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Lost & Found: Brenda Shaughnessy on Laura Ingalls Wilder
Where’s the joy in a modern balloon compared to one fashioned from the bladder of the family pig? Here’s our own Brenda Shaughnessy on the “sublime humility” of life in Laura Ingall Wilder’s Little House books.
I’ll start by saying I will never apologize for loving Laura Ingalls Wilder’s vivid recollections of life in pioneer America. I gobbled the books as a child and reread them almost every year. The books are brilliant, unlike the TV show, which I also watched religiously. I couldn’t get enough of this incredible story of being an American girl riding out with her family in a covered wagon to live in a log cabin, in a house made out of real planks and held together with store-bought nails instead of hand-carved pegs. How Ma cried when she finally got to live in a house built with nails! How proud Pa was that his furs or whatever sold enough to buy long-suffering Ma some house nails! I was thrilled for them.
What I do feel a little sheepish about is how often Little House scenes come up in my contemporary life. Last month my entire household was sick with a vicious flu, and I imagined myself in the scene titled “Fever ‘n’ Ague” (which my sister and I never knew how to pronounce and still don’t). Laura, Mary, Baby Carrie, Ma, and Pa were all struck by a mysterious illness, feverish, raving, starving, unable to move. One night Mary cried so piteously for water that Laura’s delirium was pierced, and she knew it was up to her to save her sister. She painfully turned her head to look at Ma, who rasped, “Laura . . . Can you?” Laura crawled, shaking and shivering, across the long log floor, to the water bucket, and tried to keep the water from shaking out of the dipper for the long journey back. She finally made it, it seemed like forever, but she went back and forth on the floor with the dipper filled with water, and saved her entire family! The scene lived again as I, hollowed out with a 2005 flu, made my way to the lifesaving faucet. I did that too, or at least it helped to think I did. I was just like Laura, and, feverish, I couldn’t shut up about it. Now that I am well, I can see that I used Laura and her story to give a bland couple of days some drama.
That’s not so bad, really, to conjure up a parallel scene from the warm folds of childhood literature in order to get one’s priorities straight in a semi-emergency. But I also use Laura more insidiously, simply to make fun of her. Every year the family slaughtered a pig they had raised, and the girls were happy to have bacon and grease and whatnot, and salt pork for the winter, but best of all: Pa would blow up the pig bladder and tie a knot, making a fun balloon for the delighted girls to toss back and forth. It was truly the best thing that happened all year! How pathetic! Also, on one of the best Christmases ever, Laura got her very own tin cup and so from then on didn’t have to share a cup with Mary. Each girl also got a piece of candy, an amazing little cake made with real, store-bought white sugar, and, most magically, a genuine penny. Both girls were shiny-eyed with happiness, unable to speak, practically murdered with Christmas bliss.
What I must apologize for is my voracious pleasure in the thoroughly meager and lame haul. I shamefully relish the thrill of mocking, the dull satisfaction of irony my Gen-X psyche is so skilled with. In case my friends haven’t read the stories of these girls who think a piece of yarn, a chicken feather, and a stick are cause for wild celebration, I am sure to tell them all about it. Laura freaked out because she got new hair ribbons. She loved bear meat and once had a total meltdown because she couldn’t have an Indian papoose she saw riding on its mother’s back. Laura had a faceless rag doll named Charlotte that she loved insanely. Every little scene of sublime humility makes me feel as if someone also gave me a bloody, miraculous pig-bladder balloon that I can’t stop batting around as if it’s the best thing in the world. I really still can’t believe how beautiful it is.
Brenda Shaughnessy is poetry editor-at-large of Tin House magazine. She is the author of two poetry collections: Interior with Sudden Joy and Human Dark with Sugar, which was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Critic’s Circle Award and winner of the 2007 James Laughlin Award. A third book is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press.