In the fifteenth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, Omakayas and Laura become adults, meet some nice fellows, and get twitterpated! Meanwhile, the US government plants a lotta trees. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!
These Happy Golden Years
We’re almost there, folks! This, the 8th book in the Little House series, takes place from 1881-1885 and covers Laura’s brief stint as a school teacher and her courtship and marriage to Almanzo Wilder.
By this point in the series, the focus has transitioned from “chronicle of pioneer life” to “personal Romeo-and-Juliet chronicle”. Although there are a few references to current events of the time, and we do learn about courtship and fashion through Character-Laura’s actions, the bulk of the book focuses on the process of Laura and Almanzo spending time together and eventually getting married and moving into their first house on Almanzo’s homestead. A few notes on their relationship:
- A large part of Laura and Almanzo’s initial interest in each other is due to their mutual love of horses. As we saw in Farmer Boy, Almanzo is all about horses, and the first time Laura ever notices him in De Smet is because of his beautiful team, Prince and Lady. As they court, they go on countless sleigh rides and buggy rides, including many behind a flighty team of half-broken horses that the townsfolk literally bet Laura will refuse to ride behind. (Of course, she goes!) One of the subtle ways we see Almanzo and Laura begin to understand each other is that Almanzo allows Laura (who was probably 16 or 17 at the time!) to drive one of the half-broken horses — and she does it! That is some serious horse-cred right there.
- Laura is SO SLOW to become interested in Almanzo! Part of it is that he is ten years her senior — they began courting at 15/25 and married at 18/28. But I think another reason it feels so slow to me is that Author Laura is very guarded in what she shares about her emotions, even in her retelling of her childhood and courtship. Even when Laura and Almanzo finally get engaged, Laura is unable to directly express even to her family (or the reader!) how she feels. When they ask her if she loves Almanzo or just his horses, she reponds “shakily” with “I couldn’t have one without the other,” noting that “Ma smiled at her, Pa cleared his throat gruffly, and Laura knew they understood what she was too shy to say” (p.217). This is simultaneously adorable (because by this point we’ve been waiting for the inevitable Twue Wuv for 200 pages!) and frustrating, because she never says the words, so there isn’t really much catharsis. It’s just a different level of “propriety” than we’re used to today.
- Laura actually refuses (with Almanzo’s support) to say “obey” in her wedding vows. I totally didn’t remember this, so it surprised me a little! But then, once Character-Laura explained it and I thought about Laura’s personality, it makes total sense: “I do not want to vote [unlike Almanzo’s sister, who is “for women’s rights”]. But I can not make a promise that I will not keep” (p.269). Laura is totally a stubborn free-spirit, which is part of what makes readers (and Almanzo) love her. So it makes total sense that (a) she could not in good conscience promise to obey without question, and (b) she would marry someone who appreciated and supported her in that. (Though I still don’t know why she doesn’t want to vote.)
So Almanzo drives Laura around, and eventually they sorta like each other, and then they get married — THE END! …Except that there’s one more (short) book in the series about their first four years of marriage. Next week! =)
Honestly, what was more intriguing to me than the courtship was a quick side-mention about “tree claims” and the planned forestation of the prairie. Here’s the excerpt:
There was a small claim shanty on Almanzo’s homestead. On his tree claim there were no buildings at all, but the young trees were growing well. He had set them out carefully, and must cultivate and care for them for five years; then he could prove up on the claim and own the land. The trees were thriving much better than he had expected at first, for he said that if trees would grow on those prairies, he thought they would have grown there naturally before now.
“These government experts have got it all planned,” he explained to Laura. “They are going to cover these prairies with trees, all the way from Canada to Indian Territory. It’s all mapped out in the land offices, where the trees ought to be, and you can’t get that land except on tree claims. They’re certainly right about one thing; if half these trees live, they’ll seed the whole land and turn it into forest land, like the woods back East.” (p.170-1)
This struck me as strange, because it’s clear THAT the government wants trees… but I didn’t understand WHY they would want to make the prairie look like the forests back east!
I did a little research. The law behind this is an addition to the Homestead Act of 1863, under which the land that had been taken from Indigenous peoples was given in 160-acre sections to settlers provided that they would farm and “improve on” the land for 5 years, after which they owned the land. In 1873, an additional Timber Culture Act was passed, allowing homestead claimants to file for additional land and, as Almanzo says, keep it if they planted and successfully raised trees on it.
Analysis of said Timber Culture Act was scarce, but I did find a quote from premier homestead historian Paul Gates about the rationale behind this initiative: “to get groves of trees growing in the hope that they would affect the weather and bring more rainfall, to provide a source of fencing, fuel wood, and building materials in the future, and to provide another method by which land could be acquired in areas where larger units than the usual 160 acres seemed necessary.”
Based on this and some reflection, here’s my conclusion: Within a settler-centric framework these reasons make sense — to perpetuate their way of life the settlers need rain for crops and wood from trees — but that still assumes that the settlers’ way is superior and takes precedence over the indigenous way, INCLUDING the indigenous plants! To me, this is just another layer of the white supremacy that takes as gospel that white ways are higher than all other ways and justifies environmental destruction and even human genocide all to fuel its self-propagation.
Seriously, the arrogance of trying to change the weather so that you don’t have to adapt your way of life to a different climate and ecosystem? Please! (Not that I can say that from a high horse as I write in my climate-controlled house, comfortably cool in mid-June… I’m working on it!)
Anyway. This topic is something I’d never considered before, and definitely one I want to learn more about. (Anyone have a connection with an ethno-environmentalist historian??? Is that even a thing???)
(**Edited to Note: I investigate this question more deeply in my Imperial Geography project.)
The Porcupine Year
The third Birchbark House book begins with a scene where Omakayas and little brother Pinch are swept away by a swift river current while out canoeing. To me, this opening scene sums up a lot of the themes in this book:
- The Anishinabe are still exiled to a foreign place. Even the way the river and the forest are described at the very start gave me a feeling of dark, eerie claustrophobia — totally different than the light, magical open feeling when the Anishinabe are on their home island in Lake Superior.
- Pinch and Omakayas are nearly adults! Just the fact that they are canoeing far from camp by themselves sets this up already. But they are also hunting (taking responsibility to provide for the family) and they talk and relate to each other in a much more adult and sophisticated manner — even though they are still goofy siblings, too.
- Names are a flexible and important part of Anishinabe life. While on this excursion, Pinch finds a porcupine friend (hence the book’s title) and adopts him, allowing the little guy to ride on his head. Not only does this pet make for some ADORABLE illustrations (see above), but the sight of Pinch with a porcupine on his head gives rise to his new name: Quill! Late in the book, Omakayas is also given a new name in a significant ceremony after she shows bravery and maturity.
- Omakayas has both a sense of humor and a conscience — which makes for really believable relationships. [SPOILER ALERT!!] When Omakayas and Quill return from getting washed down the river, they discover their funeral in progress, as their families have found evidence that they drowned. Quill decides that they will dress as ghosts and have a little fun. Omakayas goes along, despite her misgivings — but what I love most is how Erdrich allows her to experience BOTH emotions simultaneously: “Omakayas knew that this was a very bad idea, and yet, something in her was thrilled. It was the chance of the situation.” (p.27)
Needless to say, this opening scene and the relationship we see developing between Omakayas and her brother is a perfect encapsulation of why I love these books!
Another thing I particularly love — as I’ve mentioned previously — is how realistically messy the relationships are. A great example of that in Porcupine Year is a confrontation between Auntie Muskrat and her sister (Yellow Kettle / Omakayas’s mom) and mother (Nokomis). Two Strike, Omakayas’s cousin, has grown increasingly arrogant about her hunting skills and demeaning of women’s work and the women in her family, even her mother and Nokomis. After Two Strike orders Yellow Kettle around (I was like YOU DID NOT!!!), Nokomis firmly but kindly rebukes Auntie Muskrat about the way she is allowing her daughter to grow up selfish: “It is not good for her to think that her skills are her own. They were given by the Creator, and the Creator can take them away” (p.152). What’s even cooler is that after some initial frustration, Auntie Muskrat takes this criticism in stride, acknowledges that she has been struggling since she is without her husband, and apologizes to her mother and sister. (After which they hilariously set Auntie Muskrat up with a very eligible bachelor!) This open and healthy conflict resolution is especially refreshing after reading a whole book of Laura not even willing to write “I love you” about her husband!
There were two things I wanted more of in this book:
- Although there is some discussion about the “talk of making one big home for all of us” (p.45), there is relatively little movement on the US-Anishinabe-relations front. Selfishly, since my project is looking at the period of Indian relocation, I wanted to read about how Omakayas dealt with that. But in a way, I can appreciate how nice it is to conclude the main trilogy here when Omakayas’s life still has relatively few limits (other than initial relocation to Bwaaneg territory). (**Note — there is actually a fourth book, Chickadee, which tells about Omakayas’s children — I assume that will take place more into the reservation era? I’m reading it for next week…)
- I wanted more about Omakayas’s romance!!! In this book, Omakayas sort of has a crush on this guy… and then at the end of the book they start courting a bit… and they remind Nokomis and Yellow Kettle and Deydey of when Yellow Kettle and Deydey were courting… and then THE BOOK JUST ENDS!!! After reading the archetypal “happily ever after” story in Happy Golden Years I totally wanted more of that in this book too! But, I guess I’ll have to make do with open-ended adorableness and the knowledge that there is one more book….
There are several other significant events in this book — but I really don’t want to ruin them for you, so you’ll just have to read and find out yourself!
As was somewhat my intention when I scheduled the side-by-side reading of LHotP and BBH, the juxtaposition of these two stories makes it clear that whether you’re a young American settler or a young Anishinabe exile, you grow up, you fall in love (probably), and your life with your family goes on. What’s broken about this — and what was my even bigger intention when I scheduled the side-by-side reading of LHotP and BBH — is that the reason this particular young American settler was able to have her story in the location she had it is because of the displacement of this particular young Anishinabe exile and many others. The reason I’m growing up, married, and living my life in the location I’m doing it is because of that same displacement of equally valuable, equally valid, equally important Native lives. This creates a huge cognitive dissonance — it feels icky. It feels wrong. It is. And there’s not an easy solution — I can’t just cry or make a donation or forget about it and make it better. But that’s what happened. And right now I’m just sitting in it.
Hopefully the more I sit in it, the more I will be able to acknowledge that it’s a part of me, that it’s a part of us, and maybe a way forward will emerge, if only because I can’t go backward.
Tune in next week for THE CONCLUSION (!!) of this project — Chickadee (BBH #4), The First Four Years (LH #9), and Wounded Knee Ch. 18 & 19. (I may need multiple posts for this….)