Saturday, November 10, 2012

A (Late) Pick of the Week

It was another strange and dire week of weather as a Nor'easter blew through the five boroughs, dumping snow on an already beleaguered landscape. You know who else knew from extreme weather? The Ingalls family. 

Of all the seven books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, I have two favorites (I can't speak for Ada; I just know that's she's read the entire series three times):

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE (this is the original cover), and 

ON THE BANKS OF PLUM CREEK (another original cover here).
It's a testament to the incredible vividness of Wilder's writing that when I first read these books aloud to Ada about four years ago, I remembered certain passages almost scene for scene from when I'd read them to myself as a child. Oddly, two of them have to do with the weather. 

The first is the passage in LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE in which Mr. Edwards braves raging rivers and freezing rain to bring Christmas to the Ingalls girls: 

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 razorback like me could do so.") And Mr. Edwards reasoned that if Santa Claus couldn't cross the creak, likely he would come no further south than Independence. Why should he come forty miles across the prairie only to be turned back? Of course he would't do that!

So Mr. Edwards had walked to Independence. ("In the rain?" Mary asked. Mr. Edwards said he wore his rubber coat.) And there, coming down the street in Independence, he had met Santa Claus. ("In the daylight?" Laura asked She hadn't thought that anyone could see Santa Claus in the daytime. No, Mr. Edwards said; it was night, but light shone out across the street from the saloons.)

On and on Mr. Edwards goes with his story and at the end of it, there are stockings full of Christmas for Mary and Laura and the contents are so overwhelming to them that they can't quite believe their eyes, or their luck: tin cups, peppermint candy, white-sugar cakes, and to top it all off, a penny for each. And 72 years after the book was first published, this still, thanks to the pacing of the words on the pages, seems like the most incredible bounty.

The second weather-related passage is in ON THE BANKS OF PLUM CREEK, when Pa is expected back from town during a raging, blinding snowstorm. He's been missing for three days – as it turns out, camped practically right beside the house, which he couldn't see through the driving snow. He's had to eat the oyster crackers he'd been bringing home for Christmas dinner, as well as all the girls' Christmas candy, in order to survive. Not that anyone begrudges him.

There's plenty more weather in all the books: searing heat, choking winds, snow and rain storms by the dozens, in addition to drought, plagues, and fires. But the passage that haunts me, in the best possible way, and which I could barely read aloud all the way through because the emotion of it was so great, is not weather-related in the slightest. It's the long-drawn-out scene in LHOTP in which Laura, after weeks of being kept awake by "Indians" crying for war down by the creek, watches them finally depart the region in a long stream, by horse and by foot, right past her house. 

The pony was very near now, and Laura's heart beat faster and faster. She looked up at the Indian's beaded moccasin, she looked along the fringed legging that clung to the pony's bare side. A bright-colored blanket was wrapped around the Indian. One bare brown-red arm carried a rifle lightly across the pony's naked shoulders. Then Laura looked up and saw the Indian's fierce, still, brown face. It was a proud, still face. No matter what happened, it would always be like that. Nothing would change it. Only the eyes were alive on that face, and they gazed steadily far away to the west. They did not move. Nothing moved or changed, except the eagle feathers standing straight up from the scalplock on the shaved head. The long feathers swayed and dipped, waving and spinning in the wind as the tall Indian on the black pony passed on into the distance.

There is the most palpable longing in Laura, who wishes to be one of the passing throng and who is left with a sense of tragic emptiness once they've gone. But more than that, the reader can't help but realize, in flashes, that this is not fiction; it is, in fact, history, laid out richly before us as though the moment were still upon us, by someone who experienced it herself. 

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