Monday, June 18, 2012

Little House in the Post-Apocalyptic Landscape

One day I was teaching at a country school in a 5th grade class composed mostly of Hmong girls, for whatever reason.  Hmong culture is deeply mysterious, even to people who've studied it closely (see Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down for a brilliant, tragic story of a Hmong family's clash with Western culture over their sick daughter's medical treatment), but Hmong children's home lives seem to produce unusually well-behaved, hard working students.  I admit to breathing a sigh of relief as I scanned the roster long before the children arrived and saw a preponderance of Xiongs, Vangs, and Yangs along with startling first names like Lucky Charms and SugarNixon comprising the classroom population.

One of the morning activities involved an unusually long "teacher read-aloud" from Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Most people remember the somewhat sappy show from the 70s with Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert, but that day, reading aloud from this nearly alien text of frontier life (one of Wilder's stated goals was to show 20th century children just how different life had been for young people when she was growing up), I felt an immensely powerful throbbing in the room, very low register, a thrumming life engine that emerged from the interplay of the book, my voice, and the rapt attention of the students, who followed along in their own copies.

The passage described the Ingalls family's first night on the prairie after leaving their cabin in the Big Woods.  With only their wagon as shelter they cook with meticulous care, dress appropriately for bed, listen to the mournful howls of wolves, and fall asleep to the sound of the stars "singing," even though the rational explanation for the music is Pa's fiddle.  A spooky encounter with a pair of glowing green eyes creeping toward the family turns out to be a reunion with their brindle bulldog, thought drowned during a harrowing river crossing.  During the day, the children help their Ma clean their clothes and bedding and must observe proper behavior, not talking loudly or singing during meals.  Nature practically explodes off the page despite the spare prose--a profusion of rabbits, flowers, birds, gophers, and grasshoppers.  Somehow, all this upwelling beauty combined with the stern, nearly puritanical spirit of the family works on page after page.  And it should not work.  Why it shouldn't is what I'm coming around to before the end of this post. 

Now, the life I've been living for the last few months with its bizarro 12/12 hour split between Mission fundie Jesus craziness and sub teaching, careening hellish bus rides, and sidewalk stomping has been a mite stressful and may have addled my literary judgement, but it seems to me that Wilder, when not indulging in sugary hearth and home goofiness (everyone stands around in the midst of horrific events giving thanks for each other and praising potatoes and hidden stashes of wheat, and it all becomes risible after a while) is a writer at least the equal of Willa Cather, and often approaches Hemingway in simplicity and understated power to evoke profound themes of life and death. 

Here is young Laura, a strange, dark-haired naughty child of nature in contrast to golden haired, celestially obedient older sister Mary, contemplating an early frost, a foreshadowing of an horrific seven month- long blast of blizzards the family must endure in The Long Winter:

"Laura loved the beautiful world.  She knew that the bitter frost had killed the hay and the garden. The tangled tomato vines with their red and green tomatoes, and the pumpkin vines holding their broad leaves over the green young pumpkins, were all glittering bright in frost over the broken, frosty sod.  The sod corn's stalks and long leaves were white.  The frost had killed them.  It would leave every living green thing dead.  But the frost was beautiful."

In another passage Baby Grace is lost. The prairie, which looks flat and endless,  is actually humped and curvy over long distances so objects disappear very quickly as they move further from your line of sight.  The family searches for her desperately.  In a flash of intuition, Laura discovers the child sitting peacefully in a perfectly circular depression filled with hundreds of thousands of sweet-smelling violets.  Laura feels the circle must be a fairy ring created  to save her baby sister.  Pa, in his inimitable style (too often, his eyes are described as "twinkling"), tells Laura that indeed the violet circle was not created by human hands.  Instead it is an ancient buffalo wallow where generations of beasts have dug and scraped.  "Why did they do it, Pa?"  It's a  mystery, one of many fully earned moments of the numinous in these books.

In all of the "Little House" books the family must endure deprivations and harum-scarum encounters with nature's furies--blindness from scarlet fever, wolf attacks, blizzards, and frostbite-- and work like demons just to be able to eat and sleep, but their appreciation of simple bounties (kings' ransoms to their psyches) like a piece of Christmas candy, a doll made from a corn cob, a new pair of suspenders, or an extra bit of salt--all this makes for an unavoidable, embarrassingly easy contrast with Mission life and its grasping, gaping inhabitants.  Yes, these men have endured the loss of their families and much else, and all shows of bravado are a pathetic cover for a deep, complex sadness, but too often hardship involves not getting an extra slice of baloney in the sack lunch.

After that luminous day when I was privileged to read to the Hmong girls,  I decided I needed some sort of tranquilizer in lieu of Xanax or booze, so I started checking the books out of the public library.  Every branch has stacks of these popular books, and I always pick out the editions illustrated by Garth Williams--evocative, charming, warm, and scary.  For some odd reason more recent editions have omitted his work.   Now a real problem emerged for me during the hour or so of reading time before lights out.  It's bad enough to have to fend off queries about my kindle (can't afford an iPad, dammit, and my free laptop from generous friends just quit working.  Why me, God?  Why!?), but now I have to explain why I'm reading these books with pictures of girls in sunbonnets and kiddie time covers and slightly goofy titles.   I finally settled on "I used to read these books to my nieces and my step kids, and I'm taking a trip down memory lane."  Not really a lie, but not the reason I'm reading them now, along with Dickens and all the other stuff I gobble down indiscriminately. 

It's simply this:  Every generation thinks it's going to be the last, that things are finally going to fall apart, that the rust and empty buildings and bedraggled legions prone in the streets and drug-addled howlers and brain parasitised faith-head killers and science deniers and slime-slug politicians will finally do it ("You maniacs!  You blew it up!  Goddamn you!  Oh, Goddamn you all to hell!"), but this time it's really real.  The end of the world is a really real place, as Dorothy pleads piteously at the end of The Wizard of Oz.   So you better find a well-built little house somewhere or some when.

No comments:

Post a Comment