25 December 2012


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 27

Mary Ingalls' wanting to be clean and neat and ladylike all the time was one thing in Little House in the Big Woods. She takes it to a whole new, frustrating level in Little House on the Prairie. That means that, yes, Shaz, I did want to smack her after I read the following passage. =P

Laura stirred her beads with her finger and watched them sparkle and shine. "These are mine," she said.

Then Mary said, "Carrie can have mine."

Ma waited to hear what Laura would say. Laura didn't want to say anything. She wanted to keep those pretty beads. Her chest felt all hot inside, and she wished with all her might that Mary wouldn't always be such a good little girl. But she couldn't let Mary be better than she was.

So she said, slowly, "Carrie can have mine, too."

"That's my unselfish, good little girls," said Ma.

After the covered wagon, it seems that the second most popular visual motif for this novel is the contrast between the conspicuously blonde Mary and the comfortably brunette Laura. It will be interesting to see how their relationship develops and how it will come to a head (later in the series?) when Laura finds more of her voice around Mary.

The more immediate conflict in this novel is that between the white settlers and the Indians. I've already written some notes down, but since I haven't read further than the Christmas chapter of this book, I will save that big political discussion for the next readalong post.

Chapters 14 to 19

This may surprise you, but my favourite chapter of Little House in the Prairie may just end up being "Fever 'n' Ague"! I'm just fascinated by sick children in literature! ;-P The fact that it's another great "Jack chapter" helps to seal the deal! But its real crowning glory has got to be Ma's rocking-chair.

I'm amused by the line, "[Pa] wasn't able to work, so he could make a rocking-chair for Ma." As if making a rocking-chair isn't work! And perhaps, compared to building a house from scratch and keeping a family warm and fed, it isn't. But like the little china woman--or if you prefer, the ornamental shelf from Little House in the Big Woods--it's big enough to tip the balance.

Then they made a celebration. Ma took off her apron and smoothed her smooth brown hair. She pinned her gold pin in the front of her collar. Mary tied the string of beads around Carrie's neck. Pa and Laura put Mary's pillow on the chair seat, and set Laura's pillow against its back. Over the pillows, Pa spread the quilt from the little bed. Then he took Ma's hand and led her to the chair, and he put Baby Carrie in her arms.

Ma leaned back into the softness. Her thin cheeks flushed and her eyes sparkled with tears, but her smile was beautiful. The chair rocked her gently and she said, "Oh, Charles, I haven't been so comfortable since I don't know when."

It may be, as I pointed out in Meeting 25, that that living through a "worst case scenario" can make formerly difficult conditions suddenly seem like a walk in the park. Or perhaps it was just the more relaxed pace of life during the recovery, when the whole family could just be instead of having to do all the time. Whatever the reason, it was a healing time in more ways than one . . . and the magic of it is perfectly captured in the image of a radiantly happy mother in a rocking-chair.

I'm sure we all love Ma, but what do you think, in general, of the idea that the mother is a family's barometer of comfort and contentment? To me, it seems dangerously close to the implication that "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy." And I'm very familiar with the way that expression can be--and indeed, has been--used to portray women as overgrown children.

While it may be true that some women pin their happiness on countless unreasonable demands (like the fisherman's wife in The Fisherman and the Fish), it is also true that there are certain emotional needs that women have that may seem unreasonable (because they are expressed unreasonably?) but are actually legitimate. Ma isn't the type to complain even when she is sick and almost starving, so of course she would never say anything about how emotionally draining moving to the prairie has been for her. But there's a sense in which she has needed that rocking-chair as much as she has needed quinine. And inasmuch as a family's emotional well-being hinges on the mother, all of them have needed that rocking-chair, too. No wonder they made a family celebration out of it!

Speaking of family celebrations, today is Christmas Day! So let's bring Mr. Edwards into the readalong spotlight, too.

When he saw the creek rising, Mr. Edwards said, he had known that Santa Claus could not get across it. ("But you crossed it," Laura said. "Yes," Mr. Edwards replied, "but Santa Claus is too old and fat. He couldn't make it where a long, lean razor-back like me could do so.") And Mr. Edwards reasoned that if Santa Claus couldn't cross the creek, likely he would come no farther south than Independence. Why should he come forty miles across the prairie only to be turned back? Of course he wouldn't do that!

That's just the beginning of a wonderful story about the time Mr. Edwards "meets" Santa Claus and agrees to act as the latter's agent for the Ingalls girls' Christmas morning. (Had you guessed, when Mr. Edwards made his first appearance, that he would turn out to be so cool?) Of course, there's some of the truth in that: Mr. Edwards is arguably a special agent, and he is acting in service of a special Christmas myth. He's just not putting it in flatly literal terms for the girls just yet, for the same reason he would never point out to them that their rag dolls aren't really precious babies, but lifeless bundles of cloth, yarn and stuffing.

I don't think we moderns are living up to the Santa Claus myth very well. For one thing, we outsource it, hiring actors to dress up in red suits and fake white beards at the mall . . . or in the movies! We've forgotten that this tradition is about playing with children--that we're supposed to make up our own stories, dodging (with adult agility!) their innocent questions until they're old enough to figure out what we're doing. Getting someone else to do it--and for money, yet--is like getting someone else to build your house or to make your cheese, also in exchange for money. Yes, you gain a practical benefit . . . but you also lose something, the full cost of which you may not realise until it's too late.

(Read more about Shredded Cheddar's official stand on Santa Claus in Punk Catholic Thought of the Year!)

What are your thoughts on Chapters 14 to 19?

1. Would you agree that the mother's emotional well-being is the single most important factor in the family's emotional well-being?  
2. What wonderfully outrageous story about Santa Claus did an adult get you to believe when you were young? Was the storyteller clever enough to weave himself into the story, too?

Remember that if you write a readalong post with your own thoughts on these chapters, I'll be happy to link back to you!

Image Source: Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder


geeklady said...

1. I think the emotional state of the mother is a remarkably good barometer for the health of the family life, if only because I've seen to many families destroyed by mothers/wives who are emotionally unhealthy. It's very sad that the stereotype rings so true, but a woman's emotional health in the family s very much a partnership - both husband and wife need to make an effort to support it. For example, when my husband remembered to put an ornament in my stocking this year, I about cried. I've been collecting them my whole life, and I always get one from my mom. But I always end up feeling a little unreasonably hurt when he forgets.

2. I'm the perpetrator of this excuse. I knit new mittens for David's stocking this year, and of course he saw me knitting them. So he asked me why the mittens I made ended up coming in his stocking from Santa and I told him Santa knew how proud he was of mittens that mommy made, and so he commissioned them from me! Four year olds are so wonderful.

Enbrethiliel said...


Hi, Geeklady! =) Thanks for commenting!

I agree about the emotional state of the mother, for the same reasons. I wonder whether there is an equivalent for the husband--something that seems like his personal concern but is also really a partnership between him and his wife.

That's a cute story about the mittens! So now he can be extra proud knowing that even Santa thinks your mittens are amazing! ;-)

geeklady said...

Actually, the husband's equivalent is easy. It's sex. This started a little tongue in cheek, but I think it's maybe a better parallel than I thought. It's not that women don't have sexual needs or men emotional ones, but we have them in different proportions. And it's the interaction of these needs that's the good barometer of a family's health. Each requires a certain abnegation on our own part, and generosity towards our spouse. When one part of this equilibrium gets out of whack (or worse, starts out of whack) it affects the health of the family unit as a whole.

Enbrethiliel said...


Believe it or not, Geeklady, I actually had that in mind, too! But since my own understanding of marriage remains theoretical at this point, I needed a married person to chime in. =) Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

Emily J. said...

I'm not reading along since I read the first 3 last year with my daughter, but wanted to chime in 1. because I love the covers and 2. because the Santa discussion struck a chord: I'm ready to throw Santa out the window. For years we've tried to talk about St. Nicholas and how he's really alive in Heaven while at the same time playing along with the Santa in a red suit story, but it's getting awfully hard to continue the myth with big kids who place "orders" and little kids who wonder why you can take back the shoes that don't fit to the Exchange. Not sure which way we'll go with this in the next year. and 3. I admire Ma for making the best of the situation even though it wasn't what she signed up for perhaps when she married Pa. She's got a really unselfish "no use crying over spilled milk" attitude that seems to go a long way towards keeping harmony in the family.

Enbrethiliel said...


Hi, Emily! It's nice to see you. =)

Playing the Santa game with children is harder and harder these days, isn't it? The wider cultural understanding of Santa is taking over the traditional myth, and the former isn't half the cultural play that the latter was. While I'm an idealist when it comes to Santa, I don't think I'd play Mr. Edwards for what we have today.

Ma does have Pa's back a lot, even when he seems a little insensitive to her needs. I'm thinking of the time the two Indians came to the house when Pa was away and Ma had to bake cornbread for them. When Pa comes back, Ma tells him how terrified she was, and he just tells her that she did the right thing. It's not a very satisfying exchange for this reader, which is the reason I think it wasn't very comforting to Ma.

Sheila said...

I believe the mother is the emotional caretaker of the whole family. It's my job, and I take it very seriously, to keep my finger on the emotional pulse of each person in the family and respond to emotional needs they often didn't know they had. So I have to let my sons have good cries in my arms and figure out what my husband's mood is the moment he walks in the door. I have to assess whether he needs me to pry out of him what's bothering him, or to give him space so he can deal with it on his own.

It's not "hard" work in the usual sense, but it's emotionally draining work. When you give, give, give emotionally all the time, eventually you do come up empty and you just don't have it IN you to give one more thing. It's rare, but I do sometimes get to the point where I just want to quit the empathy job. And yet it always needs doing -- and worst of all, people don't even realize you're doing it and think that maybe you WANT to be touched all the time, or that you're just dying to hear about their day. When I'm feeling good, I do, but when I'm on empty, it's purely work. You can feel the difference; begrudging empathy doesn't go far, and everyone does suffer. The kids get panicky and cling onto me, and my husband gets cranky and huffy and doesn't know why.

So, yeah, if I'm not happy, ain't nobody happy -- and it's because usually I am pouring happiness into everyone else 24/7.

I would disagree with the sex thing. It's a stereotype that men need sex a lot and women don't, and [*whispers*] it's not always true. The main need it seems my husband has to fill is giving us all the feeling of safety. In our case, it's keeping money in the bank; as long as there is money in the bank, we all can sleep at night. If not, we feel insecure, and him most of all because he feels it is his duty. You can see Pa takes all this very seriously too, and this is why Ma doesn't complain -- she knows perfectly well Pa is doing his level best and that without him giving his utmost, they'd all be doing much worse.

As far as the Santa thing goes -- right when I was beginning to doubt Santa, having noticed his handwriting looked just like my mom's, and also that in lean years he got us much fewer presents, we had an experience like this. We weren't expecting any good presents that year because things had been tight, but we both wanted bikes. We were still using "little kid" bikes, and I think we were about 10 and 13 and very much over that. Well, we finished unwrapping presents when my parents said they thought there might be something outside. What do you know, there were two brand new mountain bikes under the carport -- complete with tags in very unfamiliar handwriting, signed Santa. I steadfastly believed in Santa for years after.

I think it may have been our next-door neighbors, who had no kids and more money than my parents, and who were always giving us things. But then again ... maybe it really WAS Santa?

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila, thank you for providing such a detailed context! It's a great explanation of the mother's role as the emotional centre of the family--something else that we moderns, as a culture, seem to have forgotten. (Perhaps that's what I like about the sitcom I just live blogged, Charles in Charge: the Pembroke family has a very definite emotional centre who keeps all their centripetal energies from flying every which way. The twist is that it's not the mother; it's the au pair. =P)

The text is clear that Laura feels absolutely safe as long as either Pa or Jack is around, but I don't get the same sense from Ma. I agree that she sees that Pa is doing the best he can, but with them turning out to be three miles over the settlers' line into Indian Territory, it seems that the family is in more danger than Pa, Jack, and even the army can protect them from. But perhaps I'm being unfair to Pa. You may remember that I was never crazy about this move, and perhaps I'm still annoyed at him for it.

What do you think, though? Were the Ingalls as a unit more insecure in their little house on the prairie than Laura as an individual lets us feel?

Enbrethiliel said...


PS -- That's a great Santa story, too! Thanks for sharing it as well! =D Do you think you'll ever get to ask your old neighbours about that? Or would you rather keep playing along? ;-)

geeklady said...

1. A theoretical knowledge of marriage is perfectly cromulent. It's only idealized images of marriage that cause trouble, because those images ignore the complexities inherent to individuals.

2. I think Laura's feelings of safety around Pa and Jack are just a reflection of her childhood, and are common to childhood. Fear of the real dangers in our environment is the provence of adulthood, and here Laura is still very young.

3. I like Santa as the mythical figure of generosity that he's meant to be... but it's hard to tell this story in the face of the very determined materialism of the culture today. And Santa is for little kids! As kids grow older they first ought to never be lied to about it, and second they ought to be enlisted in the game for the sake of younger children, both their siblings and as an introduction into charity! The only thing more exciting than recieving gifts from Santa is being Santa, after all.. It's a complicated family dynamic, though, this Santa game - David persists in thinking Santa brought him Angry Birds underpants even though he saw me buy them and when I handed him the package I told him it was from Mommy and Daddy. (Four is a fantastic age when even underwear is an exciting present.)

Enbrethiliel said...


1. I looked up "cromulent" and now I'm second guessing my decision not to have Word & Question for January. LOL! Thanks! =)

2) Well, it's Ma and Jack--rather than Laura--who are my antennae in this story. I like the way Wilder lets them be foils to Laura. I wish there were more input from Mary, though.

3) I know what you mean about the culture making it harder and harder; and I also agree that when a child is old enough to ask a direct question, it's time for a straight answer. I also think that it's getting to pass from believing in Santa to playing Santa that makes the transition a beautiful one--but from what I can tell, it doesn't happen very naturally these days, either.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I'm still reading my way backward through your posts, but I'm thinking of jumping back to the beginning and reading the rest of them in proper order.

I've struggled with Santa ever since becoming a mother and that's been very surprising since I've always loved the Santa game and as the oldest in my family was always thrilled to help play Santa for the younger ones. I think a long argument on my blog with several die-hard anti-Santa Catholics helped to make me doubt myself and make me feel shaky. Also, it's possible that some of my ambivalence is because of how much harder it seems to be to separate Santa from the rampant materialism that rather bugs me about Christmas. And I think it's been hard to try to craft our own traditions as a family when Dom and I didn't have the same holiday experiences as children. We always got gifts from Santa at Christmas and gifts from my parents-- and later to each other-- at Epiphany. Dom's family just did Santa at Christmas. And then I really fell in love with Saint Nicholas Day when I had roommates who celebrated it. I loved getting treats in my shoes on Dec 6. Yes, this was when I was in grad school but two of my housemates had grown up together and the one's mother sent presents to the other to put into her shoes and included us all so that we wouldn't be left out. I thought it would be fun to let my kids have that experience but it hasn't been all that easy grafting it on when I didn't grow up with it. As you say, it's much harder to transplant customs than I would have guessed. It's not a seamless whole but a ragged mixed bag. Still, I think I'm the only one who notices the unevenness. The children just accept it as children do. Sophie is starting to question a bit-- interestingly more than Bella. But I'm finding it a strain to answer their questions and not feel like I'm lying and yet it does seem too early to let them into the truth.

Enbrethiliel said...


The anti-Santa die-hards remind me a little of the anti-toys-at-Mass die-hards. (Perhaps other women may be reminded of anti-bottle-feeding die-hards or anti-perambulator "We only attachment parent!" die-hards. In the end, all die-hards tend to look alike.) Now, I don't have a child in that race (Ahem!), but if you had asked me, several years ago, what I thought of parents letting their children play with toys at Mass, I would have said that it seemed disrespectful to me. A purely abstract answer. What changed my mind was a blog post by a father (!) who said that he and his wife did that every time they brought young children to Mass, and that it was their parenting decision to make and no one else's. Now, whenever I see a child playing quietly at Mass, I think, "His parents are parenting." LOL!

Anyway, that is how I feel about Santa Claus. I would love it if this cultural play were taken up by entire communities again; but I recognise that it is an individual parenting decision these days. And so I leave individual parents alone.

I don't have my own children yet, but I'm sure that when I do, I feel the same cognitive dissonance you do. Santa Claus has become part of the commercial machinery that has grown around Christmas; and even when I was a child, most of what I knew about him came from the media and from marketing, rather than from my own family or from the Church. I don't think that that sort of thing is right, but how do we combat it? (Cue the die-hards, who will say that we combat it by not "doing Santa" at all. But to me that's as sad as cutting off our noses to spite our faces.)

I'm going to pop over to your blog, Melanie, as soon as I finish answering your comments here, to read more of your thoughts on Santa. =)

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I dunno. I'm not a die hard about it and have made exceptions myself, but I still feel pretty strongly about toys at Mass as a regular thing. Especially noisy toys that get dropped or banged or that encourage a child to make noises-- such as cars that a child must make vroom noises for as they drive along the back of a pew.

Our family's rule is no toys though occasionally we've gone the road of deciding it was better for a toddler to have a favorite toy that managed to stow away in the car than to snatch it from their hand and have a screaming fit when we're running late for Mass.

I'm trying not to cast judgments on other people's parenting. I can understand making exceptions for some circumstances for certain kids, etc. but I still think it's a good rule of thumb to try to avoid toys. Not only do they foster bad habits for the kids but they can be a distraction for other people in the church.

Sometimes too I think it's not a parenting decision but an abdication of parenting. Parents don't want to be the bad guys, the rule enforcers, so they don't enforce boundaries. I think it can sometimes be the right call to let a kid bring a toy but sometimes it's done without thinking at all. There's just no attempt to decide what is appropriate and what isn't.

As for Santa... For now it's easier to avoid some of the worst of the Santa craze and the general Christmas excesses because our kids don't go to school and don't watch tv. The worst we face are the in-laws who give them too many toys and the strangers at the store who ask them what Santa is going to bring them. But I know it's coming. We can't hide forever.

I almost cringe at the thought of you unearthing my thoughts on Santa. That was a while back and I no longer remember what I said in the heat of the moment. I think I might have mellowed somewhat since those discussions.

Enbrethiliel said...


There have also been many times when I've thought that a certain parenting decision was an abdication of parenting; but it is because of that father's post that I try not to assume that of parents whose circumstances I don't know.

On the other hand, I'm close to a woman who recently pulled her son out of a school where he was struggling with both academics and the bullies, and said she would homeschool him . . . And so far, her idea of homeschooling has consisted of dumping all the books in front of him and telling him "to study" them while she does her own thing around the house. I'm not too critical (Really!), because I've become quite sympathetic to "unschooling" over the past few years, but that was honestly the first story that came to mind after I read the phrase "abdication of parenting."

Anyway, Melanie, I've already read a few of your Santa Claus posts (and skimmed some of the comments to them), and they really don't seem so bad! =) I love your main point about nurturing children's fantasy lives. A healthy imagination is so important; it is what feeds both creativity and empathy. And the only proper nursery for it is young childhood.

Now I'm also testing the idea that these imaginative "plays" are also essential for parents. If the discovery of the truth the Santa Claus "play" is part of growing up for a child, then it is part of letting go for a parent. These are lessons that we all learn one way or another, but these "plays" are tried and tested traditions for channeling the pain of these rites of passage into something beautiful.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Oh I try very hard to reserve judgement of other parents. I know most of us are just doing the best we can. But still, in discussions of parenting principles in the abstract, I think there are very good anti-toy arguments to be made.

I lean rather toward the unschooling end of things myself, but I'm constantly wrangling with the question of whether I'm doing enough. And I think unschooling is much more than just shoving a pile of books at someone. It really takes active engagement and cultivation of interests, it's just that you observe and follow the child's interests, letting them be the motor. But it also involves subtly introducing new ideas and interests through "strewing" the environment with things a child has the freedom to pick up or not. If you think it just means sitting back and letting the kid do all the work, you're probably doing it wrong. In some ways it's harder than buying a prepackaged curriculum.

I do stand by the point about nurturing children's fantasy lives though with my kids I think it might take an atom bomb type cataclysm to disrupt their fantasy. The trick is getting Bella to disengage from fantasy for long enough to finish a math lesson.

The point about the plays being necessary for parents is a very interesting one. I think you are right. And I think when I've heard stories of how disengaging from Santa becomes traumatic for the child it often seems to be linked with parents who are insensitive to the child's needs and are uncomfortable with engaging in fantasy themselves and so do it awkwardly. They fail to enter into the game themselves and resent it as a game or don't understand the fun of it and so the game does become harmful for the parent-child relationship. Therefor you have a damaged rite of passage and resentment from the child.

Enbrethiliel said...


Our thoughts on Unschooling are quite similar. I do agree that active engagement and direction are necessary--and I love your metaphor of a child as the motor!

I think any parent who doesn't take the "approved" route of institutionalised schooling will feel pressured to ask, constantly, whether he or she is doing enough. (Heck, I don't even have children yet and have simply declared my intention to homeschool/unschool, and people are already asking me if I will be able to do enough! The force of all the defensiveness I feel now, I will probably turn on myself, when the day comes.)