I've been reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books to my two older girls lately.
The series was a favorite of mine growing up. "Little House in the Big Woods" was the first chapter book I struggled to read. It was winter and I had just turned five. It took a week or two for me to conquer that book, sitting curled up on the furnace register with an afghan, determined to decipher the words on the page so I could absorb the story without anyone needing to read it to me. It was the first time I looked at words and began using them to form pictures in my head so I could "see" what was happening. By the time I completed "Little House in the Big Woods", I had learned to read. By the end of "Little House in the Prairie", I could speed read and devoured everything I could get my hands on.
(This, by the way, had it's dangers. I'm already on a campaign to keep the girls from reading to themselves until they're eight or nine. Safer for them that way.)
Because I read the Little House series so many times early on in my life and at the beginning of my discovery of books, I thought I had a pretty good memory of how they went.
It came as a complete surprise to discover how totally different they are to me now. Instead of identifying as much with the little girl whose memories are the focus of the books, I see things much more from her parents' perspectives.
When I was little I'm not sure I had the understanding to recognize how remarkable Charles and Caroline were. They were extraordinary (and in Pa's case, I can't help but think extraordinarily reckless) people. They had the guts to drive off into empty prairie with three little girls and start building a home on terms it's hard to even imagine. The prairie was enemy territory on a variety of levels, under the control of semi-hostile Indian tribes and filled with unpredictable dangers like blizzards and fires and snakes they'd never seen before. There were no towns, no stores, no roads, nothing but wild grassland. Pa drove out into the middle of this empty country without a map, a road or official permission, dropped his wife and three small children onto a decent-seeming patch of ground, and started hauling trees from the creek bottom to build a homestead.
Sitting in our nice comfortable house, I can barely comprehend how they had the knowledge and courage to do this. They seemed to know how to DO everything, from building houses to animal husbandry to making cheese. Laura recounts casually how there was a lot of milk coming in one summer while they were still in Wisconsin and Pa and Ma decided it was time to make cheese, so they got a piece of a calf's stomach from Pa's brother and Ma went through a complicated cheesemaking process using a woodstove to heat the milk to the right temperature and their pantry and muslin cloths to age it properly.
How did she do that while washing the laundry by hauling water, keeping track of three children, cooking on open fire and tending a full kitchen garden? The accomplishment was spectacular.
My respect for Ma in particular has at least quadrupled. She not only quietly tended to all these household tasks, but when her husband announced in March (March?! There was snow on the ground!) that he had just sold their nice warm little cabin and they would be heading out into Indian Territory in a few days, her comment was, "Must we leave while it's still so cold?"
When he said, "Yes, because we need the Mississippi to be frozen when we cross," she packed up their home and left without a single complaint that Laura remembered.
At one point, they nearly capsized the wagon and drowned in a flooded creek trying to ford it while it was too high. Ma and Pa worked together to get the wagon across while keeping their small children and the horses from panicking. They almost died a sudden terrifying death. And Ma's comment when they get safely to the bank?
To be that steady and reliable of a wife...!
The series is sometimes noted for Laura's headstrong feminist tendencies later in life (she pointedly refused to vow to obey her husband during their wedding because "I could never obey a man against my better judgement"), but her mother - arguably the hero of the story even though it's usually Pa who takes front and center - is an awe-inspiring example of a wife doing what she was made to do. If Pa was the head of their home - and he unquestionably was - Ma was the backbone. She believed in her husband. She followed him. She did whatever it took to work with him and make their life succeed. She did not complain. She did not seem to get discouraged. She lost children, cheerfully worked harder than I can imagine, endured fear, uncertainty, hardship, sickness and poverty because of her husbands' choices...and she still loved him and joined into his plans with a devotion often mocked today by women who can't keep their marriage vows longer than a few years. It's amazing to read. It's striking to see how her daughter both respected and rebelled against her mother's example.
I didn't expect to be learning new lessons from the Little House books when I opened them up to begin reading to Abigail and Susannah. What I'm taking away is how far I still have to go to be a truly good wife. It's going to be a lifetime project. My husband is also a pioneer, if in a different (and better) way than Charles Ingalls. I hope to someday measure up to being a wife of Caroline's caliber.
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Wife of Benjamin and mother to two wonderful little girls who are getting bigger every day. Enjoys writing down thoughts and discussions we are having within the family and sharing them with whoever is interested in reading.
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