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Friday, October 23, 2009

Newspaper Column for October 2009

You Can't Go Back to Your Childhood, but...

… sometimes - even now - things we missed during our passage to adulthood can still be had.

Somehow I'd made it to the point where I’m old enough to be a grandmother but had never read a certain series of books; iconic, award-winning books loved by millions the world over. Though these books fall in the category of “children’s literature,” I decided it was time I found out what they were about, time to patch one of the holes in my reading list.

As you’d expect with children’s literature, the books are written simply, in a style that’s refreshingly uncluttered but conveys a rich sense of people, time and place. It’s easy to slip into the writer’s world, to become part of it and absorb what the author wants us to see, feel and hear.

These books are largely autobiographical, and the fascinating accounts of everyday life at the time (latter half of the 1800's) stand as accurate and colorful historical references. The people of the era were skilled at making the most of everything. Such ingenuity, hardiness and resourcefulness! While reading, we are delightfully drawn into their lives, and the telling of their tales provides fascinating little history lessons gently woven into a thoroughly enjoyable read. Consider the following tidbits from the first three books:

- A tall tree stump, dead and hollow, is converted to a smokehouse. A lid on the stump top kept the smoke inside, and pegs were fixed high on the inside of the trunk to keep the smoking meat out of reach of uninvited diners.

- Since natural butter is usually very pale - more white than yellow - carrot juice was added to give it a pleasing yellow hue.

- Provisions for winter, including dried and smoked meats, dried herbs, fruits and vegetables were stored in the upstairs loft of the one room cabin… the children’s bedroom area.

- A pig’s bladder was inflated and tied with a string to make a balloon for the children on the annual hog killing day.

- Severe winters meant lots of time indoors - especially at night time. This time was put to good use. After supper the family gathered around the fireplace, and father whittled or made bullets for pantry-stocking hunts by pouring melted lead into bullet forms; mother knitted, quilted or sewed to make warm clothing and blankets for the family, while the children quietly read, or the girls might sew while the boys whittled.

- The building of a log cabin was related, including how to chink cracks between the logs.

- Wonderful line drawings illustrate equipment and tools that look strange to our modern eyes… tools such as a homemade plane to smooth and shave ax-split sheets of oak into roof shingles.

- The school teacher, having no home of his own, stayed with the pupil’s families, rotating and spending two weeks in each home.

- Butternut hulls and other natural substances were used to dye wool and thread to make colored clothing.

- Melted tallow was regularly rubbed into moccasins (worn by young boys) and boots (worn by older boys) to keep the leather supple and waterproof.

No doubt some of you have guessed by now that the books I’m referring to are the series of books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the same books that inspired the popular TV show “Little House on the Prairie.” I’m currently on my third book in the series, although I’ve read a couple of other books in between, one being “The Letters of a Pioneer Woman” by Elinor Pruitt Stewart, which is just as fascinating, educational and absorbing as the Little House books.

It’s easy to idealize their time period, a time perceived as simpler, slower paced, more family oriented and lacking the stresses of modern life. And, in some ways it was easier, but in other ways, more difficult. Still, there is a pleasantly nostalgic element to the books. Depending on your age, some of the incidents related may stir up similar memories of your own childhood. In “Farmer Boy” Laura describes the childhood of her future husband, Almanzo, who lived in upstate New York. Laura tells of one cold night - forty below zero - when a cozy evening spent around the fireside with Mother knitting, Father scraping a new ax handle and the children reading, came to an end when the clock struck nine - bedtime. Leaving the warm room and a stove full of glowing embers, the eight year old Almanzo

“ran clattering upstairs. The bedroom was so cold that he could hardly unbutton his clothes and put on his long woolen nightshirt and nightcap. He should have knelt to say his prayers, but he didn’t. His nose ached with the cold and his teeth were chattering. He dived into the soft goose- feather bed, between the blankets, and pulled the covers over his nose.”

As I read the text I thought of my Grandad’s house. Long gone, it was a typical city home of the time: two stories, the front door opened onto the sidewalk, the bathroom was outside, and it had a creepy coal cellar in the basement. If you’re not familiar with coal, it’s heavy, messy to handle, and makes black soot as it burns. At the time using coal to warm homes was very common, so most houses had a coal cellar. When visiting my Grandad, I was less than enthusiastic about getting a bucket of coal for the fire. The coal cellar was in the basement and to reach it you went down a dimly lit slanted little hallway with a low roof. The coal was in a pile around the corner - where it was even darker and creepier - and you shoveled it into the coal bucket. The eerie, damp atmosphere of the cellar was made even more uninviting by the fact that there was a black skull and crossbones painted on the ceiling. My Dad, evidently harboring notions of villainous pirates, swashbuckling adventure and feats of derring do, had painted the foreboding pirate insignia on the ceiling as a youth. Gee, thanks Dad.

Of course, these coal heated homes had no central heat, which meant that the only warm room in the house was the room with the fireplace; little heat reached other areas of the house. As I read the account of Almanzo’s cold bedroom, I recalled a day long past, at my Grandad’s house, when I awoke one freezing morning to delicate patterns of ice sparkling on the inside of the windows. "Jack Frost has been during the night," my Mother said. Brrrr! I shivered as I read and remembered!

As a child I was an avid reader. I still am. My opinion that a good book is one of life’s greatest pleasures has not changed over the years. When I finish the Little House series I’ll be casting around to see what other classics I’ve missed, because a classic that has stood the test of time is always worth reading- regardless of when you read it.


Cathyann said...

So mant truths within this passage! I enjoyed reading it very much, Teresa. I too may dive into novels or biographies that passed me by, this winter.
When I read about the coal, I thought, gee, I was heaving buckets of coal into a stove in 1986!! to keep warm and I was in New Jersey not on the praire.
I agree about the pleasure of good books.

"JeanneG" said...

I've never read them either. I loved the show tho. All but the one when the adopted son got hooked on drugs. Icky.

Jan said...

What a wonderful article! I was an avid reader as a child also but missed many of the classics myself. My parents had bought the family farm and my father's many sisters and brothers had left many, many books there from their college days. I read everything I could and was never told that a book was too old for me even though some of the books were considered pretty racy for the time & my age!

My grandmother always got all of us kids a book from either the Bobsey Twins, Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys series for every Christmas. Those and Mother Goose and Little Golden Books were the books we had growing up! Somehow Little House on the Prairie was missed!

BTW, we also had a house with a coal furnace and creepy cellar!

Teresa said...

I see I'm not the only one with fond(?) memories of coal!

Aren't books wonderful? Like friends that are always there for you.

Cathy Gatland said...

My next-door neighbour (and still friend to this day) introduced me to 'Little House on the Prairie' books when I was about 12, for which I am ever grateful. I adored disappearing into that far away world of freezing cold and maple syrup. It definitely kindled a love of books and reading!

Victor Errington said...

Hi Teresa. I have just read for the first time your writings, and
they are brilliant. If you haven`t done already, you should do well writing good fact and fiction books. It seems to be your forte.
I shale read your writings in future. All the best Teresa.
P.S. Rosemary and I were taken to a restaurant today as a treat for my Birthday by one of our sons and his friend, it was great.

Candy said...

Teresa, I enjoyed this post! I loved the Little House series of books. "Anne of Green Gables", "Her Father's Daughter", "The Three Musketeers" and "Girl of the Limberlost" were some other childhood favorites. Your idea of finding classics that you've missed is a good one.

Victor is right. You write very well.

doughditties said...

Your thoughts on the ingenuity of the early settlers struck a nerve, in this day and age of having everything at our fingertips. When our son was 6 or so, I read the Little House series to him on cold winter evenings. As a result of those books, my husband and I noticed our son was more respectful of others and more content with our simple lifestyle.

p.s. Teresa, thank you for your comments on the treadle sewing machine. Also, I read your post on knitting for charity and am excited to begin knitting 8" squares. Your writing is inspirational!

Rosie said...

I've really enjoyed this post, Teresa. I often think I missed out on a lot of books as a child but I have many favourites I would like to read again too, I wonder if they will have the same effect on me now? I remember having to fetch buckets of coal from the outside coal house before it got dark in the winter - also how cold it was to leave the fireside to go to bed even with a warm milky drink and a hot water bottle:)

Jo Castillo said...

Ah, wonderful. I used to go up to the mill in town that had closed. There was a big pile of coal left after it closed. We used to sift through the junk and pick up coal for our wood stove in the kitchen and cooked with it. It was cheap and we didn't have to go haul wood. I preferred the smell of wood, though. :) Thanks for the memories.... I've never read these books either.

knittingdragonflies said...

I have never read these books, but when I worked 3rd shift I came home every morning, ate cereal, and watched the show on TV. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.
Great post

Harlem's A Hatin said...

I love this blog post. Very truthful!


Michelle said...

How wonderful to discover a classic. I remember reading it in 5th grade and loved it. The simple life sounds so enchanting!

The Weaver of Grass said...

My favourite childhood books are still on my bookshelf and I read them regularly as a special treat - Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland and - best of all - Anne of Green Gables - I never tire.

elizabethm said...

Just had to comment as I came to your post having put some coal on the fire! Lovely deep flame and the comforting heat of a stove is like nothing else. I would admit to having my electric blanket on upstairs!

Lynne said...

Hi Teresa,
I was just thinking about you earlier, and thinking I should call on you!
I love reading too. I haven't read Little House on the Prairie, nor am I very familiar with the TV series. But I am very interested in that period. I looked up the Letter's of a Pioneer Woman on Amazon and see it's available so I may send for it. A book I started reading a while ago is the History of the American Quilt which also covers that era. However I think I left it in Sweden as we were tight on how much we could bring, and it is a big book!
It's lovely to read your articles.
I expect this weekend will be a busy one over there with Hallowean. I'm not sure that it is celebrated here.
Enjoy your weekend.

Krista Meister said...

I absolute love the Laura Ingalls series, all of them. Great childhood memories. As an adult, I wanted to find out more about Laura Ingalls the person and have done extensive research into her life. Living in a simpler time is fascinating to me.

What a great post this was to read, especially with your own personal touches added and how your own childhood relates back to a simpler time.

Simone said...

Hello! I have just come over from Corners of my Mind. I have never read the 'Little House' books but did watch the televsion series as a child. I really want to read the books now after reading your descriptions. I remember cold winters as a child and of having ice inside the bedroom windows. I also remember the horrible smell of the paraffin heater that was used to heat the room!

Gary Keimig said...

enjoyed your last writing very much. I am sure it brings past meemories to many. Certainly did to me.
Thanks for your good wishes on my blog. Will sure be good to be normal again??

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