Thursday, November 11, 2010

Irony, ambiguity, and the usual literary business - the not-so-radical politics of Little House on the Prairie

The prairie in Little House on the Prairie is in Indian Territory; the little house is illegal.  In the book – no idea what happened in so-called real life – Pa had thought settlement was legal, or, a bit of ambiguity, soon would be, and piles the family back into the wagon the instant he learns that soldiers plan to uproot the settlers.  That cabin, constructed piece by piece for the first third of the novel, is simply abandoned, along with a new plow and a freshly-planted garden.

The politics of Little House on the Prairie are, as suits a genuine work of literature, ironic and complicated.  Please see this book review at Reading, Writing, etc. for the case that the politics are earnest and simple.  I’ll confess, Jane, as I reread that post and compare it to the novel I just read, I don’t understand a word of it.

I mentioned yesterday that the family is threatened with utter destruction four times.  Twice they succeed through pluck and rugged individualism.  See the ford crossing in Chapter 2 and the prairie fire, an early example of U.S. magical realism, in Chapter 22.  Twice, their survival depends entirely on the fortunate intervention of others.  Here I mean, first, Chapter 15, where the entire family gets malaria, dehabilitated to the point where Laura commits a great act of heroism simply by crawling across the floor with a cup of water, and the family is saved only by the entirely fortuitous intervention of a neighbor, and second, the terrifying Chapter 22, in which a council of Osage Indians debate whether to wage war on the settlers.  The anti-war party wins the debate.  In other words, Laura and her family are saved from death in a frontier war at the hands of the Osage by the actions of other Osage.

If we are scoring the “individualism vs society” match, I think we end up with a 2-2 tie.

Similarly, when Pa learns he will – or might – be evicted, he offers no resistance.  One might wonder if this restless man is in fact a little too eager to move on, but that’s a different issue.  There are two sets of neighbors.  A married couple, portrayed as semi-competent and hostile to Indians, wants to fight back.  A bachelor frontiersman, coon cap and all, is like Pa, instantly ready to resume his ramblin’ ways.  Amusingly, he leaves on a raft – he’s Huck Finn!  My point is, I detect the presence of contrasting views.

The end of the novel is brilliant.  The family is camped out, a pause in the journey to wherever Plum Creek is (Minnesota, right?).  Everyone is happy, oh so happy.  The horses are happy.  The dog is happy (“he curled into that round nest with a flop and sigh of satisfaction,” 334).  Pa, always positive, is singing and playing his fiddle.  Pa is always happy.

Except that he is, in fact, angry, and he expresses his anger through ironic songs.  He plays a little bit of “Oh, Susanna” – don’t you cry for him.  And doesn’t “Oh, Susanna” also appear at the very end of Little House in the Big Woods, in an altogether more placid context?  It does, two pages from the end, exactly where it is placed here!  A fragment of “Dixie.”  A bit of “Rally Round the Flag”:

The fiddle began to play a marching tune, and Pa’s clear voice was singing like a deep-toned bell.

  “And we’ll rally round the flag, boys,
   We’ll rally once again,
   Shouting the battle-cry of Freedom!”

Laura felt that she must shout, too.

This is the very last page.  Ma suggests Pa shift to something less likely to make little girls of a certain emotional temperament want to shout.

She began to drift over endless waves of prairie grasses, and Pa’s voice went with her, singing.

  “Row away, row o’er the waters so blue,
   Like a feather we sail in our gum-tree canoe.
   Row the boat lightly, love, over the sea;
   Daily and nightly I’ll wander with thee.”

That’s the end.  It’s an ironic revisiting of the end of Little House in the Big Woods, a high-level literary feat.  Showy, even.  That’s for tomorrow.  But just to stay with this passage – the motif of singing (those always-singing prairie stars), the metaphorical sea of the prairie merging with the actual-yet-imaginary sea of the song, the familial wanderlust of the final line.  How is this not great writing?


  1. How is this not great writing?

    It is much better than I could have hoped with my old and fuzzy memories. It's lovely. I can't wait to pick these all up again.

  2. Maybe there's some subconscious way that a child fits all this together? I don't know. Can I possibly, as a child, have detected Pa's anger in this last scene? He's happy; the narrator says so. What did I know from irony?

  3. You've done a great job on Wilder. I didn't read the books as a youth---too busy working in a near frontier, but I'm certainly drawn to reading them now. It will be a good use of time as we enter the bitter winter on the prairies of the Great Plains and we're somewhat shut in.

  4. At some point, the novels turn more to Laura's courtship and marriage. I never found that to be so interesting, and don't know if I would now. I know there's still good stuff to come - THe Long Winter, about the legendary, brutal 1880-81 winter really stand out in my memory.

  5. When I was a kid, the courtship-and-marriage thing was actually one of my favorite parts, as I got toward the end of the series. Chalk it up to being a girl (or at least, a certain kind of girl). Speaking fairly, The Long Winter was probably my least favorite at that age, but it's one I've been particularly anticipating now that I'm thinking of a re-read of the series. I expect it may turn out to be one of the best.

  6. I realize now that I just don't remember the courtship. Maybe I did like it. Who knows?

    The Long Winter did stick in my memory, though, perhaps because it is unusual in having a strong single plot. It's not just the flux of life, but something unique - it actually fits into the history theme - the families involuntary participation in a genuinely historic event.