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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and the fascinating accounts of everyday life at the time (latter half of the 1800's) stand as accurate and colorful historical references.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.
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