Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Thank God we're not pioneer people

I am obsessed with Little House on the Prairie -- not the TV show (though, hey, if it’s on, I’m not going to say no) but the book by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Before we left for Italy, I bought Primo the book so we’d have plenty of bedtime reading on the trip, and now I am so deeply invested in the fate of Laura and Mary and Pa and Ma that I am reading ahead after he goes to sleep. Sometimes I’ll get so over-enthused that I’ll read ahead to the next paragraph WHILE I am reading to Primo, which will cause me to fall silent for a minute, then go “Oooooh!” which my son, understandably, finds annoying.

Primo is lukewarm about the book; he listens and all, but I know that if I read anything – cereal box, instructions for the DVD player – for more than two minutes, he will be totally engrossed, so I basically just start reading until the good, wholesome beauty of Wilder’s language hypnotizes him. It took a full 50 pages to push beyond Flat-Out Dull, then we moved into Potentially Appealing To People With Very Low Expectations but after the pack of wolves rolled into the prairie, at the book’s mid-way point, its been an Old School Page Turner.

What I find continually fascinating about it is how freaking hard it was to be a pioneer person. I’d never do it. I mean, I know they didn’t have a ton of choices back then but still, there were those who went bravely into terra nova to start a new life and those who were just like, “Screw it. This shitty hovel we’ve got in the woods is good enough,” and I am sure that I would fall into the latter category, especially now that I see what kind of work is entailed in starting a homestead.

You’ve got to build your “snug, tight” log cabin, including roof, hardwood floor and fireplace, frequently without nails.

You’ve got to fend off wolf packs, PANTHERS!!! (did you know they were indigenous to the US? WTF?) and then there’s all this beef with the Native Americans/ Pa is a cool., progressive pater familias and he understands that everyone can get along, but Ma is always hating on the Native Americans, (In front of the kids? Come on, Ma). Sometimes the Native Americans go to war with each other and then you’re up all night not knowing what the hell is going on.

You have to make your own bullets and all you eat all day is cornbread and bean soup and venison. There is however, tobacco and coffee. Now I see why they didn’t off themselves immediately.

You’ve got to build a well. This didn’t seem like a big deal to me until I read in painstaking detail for 20 pages just what one must do to build a well. I mean, think about it for a second – once you dig deep enough that the hole is taller than you, how do you get the dirt back up to the surface? You’ve got to build a damn pulley and get a helper. PLUS – and I had no idea about this – apparently there are all sorts of toxic fatal gases deep in the earth which can suddenly emerge with no warning and kill you stone-cold dead.

There is no freaking way I’d ever build a well. If we had the terrible misfortune of being pioneers, we’d just have to do it the hard way by walking two miles to the creek every time. We’d just drink less water. We’d be stinky and foul from lack of baths. I wouldn’t care. I’d never have the stamina to build a well.

But the best part of reading the book to Primo was the Christmas chapter. Mary and Laura were desperately hoping that Santa Claus would come but worried he wouldn’t be able to cross the creek because it was so high (“Don’t they know Santa has flying reindeer?” asked Primo. “I know, right?” I said, thinking privately that these pioneer kids had zero freaking imagination). Anyway, in nothing short of a Christmas miracle -- their neighbor Mr. Edwards hikes like 20 miles in the snow without an overcoat to go to the nearest town to get them their Christmas presents from Santa (who was apparently the only lazy person in settler times, and wasn’t even going to TRY and cross the creek with his fat ass). So the children’s stockings were filled – glory of glories! – with the following treasures:

A new tin cup of their very own

A tiny heart-shaped cake made with white flour

A real, shiny penny

And the children were so overcome with gratitude at these riches, so beside themselves with jubilation, that they could hardly speak. Did they DARE to take a bite into their candy cane or heart-shaped cake? They did not. It was too breathtakingly beautiful.

Primo looked depressed at the whole pathetic situation/ And you can bet that I milked it for all it was worth, reminding him in no uncertain terms how lucky he was.

“Some children are so unfortunate they don’t even have a tin cup of their own,” I said, “they have to share it with their mother. And have you ever even drank out of a tin cup? It makes everything taste TINNY. You’d hate it. So tonight, I think you better count your blessings.”

That is reason enough to read the book.