My childhood friend, Laura Ingalls

August 29, 2010 at 12:34 am (Family, Parenthood, WJ) (, , )

laura ingalls

In an effort to spare Willa from sharing her sibling’s frustrations in navigating through their third year with little spoken language, I’m on a campaign to jabber incessantly to Willa from birth. I have no proof this will help, but it can’t hurt.  Seems like the worst thing that could happen is creating a non-stop chatterbug with a big vocab.  Not having had one, I find those kids unbearably cute.  Words spoken in conversation seem more likely to hardwire the brain’s language synapses (though I have done no actual research on about how people learn to speak).  But again in the philosophy of “the more, the better”, and since I like to do it, I’ve been reading to Willa while she nurses to sleep.

All four other family members have separately walked in on the two of us, cuddling and reading, and expressed wonder about who I’m reading to.  The answer seemed obvious to me. I know I’m far from the first person to come up with this idea.

I decided to start with the Little House books, since they have simple language, good for my purpose. And I had wanted to check out their suitability for read-alouds to the older kids.  Laura Ingalls and I have a long history. They were the first chapter books I read myself, and pretty much the beginning of my life as a bookworm.  My parents listened when I suggested “Laura” as the name for my baby sister, so that shows the degree we enjoyed her books!  I have a distinct memory of wanting to know what happened next with Laura, but also wanting to participate in recess activities with my classmates. I solved the problem by turning jump rope while reading.  Talk about nerdy!  Picture me with my oversized brown plastic-framed glasses and my straight bangs with a perm in back, and you’ll get the full nerdy effect.  This is still kinda how I interact socially in large groups.  I want to watch and feel involved without actually talking.

Growing up I read the whole series Little House series every year or two when I’d run out of other material.  My copies are dog-eared and pages are falling out.  These days I’ve been known to start a book, only to discover a chapter into it that hmmm, I think I’ve read this before.  Unlike now, every passage of this series is comfortingly familiar.  But I last visited the Big Woods over a decade ago.  I hadn’t quite realized how many of the themes I now disagree with, or how profoundly some of these negative themes had been ingrained into my thought processes and affected my life.

In the first few chapters, different characters get a good thrashing, their jackets tanned, and a spanking.  [Is there a difference?- I don’t want to know.]  It’s hard to argue that physical punishment wasn’t effective in keeping children “in their place”- safe, helpful, and undisruptive to adults.  It’s not the method most parents I know use today, though, and makes me cringe. 

On the other hand, from a mother’s perspective I am a bit envious of how nicely behaved Laura and Mary seem.  One day, they have been traveling by covered wagon all day (no DVD player, folks!) and Laura (understandably) says “I want to camp now!  I’m so tired.”  All Ma has to do is say “Laura” and the whining stops.  I can tell you, I wish I had that power over my kids.  “She did not complain any more out loud, but she was still naughty, inside.  She sat and thought complaints to herself.”  My whole family would be better off if we complained only to ourselves, I think!

I had a therapist ask me once if I was Catholic, because I have that famous Catholic sense of guilt.  No, I’m not.  But I can still find a way to find guilty about just about any action.  I honestly think my natural proclivity to guilt was enhanced by adopting Laura’s guiltiness, after reading her so often.    Poor Laura is chided for being greedy after she spends a happy day collecting so many pebbles by a river that she rips her pockets.  Today most parents would be carrying the pebbles for the child.  She spends the ride home feeling shame at not being “good and sweet” like her sister Mary.  Laura is a fun-loving wild girl, the one I’d choose to play with.  But she spends a good deal of her life feeling guilty for who she is- her very nature.  She wishes she was different- less “naughty”, not brown-haired, more ladylike.  She is a human case of nature vs. nurture- a constant internal struggle between her innate tomboy nature and her upbringing by a strict schoolmarm.  A child like Laura today would have adults worried about her low self-esteem.  I recall wanting to slap good little Mary myself, reading as a kid.  Now I just want to give Laura a hug.  Motherhood gives a different perspective.

I have no problem modifying younger children’s books as I see fit.  I usually read Mommy as Mama, for instance, because that’s what I like them to call me.  And I often read only the first sentence on a page with more, if it’s more consistent with the child’s attention span- or my tiredness level!  But “chapter books” seem sacred.  Can I really just edit them as I see fit?  First of all, my boys are getting close to literate enough to notice.  Certainly if I skip a whole passage.  But it’s more than that.  It’s not my writing.  To edit is to tamper with the author’s intent.  If I omit reading the admonishment that it’s shameful to cry, is that akin to putting underwear on David?  Some ideas present themselves as good opportunities for historical discussion.  Why Ma says she hates the Indians, for instance.  The Little House books have more ideas that need further explanation than I remembered.

When I began re-reading them, I thought I might forego reading them aloud.  After settling in, I know I won’t.  They contain more good than bad.  Throughout the extreme hardship of pioneer life, she conveys a simple contented happiness that I still long for.  They work hard, then play the fiddle.  They love each other.  And, if I ever need to make a door solely out of oak and leather, I’m set.

I can’t resist quoting this to end:

“They were all happy that night.  The fire on the hearth was pleasant, for on the High Prairie even the summer nights were cool.  The red-checked cloth was on the table, the little china woman glimmered on the mantel-shelf, and the new floor was golden in the flickering firelight.  Outside, the night was large and full of stars.  Pa sat for a long time in the doorway and played his fiddle and sang to Ma and Mary and Laura in the house and to the starry night outside.”

Now who can resist spending a moment putting oneself in that idyllic space?  Even if washing clothes in a tub and butchering a hog isn’t your cup of tea.  And now, back to Memphis Beat



  1. Kelly said,

    Wow! I just finished reading “Big Woods” yesterday, as I was trying to determine if it would be a good read-aloud for Naomi. What perfect time for hearing your thoughts and reflections. Thanks!

  2. Kizz said,

    My mom read me the whole series. When she finished I begged her to read them again. She replied, “Why don’t you read them to me this time?” So I did. I keep meaning to get my copies back from her. I must have read from The Long Hard Winter through The First Four Years about 20 times. I could practically recite the bits about Almanzo rescuing Laura from the awful teaching job.

  3. Jenn @ Juggling Life said,

    I’ve read all the books in the series to my kids. They’re amazing.

    For baby reading though? I just read whatever I was reading out loud–I figured they didn’t know what the words meant and they just loved the sound of my voice.

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