Pa turned around his face was stern but his eyes were twinkling.

It was here that I burst into laughter because I realized for the first time Pa had needed to turn his back so that he could laugh. Something I myself need to do all the time with Ro when she's being obstinate. I hide my face behind a book or pillow and let out a fit of silent giggles before I can regain composure and become stern again. I think in time Laura also realized what had gone on in that moment with Pa, or at least embellished it with she and Almanzo's own experience raising Rose, as she too was a tried and true mother when she wrote these books.

I'm grateful to Laura for giving us these stories, for showing us exactly what the world was like for what was seemingly the least interesting of families, no rank or class, no wealth, no property of true value- the mundane reality of their lives that turned out to be extraordinary in so many other immeasurable ways. It's the story of the little guy, the hands that helped build this country- often literally in the case of Pa Ingalls. And yet they've managed to be perceived as one of the greatest contributions to children's literature in all history. Laura's voice speaks through the generations, after reading it, it stays with us all.

Pa would have gone west forever and we will forever be going west with him.

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