I’m not much of a fan of historical fiction. Details about how women laced their corsets in Victorian England or what kind of muskets soldiers used in the Revolutionary War typically bore me to tears. But now that most of my reading is done at my children’s bedtime, my standards and tastes have, well, shifted. Now that I spend my nights reading Junie B. Jones and Snow White: A Castle Mystery, a well-wrought piece of literature like Little House on the Prairie is a welcome relief, even if it does include a step-by-step, ten-page description of how to make a stone hearth. Yes, that Ingalls Wilder minx has got me hooked, big time.
Admittedly, it was a slow start. It took a full 50 pages to push beyond Flat-Out Dull, then we moved into Potentially Appealing to People with Very Low Expectations but after the pack of wolves rolled into the prairie, at the book’s mid-way point, it’s been an Old-School Page Turner. Now, I am so deeply invested in the fate of the Ingalls that I have been jumping ahead to the next paragraph while reading out loud to my 5 year-old, Giovanni, and sometimes reading ahead after he goes to sleep.
My husband once caught me doing this: “Don’t tell me you’re reading ahead without him?”
“I can’t help it! It’s been four days since Pa left for Independence Town to trade furs and he’s still not back yet! And there’s a panther on the loose! A panther! Did you know those were indigenous to the US?”
Reading Little House on the Prairie is like eating a really good apple. It’s not the most flashy or fancy or complicated fruit around, but the simple wholesome goodness of a nice, crisp apple will knock your socks off: so much so that you’ll find yourself tasting mangoes and kiwis and feeling like they just try too hard.
While I enjoy the lyrical language, the well-drawn characters, and the compelling conflicts, the thing I really love about the book is how grateful it makes me that I live in the 21st century.
Being a pioneer person sucked. It didn’t suck a little like when your favorite Thai place around the corner closes down. It sucked big-time, like when you and your whole family get ague and die of malaria.
It delights me to no end to discover all the things they didn’t have back then, that are totally indispensable for life on earth. I’m not talking about little perks like color-safe conditioner or the internet. I’m talking about nails. The kind you hit with a hammer. Now, if you’re like me, and can’t hang a picture without the intervention of a handyman, you may live a perfectly undisturbed life without nails. But when you recall that these poor pioneer schmucks had to make their own houses, you’ll understand how having a plentiful supply of nails would be convenient. For most people, the lack of ironware would be a deal-breaker. I, for one, would call a family meeting amidst the tumbleweeds and say, “Well, kids, we gave it the old college try, but I guess we’ll just have to remain homeless, sleep in the dirt, get frostbite and be eaten alive by wolves. What other choice do we have? I mean, we can’t very well make nails, for crying out loud!”
But Pa Ingalls did just that, felling trees with his ax, hauling the logs back to his barren homestead and carving thousands of tiny pointy pegs out of wood to use as nail substitutes.
I don’t even have enough energy to make a salad with pre-washed spinach.
Not only did pioneer people have to build their own houses, they had to build wells. This didn’t seem like a big deal to me until I read in painstaking detail for 20 pages just what one must do to build a well. And let me tell you, those pages should be incorporated into a Scared-Straight program somewhere. Having to make a well – the weeks of digging, the building of a pulley to get rid of the dirt, the avoiding of fatal invisible gases which lurk deep in the earth – would be more of a deterrent to a life of crime for me than prison. After all, they have running water in prison. And you don’t have to eat bean soup and prairie chicken night after night after night.
Giovanni and I agreed that if we ever had the terrible misfortune of being pioneers, we’d do without a well. We’d get our water by walking two miles to the creek every time. We’d drink less. We’d be stinking and foul from lack of baths. That, or we’d mooch off a more ambitious neighbor: “Hey, you don’t mind if we take a few buckets of this swell well water and wash our hair, right? Here, we brought you a prairie chicken.”
The only reason, as far as I can tell, that these pathologically stoic people didn’t off themselves right from the start was that there was tobacco, coffee and liquor.
Of course, these details, while deliciously awful to me, don’t mean much to Giovanni since for all he knows, I did build our apartment building with homemade nails, using my head as a hammer. But there was one part of our historical fiction foray which was meaningful to him, and that was the Christmas chapter. As December 25th nears, Laura and Mary twist their long braids and worry, like any child, about whether Santa will come. In their case, its not a matter of whether they’ve been good enough (these kids cook and clean more than a pair of Cinderellas) but whether the man in red will be able to cross the high creek.
“Don’t they know Santa has flying reindeer?” asked Giovanni.
“I know, right?” I said, thinking that these pioneer kids had zero freaking imagination and no television to blame.
In nothing short of a Christmas miracle, their bachelor neighbor hikes 20 miles in the snow without an overcoat to the nearest town where he picks up the girls’ presents from Santa. And those presents are:
A tin cup of their very own
A tiny heart-shaped cake made with white flour
A real penny
And the children are so overcome with gratitude, so beside themselves with joy, that they can hardly speak. Do they dare to bite into their heart-shaped cake? They do not. Before they even think about eating it, they’ll use it as a play-thing, since all they’ve had to play with for the better part of a year has been – you guessed it – prairie chickens.
Giovanni looked depressed at the whole pathetic situation: “That’s all they got?”
“To them it was riches beyond imagining!” I exclaimed, “You see, some children are so unfortunate they don’t even have a tin cup of their own, they have to share it with their mother who drinks black coffee out of that thing. And by the way, have you ever even drank out of a tin cup? It makes everything taste TINNY. You’d hate it.”
“I’m so glad we don’t live in pioneer times.” he shuddered.
“You and me both,” I agreed.
I luxuriate in the assurance that living in New York – where if you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere – means I choose the hard route, unlike those lily-livered suburbanites, who don’t have to circle the block for two hours to park or carry their groceries and double stroller up three flights of stairs. I enjoy using the term “living the life of Riley” derisively, to refer to other people. But now I know that I’m the one living on Easy Street. And it didn’t even take me working for the Peace Corps to realize it. It just took a children’s book.
You can read more of Nicole’s adventures in her Little House in the Slope on her blog A Mom Amok, amomamok.blogspot.com