Little House: Let's Read Big Woods, Chapter 11

Chapter 11 is about harvesting grain at Uncle Henry's house. Uncle Henry's boy, Charley who is eleven years old, is naughty because he is not struck frequently enough.

Chapters so far: 11. Mentions of corporal punishment: I've lost track. Five? Six? Seven? And keep in mind I still have no idea what they are eating in the non-Fall. But damned if I know how often and in what ways each child we encounter are struck.

   After that he followed them around, talking and asking questions. They were working too hard to pay any attention to him, so they told him to go away and not bother them.
   But they dropped their cradles and ran to him across the field when they heard him scream. The woods were all around the field, and there were snakes in the oats.
   When they got to Charley, there was nothing wrong, and he laughed at them. He said:
   “I fooled you that time!”
   Pa said if he had been Uncle Henry, he would have tanned that boy’s hide for him, right then and there. But Uncle Henry did not do it.
   So they took a drink of water and went back to work.
   Three times Charley screamed, and they ran to him as fast as they could, and he laughed at them. He thought it was a good joke. And still, Uncle Henry did not tan his hide.

And you know what? Charley is not a child I would want to take care of over a long afternoon. I don't know what shaped his life prior to this moment. I don't know if he's the product of his environment, or of a parenting methodology, or if he has A.D.D. or something similar that actively prevents him behaving well. All I know is, I'm glad I don't have to babysit him.

But jeebus cripes, Charley gets into a yellow jacket nest and screams. And because of his Boy Who Cried Wolf act, Pa and Uncle Henry reasonably let him be for several minutes (possibly longer?) until it becomes clear that, no, there really is something wrong. And Charley is COVERED with wasp stings and has to be wrapped in mud and tied in sheets and his fever has to be brought down as quickly as possible and for all we know he may have died. Who knows?

   They made a big panful of mud, and plastered him all over with it. They rolled him up in an old sheet and put him to bed. His eyes were swollen shut and his nose was a funny shape. Ma and Aunt Polly covered his whole face with mud and tied the mud on with cloths. Only the end of his nose and his mouth showed.
   Aunt Polly steeped some herbs, to give him for his fever. Laura and Mary and the cousins stood around for some time, looking at him.

And this is what Pa has to say about it:

   “It served the little liar right.”

I ... just ... you ... what.

I mean, again, not a boy I would want to babysit. Again, I understand the appeal of schadenfreude. But this is an eleven year old boy. Haley Joel Osment was that age when he did Sixth Sense. Even granting that Charley was probably not as cute as HJO, I cannot for the life of me imagine looking on that much suffering of anyone, let alone a child, and thinking HA HA FUCK YOU like Pa does here.

14 comments:

EdinburghEye said...

Yeah. This chapter always disturbed me even as a child.

(Charley survives, though, because he shows up in a later book.)

cjmr said...

There are modern parenting experts who would call what happened to Charley 'natural consequences'.

Naomi said...

That right there is one of my major issues with "natural consequences" as a parenting technique. Half the freaking POINT of parenting is to protect my kids from some of the more dangerous potential natural consequences. The natural consequence of running out into the street in front of a moving vehicle is getting run over. So when my kids were little and didn't grasp the danger that motor vehicles posed to them, part of my job was to stay close enough that I could, if necessary, grab them. The natural consequence of never brushing your teeth is cavities; it was my job to brush my kids' teeth when they were toddlers (over their strenuous objections, if necessary) and to remind them to brush their teeth now.

(On the other hand, the natural consequence of leaping enthusiastically into puddles as you're setting out on your walk is having wet feet for the rest of the trip. The natural consequence of not bringing a sweater is getting cold. The natural consequence of not bringing your book is getting bored when we're waiting line. The natural response of being a bossy older sister is having your younger sister refuse to play with you any longer. There are many natural consequences that I'm fine with -- just, you know, not the ones that involve serious injury and things like that.)

JP said...

I had no idea Pa Ingalls was such a dick.

Asha said...

The odd thing about that, is the line "It served the little liar right," is that it sounds like something a child might think. Someone who has had to play with an un-fun kid because they had to, not because they wanted to. You know the kid in your neighborhood who got you into trouble, or lied about stealing and breaking the mirror, etc. You see karma bite the kid and you feel lots of righteous smugness that you were good and it was only fair that the bad kid got what was coming to him.

Yeah, I wanted stuff like that to happen to the bullies in my life. Only as an adult can I see them as other kids, not some force created simply to torment me. But that's part of being an adult.

Not that I still don't want bullies punished. I hate bullies with the fire of a thousand suns.

Jeff Lipton said...

I don't think "it served the little liar right", but I do wonder what the men-folk were supposed to do? Every time Charley screamed, it took time from their tasks, which there probably not a lot of time for to begin with. If there had been extra people, someone could have played or otherwise distracted Charley, but it doesn't sound like there were. Who would be available to babysit him?

cjmr said...

I think one of the reasons the menfolk were so angry was because Charley was, in their opinion, old enough to be doing half a man's work in the field with them or around the farm, but instead he was taking them from their work.

depizan said...

Of course, there remains the question of why wasn't he helping them. Somehow, I don't think the real answer is "he wasn't beaten enough." It seems like he's acting way younger than eleven, especially in a world where eleven year olds routinely help out. It's hard not to believe that either he's been age adjusted or he really did have some kind of problem.

EdinburghEye said...

From the text (found online - I haven't owned a copy of LHitBW in years):

Pa and Uncle Henry were working very hard, because the air was so heavy and hot and still that they expected rain. The oats were ripe, and if they were not cut and in the shock before rain came, the crop would be lost. Then Uncle Henry's horses would be hungry all winter. At noon Pa and Uncle Henry came to the house in a great hurry, and swallowed their dinner as quickly as they could. Uncle Henry said that Charley must help them that afternoon.

Laura looked at Pa, when Uncle Henry said that. At home, Pa had said to Ma that Uncle Henry and Aunt Polly spoiled Charley. When Pa was eleven years old, he had done a good days work every day in the fields, driving a team. But Charley, did hardly any work at all.

Now Uncle Henry said that Charley must come to the field. He could save them a great deal of time. He could go to the spring for water, and he could fetch them the water-jug when they needed a drink. He could fetch the whetstone when the blades needed sharpening.

All the children looked at Charley. Charley did not want to go to the field. He wanted to stay in the yard and play. But, of course, he did not say so.

Pa and Uncle Henry did not rest at all. They ate in a hurry and went right back to work, and Charley went with them.

....

Instead of helping Pa and Uncle Henry, Charley was making all the trouble he could. He got in their way so they couldnt swing the cradles. He hid the whetstone, so they had to hunt for it when the blades needed sharpening. He didnt bring the water-jug till Uncle Henry shouted at him three or four times, and then he was sullen.

After that he followed them around, talking and asking questions. They were working too hard to pay any attention to him, so they told him to go away and not bother them.


In its way, this is almost as much a OMGWTF thing as the schoolteachers-get-beaten-to-death in Farmer Boy.

Charley's supposed to be 11, not 6. He's too small to swing a cradle ("A cradle was a sharp steel blade fastened to a framework of wooden slats that caught and held the stalks of grain when the blade cut them.") but he's not too young to comprehend that getting the oats harvested before it rains is a big deal.

Sure, he wants to play in the yard with his cousins whom he hardly ever gets to see. But this - and I had managed to forget about the details of this until Ana started doing this - isn't just a kid messing about: Charley appears to be actively sabotaging the oat harvest, knowing that if it doesn't get done in time it would be a major financial blow to his father. What do you have to do to a kid to get him to feel like that?

What with George who ran off to the army at age 14, and Charley who, at age 11, seems to be absolutely determined to sabotage the harvest of his father's oat crop and maybe ensure that the horses have to get sold since they can't be fed over the winter without a sufficient supply of oats, and Peter bragging about his savage dog...

I'm actually more and more convinced that the smartest thing Charles ever decided to do (and maybe why Caroline supported him) was to get himself and his family out of this nest of poisonous family violence, hatred, and recrimination.

Ana Mardoll said...

I'm actually more and more convinced that the smartest thing Charles ever decided to do (and maybe why Caroline supported him) was to get himself and his family out of this nest of poisonous family violence, hatred, and recrimination.

Out of curiosity, do you mean you think Charles consciously thought this was a bad situation? He outright says at least once in the text that *he* would have beaten Charley were he the father and implies (as far as I read it) in two other places in the same chapter that Charley needs beating more. (Again, assuming the text is accurate, etc.)

I'd be interested to understand how embracing physical abuse and fleeing physical abuse would mesh there -- do you mean that Charles saw it didn't work but couldn't shake thinking that it was still the best method, or...?

EdinburghEye said...

I really don't know what was in Charles Ingalls' head in real life. As has been noted, the Ingalls family were really, really poor. Charles's father and brothers seem to be a bit better off than he is even back in their Wisconsin days. What we have is a story remembered by Laura of two sections of her childhood, merged into one, written down for her daughter, sixty years later - and then read by us eighty years after Laura wrote it.

But it has puzzled me for years (I mean, for real) why Charles Ingalls left. They were getting by in Wisconsin, and there was family support, and the area was becoming settled, and yet Charles - for real, as a matter of historical fact - yanks his entire family in several long moves across the US until they end up settled in the Dakotas on very poor land. Time and again, Charles makes crushingly wrong financial decisions.

In real life, this doesn't really need an explanation - or if it has one, it's not one we'd get by reading Laura's memoirs so many years after the fact, without input from anyone else in the family, especially Caroline.

But what your deconstruction has pointed up for me - which I really hadn't thought about before - is how much violence there is directed from the men of the Ingalls family at the children - from their grandfather to his sons, one of whom ran away when he was 14: Peter if what I'm thinking about his "savage dog" says about him: Henry, whose son seems to hate him enough to want to sabotage a harvest: Charles, who says that vicious "served the little liar right" thing about his nephew, and - as you noted - is beating his children.

Maybe I'm just misremembering the later books, though I did read them more often and more recently than this first one, but I think Charles Ingalls becomes happier when he gets away from his family - and becomes less violent towards his own family, though I have read a disturbing anecdote that Charles Ingalls was one of the "sooners" who took part in a lynching of an Osage family who were settling on the land and planned to stay as farmers after the tribe left. (For more background history on the next book: LITTLE SQUATTER ON THE OSAGE DIMINISHED RESERVE: READING LAURA INGALLS WILDER'S KANSAS INDIANS.)

I'd be interested to understand how embracing physical abuse and fleeing physical abuse would mesh there -- do you mean that Charles saw it didn't work but couldn't shake thinking that it was still the best method, or...?

In a dysfunctional family where violence is getting handed on like that - yeah, maybe Charles just felt the only way to shake it completely was to pack up and go. Merely moving on to better land wouldn't entirely explain it - in a lot of ways the sensible thing to do would have been for brothers to move together. I'm remembering that scene in Those Happy Golden Years where Laura and Charles and Caroline discuss quite sensibly how it won't work to whip the boy who's misbehaving - she must make him mind. That's not the same kind of thinking as Charles wanting to thrash his nephew and thinking it served him right if he got stung by yellowjackets.

Ana Mardoll said...

But it has puzzled me for years (I mean, for real) why Charles Ingalls left.

I could have sworn that I'd read somewhere that the farm just wasn't producing enough for them in Wisconsin, and that the extended family couldn't (or Charles didn't want to ask them to) make up the gap in support. But I don't remember where I read that. (In the books, of course, Charles' wanderlust and dislike of settled civilization is played up as the reason for moving.)

Also, wow. That's really disturbing if a lynching was edited out of the book, considering how often it's held up as "history".

EdinburghEye said...

That's really disturbing if a lynching was edited out of the book, considering how often it's held up as "history".

Bear in mind that although Laura writes in considerable detail about the events in Little House on the Prairie, historically they took place between 1869 amd 1870 - they left Osage territory before Laura's fourth birthday. She probably did remember some things about living there very vividly - but much of what she writes there can at best have been based on what Ma and Pa told her about what happened then.

The true event (I'm trying to find the site where I read it) is based on the actual killing of an Osage family very near to where the Ingalls would have been living and not long before they moved on. No evidence that Charles Ingalls specifically was involved or not - and none that Laura (who would have been three years old at the time - May would have been five) - would have known about it if Pa had taken part in a lynching.

Silver Adept said...

I think I can understand Charley a bit - chores at a young age aren't any fun, so maybe if you do them poorly enough, you don't get asked to do them again. Although all of the chore-ducking I tried as a young adult did not go to the level of shouting wolf, just disappearing or trying to get the chore done as fast as possible because there were other, more interesting things to be done. As an adult, it turns out that I still learned useful skills when I couldn't duck the chores, but that spent mean I liked them.

Charley might just have an inquisitive mind, too - I tend to do better on tasks or chores if I know why it's being done this way (and sometimes that sets the brain moving on process improvement).

And I would like chores even less if my parents and extended family thought it was proper and right for me to be injured so that I could be taught that liars are unliked.

Post a Comment