Some months ago I had the pleasure of re-reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House Books. And I do mean ‘re-read’: I’ve lost track of the times I’ve read those books in whole or in part since my mother first read them aloud to me as a child. It was a window into another world: a world with parties celebrating maple syrup, spelling bees in which the whole town participated, beautiful horses and wide open spaces.
Is the best thing about reading a book being able to reread it later? There always manages to be some bit that I never noticed before, and that is therefore emphasized by its novelty. This read-through, it was a line from Little Town on the Prairie. First, to set it up: after surviving the harshest winter they’d ever known, in which they several times nearly froze and ultimately nearly starved to death, the Ingalls women are gleeful to hear that friend Mrs Boast will set her hen for them. This spurs a series of fantasies, because, if Pa gets a pig the following spring, then in two years time they will be able to have eggs and ham for breakfast. I might get enthused about bacon for breakfast (at least until I’m cleaning the pan afterwards), but the look on my face if you told me I’d have it next in two years would not be glee. Another highlight of that day: the cat killed a mouse. Sounds commonplace, yes, but this was exciting because the mouse infestation had previously escalated to a mouse chewing Pa’s hair off while he slept, causing him to purchase said cat as a just-born kitten for xx dollars because there weren’t any other cats in the country and he had to snatch her up before anyone else did. After weeks of feeding the cat milk by soaking a handkerchief and letting her “nurse” the kitten finally killed a mouse not much smaller than herself in a rather long-drawn cat fight. The end of the infestation was finally in sight. The family finally sit down to a (meager to my eyes) meal of lettuce, buttered bread, potatoes, and cottage cheese.
But to sum all of this up, Laura as narrator states: “In all that satisfaction, perhaps the best part was knowing tomorrow would be like today, the same and yet a little different from all the other days, as this one had been.” Perhaps the aging Laura had the peace of distance (or senility) on her side when she narrated these events, but that doesn’t take away the power of the statement: that in the midst of what I would call deprivation, another woman saw satisfaction. It helped that this line hit me at a time when I was feeling particularly discouraged by the frustrations of parenting toddlers. I began to see how “satisfaction” could be it’s own kind of virtue: the ability to take what you have, however little it is, and be satisfied with it. The beauty of the Little House books as a whole lies in how they show us how to take joy in the everyday things. That joy, when we can find it, is a gift not to be taken lightly.
This most recent reread was the first time I’d read them since becoming a parent myself, and I found there were other ways this gave an interesting new flavor to the familiar. There seemed to be a lot more peril than I remembered. It began to feel like a series of stories relating “remember that time we almost died when that one thing happened?” Trying to cross a creek too swollen with water and almost drowning, or beating a firebreak to protect a home from an imminent prairie fire, getting caught out in a blizzard and freezing to death, or getting caught up with malaria with miles between them and the nearest neighbor (much less a doctor). When Laura recalls seeing her mother slap a bear in the dark of their front yard, thinking it their milk cow – well, as a child, I thought the mix-up a little funny, but reading it now I recognize the fear in Ma’s voice: “Laura, go back into the house.” Her first thought was to get her child out of the way. In this case, the bear wasn’t angered by the slap, and mother & child got into the house safely – but there are times when we can’t protect our children from our own mistakes.
The books are the recollections of a child, and brushes with danger are different from a child’s perspective – you trust that your parents will keep you safe. I found myself admiring how Charles and Laura Ingalls kept their series of little houses (and tents and shanties and wagons and dugouts) snug and welcoming, a place of safety and comfort for their children. But other attitudes stood out in a new way, too: it was hard realizing that for all Ma’s strengths, she had a stubborn lack of sympathy for the Indians they were supplanting, for example. I also rarely considered the continuing conflict between Pa’s wanderlust and Ma’s desire to settle and provide a good education for their children that underlies much of the family’s development. This may not be high drama, but it is a simple and quiet portrait of a family doing their best while the west did its worst.
This go-around I related more to Laura’s struggles as a newlywed and young mother in The First Four Years. The final book is just a draft, but it offers an interesting view of the after-happily-ever-after of These Happy Golden Years, and features Laura perhaps coming to understand just how much her own parents did for her. I also take comfort from the fact that Laura didn’t begin to write professionally until her mid-thirties (in bits and pieces for the local paper), and didn’t publish her first book until she was 55. Perhaps it’s not too late to do something with my life after all?
In conclusion: might I suggest a re-read (or first read, if you haven’t yet) of a bit of Little House? Laura Ingalls Wilder was born on February 7, 1867, which makes this her 150th birthday. Here’s to you, Laura! I hope today I can emulate you and learn to see the ways I, too, am already surrounded by “all that satisfaction”.