Books · Laura Ingalls Wider · What We're Reading

More About Laura and The Story of an Autodidact

What we’re reading

Mary—Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Biography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill

Before she wrote the Little House Books, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her autobiography for adults. She was never able to find a publisher for it, and the manuscript remained in the Wilder archives for over 80 years.  In 2014, it was published by the South Dakota State Historical Association as the culmination of the Pioneer Girl Project.

It is a stunning work of scholarship. A large book, the page size accommodates the text and adjoining notes. Based on primary sources: census data, government records, and newspapers, these notes elaborate on the characters and the incidents in the little House books. And they explore how Wilder manipulated the material in the autobiography to fashion the Little House series, now considered classics of American literature. 

It’s unclear just when Wilder decided to use the autobiography as the source for the Little House books and to change the point of view from the first person of the adult narrator to that of the limited third person, telling the stories from Laura’s point of view. With that transformation, magic happened, as we see the westward journey through the eyes of the growing child. Unless you’re a student of Wilder’s works, you probably won’t want to read this book in its entirety, but if you read any of the books as a child, the next time you are in a library, look it over. There are over 125 interesting illustrations, including many photographs. Pa, by the way,  doesn’t look anything like Michael Landon.

 

Herb—Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour

The stories about celebrities cheating to get their kids into brand name colleges didn’t surprise me. The motivation of these parents has nothing to do with seeing that their kids are well educated of course. You don’t have to go to an elite college to be well educated. 

As it happens I have just been re-reading Louis L’Amour’s Education of a Wandering Man. L’Amour was an extraordinarily popular writer of Western novels and short stories. He left school at fifteen in 1930, never graduated from high school, and never even thought of going to college. He read the books he found on boxcars or that had been left behind in the rooms he rented. When he saved enough money, he rented a room near a library and read until his money ran out. When the kids in his class were graduating from high school in Jamestown, North Dakota, he was in Singapore, buying a copy of Kipling’s Department Ditties from a bookseller named Muhammed Dulfalkir. He liked to recite Kipling or Robert W. Service to his bunkmates and they loved listening to him. 

I used to dream of doing the same—of quitting school and educating myself. But by the time I came along, child labor laws, union rules, and my sheltered upbringing made that impossible. L’amour lists all the books he read during his wandering years, 1930–1935 and 1937. (He lost the list of the books he read in ’36.) They range from pulp fiction to Plato. 

Because this book is a memoir not an autobiography, he doesn’t say much about how he became a writer, and nothing about how be became friends with the historian, Daniel Boorstin, who wrote the introduction.

L’Amour made a lot of money from the sales of his books and the movies that were made of some of his tales. Boorstin mentions that the bookshelves he designed for his ranch are like massive doors that can be swung back to reveal a second tier of bookshelves behind them. He was a nondiscriminating reader.

Books · Childhood learning · Laura Ingalls Wider

So You Think the Polar Vortex Was Bad?

The Long Winter was a Newberry honor book for 1941.

Have you  heard about the hard winter of 1880-81? Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder will remember it as the winter that 14-year-old Laura and her pioneer family endured in the remote Dakota territory.

Recurring white out blizzards began in October and continued until spring with little respite between storms. Temperatures dropped to 40 below, snow accumulated as high as the house, and the trains became stuck in the snow packed cuts, unable to get through with supplies. The Ingalls’ family’s coal and kerosene dwindled until there was none left. For months they spent every day all day huddled together in the small kitchen performing the laborious tasks of twisting hay into sticks to burn in the cookstove for warmth and grinding seed wheat in the coffee grinder to make flour.  They were finally rescued from starvation by the heroic efforts of two young men, one of whom would later become Laura’s husband.  And then the Chinook wind started blowing and spring came—as it always does.

Pa teaches Laura how to twist the hay into sticks which they burned in the cookstove for warmth.

Reading this book as an adult was an interesting and rewarding experience. So rewarding in fact that I have resolved to reread all nine books in the series—in order. I just finished the third book and will have something to say about the controversy surrounding them in the future. 

In the Little House books we see the westward journey through a child’s eyes. It is beautiful, exhilarating, sometimes dangerous and frightening,

But these books are much more than adventure stories. They convey a reverence for the natural world and are thought provoking in a way that makes sense to children (and adults as well). It’s no wonder that so many of us remember these books as such an important part of our growing-up years.

Countless sermons have been delivered and gallons of ink spilled by theologians pondering the thorny subject of free will.  In the first chapter of The Long Winter,  Wilder addresses the subject.

The story opens on a sunny, summer day. Laura has talked Pa into letting her help with the haying. By noon they have gathered the hay from the little haystacks (“haycocks”) and loaded it into the wagon.

Laura spies what she thinks is a haycock they missed. Upon inspection, however, it proves to be a muskrat house.

Pa notes he has never seen one so thick, and that means the muskrats have built their house to prepare for a hard winter.

Pa, how can the muskrats know?”  she asked.

“I don’t know how they know,” Pa said. “But they do. God tells them, somehow I suppose.”

“Then why doesn’t God tell us?” 

“Because,” said Pa. “we’re not animals. We’re humans, and, like it says in the Declaration of Independence, God created us free. That means we got to take care of ourselves.”

“I thought God takes care of us.”

“He does,” Pa said, “so far as we do what’s right. And He gives us conscience and brains to know what’s right. But he leaves us to do as we please. That’s the difference between us and everything else in creation.”

“Can’t Muskrats do what they please?” Laura asked, amazed.

“No,” said Pa. “I don’t know why they can’t but you can see they can’t. Look at that muskrat house. Muskrats have to build that kind of house. They always have and they always will. It’s plain they can’t build any other kind. But folks build all kinds of houses. A man can build any kind of house he can think of.

And maybe for the first time in her life the child thinks about the serious subject of what it means to be human and she just may file the information away, for later consideration.

Books

Who Knew? Today is National Read-a-Book Day

What We Are Reading

Mary—The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction by Meghan Cox Gurdon. In the 19th century, before the availability of electric lights, the father of the family typically read aloud every night to the family gathered around a single light source. I have a theory about the impact this habit had on the culture of the 19th century.

I thought this new book might have some information that would help me refine my idea. It does, but it deals mainly with the positive effects of reading aloud to children at bedtime (or any time). I always read to ours, but I had no idea of what a wonderful thing I was doing! I wish I could put this in the hands of every single parent or grandparent. It would make a wonderful baby shower gift. Plenty of research shows that even tiny babies benefit from being read to.

In the author’s words the book “mixes memoir [she has five children of her own] and advocacy with science, history, art, and literacy. A very helpful feature of the book is the number of suggested stories for reading aloud. Highly recommend not only for parents but anyone who would like to take a few minutes away from their screens to enjoy the magic of an enchanted hour. Herb and I are going to try it.

Herb—I still buy a lot of books each year but have recently begun rereading the books I have decided I like best. They aren’t always the books deemed best by the literary world. Mary asked for one book but I insist Loren D Reed’s two memoirs are really one book. The first is Hurry Home Wednesday (about growing up in a small town (pop. 600) where his family published a newspaper on Wednesday) in the first years of the 20th century) and Finally It’s Friday (about going to college in the 1920s and working as an itinerant Linotypist).

If you want to know what life was like for your great-grandparents, these books are for you. Reed is a very engaging writer. He says his father, like all pressmen, could cuss a blue streak, but he only heard his mother curse once. She started down the rickety basement stairs for a double handful of pigs [technical term] to replace the standby supply on the Linotype. She tripped and tumbled to the bottom. Loren rushed to the rescue and said he found a “heap of arms, legs, ruffled skirts, and a mussed hairdo that represented my one and only ever-loving mother. She was, after all, a woman of solid and substantial proportions.” She waved him off, sat up, “shook herself to see if anything flew off” and exclaimed, “Gosh almighty darn.” How times have changed.

Books · Childhood learning · Education · Folklore

“Ladies and jellyspoons / I come before you to stand behind you / To tell you something I know nothing about.”

In her last post, Mary wondered if a playground culture still exists.

Since today there are so few informal playgrounds where no adults intrude, it is doubtful.  Adults always want to organize children’s play. The assumption is that children learn only that which adults teach them. But the best laid plans of adults cannot accomplish what children used to accomplish for themselves, guided by a folk tradition that had been passed down in some cases for hundreds of years.

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Still in print after 42 years.

They learned, for example, to handle conflict verbally rather than physically. When the linguistically unsophisticated and emotionally immature child was teased, insulted or ridiculed, he could choose from a number of ready made responses, for instance, “I’m rubber, you’re glue / Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you, “ or “Twinkle, twinkle, little star / What you say is what you are.”

When a little girl heard, “I see London; I see France / I see Velma’s underpants,” did she run to a safe space and tell the teacher? No, she probably shouted back,  “Liar liar, pants on fire,” or maybe “XYZ!” If the boy fell for it and checked his fly, she won. The one thing she did not do was grow up to be a snowflake.

Left alone, children organized their own games, making fine juridical adjustments: one good player for this side, but three fumble fingers for that side. They learned to compromise, because they didn’t want the game to end.

And They Learned About Language

They learned that poetry could be fun. Without fear of the speech police, they could sing about their school lunch: “Great big gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts / Chopped up parakeet / Mutilated monkey meat / Pig snot and camel rot,” etc. A child who sang that song was introduced to alliteration and hyperbole early on.

And the child who recited the mock oration beginning, “Ladies and Jellyspoons / I stand before you to stand behind you / To tell you something I know nothing about / Admission free, Pay at the door / Pull up a seat and sit on the floor” experienced the satisfaction of employing rhetorical tropes that gently raised college students only learn to label.

How We Did It

In the seventies we were living in the American Canal Zone in Panama. Since almost everybody in the Canal Zone came from somewhere else, we were able to collect examples of children’s folklore from recently arrived children as it was practiced all over the States as well as in foreign countries and military bases abroad. During the summer when we were on leave from our jobs, we also did something that we couldn’t do today without getting us in trouble: we sat on park benches, taking notes while watching children at play.

We learned that what seems to be trivial and silly was extremely functional in the social development of children. We wish some young folklorists would write a sequel documenting what traditions are still around and what new customs children might be creating to help them cope with the digital world. If you have kids or grandkids, ask them about this.

You can buy One Potato, Two Potato on Amazon, but last time we looked there were 20 used copies available from abebooks.com for $3.50 to $4.00, free shipping. If you want to take a trip down memory lane and be reminded of things you have probably forgotten, you can get one cheap!

 

 

Books · Childhood learning · Education · Laura Ingalls Wilder · Museums

In Defense of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Part Two

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Replica of the log cabin Pa built, located at The Little House on the Prairie Museum, Independence, Kansas

First of all, let me dispatch the criticism of the passage most frequently cited by the media as offensive: The Little House on the Prairie was published in 1932. On the first page of that first edition, the following sentence appears:

There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much further than a man could see, and there were no people. Only the Indians lived there.

It seemed clear to most readers that what was meant was that there were no white people like Laura and her family. But in 1952, a reader wrote to the publisher complaining about the passage. The editor was shocked that no one had ever noticed the wording before and suggested a correction. The author immediately responded:

You are perfectly right about the fault in Little House on the Prairie and have my permission to make the correction you request. It was a stupid blunder of mine.

In a new edition published in 1953, the offending passage was replaced by the following:

There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much further than a man could see, and there were no settlers. Only Indians lived there.

 In other words, the original offensive wording has not appeared in the book for 65 years!  But apparently there is no statute of limitations in the case of careless political incorrectness. It is really stretching to assume that Wilder thought Indians were subhuman.

I imagine the authorities dislike Laura’s physical descriptions of the Indians or the fact that the “wild men” frighten her:

First she saw their leather moccasins. Then their stringy bare, red-brown legs all the way up. Around their waists each of the Indians wore a leather thong, and the furry skin of a small animal hung down in front. . . .Their faces were bold and fierce and terrible. Their black eyes glittered. . . .When Laura peeked out from behind the slab again, both Indians were looking straight at her. Her heart jumped into her throat and choked her with its pounding.

But make no mistake: it is Pa who is the central character of this book. It is his decisions that drive the action; his accomplishments as a frontiersman that fill the pages; his songs and fiddle that provide much of the poetry. Surely it is to Pa we must look for the values this work endorses.

And what are they when it comes to the Indians?

One day a tall Indian suddenly appears in the doorway,

‘How!’ he said to Pa. Pa held onto Jack and replied, ‘How!’ He dragged Jack to the bedpost and tied him there. While he was doing it, the Indian came in and squatted down by the fire. Then Pa squatted down by the Indian, and they sat there, friendly, but not saying a word, while Ma finished cooking dinner. . . .Ma gave Pa and the Indian their dinners on two tin plates, and they ate silently. The Pa gave the Indian some tobacco for his pipe. They filled their pipes, and they lighted the tobacco with coals from the fire, and they silently smoked until the pipes were empty. . . .A while longer they all sat silent. Then the Indian rose up and went away without a sound.

‘Let Indians keep themselves to themselves,’ said Ma, ‘and we will do the same. I don’t like Indians around  underfoot.’

Pa told her not to worry, ‘That Indian was perfectly friendly,’ he said. ‘And their camps down among the bluffs are peaceable enough. If we treat them well and watch Jack, we won’t have any trouble. . .

The next day, when Pa opens the door there is another mounted Indian  on the trail that runs by the house. Jack stands snarling before the Indian, ready to pounce. When the Indian sees Pa, he points his gun at Jack. Pa grabs Jack’s collar and pulls him off the trail.

‘That was a darned close call!’ Pa said. ‘Well, it’s his path. An Indian trail, long before we came.’

Later, Laura overhears a conversation between Pa and Mr. Scott and Mr. Edwards, who are distant neighbors. Scott and Edwards think that perhaps the Indians started a recent prairie fire on purpose to drive out the settlers and that they “mean devilment.”

Mr. Edwards said there were too many Indians in those camps; he didn’t like it. ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian,’ Mr. Scott said.

Pa said he didn’t know about that. He figured that Indians would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were let alone. On the other hand, they  had been moved west so many times that naturally they hated white folks.

 

You be the judge.

 

Coming next: A Kickapoo Kidnapping, A True Family Story