In the eleventh week of Little House / Wounded Knee, Laura’s life is turned upside down and we meet another spunky (Ojibwa) heroine. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!
By the Shores of Silver Lake
In this the fifth book in the Little House series, we follow the Ingalls as they leave their failing farm on Plum Creek and settle in what would become the final Ingalls home at De Smet, South Dakota.
This installment really started off with a shocker, as in the first two pages we learn that the entire family has been stricken with scarlet fever and, as a result of her illness, Laura’s older sister Mary is now blind. BOOM! As the book progresses, we see how appropriate this sudden beginning is, though, because Mary’s blindness changes everything.
With Mary blind — and thus, in this relatively poor and isolated prairie family, rendered significantly less helpful to the family’s survival — Laura becomes the de facto eldest child. The shift is subtle, but even twelve-year-old Laura understands it very clearly. First, she must now be responsible to help Mary, as Pa says that “she must be eyes for Mary” (p.2). Second, when Pa leaves to begin a job elsewhere, Laura realizes that she now has primary responsibility for helping Ma take care of things: “Laura knew then that she was not a little girl anymore” (p.14). Mary’s illness and blindness force Laura to grow up all at once. It’s a lot for a little girl to bear, but in the midst of it I was struck by Laura’s “seeing out loud” for Mary on their very first train ride out to South Dakota:
“The sunshine comes slanting in the south windows, in wide stripes over the red velvet seats and the people. Corners of sunshine fall on the floor, and keep reaching out and going back. … Now I will see the people,” Laura went on murmuring. “In front of us is a head with a bald spot on top and side whiskers. He is reading a newspaper. He doesn’t look out the windows at all. Farther ahead are two young men with their hats on. They are holding a big white map and looking at it and talking about it. I guess they’re going to look for a homestead too. Their hands are rough and calloused so they’re good workers. And farther ahead there’s a women with bright yellow hair and, oh, Mary! the brightest red velvet hat with pink roses –” (p.23-24)
Laura’s descriptions really are lovely and vivid, and I wonder if “seeing out loud” for Mary is what helped her to develop a writer’s view of the world.
Finally, and more significantly, as a result of Mary’s blindness Laura discovers that she will be saddled with fulfilling Ma’s dreams of having another teacher in the family:
“Another thing, Laura,” said Pa. “You know Ma was a teacher, and her mother before her. Ma’s heart is set on one of you girls teaching school, and I guess it will have to be you. So you see you must have your schooling.”
Laura’s heart jerked, and then she seemed to feel it falling, far, far down. She did not say anything. She knew that Pa and Ma, and Mary too, had thought that Mary would be a teacher. Now Mary couldn’t teach, and — “Oh, I won’t! I won’t!” Laura thought. “I don’t want to! I can’t!” Then she said to herself, “You must.”
She could not disappoint Ma. She must do as Pa said. So she had to be a school teacher when she grew up. Besides, there was nothing else she could do to earn money. (p.127)
This whole development made me SO ANGRY!! First of all, I detest and protest that Laura’s entire profession should be decided for her because her Ma wants a teacher in the family — ESPECIALLY when we consider how much Laura has hated school and being cooped up indoors. This level of vicarious control — not to mention direct contradiction of Laura’s personality and natural outdoorsiness — makes me grind my teeth. This is NOT how children should be raised! Secondly, it’s an extra kick to my frustration with these circumstances to hear Laura say, almost forlornly, “Besides, there was nothing else she could do to earn money.” Laura, the energetic child who wants to “fly like the birds” with her Pa and explore the outdoors, the girl who is clever and resourceful and brave, has NO OTHER OPTIONS to earn money. Because she’s a girl. The feeling we get from this passage is one of instant restriction. Laura goes from having access to the entire wide open prairie to having the entire course of her young life narrowed and chosen for her. It’s like she goes from Freebird to corset in 2.3 seconds. I feel so sad and frustrated reading this.
In addition to the official beginnings of Laura’s forced grown-up-ification, we also see the return of some pretty strong anti-Indian racism, especially from Ma. Author-Laura throws in a few “yelling like Indians” narration bits, but then she gives a couple pretty damning quotes to Ma:
“I’ve always heard you can’t trust a half-breed,” Ma said. Ma did not like Indians; she did not even like half-Indians.
“We’d all have been scalped down on the Verdigris River, if it hadn’t been for a full-blood,” said Pa.
“We wouldn’t have been in any danger of scalping if it hadn’t been for those howling savages,” said Ma, “with fresh skunk skins around their middles.” And she made a sound that came from remembering how those skunk skins smelled. (p.82)
Gee, Ma, tell us how you really feel! For me, I can glean two main nuggets from this exchange: (1) Some settlers reeeeeally hated Indians (like Ma); and some “only” stereotyped and stole land from them (like Pa). Also, note that Author-Laura lets Ma have the last word, thus “winning” the argument. (2) Between this unusually negative portrayal of Ma and the situation with the teaching, I’m getting a strong vibe that Laura didn’t have a very good relationship with her Ma. (In fact, after Pa passed away, Laura never saw her Ma again and didn’t attend her funeral.) And I, as a reader, am starting to really dislike Ma as a character.
Silver Lake continues the trend of the series focusing more and more on Laura personally and less and less on wider trends about migration and settlement. I really feel for Laura having to be scrunched into the narrow roles she’s expected to fill as she grows up.
The Birchbark House
As I wrote about last week, this book (and its sequels) is a last-minute addition to my lineup, but I’m SO GLAD I found it. The Birchbark House follows Omakayas, a young Anishinabe (Ojibwa) girl who lives on an island in Lake Superior with her family and community. Simply put, this book is beautiful. Reading it felt refreshing and rich and intimate. Not to mention, I loved getting an alternate perspective on white settlement, but in the same genre as LHotP. Louise Erdrich is a genius. Go read this book right now.
Now, if you are bound and determined that you are not going to read this book (or you’re the kind of person who loves spoilers), here are some things I loved about this book:
1) It’s based on real events in the lives of the author’s ancestors. The fact that Erdrich uncovered this while researching her family and decided to write about it makes the whole book feel so much richer and more real to me. So that’s pretty cool. Also, Erdrich makes a point of including as many Ojibwa words as possible, which I liked and which I thought brought an extra layer of thoughtfulness and heritage to the novel.
2) The story is intimate and relational. After reading Dee Brown’s historical writing and Author Laura’s somewhat didactic, reporter-style writing, this book was a surprising and refreshing look into Omakayas’s feelings and relationships as she grows up. From the Most Heartbreaking Opening Line Ever (“The only person left alive on the island was a baby girl.”) to Omakayas’s real and (mostly) loving relationships with her adoptive family members and her home, I loved how connected I felt to this book and the characters, especially Omakayas and Grandma/Nokomis. In LHotP, I feel like Laura feels sort of real, and everyone else is sort of real only in relation to her. But in this book, I felt like the whole community was actually real.
3) I like the parenting/family model presented here WAYYYYYYYY more than Ma’s! First of all, I loved the strong communal emphasis in Omakayas’s family. Not only does her Grandma live with them, but they are also very close with the rest of the community. It felt much more supportive and less transactional than Pa’s feelings about good neighbors being valuable but not wanting to “owe” anybody. Second, there’s a really beautiful scene where Grandma/Nokomis, a medicine woman, simply asks Omakayas questions about the plants and animals talking to her:
‘Listen to them,’ was all Nokomis said, touching Omakayas’s face. She spoke so earnestly, with such emotion in her voice, that Omakayas was always to remember that moment, the bend in the path where they stood with the medicines, her grandmother’s kind face and the words she spoke (p.104).
This is such an honoring, empowering way to treat children — guiding them and supporting them, but not overriding them. I was really taken by it — especially just having gotten mad at how Ma was forcing Laura to teach!
4) I love the solemnity with which Omakayas is taught to interact with the natural world. There are too many examples to share them all here, but one that stood out was a scene where Omakayas meets and plays with some bear cubs in the woods and then is surprised by the mama bear. This is how she responds:
‘Nokomis,’ she said to the bear, calling her grandmother. ‘I didn’t mean any harm. I was only playing with your children. Gaween onjidah. Please forgive me. … I fed them some berries. I wanted to bring them home, to adopt them, have them live with me at my house as my little brothers. But now that you’re here, Grandmother, I will leave quietly. These scissors in my hands are not for killing, just for sewing. They are nothing compared to your teeth and claws'” (p.31, emphasis added).
From this passage and others, it is abundantly clear that (a) Omakayas treats other creatures — especially bears — as respected equals, and (b) someone has strongly modeled for her the importance of this, because she reverts to it even when she’s afraid. Overall, I was struck by how respectful this feels.
I really strongly recommend that anyone looking for a Little-House-esque book (or just a great children’s book) check this out. So good.
Also, there are several ways that this book is actually really similar to Little House. First, Omakayas is a strong female character — spunky and very human, much like Laura. She even has a perfect older sister, too (named Angeline). Second, like Laura in Silver Lake, Omakayas is forced to grow up quickly when a serious illness strikes her community, and a significant portion of the latter half of the book deals with her grief at the loss of loved ones. Third, there is, in a way, a similar dichotomy between the outdoorsy life and the “civilized” town life — but in this book “civilization” — represented by the literacy and Christianity taught at a white church in town — isn’t portrayed as inherently better or worthy of substantial sacrifice. Some people in Omakayas’s community decide to attend church and learn to read “chimookoman tracks” (white people writing), but that choice is left up to individuals. Nokomis sums it up: “Take their ways if you need them… but don’t forget your own. You are Anishinabe. Your mother and your grandmother are wolf clan people. Don’t forget” (p.110). The dichotomy is similar, but unlike Laura Omakayas is given a choice about her own destiny. Of course, it remains to be seen how long she’ll have the freedom to make that choice, since the threat of white settlement pushing the Anishinabe further west is murmured about in this book already. (Guess we’ll have to wait till book 2!)
(The “where are they now” for the Anishinabe/Ojibwa will come at the conclusion of the series.)
I’m not sure how much of the differences here can be chalked up to the authors’ different writing styles versus actual differences between white culture and Anishinabe culture… although I know those overlap some, too… but there are definitely some marked differences. Most notable for me are the treatment of children (as mentioned above) and the tone of each author. Author-Laura’s writing is significantly more factual and didactic (lots of little “lessons” built in) and less emotional, while Erdrich’s writing gives us a very personal look inside Omakayas’s thoughts and feelings and personal growth. I look forward to seeing how these different themes and the spunky characters of Laura and Omakayas progress throughout the books.
Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Ch. 15 & 16 and The Long Winter (LH #6).