19 December 2012


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 26

Once more, Shaz joins the readalong with her first post on Little House on the Prairie. Check it out at Scattershot and collect another clue about the Top Secret December Theme!

Something she brings up is a bit of that resistance to the big move which I mentioned last week. Unlike me, however, she hit the bull's eye: the character with the real mixed feelings about life on the prairie isn't Laura, but Ma.

"Dear me, Laura, must you yell like an Indian? I declare," Ma said, "if you girls aren't getting to look like Indians! Can I never teach you to keep your sunbonnets on?"

Pa . . . looked down at them and laughed.

"One little Indian, two little Indians, three little Indians," he sang softly. "No, only two."

"You make three," Mary said to him. "You're brown, too."

"But you aren't little, Pa," said Laura. "Pa, when are we going to see a papoose?"

"Goodness!" Ma exclaimed. "What do you want to see an Indian baby for? Put on your sunbonnet now and forget such nonsense."

The Ingalls may spend less than a quarter of the novel in their covered wagon, but that image is clearly a favourite with cover designers. =P And we can say that covered wagons bore the American spirit not just across a continent, but through many years of history, making possible innumerable little houses on a seemingly endless prairie.

Chapters 8 to 14

It was lovely to read about the construction of the rest of the house: the doors, the fireplace, the roof, the floor . . . And isn't it ironic that it is after Ma no longer has to cook as "Indians do," that she finds herself cooking for Indians?

Now may I confess that I had a really hard time not doing a feminist reading of this? The main thing that stopped me was the thought that that would be the lazy thing to do. =P But aside from that, I truly don't think Ma is "oppressed" by Pa. I can't even imagine her saying, in modern slang, that a life in "Indian country" was not what she signed up for when she married him. For one thing, it is what she signed up for. As Shaz put it in her own combox: "Why else would she marry a fiddlin' fool with unruly hair?" LOL! Ma is clearly not crazy about the way things worked out, but she loves Pa.

Nor can I say that Pa doesn't care about Ma--not when he goes to all that trouble to build her a decent house. Remember that he does not just do most of the work himself, but also trades work with the neighbours, meaning that everything they help him with, he has to help them with, too. And that's a lot of work! There are few things he wouldn't do to keep Ma (and the girls) safe and comfortable. So it misses the point by a mile to say that if Pa really loved Ma, he never would have left the Big Woods in the first place.

There is a separation--perhaps even a compartmentalisation--of roles in the Ingalls' marriage that they just take for granted and don't at all find unfair. Part of Pa's role is to keep his family housed and fed, and although we may not like the way he does it, there is no doubt that he does it really well.

But there's another aspect to Ma's character that I'd like to look at, too.

As soon as it was done, Ma set in the middle of the mantel-shelf the little china woman she had brought from the Big Woods. The little china woman had come all the way and had not been broken. She stood on the mantel-shelf with her little china shoes and her wide china skirts and her tight china bodice and her pink cheeks and blue eyes and golden hair all made of china.

Then Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura stood and admired that fireplace . . .

Like the log cabin I featured in Meeting 25, the above china shepherdess is a replica of the one Ma had. You can read more about it at the link on the bottom of this page.

Ma is such a strong, dependable, no-nonsense character that it feels strange to compare her to such a delicate figurine. And unlike Ma, the little china woman is useless on the prairie. But remember that Ma wanted her along, anyway, just like the manners that she insists her daughters keep practicing. Pa's fireplace is wonderful and necessary, but it is not enough to make a home feel like home without Ma's special touch of grace on the mantel-shelf.

Then there's Jack again. Let me make this an official Ethical Animals post now by adding one of my badges . . .

Poor Jack lay down. It was a disgrace to be chained, and he felt it deeply. He turned his head from Pa and would not watch him going away with the gun on his shoulder . . .

Laura tried to comfort Jack, but he would not be comforted. The more he thought about the chain, the worse he felt. Laura tried to cheer him up to frisk and play, but he only grew more sullen.

The scene in which he is chained up is such an adorable part of the story that I'm a bit sorry that most of it is Laura's projecting of her own emotions onto Jack, and not necessarily a true reflection of Jack's, um, inner life. It makes me wonder what Cesar Milan would say. =P

I remember reading somewhere that when we anthropomorphise our pets too much, we end up confusing them. For instance, if you are teaching your dog that what he has done is wrong and he hangs his head and leaves your presence, it would be a mistake to assume that his feelings have been hurt and that he wants to be comforted. What he is doing is showing you--with his canine body language--that he understands your command and that he respects you enough to take it like a dog. So to follow him out and try to reassure him that you still love him would be mixing the poor thing up.

What are your thoughts on Chapters 8 to 13?

1. What "useless" ornament can make any place you live in feel like home?
2. When all is said and done, do you think the decision to live on the prairie was unfair to Ma?

I'd add more questions, but I'd really like to get this post up yesterday. =P UPDATE: I was obviously able to come up with another question. I apologise for my haphazard way of posting.

Please feel free to pick up the discussion in the combox or on your own blog. If you link up to me, I'll definitely return the favour and link up to you!

UPDATE: In the meantime, read Shaz's post READ-ALONG: Little House on the Prairie (Part Two) on her blog!

Image Sources: a) Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, b) Replica of Ma's little china woman


Shaz said...

I've posted my thoughts . . . and for once I've do so in a timely fashion!

I think Ma would be amused by modern feminism. She was very much one to let the man wear the pants ... but when it came right down to it, she was the power in that household. For all her "Whatever you say Charles", when she made up her mind, she would not be moved. (I'm thinking of a scene in The Long Winter which you haven't included in your read-along ... yet.)

Yes, Laura did project a lot of human emotions onto Jack. While I'm sure he did not enjoy being chained, I doubt if he felt shame.

Sheila said...

To #2, I would say not, for two reasons. First off, she wasn't from the Big Woods either. She grew up a "town girl" herself, apparently, and must have been expecting this sort of thing when she married Pa. And second off, staying in the Big Woods wasn't really an option. Pa's main moneymaking career at that time was hunting -- in addition to feeding his family, he sold the furs for everything else they needed. With the Big Woods getting so overpopulated, there was no living for Pa there anymore. I think there may have been a bit of regret for all of them. Pa (and later Laura) has the personality to love it anyway, but they might never have left if they could have stayed.

For #1, I used to have a crucifix that I immediately hung on the wall in any dorm room or apartment where I lived. It was a way to make every spot feel like home even though I moved around a lot. Not sure where that little cross is; we have a great big one now that we got for our wedding which does the same job, I guess.

That china shepherdess appears in every book of the series! No place is home without it.

Enbrethiliel said...


Shaz -- Thanks! I'll check it out now. =) And I'm afraid I can't promise anything about The Long Winter. =P

Sheila -- You're right about Pa's hunting, and I think I would have seen it sooner if I had known how to read between the lines better. The very first paragraphs say that Pa didn't "like" to stay in a place that is getting too populated--that he "likes" areas where the animals are not afraid. And I interpreted that to mean Pa wanting to move the family rather than needing to move the family.

That's an interesting fact about the little china woman! I'll keep my eyes open for her in the next three books. =)

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I love the china shepherdess but have always suspected that if I met her in person I might think her a bit ugly. I had a couple of china figures as a girl that I always associated with her and loved for that reason.

I can't think of any object that has stayed with me through all my moves except a few of my books. (Actually my Little House books are among the collection I've kept since my childhood so I guess they sort of are home along with Narnia, Tolkien, The Little Princess, The Secret Garden, Hans Christian Andersen, The Brothers Grimm, Sherlock Holmes, Little Women/Good Wives/Little Men, L'Engle's Space trilogy...) I rather admire Ma for her steadfastness toward the little china shepherdess. I feel fickle in comparison.

Enbrethiliel said...


There is a ceramic figure of the Holy Family that I have had for years but probably do not treasure as much as Ma treasured the china shepherdess. I do feel a bit careless in comparison, when I think of what I put the figure through . . .

When I was making plans to move back from New Zealand, for instance, I could have packed the figure carefully in my luggage, wrapped in a soft sweater, etc. But instead, I put it in one of the big boxes of books I shipped to myself, with hardly any padding around it. The box had a rough trip and St. Joseph ended up getting decapitated! =( I was able to superglue his head back on, and the damage doesn't show at all, but Ma still totally outclasses me in her care for meaningful possessions.

On the other hand, like you, I'm very diligent when it comes to caring for my books, and I think I'd be able to pass on my entire library of classic children's literature and modern Young Adult novels to any children I have! =D Not that the books are beautifully bound or anything; I have economy, rather than heritage, on my mind when I shop for myself. LOL! But ever since I read (in guess which Madeleine L'Engle novel!) that the characters were happy their grandfather had saved the children's books their mother had had since childhood, because it made reading the same stories extra meaningful, I've had that tradition as my ideal.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I remember that scene in L'Engle. What book lover wouldn't? But I think it maybe sets an unrealistic goal. At least for us.

Bella and I are reading my Little House books but they are old and fragile and their cheap glued bindings are not holding up well. I doubt they will last through her much less through all the kids. Many of my most treasured books are definitely in need of TLC and she is not a careful child. So much for the romantic vision.

I'll be lucky if many of our books purchased new for us make it through five kids. I can't help but think they just don't make books like they used to.

Enbrethiliel said...


They really don't make books the way they used to, Melanie! I'm always impressed when I see some "battered" books from the 1950s and 1960s, which have held up really well despite all the rough handling. This is not true for their "pulp" novels, of course--but I think a lot of modern books are closer in quality to the pulp novels than to the "high-quality" children's books they're supposedly cousins to.

I wonder if the planned obsolescence that has characterised the design and manufacturing of modern electronics has leached into modern publishing as well. One pet peeve of many book collectors is the practice of reissuing best-selling books with new cover designs before the entire series has had a chance to come out with the old covers. If you bought the first books in the series early and like having covers that match, this practice really messes up your shelves!