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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Visit the Past in Childhood Books and Shudder

Marilynne Robinson at age nine read Moby Dick and would have heard the voice of its tolerant narrator, Ishmael. Melville's novel has a multi-racial crew and is a work of genius for all time, especially now. A brilliant mind like Robinson's, even at nine, probably absorbed Moby Dick's extensive information about whaling. At her age I would have skipped all of it and, even now, find Melville's factual chapters tedious reading.

My point is that at Robinson's age, I was not reading literary fiction. Yet I made a leap from children's literature to popular fiction in fourth grade. My mother had a hardcover of Gone with the Wind, which I kept in my desk at school that year, though I cannot imagine I had anyone's permission.

In second and third grade I had read the Black Stallion Mysteries and the Little House series at least twice, the books borrowed from the public library. Back then, the Laura Ingalls Wilder books were without illustrations. My luck was to have a great-aunt Kathleen who gave me books. And in 1953 for Christmas, I received the new edition of Little House on the Prairie, with Garth Williams' black and white drawings, and his delightful cover of Laura and Mary in the back of the family's covered wagon.


Last evening, I reread a 1953 first edition, which I found at a book sale. (Too long to explain the loss of my childhood library.) This book's jacket looks ragged, though the book itself is in perfect condition after 68 years. The hardcover is two-thirds pink; and on the tan border are symbols of wheels and wheat.

Returning to childhood books allows a journey into an earlier self and times. Last night I reflected on why I found Pa so comforting and Ma annoying; and why I identified with Laura and disliked her perfect sister, Mary. At age eight I did not doubt a word I read, especially about an overloaded wagon traveling all the way from the big woods of Wisconsin to land forty miles from Independence in Kansas.

What appalls me is that I had no knowledge then of my family's history; that my great-great grandfather had gone from Vermont to California in 1849. This was my great-aunt Kathleen's grandfather, Eugene Chase. I never knew about Eugene's journey until I found his letters in 1979. (see Here to There and Back Again on my website). In fourth grade we studied the peaceful California Indian tribes. Yet this did not balance a steady diet of Old Westerns, with savage Indian warriors. As a kid I loved Long John Silver and his sidekick, Tonto. It was not until I began Spanish in ninth grade that I understood what an insult it was to be given a name that meant stupid.

Indians (only later is Osage used) enter the log cabin. Both wear skunk skins around their waists, as if to suggest they lack the olfactory sense of smell. They are described as "dirty and scowling and mean." The dog Jack hates Indians, as does Ma, and other settlers, too. Yet by novel's end, Laura understands the Ingalls have been on land that does not belong to them. A reader's last Indian image is of Du Chene, a 'noble savage'; and his wordless communication with Pa, which assures that no harm will come to the Ingalls.


I will say that Wilder's novel is not as cringe inducing as Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, about which I wrote months ago. Yet it is obvious the Indians are given short sight. Pa's understanding nature, however, helps him accept the government's decree to leave Indian territory without waiting to be removed from the land. In the final pages, in the covered wagon, Pa is playing his fiddle, singing songs, ever the American optimist with his folk wisdom: "No great loss without some small gain."

My daughters had sets of all eight paperback books; and in 1983, they visited the Laura Ingalls Wilder house and museum in Mansfield, Missouri. Although I deplore the dark web and fear the proliferation of untruth in social media, I relish the resource that the internet provides. I wish it had been available when Michelle and Bonnie were reading the Wilder novels. I do think every youngster in the USA should be required in school to read the sixth book in the series. The cold, the hunger, small hands painfully tearing dried wheat, day after freezing day: The Longest Winter remains vividly in the mind.


Next week: How a recent dream with a human-sized dragon fly returned me to Franz Kafka!

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