Listening to the Little House series, following the lives of Laura and her family, has not been without its challenges. They are so strict, so obedient, so sufficient and skillful. They are themselves a kind of law that I will never live up to. Further, Laura always seems a bit hemmed in by her Ma, always a bit stifled, a bit cut off from her heart. Her joy and wonder, her spirit and personality seem rarely honored in the early books.
Laura must always wear her sunbonnet!
Yet, Pa always has a twinkle in his eye for her, and perhaps a song, and even Ma will occasionally relent. Later we indeed find out that Ma herself hates sowing! And later, Laura’s industry and self-sacrifice receives much of the praise it deserves.
The real turning point began for me in the fifth book, On the Shores of Silver Lake. This book opens with Laura relating to us Mary’s blindness from scarlet fever, the upcoming move, the death of Jack, the Brindle Bulldog, and a new sense of responsibility and loneliness.
The change is all couched in the loss of Jack, so poignant both for its sense of Jack’s goodness, Laura’s love for him, and her recognition of missed opportunities to show him the affection he craved. This moment culminates with the conviction that no one can fend for her anymore, that she is now on her own.
It is at this point that Laura begins to definitively emerge as an individual, as a loving and faithful member of the Ingalls family, but also as someone with her own sense of self. Mary and she argue several times, for instance, over how to use language, how to tell a story properly. Laura prefers to use figurative language; Mary prefers the literal (in this we certainly see the emergence of Laura the narrator, who must develop her own voice). In learning to see for Mary, Laura unwittingly is learning to see for all those who would later read her books.
It is at this point that Laura suddenly realizes Mary will no longer be able to become the teacher Ma wanted her to and that she, Laura, will have to fill this role. This realization fills her with dread, even a kind of horror, but she also feels it to be a responsibility. I mention this to point out some of the tension which shaped Laura’s life.
As Silver Lake and the succeeding books in the series unfold, we get a sense of a family in which individuals hold themselves and are held to a very strict code of behavior and sense of duty. We are also gently presented with the challenges they face as members of a family. We see more and more clearly that even Pa and Ma are not simply of one mind, that it is love and sacrifice which holds them together.
Pa really is a free spirit with a wandering foot. Ma would be much happier if they could just stop moving. At one point, Pa asks the girls if they will help him win his bet with Uncle Same by living on their claim for five years. Ma scolds Pa for calling it ‘gambling.’
Now, he nearly always tells Caroline that she is right, but this time he says that “everything’s more or less a gamble.” I mention this for its rarity, for its gentleness, but also for its freedom and forthrightness. This is not a battle over theology, but two people who love each other deeply and have committed themselves to seeing out life together and for their family.
Two books later, we find Laura so tired of studying that she slams her book shut and thumps it on the table saying “I don’t care! I don’t want to study! I don’t want to learn! I don’t want to teach school ever!” This is a breathless moment. Such an explosion of disgust and defiance will surely receive the full thunder of the law.
Yet, what happens next is truly wonderful and surprising. Her Pa goes out, and when he returns, he comes with news that the town will start a literary society. Readers are left to surmise that Laura’s outburst prompted him to do just this.
Pa saw and listened to Laura . He did not react punitively or with the force of law. Instead, he saw that she simply had too much studying, too much monotony, too little society. He did not abolish the law and do away with her need to work any more than he could have if he wished to, but in his wisdom he showed her mercy.
He helped make the world a little bit bigger and brighter for her. The world is bigger and brighter than it often seems. It is bigger and brighter than we can see, for it is the workmanship of God.
Pa speaks and acts not in light of a disobedience, but in light of a fully human reality. He read in her not failure, but need. And in his generous reading he found a way to give life and hope.