Little House: Let's Read Big Woods, Chapter 9

Content Note: Depression

In Chapter 9, spring comes and the girls are allowed to leave the house again.

At one point, a history teacher told me that a lot of pioneer wives suffered from acute anxiety and depression from undiagnosed stuff like S.A.D. coupled with isolation, back-breaking labor, constant pregnancies, and not being allowed to leave the house for weeks on end and not having access to other adult human beings. I don't know if that's true, but it stuck with me.

Anyway. Laura and Mary each have a tree and they make leaf hats for their dolls.

   Pa made a swing of tough bark and hung it to a large, low branch of Laura’s tree. It was her swing because it was in her tree, but she had to be unselfish and let Mary swing in it whenever she wanted to.

I guess placing the swing in the Neutral Zone would have been too much for the Ingalls to consider. Or maybe they ran out of suitable trees.

Anyway. The point is made that Pa doesn't hunt during the spring because the deer are gravid and the babies need to grow up. Which leads me to ask: what are they eating?? The point is made that Pa only hunts in the Fall and a little in the Winter. The crops mostly come in the Fall, though there is apparently some Spring crops here:

   “You wouldn’t shoot a little baby deer, would you, Pa?” Laura said.
   “No, never!” he answered. “Nor its Ma, nor its Pa. No more hunting, now, till all the little wild animals have grown up. We’ll just have to do without fresh meat till fall.”
   Pa said that as soon as he had the crops in, they would all go to town. Laura and Mary could go, too. They were old enough now.
   They were very much excited, and next day they tried to play going to town. They could not do it very well, because they were not quite sure what a town was like. They knew there was a store in town, but they had never seen a store.

So what are they eating? Are they really living on cured meat and canned vegetables two or three seasons out of the year? Because... wow. That seems like it would suck. And they don't seem to have dairy right now, either, as the cows are put out to pasture with their two calves, and I would assume that the calf takes most of the milk. Also: DOES THIS WOOD HAVE PANTHERS OR NOT? I have to assume the panthers don't like the taste of cow.

   Then one night Pa said, “We’ll go to town tomorrow.”
   That night, though it was the middle of the week, Ma bathed Laura and Mary all over, and she put up their hair. She divided their long hair into wisps, combed each wisp with a wet comb and wound it tightly on a bit of rag. There were knobby little bumps all over their heads, whichever way they turned on their pillows. In the morning their hair would be curly.

Don't do this to your kids. Mom used to put those little pink foam rollers on my hair. They hurt, you don't sleep well, and the curls work out in a few minutes of humidity anyway. Just... don't.

   Ma took the rags off their hair and combed it into long, round curls that hung down over their shoulders. She combed so fast that the snarls hurt dreadfully. Mary’s hair was beautifully golden, but Laura’s was only a dirt-colored brown.

Ma and Pa are dark haired. The text makes this very clear. One wonders if Mary is tow-headed -- this isn't unusual in my experience. What I don't understand is why this is read by Laura as THE MOST BEAUTIFUL THING EVER; it seems likely she would be socialized to think that, as she could just as easily have noted that she looks like her parents and Mary does not. Are Ma and Pa emphasizing Mary's pretty hair so that Mary will feel like part of the family? (And, in the case of Ma, going way overboard into wtfery?)

Laura and Mary are astonished when the get to town, and Pa seems ... almost kind of uncomfortable. It reads to me like he's embarrassed and doesn't want them to like it TOO much, but I could be wrong. But there's this (from a few pages back):

   They were very much excited, and next day they tried to play going to town. They could not do it very well, because they were not quite sure what a town was like. They knew there was a store in town, but they had never seen a store.

I'm kind of struck by how not-prepared and how not-talked to the girls are. Like, okay, they haven't seen a town. But it seems like they've not even been prepped about how there are lots of houses there and the store contains this-that-and-the-other. And, I mean... these girls are with their parents ALL THE TIME. They live in a 1-room house. Ma's chores are largely mind-numbing and not "thought work". They go a whole season without leaving the house. Every seventh day, they have nothing to do except tell stories.

How are Pa and Ma not telling stories about town life and accustoming the girls to the idea? They must KNOW about town life; Ma came from fashionable-back-east. It seems like either this was played up for literary effect or like the Ingalls didn't talk to their kids much or like they didn't want to talk to the kids about town life. Why? Because they couldn't have it? Because Pa didn't like it?

Anyway, the storekeeper singles Mary out for attention.

   The storekeeper said to Pa and Ma, “That’s a pretty little girl you’ve got there,” and he admired Mary’s golden curls. But he did not say anything about Laura, or about her curls. They were ugly and brown.

I would have liked Ma better if she'd said something like, "Thank you! I'm proud of both of my beautiful girls," or something. But oh well.

   After dinner, Pa went back to the store to talk awhile with other men. Ma sat holding Carrie quietly until she went to sleep. But Laura and Mary ran along the lake shore, picking up pretty pebbles that had been rolled back and forth by the waves until they were polished smooth.

One thing that strikes me, reading through, is how much Pa has companionship but Ma does not. Later in the book, lots of men will show up looking for Pa or to work with him, but it's a rare event for Ma to meet with another woman. Men travel around and help each other, but women stay home and mind the children. Neat! What a neat society for women!

   Laura was so happy, when she ran through the sand to Pa, with all those beautiful pebbles in her pocket. But when Pa picked her up and tossed her into the wagon, a dreadful thing happened.
   The heavy pebbles tore her pocket right out of her dress. The pocket fell, and the pebbles rolled all over the bottom of the wagon box.
   [...] “Stop crying, Laura,” she said. “I can fix it.” She showed Laura that the dress was not torn at all, nor the pocket. The pocket was a little bag, sewed into the seam of the dress skirt, and hanging under it. Only the seams had ripped. Ma could sew the pocket in again, as good as new.
   “Pick up the pretty pebbles, Laura,” Ma said. “And another time, don’t be so greedy.”

So here's an unrelated story. When I was a kid, Mom called me "lazy" from time to time. She meant it as a motivational thing, I'm sure, and she didn't see a lot of value in reading and playing video games all the time, preferring me to be more active. Now that I'm grown, she stresses over the fact that I repeatedly run myself into the ground working too hard on projects. "Why can't you just relax?" she worries.

All of which is a long way to say: you really can't predict what your child will internalize, but it's a good idea to try to keep the character judgments (lazy, greedy, gluttonous, etc.) to a minimum.


Isabel C. said...

Oddly enough, I find I can get to sleep relatively easily on foam rollers these days. Of course, I'm an adult and thus my body clock may be more set; also, I can (and have) sleep on a wooden bench, so I may have a mutant power here.

I hear you on the humidity, though. Apparently setting lotion helps, but I have yet to find any.

Pqw, who used to be Laiima said...

I think the preference for blond hair over brown might be Colorism. Like, I'm wondering if people everywhere might prefer lighter skin over darker skin not just because of racism, but maybe there is an underlying reason that in effect caused racism? Iow, maybe racism is a side effect of the other thing, whatever it is.

You might think it's rarity -- most people in the world, no matter what their ethnicity is, have brown hair and brown eyes (and often, brown skin). I've read that blond hair, which mostly occurs in Europeans (although also in some Melanesians and Africans, iirc), happens along ~ 14% of the time in people of European descent. But redheads are 1/2 as common as that in Europeans - 7% - and yet, red hair is often, well, demonized, as being a 'mark of Satan'. Or characterized as ugly or unruly.

When you think of people, usu women, dyeing their hair, blond is WAY more popular than red. Blond also trumps unnatural colors, like blue or pink or stripes or whatever.

I was a redhaired child, but my hair was light brown by age 10. (So I identified with Laura.) My sister was tow-haired, as my mother and father had both been. Both my father and my sister's hair got so dark that for many years I thought they had black hair. My mother began dyeing her hair almost-platinum-blond as a young woman - neither my father nor any of her kids ever saw her natural hair color, until it had turned entirely grey. My sister always wanted to go platinum blonde, but that would've required such drastic double-processing (maybe triple-processing?), she was afraid her hair would fall out from the stress. So despite being a brunette since age 8 or so, she hates brown hair. It's really sad.

Lots of food for thought anyway.

Randomosity said...

I wonder if the emphasis on how blond Mary is might be because much of the time when everyone else has dark hair, the blond won't last.

I have two sisters who were platinum blond at birth. My brother and I were both dark. I'm a couple shades from blue-black and it stayed that way. By the time my sisters hit their teens, their platinum darkened to light brown. If you look at their school pictures from grade school on, you can watch the progression of darkening hair. In adulthood, their hair is as off-black as mine.

This coloration runs in the family. We're all dark-haired, but most of us started out blond that darkened over time. I'm the exotic one (oddly enough, not my brother, though he started life as dark as me.)

★☆ keri ☆★ said...

Maybe random: I really hated the emphasis on blonde hair = beautiful here. My mom is the same way (she had sandy blonde hair as a child, but as she grew older it darkened, and that apparently caused a Complex with her), and always said "oh, how beautiful my blonde hair was". I happened to like having near-black brown hair, like my dad and my Nanny (I adored my mom's mom and wanted to grow up to be like her - she grew up on a farm, incidentally). I also really love(d) the color pink. It's my favorite color ever and always has been. So there's a scene here or in Prairie where Laura and Mary get into a snit about how Ma gives Mary the blue ribbons for blonde hair and Laura the pink ribbons for brown hair, and they switch. Pink was treated as inferior somehow, and I hated that not only was I being told that I was ugly for looking like Laura, but it was wrong to have pink as my favorite color (which was also backed up because of weird societal stuff saying that feminists don't like pink...? but that was before the huge pink wave in the mid-late nineties, when marketing people decided that women/girls would only like things in pink or purple)

For what it's worth, I now have hot pink hair, at least in part, the rest being my natural near-black brown, so I was able to fight back against this nonsense. And I love having hot pink hair - it's really flattering for my skin tone, much more so than the ashy-blonde-ish color my bleached hair has when the pink fades, or even my natural dark brown (with ash-blonde undertones instead of red or blue-black undertones). I'm so lucky that I work in the arts and no one blinks when someone related to an art gallery or museum has unnaturally colored hair.

Nina said...

I really internalized the whole "blonde hair is better" thing when I read these books as a kid and was really bothered when my hair darkened as I got older (although my hair was never super blonde, even as a young child). I eventually learned to appreciate my hair color and I really like it now, but it was very upsetting when I was a child. My older daughter has blonde hair that is starting to darken to a light brown now (which is to be expected looking at the coloring of the rest of the family), but she has gotten/gets a lot of compliments to her "beautiful blonde hair!" and I just cringe when people say that because I don't want her to begrudge her own hair color later in life or internalize that she is only beautiful when her hair is blonde. Plus, my younger daughter was born with a head of brown hair, and I don't want her to have a complex about it later (at 3 weeks old, she is a little young for that now, lol) by growing up listening to people complimenting her older sister's hair.

Randomosity said...

I haven't internalized the Blond is Better idea that the rest of society seems to be infected with. When I read these books as a kid - my sister had the entire series and I read all of her books, including the anthropology textbooks when she went to college - I thought Laura's family was weird for being so adoring of blond hair.

As the exotic one for having dark hair from birth, I ended up in a kiddie beauty pageant and that's when my inability to sit still for long and no one having told me what was going on combined to make me the most obnoxious brat ever. My parents took me home and I wasn't entered in the pageant after all.

I also ended up getting gray hair in my 20s, starting with getting a stripe. My first dye job was a koolaid job. I dyed it green, so I had black hair with a green stripe. Black doesn't take the koolaid color, but gray does. It lasts for several months. Koolaid, conditioner, wrap in saran wrap, sleep on it, rinse with hot water, it's very moisturizing for your hair.

Amaryllis said...

Then Ellen said, in a very small voice, "Do you like dolls with yellow hair the best?"

Now it happened that Elizabeth Ann had very positive convictions on this point which she had never spoken of, because Aunt Frances didn't REALLY care about dolls. She only pretended to, to be company for her little niece.

"No, I DON'T!" answered the little girl emphatically. "I get just sick and tired of always seeing them with that old, bright-yellow hair! I like them to have brown hair, just the way most little girls really do!"

Ellen lifted her eyes and smiled radiantly. "Oh, so do I!" she said.

Understood Betsy, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, 1916

EdinburghEye said...

OT, but I love Betsy (and Cousin Ann).

Silver Adept said...

Maybe blonde-ness was a sign of wealth and privilege in the sense of "everything in the sum turns dark, so blonde hair wasn't exposed to sun much?" Or perhaps it was an indication of good Viking stock in your gene pool?

I don't know how the girls don't know about town, though - surely they would have to go in at some point to collect...oh. Rugged! Pioneer! Life! Right.

depizan said...

Except that blond hair actually works the other way. *says the blond* Also light brown hair. Maybe hair in general. The more sun, the lighter it gets.

Good Viking stock's a possibility, though.

Loquat said...

Seconding Depizan - I have brown hair, but when I spend lots of time in the sun the top layers tend to turn almost-blonde. I'd go with blonde hair being considered prettier because of its resemblance to gold, but I don't have any evidence for that.

Silver Adept said...

It certainly wouldn't be the first time that society thought X was true, when it turns it that !X was reality.

Possible content note: slavery (mention), racism (mention)

I'm going with good Viking stock, though, based on the amount of literature that talks about dark people as animals (and the whole slavery thing, too) at the time, before it, and afterward as well.

Arania said...

You ask in your post: "So what are they eating? Are they really living on cured meat and canned vegetables two or three seasons out of the year?"

The answer is yes. In the very first chapter, in the "food porn" passages, the book tells you exactly what they're going to eat all winter:

Now the potatoes and carrots, the beets and turnips and cabbages were gathered and stored in the cellar, for freezing nights had come.
Onions were made into long ropes, braided together by their tops, and then were hung in the attic beside wreaths of red peppers strung on threads. The pumpkins and the squashes were piled in orange and yellow and green heaps in the attic’s corners.
The barrels of salted fish were in the pantry, and yellow cheeses were stacked on the pantry shelves.

And that's AFTER the venison and BEFORE the bacon, both of which are thoroughly saturated in gorgeous-smelling hickory smoke.

That sounds pretty good to me! It's eating seasonally, exactly what a "gourmet locavore" restaurant would feed you in the middle of winter and early spring. Yummy!

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