Saturday, February 13, 2010

"My wandering foot gets to itching..."

This man is Charles Ingalls, right?
Pa is kind and calm and utterly practical.
He is the cornerstone of the Ingalls family.
He takes care of everyone.

I loved Pa when I was a little girl, happily watching the TV series of "Little House on the Prairie." I wanted to be Laura. (Didn’t every little girl? I mean, NO ONE wanted to be fussy, smug Mary, did they? Like everyone wants to be Jo, no one wants to be Beth…c’mon, you can tell me the truth…)

Stuck in the house last week by several feet of snow and without my van, I reread my Little House books, starting with the one in which the Ingalls family moves reluctantly into town from their claim shanty for the winter. Pa reasons that the train will continue to bring supplies into town, so they will spend the long, hard, cold winter snug, warm, and fed, in town. Alas, the almost-daily blizzards trap the townfolk in their houses and prevents the train from getting through – there are starving families and there’s no fuel for warmth, until those intrepid Wilder boys go to buy wheat from a farmer out on the vast, snow-covered prairie. They barely make it back before the impending blizzard, but they do, and their wheat saves the day. Eventually the winter ends, the supply train gets through, and we leave the Ingalls family happily scarfing down salt pork and cornmeal mush (I think my husband would have died of palate boredom as a Little House denizen…he can’t even stand to eat the same meal two nights in a row, let alone for months on end…)

After finishing The Long Winter, I happily started right from the beginning, Little House in the Big Woods. I moved with the Ingalls family from the woods of Wisconsin, to Indian territory in Kansas, to Minnesota and Plum Creek, onward to De Smet, South Dakota. As I happily read through each book, I began to realize something: Pa has some wanderlust going on. Some delusions of grandeur. Some “the grass is always greener…” tendencies.

For example:
When he discovers the government has messed up the boundary lines of his homestead in Indian territory and he will be forced to move, he throws a bit of a temper tantrum and packs up his wife, his children, and their belongings into the covered wagon, and moves the VERY NEXT DAY, lighting out for greener pastures.

Moving to what he himself terms “the land of milk and honey” of Minnesota, he builds a house completely on credit, only to have grasshoppers eat his wheat crops, forcing him to take a job managing a hotel for his sister’s husband. Even then, with money coming in and the family living in town and enjoying the social life and educational opportunities there, he can’t wait to go stake a claim on the prairie in the Dakota Territories.

Money flows through his hands like water: he buys a plow only to abandon it because it’s “too heavy” to move; he trades horses, oxen, and cows like little boys trade baseball cards; and he brags to Caroline of the silk dresses and fine house he will build her, when his ship comes in (in the form of wheat crops). And yet the constant refrain, throughout all the books, is his desire to never owe anything to anyone: he insists they must not be beholden to anyone for even the littlest thing. Being and having good neighbors is all well and good, but all thoughtful deeds or the smallest gesture of kindness must be repaid promptly and in equal measure.

In short, although Laura sees her Pa as the paragon of virtue and knowledge, Charles Ingalls is self-absorbed, delusional, and ever-restless. I started to feel sorry for Caroline, who, like many sensible women, was taken in by a twinkling pair of eyes, a charming manner, and promises of a better life. She makes the best of things, because she has to. She loves him, because he is charming and roguish and lovable. But is he stable? A good provider? The man she should have settled down with and had babies with? Not necessarily. She is uprooted over and over again, along with her children, and lives in sometimes ridiculous and dangerous conditions, because Charles can’t stand to be trapped, to be stuck anywhere, among too many people, for too long.

Charles Ingalls, Ne’er-Do-Well on the Prairie.


Anonymous said...

I thought the same thing when I read through them this summer: Charles Ingalls is a little crazy, and would have been tough to be married to. If you're going to be a settler, Pa, you have to SETTLE. And back away from that fiddle, because I can't take anymore of your songs.

Janet said...

I feel like you are going to get struck by lightning or something for bad mouthing Pa Ingalls.

librarygirl said...

Here, here! I re-read these books last year and COULD NOT BELIEVE the reckless behaviour of Pa Ingalls! And settling in Indian Country - they were just so lucky to escape with their lives. The Long Winter horrified me reading as an adult. Amazing how once I became a parent, reading with parent's/wife/mother eyes all I coud see was the shiftlessness and actual danger he frequently put them in

Peg said...


It's kind of like you just told me there's no Santa Claus.

I never thought about him that way.

Jess said...

I always thought he was strangely restless. Although I guess you can't really blame him for the long winter - at least he got them out of the shanty. Thinking about The Long Winter always makes me want pancakes.

Word verification = disin. Perfect.

Kathy said...

I always thought they moved a lot, but because I was an Army brat, I thought everyone moved a lot. I will have to read them again as an adult. Such a different take on Pa!

Kristin said...

I think you are absolutely right about him. I just watched a show on the Donner party disaster on PBS a couple of weeks ago, and I thought the same thing about the men. I think many men had this same "disease" in the 1800s in the US--to go west at all costs. I know there was a ton of propoganda by the US government and in the newspapers at the time; everyone can own land and start fresh! You just have to be prepared to weather utter disaster and calamity at all turns and put your family in harms way constantly.

The thing that REALLY got me about the Donner party was that there were about 60 people (I think) in the group, including 12 nursing infants!!!!! I understand that women had a lot of children and so it stands to reason that much of their lives were spent nursing children, but holy crap, can you imagine setting forth in a covered wagon to travel 3,000 miles through deserts, mountains and Indian country with young children and nursing infants? They were all insane.

Debi said...

And here I was going to ask you to roadtrip with me to one of these shows:

Penni Russon said...

Eff. Ewe. Sea. Kay.

You've broken me. You are right. But now I am disenchanted.

TLB said...

Honestly, I always preferred the wanderlusty, twinkly-eyed dreamer Pa to the annoyingly weepy Pa of the show. But you're right--I did want to be Laura. My first book attempt, I kid you not, was "Little House in Lake Villa," since I grew up in prairie country. I had a gingham sunbonnet and everything.

Melanie said...

I'm coming in late with this comment, but you're right about Pa. My eyes were first opened to this over ten years ago by my grad school adviser, who was reading the books with his then seven-year-old daughter. He said to me, "If that family had stayed in one place, they'd have been much better off." I thought about it for a moment and realized he was absolutely right. Later that year I reread some of the books and KNEW he was right. I still wanted to be Laura, though.

pandu said...

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Andrea said...

I knew a man (this was about 10 years ago) who was in his late 70s. His wife's grandmother went to school with Laura. She said their family was kind of looked down upon by the other families. Pa couldn't hold down a job and Laura had to work. It's interesting how Laura made it sound like she had to work for Mary's tuition but the town of DeSmet raised the money and paid Mary's tuition. I believe Laura had to work just to help to support the family.