Lucy and Todd

Log Cabin Coziness

In Recent Articles on January 2, 2013 at 1:02 pm

It’s all so innocent: you live in a log cabin with the guy you love, snuggle up every night under patchwork quilts, somehow give birth all alone to several obedient children, make butter, tend animals, cook stuff, sew stuff. That’s the woman’s point of view. The man’s? You perform powerfully outdoors: you hunt, you fish, you farm, and you trade furs and lame jokes at the general store before making your way back through blizzards, bears and buffalo wolves to your family. Your gun is slow, you think before you shoot, and you can rustle up a little log cabin any old time.

A far cry from the state of the union today, in which the woman worries constantly about celebrities and cellulite, resentfully doing her 98% of the housework while the husband works two jobs, or none at all, and spends his leisure hours acquainting himself with porn. Their children go to school to be indoctrinated, bullied, drugged, shot and horrified – never educated! – in a society that cherishes only the shortest of marriages and the measliest bundle of human rights, a nation devoted to ugliness.

All of this was in train when Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family wandered the American plains in their covered wagon – they just didn’t notice. They thought the further west they got the freer they would be. They didn’t know that America, founded on usurpation, as much as on the hopes of emigrants and philanthropic forefathers, had been stitched up from the start. Who helps you in a capitalist set-up when the locusts eat your crops, or fire destroys your homestead, or the bank calls in your loan? A neighbor, if you’re lucky. But mostly, it’s each man for himself – everybody’s too busy and confused complying with capitalism to try outsmarting it.

They should have all stayed in Europe. Still, it’s nice to believe, even temporarily, that the world is your oyster. Charles Ingalls, the father Wilder depicts in her novels, has a gift for keeping cheerful. Here’s the deal: you kill, you cook, you eat, you sing songs, and you do it with a positive attitude or you’re probably going to die. Optimism is not a sign of imbecility in such a situation, it’s a necessity. The poverty and deprivation is at times severe: Pa once has to walk for hundreds of miles in worn-out boots, just to find enough work to keep the family alive. At another point, he more or less hibernates for three days in a snow hole, unable to find the house in a blizzard. Is this any way for a man to behave? Ever thought about a desk job? But during the Depression (Wilder embarked on writing this autobiographical series in the 1930s), a lot of people were in similar trouble.

Which is why we need these books now! In an era when the individual is dishonoured for failings in beauty, health, wealth and technological know-how, Wilder’s world-view (reinforced by Garth Williams’ memorable illustrations, from the ’50s) seems strikingly humane, even socialist at times. People act like the western expansion was accomplished by a few Republican Paul Bunyans, chopping down trees and tee-pees as they went. It wasn’t. America could not have come into being without collective effort. The Ingallses are tirelessly charitable towards everyone they meet (even tiresomely so – was it really necessary to make Laura give her rag doll to a spoiled brat?). In Little House on the Prairie, Ma manages to overcome her distaste for Indians and feeds the Osages, whose land the Wilders mistakenly occupy – and the chief later saves the family from slaughter. In The Long Winter, Pa persuades the storekeeper to sell grain for no profit to the starving townsfolk marooned for seven months by snow. Pa calls it ‘justice’, not communism, but the capitalist ethos is nonetheless brought (briefly) to its knees.

Pa’s the more charismatic of the two; Ma is steady, quiet, probably shy (like her daughters). But Pa’s pleasure in her is an important element of the books. The imprint of her palm on the cornbread, he says, is all he needs as food. Wilder’s world is full of the imprint of the female hand. Pioneering was not a solo masculine activity – women were there too. Somebody had to make the codfish gravy to go with the cod philosophy. Men don’t do anything without dragging women into it somehow; they can’t do anything without love (who can?). Women imposed home comforts on the log cabin, comforts essential to the survival of infants. They brought coziness. These stories aren’t just about woods and prairies and Plum Creeks after all: they’re about the house in the woods, the shanty on the prairie, the dugout by the creek. Wilderness is there to be tamed by the American family – and the Ingalls family is almost wholly female.

Nobody knows what feminism is anymore, but it isn’t just about equal pay and abortion rights. It’s about appreciating femaleness for femaleness’ sake. Wilder was rightwing, religious, practically silent as a writer until her sixty-fifth year. What pulls these books of hers, unwittingly or not, on to a feminist level derives from her innate rebelliousness, a rebelliousness hinted at in the fictional Laura’s moments of indignation, sisterly rivalry and dare-devil escapades. Wilder boldly took the American dream and eighteenth-century individualism to include herself, and wrote without apology about the daily lives of women and girls. She’s not writing about eyebrow threading or how to please men, she’s writing about survival. Women aren’t frail here: they’re noble and brave.

Wilder did write about a boy once: her second book, Farmer Boy, was based on the early life of her husband, Almanzo. Clearly an act of love – but she couldn’t help descending into envy. His parents ran a prosperous farm in New York state, and for Wilder this meant that Almanzo had access to a quite unbelievable amount of food. Pancakes, sausage cakes, golden buckwheat cakes, gravy, oatmeal, thick cream, maple syrup, fried potatoes, preserves, jams, jellies, doughnuts, spicy apple pie: that was breakfast. For snacks, he’d grab some apples, more doughnuts, cookies, popcorn and watermelons. For supper: four large helpings of fried apple’n’onions, roast beef and brown gravy, mashed potatoes, creamed onions, boiled turnips, ‘countless slices of buttered bread with crab-apple jelly’, a thick slice of birds’-nest pudding covered with sweetened cream, huckleberry pie and blueberry pudding. At Christmas there was roast goose and suckling pig, candied carrots, cream pie, mince pie, horehound candy and fruitcake – but any ordinary Sunday would involve a three-chicken pie, beans and fat pork, pickled beets and rye’n’injun bread, pumpkin pie, then a piece of apple pie with cheese, all provided punctually by Almanzo’s dexterous mama.

But wait a minute – how does she do it? I find it hard enough to feed two people once in a while – how can there be all these mashed potatoes and doughnuts everywhere when the woman’s always huddled upstairs over her loom, weaving cloth to make home-tailored suits for her husband and sons, or spinning, dyeing, knitting, patching, and darning, or churning prize-winning butter and molding a year’s-worth of candles…? She makes soap too. The only thing she doesn’t do is card her own wool (it gets machine-carded in town). Get real, lazybones.

‘Have to finish my mother’s goddam juvenile’, wrote Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, whose role in the editing process has unsettled some Wilder fans. Rose wrote adult novels of pioneering life, stealing her mother’s material but substituting the sourness of maturity for the warm-heartedness of Wilder’s children’s fiction. They smell of the lamp. Her contribution to her mother’s efforts consisted of a thorough line-edit, many questions and some pretty bossy advice – more typing and griping than anything else. Wilder stuck up for herself during clashes of opinion on content, in a working arrangement that was fraught. Wilder once commented in a letter to Almanzo (as reported in John E. Miller’s informative Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder), ‘The more I see of how Rose works the better satisfied I am to raise chickens.’

Whatever editorial influence Rose had, she didn’t manage to remove every peculiarity of her mother’s style. Wilder’s technical descriptions, from bobsleds and railroads to growing a giant milk-fed pumpkin or constructing a whatnot, are often hard to follow. The narrative is suddenly abandoned so she can explain how to make a door-latch: ‘First he hewed a short, thick piece of oak. From one side of this, in the middle, he cut a wide, deep notch. He pegged this stick to the inside of the door, up and down near the edge. He put the notched side against the door, so that the notch made a little slot. Then he hewed and whittled a longer, smaller stick…’ After that ‘up and down near the edge’, I’m lost. Practical advice is always welcome, but it’s got to work. She’s also quite a comma-flinger, our Laura, Ingalls, Wilder, and uses the word ‘little’ too much.

She just needed more practice. In Little House on the Prairie (the third book she wrote), Wilder’s getting into her stride, with better character-development, a real sense of place, and plenty of drama – cattle out of control, the flooding creek, leeches, and locusts (not just chomping through crops but astounding everybody with a sudden exodus). Laura now emerges as a fully conscious being, ‘naughty’ and inventive – qualities that come in handy when she exacts a malicious revenge on her enemy, Nellie Oleson (making good use of those leeches).  Her impatience with church-going too is endearingly honest.

Wilder’s descriptions of landscape are often elegiac. But who are they for? They assume more feeling for meadows, birds and flowers than I think most children have. As a child, I skipped them, but now I like them. Maybe she wrote these passages for herself, nobody else, just to record sensations that mattered to her. She later formulated this love of nature into a policy: ‘I can still plainly see the grass and the trees and the path winding ahead, flecked with sunshine and shadow and the beautiful gold-hearted daisies scattered all along the way. I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.’

Sure, there are disasters, such as Laura’s older sister Mary’s blindness, that must and can be borne (and sanitized, for our benefit), but there’s also the importance of repeatedly rolling down an irresistible hay-stack, or getting a fur cape for Christmas, or seeing Jack, the faithful bulldog, turn up at the campsite when they all thought he’d drowned. And there’s love, for her family and particularly her father, who can converse with nightingales on the violin. ‘Phoebe-birds called sadly from the woods down by the creek… Softly Pa’s fiddle sang in the starlight… The large, bright stars hung down from the sky. Lower and lower they came, quivering with music… The night was full of music, and Laura was sure that part of it came from the great, bright stars swinging so low above the prairie.’

When they have to leave their little house on the prairie, Pa claims that they’re taking away more than they brought. ‘I don’t know what,’ Ma replies. ‘Why, there’s the mule!’ he says. But you feel it’s more than that: experience, solidarity, the rocking chair he carved for her…and a girl in the back of the wagon who will later tell the world their story and make Pa a hero.

(Quotations from Wilder’s and Lane’s letters, etc., and my interpretation of Rose’s editorial role, are based on John E. Miller’s book, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, University of Missouri Press, 1998.)


A version of this article appeared in the Guardian, Dec. 29, 2012

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