"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 28
This is the last readalong post for Little House on the Prairie, and also the last post of the year for Shredded Cheddar (!!!). After this, we'll be reading Farmer Boy. I hope you're looking forward to it as much as I am! =)
Now a great many Indians came riding along the Indian trail. Indians were everywhere. Their guns echoed in the creek bottoms where they were hunting. No one knew how many Indians were hidden in the prairie which seemed so level but wasn't. Often Laura saw an Indian where one hadn't been an instant before.
Indians often came to the house. Some were friendly, some were surly and cross. All of them wanted food and tobacco, and Ma gave them what they wanted. She was afraid not to . . .
Jack was cross all the time, even with Laura. He was never let off the chain, and all the time he lay and hated the Indians . . .
Ma may be the family's barometer of emotional health, but I think Jack gives us some worthwhile "readings," too. It's a huge red flag, for instance, when he has to be kept chained all the time. And his increasing loss of freedom parallels that of the Ingalls family. There's something very wrong when a good watchdog can't do his job . . . and when the fear of a massacre holds good people hostage to strangers.
So now, as promised, let's discuss the Indians.
We know as early as the first chapter of Little House on the Prairie that Indians will be part of the Ingalls' new life, thanks to Pa's promising Laura that she will get to see a papoose. Laura's longing to have this promise fulfilled is at first very childish--so I did not expect such a rich emotional climax from it as the story delivers.
But this isn't a one-note novel: Laura's innocence is mixed with Ma's ups and downs and Jack's total disgruntlement. (Poor dog!) And it's Ma and Jack who have been my "antennae" throughout this part of the readalong, picking up on things that Laura might not sense yet, such as the growing sense of menace with each encounter between the Ingalls family and an Indian. The story is structured so skillfully that even misfortunes that have nothing to do with the Indians--like the panther and the prairie fire--seem connected to them and add to the feeling of dread.
At one point, Laura points out the political elephant in the room by saying that white settlers getting the best land in Indian territory might just make the Indians a bit upset, but Pa (and her grown up self, who is telling the story) do not let her follow that line of reasoning. On the other hand, in an earlier chapter, their neighbour Mrs. Scott gives a very succint explanation of the settlers' perspective that got me thinking and that I'd like to quote here:
"Land knows, [the Indians would] never do anything with this country themselves. All they do is roam around over it like wild animals. Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to folks that'll farm it. That's only common sense and justice."
We've learned to value nature conservation a lot more since the era of the pioneers, and to take its side against too much development. What Mrs. Scott is referring to, however, are not commercial interests, but domestic matters. It doesn't seem right to have so many millions of acres of good farmland denied to families that could use them to be self-sufficient, whatever the reason. I suspect that Catholic teaching on social justice says so, too. I would also bet, without cracking open an encyclical to check, that this applies not just to unclaimed territory, but to those great swathes of earth annexed by our sinister friend the food industry.
But hands down, my favourite "statement" about the Indians is the chapter in which they ride away. Until it is upon the Ingalls family (and the reader) Wilder gives no hint that something momentous is about to happen, not just in the story, but in US history. And although we take it all in through the limited perspective of a little girl, the little girl is so much bigger than herself at that moment, watching not just for her own sake, but for that of a world that will never see such things again.
. . . Then came a mother riding with a baby with a baby in a basket on each side of her pony.
Laura looked straight into the black eyes of the little baby nearer her . . . Those black eyes looked deep into Laura's eyes and she looked deep down into the blackness of that little baby's eyes, and she wanted that one little baby.
"Pa," she said, "get me that little Indian baby!"
At last, the papoose! But that "exotic" word does not appear once in the chapter. This "little Indian baby" is not just something strange to see and to gawk at; he--or she--is a friend whom Laura never gets to make. There are three times in the novel when Laura thinks she will not see someone or something again: the little house in the Big Woods . . . Jack . . . and the little Indian baby. She has no tears for her first home and swallows her sadness over her beloved brindle bulldog, but she is reduced to sobs by the baby. She is still too young to explain why; and her older self, putting the memory down on paper, chooses to leave it that way. The clear-eyed view and innocent emotions of a small child are enough to make this moment.
But it's not just the Indians who ride away at the end of Little House on the Prairie . . .
Being completely unfamiliar with this series, I was shocked at how soon the Ingalls had to move, too. It seemed as if they just got there! And for someone who worked so hard, and put up with so much, to build a good home for his family, Pa seemed to give up really quickly. (I do see his reasoning, though: I, too, would rather leave on my own than be marched out by soldiers.)
But I remain ambivalent. On the one hand, my "Jack antenna" is adamant that they weren't in the best place they could be; on the other hand, my "Ma antenna" considers the place their rightful home, from which no one has the right to evict them--"treaties or no treaties!" And the mention of the glass panes, so carefully carried forty miles through a storm, still in the windows as they ride away, is just heartbreaking. It's their house, dagnabbit! (When I stop being emotional about it, however, I find a kind of justice--albeit the primitive eye-for-an-eye variety--in this turn of events. Why shouldn't the settlers be evicted as the Indians were?)
The last chapter of the book is very open-ended, and it made me feel sorry that I planned to read Farmer Boy next and not know how the Ingalls end up "on the banks of Plum Creek" for a few more weeks. But a little patience is good for the soul, aye?
What are your thoughts on Chapters 20 to 26?
1. What do you think of the idea that land belongs to those who will farm it?
2. Have you ever crossed paths with a "little Indian baby" of your own?
3. Do you think Pa should have fought harder for his home?
I welcome all your thoughts in the combox! If you want to write your own readalong post and to link it up, that will be fantastic, too!
Image Source: Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder