Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Lear and Laura Ingalls Wilder
I missed Laura Ingalls Wilder. Of course, when I was a boy I was in Wisconsin, not out here on the edge of the plains. And then, when I was a boy, I was a boy. From what little I've read of her, Wilder's sweet little Laura is the kind of protagonist who wouldn't have interested me back then, about the time I got my first BB gun.
I read Miss Wilder for the first time a few days ago because next week I'm going to read a story to a host of elementary school students, and the teacher who asked me to sent over Little House in the Big Woods for me to look at--she said it might be an option. Chapter 11, she suggested--left in a bookmark.
So I read chapter 11. I've been to DeSmet, SD, and not that long ago I stopped at Plum Creek, just outside of Walnut Grove, where her father dug his family's first earthy habitation in Minnesota. I've watched umpteen episodes of the old TV show so I know quite a bit about the Ingalls family, but I'd never before read a word about the Little House.
Cute story. A boy named Charley is now big enough to go out to the field and help the men at harvest. He's no longer a little boy--except he is. When he's out there, he gets underfoot, you might say, and doesn't always do what he should. In fact, he's worse. He screams wolf several times, all in fun, so the men shut down the whole harvest operation, thinking the kid's hurt, only to discover he's faking some kind of wacky distress. Naughty kid.
Then, of course, the wolf shows up--a bee hive. The kid screams for the help, and the men stop their ears--they're sick of him. By the time they finally check him out, he's got more welts than an ornamental gourd.
The men take poor Charley home, where the women roll him in a sheet after packing his whole body in mud; and there he lies, on a bed, in pain, full of stings. "Only the end of his nose showed," Ms. Wilder says. He got a fever too, and for a long time Laura and all the cousins just stood around and watched. Must have been awful for poor Charley.
Pa told the whole story later, about his tomfoolery out in the field, about the bees. And then Pa said, "It served the little liar right."
Whoa, I thought.
Laura ponders the whole incident. "She thought it served Charley right too," Ms. Wilder says.
Honestly, when I read that story, I wondered if I could actually read it to kids today. I hate to sound like Chicken Little here, but Laura Ingalls Wilder sounded completely out of fashion, a crypto-Nazi. The poor pockmarked kid looks like a mummy, has a fever, and the adults and the kids all say the sad suffering child had it coming? How viscious is that?
He was just a kid--what did he know? He'd never been out to the field at harvest before--he didn't know how to behave. Besides, the men didn't tell him what to do either. They just expected him to figure out how to help. He was probably just acting out. He must have wanted their attention. Really, he just wanted their love. No one understood him. Don't you feel sorry for him?
Well, Laura sure as heck doesn't. Neither does her old man. "It served the little liar right," he told her.
Honestly, I had to chuckle. An eye for an eye, a sting for a sting. Justice. What's merciful about poor Charley's welts is he got no more or less than what he utterly deserved, the little liar.
It's so 19th century, isn't it? Today, Laura's old man seems unfeeling, his indictment so un-nuanced.
If I read that story, it might hurt the kids' feelings. It might just upset them to think of those cousins hanging around Charley's bed and blaming him for all those stings. How thoughtless.
Years ago, I remember reading that only a few cultures can create Aristotelian tragedy, stories of monstrous, tragic falls that Aristotle claimed were good for the soul because they cleaned us up. We watch the mighty go down by their own hands, and we can't help but understand that we are no better and no different. Such tragedies purge us by way of pity and fear.
Now Charley's story isn't Antigone or Lear, but I couldn't help think of that theory, something about the cultures capable of producing high and mighty tragedy, cultures that share a broadly understood vision of the differences between good and evil. If you don't believe in human accountability, there can be no tragedy.
"It served the little liar right," Laura's father says.
Still, it feels strange to admit it, to say it.
I think I'll read chapter 11.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 5:05 AM