A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s enduringly beloved “Little House” books (biofiction of the prairie as they might be called in today’s terminology) have spawned an industry’s worth of secondary writing. Scholarly and biographical books, spin-offs, children’s watered-down versions, the lot; and this is without mentioning the tours of the Ingalls and Wilder homes and all the attendant merchandise and recreational hijinks. Now, out of this assorted welter of tributes, comes a novel that is singularly fine in its own right. Historical novelist Sarah Miller retells the story of Little House on the Prairie from the viewpoint of “Ma,” Caroline Ingalls. That might sound like just a typical, fan fic twist on any classic story, but with her imaginative feeling for the past, and sensitive, even exquisite prose, Miller’s novel is not just another covered wagon coda.
Tales of the American West have always held a captivating lure, the “Little House” books as much as any: Wilder herself once said that she had seen the development of the West in her own lifetime, and it is a compelling story. Perhaps even more compelling because her rather flat, quietly descriptive prose was cannily shaped and enlivened by her sharp editor/author daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Their combined and contrasting labors together made magic out of the family’s hardscrabble prairie past. With a “you are there” intensity the reader is taken back into pioneer days, when people had to contrive an existence out of very little. There’s a kinetic appeal to this, making the reader wonder how he would have fared in such circumstances; and a charm in seeing pioneer life through the eyes of the growing Laura, a natural little girl who took the tough life conditions for granted and had great curiosity for everything around her and how it worked.
The grown-up Laura, who wrote about her childhood experiences when in her sixties, conveyed the dangers and the difficulties, while also observing the still wild beauty of nature around her (“Laura loved the beautiful world”). We observe her family, as she did, through all sorts of trials, and the sometimes very challenging events of her maturation, as when she was sent to a remote community to teach school at age fifteen. Throughout, she depicts her much-loved family as rather silent types. To be sure, she observed that her father’s French-Canadian blood showed in his gaiety and joie de vivre, but her mother in particular seemed repressed, restrained, given to few words. It was certainly not the caring, tender Charles who repressed his Caroline, however; he plainly thought the world of her and respected her opinion. But the wife and mother of the 1870s seemed to live by the rule, once mentioned by Laura, that “grown-up people must never let emotion be shown in voice or manner.” She was proper to a fantastic degree, considering that she lived for many months in a wooden wagon lacking all modern conveniences, yet strove to keep herself and her daughters always in clean, ironed sunbonnets. She worried about their education, longed to be “settled,” and had an unholy terror of Indians (which makes uneasy reading today). Yet still she submitted to her husband’s every wish. When he wanted to take her and their two little daughters (and Caroline was then pregnant again) away from their cozy home among family in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, and go adventuring out onto the prairies in Indian Territory, Caroline made no demur, but obeyed his decision. She was a pious Christian woman, after all, and the implication was that her husband was her master to obey. (It is telling that in These Happy Golden Years, the final book in the series, when Laura marries Almanzo Wilder, her one request is that the word “obey” not be used in the marriage ceremony.)
There is much of a psychological nature that is seen but not spelled out in the Little House books, and this is Sarah Miller’s own pioneer territory. She does no less than to imagine, with great keenness and intuition, what went on in the head of Caroline Ingalls, and what she endured uncomplainingly in her daily life, as she followed Charles Ingalls to the then-ends of the world, and back. Those familiar with the iconic Little House on the Prairie (though even those who have never read it can enjoy this novel as an unsparing look at pioneer life) are aware of what happens: the family embarks on its arduous, dangerous journey, with pregnant Caroline being flung around on bumpy wagon ruts, with only one precious box containing pictures and mementos of her past life. They ford rivers, cross a lake just before the ice breaks up for the winter, get stuck in a rainy swamp (where it’s impossible to cook even their rude meals of corn dodgers), encounter Indians and wildfires; and much more. When Charles chooses a spot on the bare prairie as their homestead, Caroline helps him raise the house, though injured by a log falling on her ankle; later, she gives birth aided by a neighbor woman, her modesty causing as much agony as the birth pains. Physical matters left out of the Little House books, such as chamber pots and details of illness, are seen in this adult novel, as well as the warm intimacies between Caroline and Charles, cautiously caught at moments while their children sleep.
Reaching Kansas, with its wide skies, Caroline thinks about her husband:
“Charles was already a fine man, and this land could only change him for the better. Almost against her will, that thought rippled into another: Could he change so fully that she would no longer recognize him? No, she assured herself, that was not possible. This place would not alter him, but give him room to fully unfold himself. Suddenly it dazzled her to imagine how much more of a husband and father he might become, now that he would not always be butting up against the edges of his world…”
And the Little House gives us a few tender bedroom scenes, even without a bedroom:
“He did not use his hands, but the cadence of his movements became so fluid and familiar, Caroline could not escape the notion that he was enacting a melody upon her. With her eyes closed she could picture the matching strokes of the bow across the strings. Charles moved to the same smooth pattern until her every nerve was honed to its brightest, keenest edge, the rhythm building until at the last her body trembled in a final vibrato. When he had caught his breath Charles whispered, ‘None knew thee but to love thee, thou dear one of my heart.’ The chorus of ‘Daisy Deane.’ She had not imagined it, then. The music had been in his mind and in his flesh.”
In a similar way, the author has made knowing music for us here, out of the raw materials that were so evocatively wielded by Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, a long time ago.
William Morrow. 2017. ISBN: 978-0062685346. 384pp.
(also available in paperback and as an ebook)