Little House: Let's Read Big Woods, Chapter 10

Content Note: Corporal Punishment

In Chapter 10, women other than Ma exist and she even gets to talk to some. Notably Aunt Lotty.

   Once Aunt Lotty came to spend the day. That morning Laura had to stand still a long time while Ma unwound her hair from the cloth strings and combed it into long curls. Mary was all ready, sitting primly on a chair, with her golden curls shining and her china-blue dress fresh and crisp.
   Laura liked her own red dress. But Ma pulled her hair dreadfully, and it was brown instead of golden, so that no one noticed it. Everyone noticed and admired Mary’s.
   “There!” Ma said at last. “Your hair is curled beautifully, and Lotty is coming. Run meet her, both of you, and ask her which she likes best, brown curls or golden curls.”
   Laura and Mary ran out of the door and down the path, for Aunt Lotty was already at the gate. Aunt Lotty was a big girl, much taller than Mary. Her dress was a beautiful pink and she was swinging a pink sunbonnet by one string.
   “Which do you like best, Aunt Lotty,” Mary asked, “brown curls, or golden curls?” Ma had told them to ask that, and Mary was a very good little girl who always did exactly as she was told.
   Laura waited to hear what Aunt Lotty would say, and she felt miserable.
   “I like both kinds best,” Aunt Lotty said, smiling. She took Laura and Mary by the hand, one on either side, and they danced along to the door where Ma stood.

I kind of harbor a hope that Aunt Lotty gave Ma a LOOK through all this, like WHAT THE HELL, WOMAN, but who can say. After Aunt Lotty leaves, Mary and Laura are tired and cranky and over-stimulated (liberal propaganda, I know!) and while doing their chores, Mary says that golden hair is prettier than brown, and Aunt Lotty therefore likes her best. So Laura slaps her. And Pa whips Laura.

I wonder where she learned that physical violence was an appropriate response to bad behavior?

   “You remember,” Pa said, “I told you girls you must never strike each other.”
   Laura began, “But Mary said—”
   “That makes no difference,” said Pa. “It is what I say that you must mind.”
   Then he took down a strap from the wall, he whipped Laura with the strap.

And here's a thing: It doesn't matter to me if Pa never hit Laura again. She may well have internalized the lesson and been a good girl from here on out and never warranted another whipping. Or he may have had a come-to-Dr.-Spock moment and realized that he needed to stop all the whipping. Or he may have gone right on whipping them and Laura and Rose edited it out of their rosy childrens' book. I don't know. I only mildly care.

He whipped a three- or possibly four-year-old. For slapping her sister, yes. But more accurately, for modeling common behavior that was normalized to her.

Her bedtime stories are about people being struck. Her yearly birthdays are marked by being (ceremoniously) struck. More stories later will revolve around someone being struck or needing to be struck. LAURA HAS BEEN TAUGHT THAT STRIKING IS ACCEPTABLE CULTURAL BEHAVIOR. So when her mother -- a major authority figure in her life -- instigates a sibling rivalry between Laura and her sister, and when her sister latches onto the rivalry and tells Laura that she's unlovable and will never be as cherished as her sister, Laura struck. She struck because that is what she had been taught, for all three years of her life, to do.

So her father struck her. Not because striking is wrong, but because Laura lacks the authority to strike. If she wants to strike, she needs to churn out her own kids and strike them. But in the meantime, she's fair game for being struck.

Stellar.

9 comments:

Pqw, who used to be Laiima said...

That's a succinct summation of authoritarian childrearing practices. They are very effective at turning out people obsessed with power dynamics, and making people do things via threats or outright violence. Stockholm Syndrome occurs a lot.

They DON'T produce people who actually enjoy each other's company, or know what love really is.

Think James Dobson.

Ana Mardoll said...

Think James Dobson.

*groan* Gods help me, I'd rather not. But you're absolutely right.

Pqw, who used to be Laiima said...

In my case, it was years of counseling/therapy. Years of reading about psychology and healthy human development. Thinking long and hard about all sorts of things that everyone else took for granted as being good and right and normal.

And it also required me leaving the family fold. Essentially making myself an (emotional) orphan. It was a huge breakthrough for me when I was able to say, "I don't love my parents." I feel sorry for them. I ... care ... about them, because they're human beings and they have suffered a lot. But I need them to NOT be in my life. Because they refuse to change. They think Love = Abuse.

I'm guessing you've chosen differently. I'm happy you've found something that works for you, even though I chose something else. (Diversity makes life interesting.)

Ana Mardoll said...

*sigh* It's helped that my parents are so very much not the same people that they were when they raised me. I'm not sure how that happened -- I *think* having our church socially implode made a big difference -- but it's not something that everyone is lucky enough to have, better parents over time.

jooliahoolia said...

Hi! I've been lurking here your blog for the past couple of months after I found the Little Mermaid deconstruction during an important-at-the-time google search relating to Ariel, but this is the first time I'm commenting. Little House on the Prarie was the first chapter book I read, when I was fresh out of kindergarten and still had to ask my parents what every third word was, and I didn't realize just how odd some of it that I took for granted then was until reading your mini-deconstructions tonight.

The corporal punishment seemed normal to me as a six-year-old, since my parents would spank if my siblings or I acted bratty. (Also, some of the references went over my head, as I genuinely believed Great-grandfather Ingalls dyed his sons' jackets tan as a punishment because tan wasn't a pretty color...) But seeing it all laid out in one spot made me realize that whatever dynamic is going on in the Ingalls clan is a far cry from the occasional smack on the bottom the kids in my family would get for a tantrum.

Also, the blonde hair/brown hair clash in the books is interesting — I was a blonde little kid whose hair got darker every year (and will likely continue to until it starts going grey instead), and I hated that I might someday have brown hair, because brown was the color of dirt and dirty things and only bad people had brown hair. Laura had brown hair and she was a bad child who got in trouble, while golden-haired Mary was the good child. It was funny, because Laura was the more interesting character during her books as the bad kid, until she decided to grow up and become a pioneer wife while Mary went to Braille school and seemed to be more independent.

These kind of make me want to go back and read Caddie Woodlawn, the other pioneer-girl story I eventually grew to like better than Little House because of the character's stronger personality, and see if it had any of the same uncomfortable themes.

Dezster said...

I'm wondering if maybe they comment on how Mary's hair is so beautiful because it's different than the norm. If Ma, Pa and Laura are all brunettes but Mary isn't, maybe they think she's special because no one else has golden hair?

Silver Adept said...

I think Bill Engval summed up this idea of using corporal punishment to deter corporal punishment nicely:

After smacking his kid, Engvall told him "We do not hit in this family!" The kid looked up at him with a look that said "Here's your sign (the sign, I believe, says something to the order of "I'm the stupid all the other people are supposedly with"), Pa."

He didn't make that mistake again. (One hopes he stopped smacking the kids, but corporal punishment seems to be a thing in stories of "rednecks".)

Also, Ma, why are you engendering a sibling rivalry like that? Are you trying to provoke your girls?

PXL said...

"They DON'T produce people who actually enjoy each other's company, or know what love really is."

That's an awfully broad generalization to make... I got beat constantly when I was a kid (gotta get the devil out somehow, y'know- the Tribulation's right around the corner after all, etc)- and "exorcised" twice, to boot. I'm now in my early 30s, with three kids and a loving wife. I know what love is, and I enjoy the company of others. Perhaps that's in spite of the (occasionally severe) corporal punishment I underwent when I was a child, but nonetheless, I wasn't turned into a monster. I don't hit my own children, and I don't defend the practice, I'm just not sure that a sweeping statement like that does much service to anyone, particularly not those who suffered considerably for the first 16 or so years of their lives.
I never had to go through therapy (probably should have, I suppose), and perhaps my case was less severe in some ways than yours; I don't know. All I know is that I managed to turn out a reasonable person (with some personality quirks, true), and I'm thankful for that everyday.

PXL said...

"They DON'T produce people who actually enjoy each other's company, or know what love really is."

That's an awfully broad generalization to make... I got beat constantly when I was a kid (gotta get the devil out somehow, y'know- the Tribulation's right around the corner after all, etc)- and "exorcised" twice, to boot. I'm now in my early 30s, with three kids and a loving wife. I know what love is, and I enjoy the company of others. Perhaps that's in spite of the (occasionally severe) corporal punishment I underwent when I was a child, but nonetheless, I wasn't turned into a monster. I don't hit my own children, and I don't defend the practice, I'm just not sure that a sweeping statement like that does much service to anyone, particularly not those who suffered considerably for the first 16 or so years of their lives.
I never had to go through therapy (probably should have, I suppose), and perhaps my case was less severe in some ways than yours; I don't know. All I know is that I managed to turn out a reasonable person (with some personality quirks, true), and I'm thankful for that everyday.

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