Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Hairball of the week

Again, courtesy of Ed. Thanks again, Ed. What would I do without your keen bullshit meter?

Here, courtesy of MSNBC, one of the finer news websites out there (ahem) we have news of a "Little House" makeover.

I realize many of you may not have read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. With their depiction of frontier life, hatred of Native Americans, and religious leanings, these books are both dated and often painfully politically incorrect. They are, however, collectively one of the finest documents of frontier life available.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in a Wisconsin log cabin in 1867. The ten Little House Books take the reader from Laura's childhood to her marriage, at age eighteen, to Almanzo James Wilder. As Laura grew, her family moved "westward," gradually working their way from Wisconsin to the then-open prairies of North Dakota. The hated Indians are never far from the narrative, particularly in "By the Shores of Silver Lake," which documents Native American/Caucasian clashes and the Native Americans' forced departure.

The only way to read these books today is by understanding them in the context of their era; when Ingalls began writing her books in the early twentieth century, Native Americans, African Americans, and Asians were all openly reviled. Wilder never mentioned Jews; I doubt she encountered many settling the Dakota prairies. To read her is not so much to excuse her as to understand that tolerance had little precedent in her lifetime. It's rather like putting up with Hemingway's misogny and Anti-Semitism. And one is amply rewarded: Ingalls tells us what early settlers ate, wore, where they slept, how they survived. The Ingalls family and their neighbors possessed an innate toughness most of us can only marvel at. How many of us can build our own homes, sew our own clothing, build our beds, sew sheets, quilt, and butcher animals? How about farming and then living all winter off the harvest? Surviving Malaria? Even worse was the illness Laura called Scarlet Fever, more likely Meningitis, that blinded older sister Mary, then a teenager. Interestingly, Laura, who like her father Charles did not fall ill, was the only child of the four Ingalls daughters to bear a child herself. I've always wondered about that "Scarlet Fever," and whether it left younger sisters Grace and Carrie sterile.

Incidentally, Laura was an excellent food writer. Both daily meals and celebratory feasts are described in loving detail, from the crop-destroying starlings Pa shot to the Christmas jackrabbit. While living on Plum Creek, the family existed on fish caught in a wooden trap set beneath a waterfall. One fishing trip to Lake Pepin brought back fish the size of six-year-old Laura. Praire Chicken--now nearly extinct--was common fare, as were bears, rabbits, hare, and all manner of fowl. Read Little House in the Big Woods and you'll know how to churn butter and make hoop cheese. Yeast was a rarity, meaning sourdough bread was the norm. Milk depended on owning a milch cow, not always available, and oranges were such a luxury Laura recalled them sixty years later. White sugar was strictly for company; candy holiday fare.

All of this packaged in a readable, friendly format, charmingly illustrated by Garth Williams. Only now....well...

"Girls might feel the Garth Williams art is too old-fashioned," says Tara Weikum, Executive Editor for the 'Little House' series...(The new tag line: "Little House, Big Adventure.")"

Two little girls, ages nine and ten, agree that "real pictures" are better. After all, says ten-year-old Rachel Ross: "I like seeing real people better than drawings...Drawings look sort of fake."

Here is Laura, writing about sewing Mary's best dress for college. After years of scrimping--fifteen-year-old Laura spent a summer sewing men's shirts, earning nine dollars--the Ingalls family has saved enough to send Mary to Vinton, Iowa, to attend college for the blind. Laura's nine dollars purchases dress fabric of brown cashmere. Tremendous care is taken with this garment, which Mary will never see herself wearing. Laura hand-sews whalebone stays into the bodice; Ma trims the skirt with shirred plaid. Machine-made lace (Laura notes it is not handmade) cascades from the collar. The skirt is made to accomodate hoops, lest they return to fashion; the dress sleeves are snug, as is the bodice, covering as it does Mary's corset.

"Mary was beautful in that beautiful dress. Her hair was silkier and more golden than the golden silk threads in the plaid. Her blind eyes were bluer than the blue in it. Her cheeks were pink, and her figure was so stylish." (96)

Envisioning some designer copying this garment, then sticking some model into it for the updated photo shot, then--I bet this happens--trying to market the entire outfit simply sickens. Isaac Mizrahi for Target, anyone? Meanwhile, the Garth Williams illustration of Mary in her best dress is lovely, and heartbreaking, for blindness in the 1890's meant a severely circumscribed life. This, for a girl who told Laura "I am planning to write a book someday," (These Happy Golden Years, 136)

Returning to Ms. Weikum's comments, we may note that Little House IS old-fashioned. That's the point, to show how people lived without Game Boys, Shock Radio, cell phones, and all the other garbage we think we need to survive. Almanzo courted Laura by taking her on buggy rides. They also attended singing school together. "Literaries" were popular: the entire town gathered in the schoolhouse on Friday evenings for spelling bees, musical performances, and debates. Unimaginably innocent pastimes.

As for real pictures, little Rachel, there's this thing at the top of your spinal cord. It's called a brain. It houses (I hope) imaginative capacity, which separates you from lower life forms like George Bush. You, Rachel, can use your imagination to picture Mary's dress. All by in your own head.

Imagine that.

Five hairballs. On white carpet.


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