Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What Would Laura Ingalls Wilder Do?

I've been listening to Marty Stuart's Badlands: Ballads of the Lakotas, a powerful CD which tells stories of Native Americans and the leaders/governments that have mistreated them. The songs make me think of my own Western romanticisms.

I was one of those girls who read the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. Every one, again and again. I read all of them at least three times, and the ones that I liked best, I read several times a year. Ah, childhood, full of long stretches of time to read and a mom who took me to the library and let me check out books on her card. Let me have a moment of gratitude for parents who bought me books and who only made me put them down to come to dinner and do some household chores. Let me breathe a prayer of thanks for teachers who allowed me to read once I raced through the stupid worksheets that the other students labored over for the whole class period.

I have those pioneer families on the brain as I think about how many things in my house just mystify me. I think of Pa, who seemed to build a cabin big enough for his family in one week-end. I think about how they provided their own food. I think about how they amused themselves, how it would seem grim to modern families, but has a strange appeal to me. I am the woman, after all, whose idea of a great Saturday night is to sit around singing.

A few years ago, my spouse and I were consumed by the PBS series Frontier House. What fun to see these modern people try to live as frontier folks did.

What I found most sobering was the end episode, where we find out whether or not any of the families had prepared enough to survive the winter. They probably wouldn't have. Most of them hadn't stored enough firewood or food. The only couple that might have survived was the newlywed couple, and that was because their house was so small (thus needing less firewood) and they had chosen smaller animals (goats instead of cows) that would have needed less of the precious family food.

We also found out that of all the people who headed west, only 30% of them survived. The rest headed back east--or died. Very sobering, and not at all my vision of the homesteading time period.

The Marty Stuart CD reminds me that Laura Ingalls Wilder's homestead was somebody else's homeland. My husband has remained madly in love with the work of Larry McMurtry, and every so often, we watch Lonesome Dove, one of the best Westerns ever. McMurtry writes extensively about the cowboy west, part of which was also Laura Ingalls Wilder's west, and he reminds us of what a quickly changing landscape it was: "There were so many buffalo--fifty million, by some estimates--that no one could really envision their disappearance, yet it took barely twenty years to eliminate them. Similarly, the cowboys who went north up the plains to the Yellowstone couldn't quite at first imagine that the unfenced purity of the Great Plains would be fenced and cut into ranches in less than half their lifetime" (Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, page 188).

We think we're the only generation dealing with blinding change taking place at a breathtaking pace, but it's been going on a long time. I think of Laura Ingalls Wilder as I stare at my recalcitrant printer: how would Pa fix this? As my ceiling crumbles because of a roof leak (now fixed, but the ceiling crumbles as it dries) or my brand new air conditioner takes 8 hours to cool the house two degrees (also fixed), I think of those pioneer families, so desperate for a chance to own their own land that they braved an incredibly hostile landscape. I also think of all the people out there who, like those homesteading pioneers, are clinging to their house fantasies with fingers that are slipping. I know I'm lucky to have a home that brings woes with it. I remind myself of that fact when I open the letter from my insurance agent, the letter that informs me that yet another insurer has declared bankruptcy and insolvency, and my policy will be rewritten yet again.

Old technology (housing), new technology (the SmartBoard): I understand the impulses that drove those pioneers to put all their belongings in a covered wagon and head west. Of course I won't, because I know the ending of the story. Now, if I could put stuff in a covered wagon, leave my house woes behind along with all my bad habits/choices/personality traits, that would be tempting. But I'd get out west, build my sod house, and realize that I still hadn't evolved to be the person I wanted to be. And my inner 19 year old would worry about all the Native Americans I'd dispossessed with my ill-considered move.

Is this metaphor too time-worn, too threadbare? Hmm. I see several poem possibilities in this post. Let me go play.


Sherry O'Keefe said...

hello kristin,

i found you via melanie's blog. your post about laura enticed me. as soon as i started reading your post, i thought "oh i bet she would like frontier house", and so when you started writing about frontier house, i think i SOL'd (squealed out loud). i loved that series (and it was filmed near where i live). i always thought i could do frontier house as long as i could bring lotion and exedrin with me. i'm interested in the cd you mentioned at the start of your post. have you ever read "hanta yo"?

all this to share with you how much i enjoyed this post,

sherry o'keefe

Jeannine said...

Even today people (like me) are tempted to the West Coast from the East Coast and midwest, its promises of sunshine, jobs, and new terrain, oceans and mountains. The problem is, we don't consider the downsides: screwed-up governnments, sky high costs of living and inordinately cruel rents - forget owning out here - high taxes, crime and overcrowded hospitals. My great-great grandmother did move out west with just a dream and became the town's postmistress, as she was the only citizen who could read, and defended her homestead as a widow with two kids with a shotgun. Good times. Her kids moved back to the midwest.
Anyway, I have a love/hate relationship with the myths of Go West Young Man. I wrote a poem about it the LA Review called "The Robot Scientist's Daughter Journeys West." As someone who has lived all over the country, it's true that every place has its own beauty, its own problems.

Kristin said...

Sherry, I haven't read the book you mentioned. I'm glad you stopped by and commented.

Jeannine, I wrestle with that temptation to move west on at least a weekly basis. The high cost of living scares me, and I know that once I got to the Seattle area, though some things might change for the better, some things would be worse (like the fact that I have property in the South Florida area that I expect to not be able to sell for many years). Thanks for your insight.

who? said...

I turned 60 this year and I figure I have about fifteen years before becoming part of the fossil record.

I've adopted the philosophy of "What would Laura Ingalls do?" in life. Example: my Mother In Law gave me a bread maker when I started making sourdough bread. I gave it back and told her that Laura Ingalls would not have had a place to plug it in.