Friday, 7 December 2018

Little House in the Suburbs

In a Goodreads group I belong to we have a challenge this season to read a book set in another member's region. Since our group is online and consists of members from all over the world (mostly America) some have been reading books about New Zealand where of course yours truly is from and I have been challenged to read books set in the midwest of America, as well as Vancouver, Canada and New York City.

This is how I got on to reading 'The Little House on the Prairie' series of books and about the places author Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up in the late 19th century which is the midwest plains of America, west of the Mississippi river.  Laura wrote about seven books in this series starting with Little House in the Big Woods, where she lived in a log cabin and her father had to fend off wolves, bears, and panthers. The second book is about her future husband Almanzo's life as a farmer boy, and the third is the famous 'Little House on the Prairie'.

I am now on to reading the second book 'Farmer's Boy' in which Almanzo, aged nine, is constantly working - he even skips school so he can work at home on their family farm, and they have a lot to do! In fact I am so overwhelmed by all the work he does on the farm that I am comparing what I did when I was nine and I just cannot remember a thing, except going to school, where I was told I needed to stay in for as long as I can so I can get a good job (and, it wouldn't be farming, because, we don't have a farm) so I can earn enough to leave home and buy a house.  I know other people are told different things for example, some girls only went to school so they could flirt with the boys and eventually have babies. In some cultures, if you weren't coupled up by age 20 and left home to marry you might as well be an old maid. Hmm. I don't know that motherhood is any easier because I've seen mothers in their 30s and some are absolutely shattered by the sheer drudgery of looking after a household of children. Not to mention separated and divorced!

Anyway Almanzo, ever keen to prove himself as a young man, can't wait to grow up so he can do grown up things like drive horses. Meanwhile he helps breaks in calves, cuts ice for the ice-house, shears sheep, grows a massive prize pumpkin for the county fair, binds oats into sheaves, saves the corn from frost, plants potatoes, chops wood, milks cows, makes candles. His work ethic is amazing...and he isn't paid. His sisters sew, cook and make preserves. Then they go to school and with an education decide to get jobs in town that earned money instead of staying at home doing unpaid labour.

I am just exhausted reading about it. The homesteading American Dream, apparently, did not work out for a lot of people. Back in the day, the white settlers drove the Native Americans off their land as they headed further west, and basically claimed the prairie land as theirs to develop i.e farm. But the Native Americans knew that prairie land was arid and not suitable for farming, only grazing buffalo which soon became extinct. The American government's Homestead Act allowed people to claim some of that land, basically as squatters, farm it and make it pay. But because of ignorant farming practices, and lack of water as the land was in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains and flat as a pancake with no rivers, most homesteads failed to make a profit, and then...the great dust storms came. The 1930's were known as 'The Dirty Thirties' and devastated the midwest of America. So many abandoned houses and land when drought and wind whipped up the plowed to dust top soil, turning the area into a giant dustbowl. It was horrific.

At this point in time, you could say, people were ignorant and should never have farmed the prairies in the first place. Then it wouldn't have happened. The prairies are now mostly gone, replaced with irrigated fields of monoculture, but problems remain. Now the land is doused in chemicals to grow Round up ready crops. Grain and corn which is then processed into the junk food that people buy at their convenience today.

The Little House books are about a time when most things were still done by hand. So they are fascinating in the details of things, like, new shoes. You didn't go to the Warehouse and pick out a ready factory made pair, and get overwhelmed with all the choices available. A cobbler came to your house stayed for a few weeks and made you a pair! And it would last until they fell to pieces or you grew out of them.

On that note I am thinking when I am old and grey (which is probably not too far off) I might write a nostalgic children's series about growing up in the 1980's about this Little House in the suburbs and how Dad worked all his life to pay for said house and how Mum helped him.  In many ways, it's a dream, to own ones own house, and the land it's on. What's remarkable is the everyday sacrifices people make to make that dream a reality. Home Sweet Home indeed.