30 January 2013


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 36

This meeting of the Anti-Grasshopper Club is now in session. Are we all here? . . . Good.

We knew this was coming, didn't we? Laura Ingalls Wilder couldn't have foreshadowed it more darkly if she'd painted them on. This may be the most awful part of the entire readalong--and one of the Top 5 Most Awful "Two or Three" Book Club Moments, up there with scenes straight out of Stephen King. Yet in the midst of that overwhelming misfortune comes this beam of light:

"I don't want to look any more," Mary said, and she went away from the window. Laura did not want to look any more, either, but she could not stop looking.

The hens were funny. The two hens and their gawky pullets were eating grasshoppers with all their might. They were used to stretching their necks out low and running fast after grasshoppers and not catching them. Every time they stretched out now they got a grasshopper right then. They were surprised. They kept stretching out their necks and trying to run in all directions at once.

"Well, we won't have to buy feed for the hens," said Ma. "There's no great loss without some gain."

That's a great passage, coming in the midst of some devastating descriptions of the damage caused by the grasshoppers--which read like that proverbial train wreck you can't drag your eyes away from. If you were looking at your family's farm, the hard labour of many months, and the beautiful prairie beyond being completely destroyed while you were powerless to do anything, no one would blame you for taking in only the huge loss. But the Ingalls can see the hens for the grasshoppers, and that makes all the difference. Ma reminds her family--and the readers--that as long as you can look at the hens and laugh, you will be saved from despair.

Besides, it's nice to think that in the midst of that grasshopper feeding frenzy, some of the invaders are getting eaten, too! But I'm just petty like that.

Chapters 25 to 32

Two meetings ago, Bob recommended that I read a good biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, in order to understand the books better. At this point, I'd rather read a good reference about grasshoppers. What natural purpose do they serve? Does it help nature when they all land in one place to eat everything in sight? I know they were part of an ancient plague, not just a modern one like "global warming," so we can't say we brought it on ourselves with our farming methods . . . or did we? Did any of the Benedictine monasteries with big farms every puzzle out a way to deal with these "locusts"? Are we all feeling friendlier toward pesticides now? Do pesticides even affect grasshoppers?

Several books ago, we also had a bit of an argument about whether or not the Ingalls family were "poor." I didn't find them "poor" in the Big Woods or on the prairie, but I do think they are "poor" now. But for the record, I have some strong theological issues with the idea that one cannot even afford to go to church.

They did not go to Sunday school any more. Carrie could not walk so far and she was too heavy for Ma to carry. Laura and Mary must save their shoes. They could not go to Sunday school barefooted, and if they wore out their shoes they would have no shoes next winter.

So on Sunday they put on their best dresses, but not their shoes or ribbons. Mary and Laura said their bible verses to Ma, and she read to them from the Bible.

It is the Sunday that Ma reads about the plague of the locusts which turns out to be the most grace-rich Sunday for them yet. And it has everything doesn't it? An Old Testament reading that seems fulfilled in the present, the backdrop of suffering, the imagery of a promised land,a cloud that possibly starts out as small as a human hand, and a virtual baptism when the heavens give up some rain. The only thing missing is the priest of this little domestic church.

Speaking of grace, this book has not one but two Christmases! I should have expected it, given the length of the text, but it was as big a surprise for me as it apparently was for the girls. But I do find it a little hard to believe that Christmas sneaked up on them that way . . . and despite all my grinching of late, I think the silence on Santa Claus was deafening. I'm not complaining, however, about what we get instead.

Standing in front of the crowded benches was a tree. Laura decided it must be a tree. She could see its trunk and branches. But she had never before seen such a tree.

Where leaves would be in summer, there were clusters and streamers of thin green paper. Thick among them hung little sacks made of pink mosquito-bar. Laura was almost sure that she could see candy in them. From the branches hung packages wrapped in coloured paper, red packages and pink packages and yellow packages, all tied with coloured string. Silk scarves were draped among them. Red mittens hung by the cord that would go around your neck and keep them from being lost if you were wearing them. A pair of new shoes hung by their heels from a branch. Lavish strings of white popcorn were looped over all this.

Under the tree and leaning against it were all kinds of things. Laura saw a crinkly bright wash-board, a wooden tub, a churn and dasher, a sled made of new boards, a shovel, a long-handled pitchfork.

She saw that Christmas tree once and never forgot a single detail. That's why I thought I'd write it all.

I'm so happy that Pa and Ma were not too proud to accept charity from their neighbours out East. (Was anyone else worried they might be?) Loving one's neighbour is an essential part of church membership, but we tend to forget that its logical flipside is being loved by one's neighbour, too.

But what beats out all that religious and holiday imagery to be my absolute favourite bit of these eight chapters is the story of Charlotte the rag doll. It shares the Christmas/Christian theme of gifts and loving one's (literal) neighbour, but it begins much more ominously . . .

Anna was a little larger than Carrie but she could not understand a word that Laura or Mary said, and they could not understand her. She talked Norwegian. It was no fun to play with her, and in the summertime Mary and Laura ran down to the creek when Mrs. Nelson and Anna came. But now it was cold. They must stay in the warm house and play with Anna. Ma said so.

"Now girls," Ma said, "go get your dolls and play nicely with Anna."

Was that Darth Vader's theme I just heard??? =O

In a nutshell, Charlotte is forcibly abducted, cruelly tortured and very nearly murdered by a miniature Nellie Oleson clone.

I was surprised at how emotional I became reading this episode. Although I hadn't been attached to Charlotte at all, I felt the same sick worry over her that I did over Jack when the creek swept him away in Little House on the Prairie and Laura "knew" she'd never see him again. (Relive the trauma in Meeting 25.) I shared Laura's distress at losing her, even if Laura hadn't been playing with her for a while--and I was very angry at Ma for making Laura give her to Anna Nelson just because the latter was "company" and "kicked and bawled" when Laura tried to take Charlotte back. Laura may not have been a gracious giver here, but Anna was an awful receiver. And what were their mothers thinking?!?!?! (Yes, I know: parents aren't perfect.)

Charlotte's chapter, "The Darkest Hour is Just before Dawn", may turn out to be the one I reread most often in the entire Little House series. 

What are your thoughts on Chapters 25 to 32?

1) What is the moral of the story of Charlotte?
2) Have you ever had to choose between accepting charity and going completely without?
3) Well, how about those grasshoppers???

I realise that #2 is a really personal question, and I don't want anyone going all Anne Hathaway on me (Okay, who gets this?). If you'd rather not answer the questions, you can leave any comment you like. But it was something I asked myself, too . . . and my answer was that I'd take the charity and thank St. Joseph very much.

Image Source: On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder


Sheila said...

1. Um ... that life isn't fair? Certainly the takeaway for me, as an adult, is to remember that kids care just as much about their private property as I do about mine, and to respect that.

2. Yes. We always take it, but I am always so embarrassed about it. Like one time, I needed new shoes, but between how incredibly busy I was (pregnant, full-time job, hour commute each way, and no car on the weekends because my husband had it) and how tight money was, I'd been putting off buying new ones. I didn't really realize how bad my shoes were until the school secretary pulled me aside and gave me a pair of her daughter's old shoes. I was so humiliated, and I didn't even like the style. But I felt I had to wear them to be properly grateful. I wore them for maybe two weeks before finally getting to Wal-Mart to buy some really cheap ballet flats (the ONLY kind of dress shoes I can abide) and retiring the charity shoes.

See if that story doesn't put you off giving anyone a free gift! It isn't meant to ... but yeah, sometimes charity means 1)people think you're poor, and really you're NOT, and even if you are you don't want people to think that of you; and 2) you don't get to choose.

3. Eeeeeeek! I can't imagine what drew those grasshoppers. Is it like a periodic phenomenon on the prairie that nobody knew about before? Or were they attracted by the recently-developed agriculture? I am pretty sure locusts are rare in Europe, but I don't think we get plagues of them here anymore either.

Seriously, that chapter is like a horror movie. And I HATE horror movies.

Bob Wallace said...

I guess you don't have cicadas in the Philippines. I've been through two infestations. It something you ever forgot. And the birds have a field day eating them.

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila -- 1. It's kind of a trick question. I take away a similar moral from this episode, but it's such a good story in its own right that I wonder if everyone gets something different out of it. =)

2. Your shoe story is even better than the one about Charlotte! It doesn't put me off giving someone a gift, if I think they really need it--although the catch is that they might want me to! =P I find it easier to put myself in (Ahem!) your shoes: in that situation, I'd do as you did and wear the shoes for as long as possible before buying my own. I'd rather bear the humiliation myself than give it back to someone who had been so kind. Clumsy charity is still charity.

3. Yes, it does read like a Horror movie. And you know that I love Horror movies. =P

And the catharsis is astonishing for a "children's book." I may have had my misgivings about the house, but I love Pa for the way he rallies at the end of this chapter.

Bob -- Actually, we do have cicadas! And grasshoppers/locusts. I had to look up that information, though. I also have a vague memory of seeing a newspaper photo of a farmer whose fields were being eaten up by locusts, but I don't know if he was a local farmer or from another country. I live too far away from the land. =(