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O Pioneers!

August 10, 2011 | by

In early February 1996, an ice storm smothered my hometown with a blanket of deadly frost several inches thick. It was magnificent, sleek, and treacherous, the perfect surface for my eleven-year-old self to hurtle headlong on my mom’s Flexible Flyer, going briefly airborne before I hit the frozen pavement, my sled coming to rest squarely on my right hand. I spent the rest of that week inside my parents’ house, my right hand wrapped in ice and Ace bandages, and my left fumbling through a paperback copy of one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. I’d received the whole box set that Christmas and had promptly set about devouring them.

Despite my unhappy convalescence, I felt as if the ice storm was a gift of sorts, bestowed upon me from the great literary beyond by Laura herself. It was a chilly glimpse into her life, otherwise so remote from my own. When my dad went out to clear the driveway, he was Pa trekking out to the barn in a blizzard; when the power went out, briefly, and my mother boiled water for hot chocolate over the fireplace in our living room, she was Ma making chicory. When I rode in the back seat of our Plymouth Grand Voyager as it crept across icy, rutted surface roads en route to the emergency room, where my hand was deemed unbroken, my family was the Wilders crossing the frozen expanse of Lake Pepin on the way out to Indian Territory.

The writer and editor Wendy McClure also adored the Little House series as a child. After her mother died a few years ago, she fell back into them—fell so hard that her life became consumed, for a time, with churning butter and reading biographies and ferreting out the historical reality from the deeply beloved, quasifictional world of the stories. From it all, McClure wrote her own book, The Wilder Life, which came out last April and which I read in greedy bursts on my train trips to and from work. It was early spring in the South, the underground platforms already sagging with humidity. But daily my arms prickled with goose bumps as McClure rifled through the books’ most intense pleasures, the food and the cozy houses and the unceasing restlessness that pulls the Ingalls family ever westward. 

The primacy of the Little House series (its first installment was published in 1932) makes it hard to see a modern depiction of a young woman’s life on the dusty, flat expanses of nineteenth-century America as anything other than Wilder’s spiritual descendant. That’s a bit unfair, especially in the case of two films that debuted on either side of The Wilder Life’s release last spring: the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Charles Portis’s True Grit and Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff. Though set nearly a half-century apart (Meek’s in 1845 and Grit in the 1890s), both films feature young women who, like Laura, are too bold for their times, whose sunbonnets hang down their backs, whose hands are dirty, whose feet are sore, whose lives are tugged along by the wildness of the West.

In Meek’s Cutoff, Michelle Williams’s Emily Tetherow is the most resolute of three women following their families on an uncharted rivulet of the Oregon Trail. They are led by Stephen Meek, a contractor who may or may not know where they’re bound, and trailed by an Indian who is first an interloper, then a hostage. The men of the group, including Emily’s husband, engage in constant blood negotiations—whether or not to kill Meek and whether or not to kill the Indian, both of whom they suspect of trying to thwart their journey to the Willamette Valley. The other wives on the trail are fragile, perpetually bordering on hysterics. Emily is the only one who attempts basic human contact with either the guide or the captive, rebuffing Meek’s arrogance, repairing the Indian’s torn shoe, and eventually finding herself with rifle loaded and raised, defending one against the other.

In True Grit, Mattie Ross's face is clear and plain and earnest, her long pigtails brown and braided. She's not a girl of the frontier like the others, really; her life in Yell County may have been unrecognizable to Emily and may have seemed exceedingly modern to Laura. But her spirit is familiar: she is on a quest to avenge her father's death, a quest undertaken on crazed faith alone.

From my own coddled perch in the twenty-first century, all three characters inhabit a world unfathomable in its terrors and beauty and demands on self-reliance. They all know the grate and whine of wagon wheels on dirt roads, the bone-shaking fear of being approached by a stranger in furs, and the dragging weight of muslin drying after fording a river. They know all of these things. I, on the other hand, know little more than what it’s like to attend a Halloween party in the sixth grade dressed as Laura Ingalls Wilder, shawl and bonnet and basket and all.

In school at that time, in the years just before and after that February ice storm and my Little House binge, our classrooms had banks of ancient Apple IIe computers, which seemed designed for nothing other than playing Oregon Trail. I spent so many hours of my pre-adolescent life in the fuchsia, green, and black world of that game. I shot bears and antelope and geese and traded the meat for laudanum and anise seed. Occasionally, the wagon would tip while crossing a river and a message would pop onto the screen, detailing the items lost: ten pounds of gunpowder, four pounds of butter, and Edward, who was dying of typhoid anyway.

I rarely managed to lead my wagon train safely to the Pacific, but that wasn’t to blame for the empty feeling I had at the end of so many games. The Oregon Trail world was close to Laura’s world, a world I knew so well. But the game reduced life on the frontier to a series of hard choices: equipment inventories and names on a roster, to be ticked off as river currents and disease demanded. You did not know the private fears and pleasures of the members of your wagon train. You did not see their faces; you did not even see your own. You were a man in the game, your skills defined by your selected trade (banker, wainwright, trapper). You ground your own bones to survive, leading the oxen in the yoke, conspiring to hang any fool that knocked you off course. You would make it or you would die. And the women would gather up whatever fell in between.

Rachael Maddux is a writer and editor living in Decatur, Georgia.

6 COMMENTS

4 Comments

  1. amanda | August 10, 2011 at 8:34 am

    Not clear why you used a Willa Cather title for an essay that made no mention of Cather – that I can see. Title pulled me in then puzzling – no mention of Cather.

  2. Michelle in NYC | August 10, 2011 at 9:17 am

    With my love of Willa Cather still in tact, I read this story with delight. It pulled me in with the picture, glided me along with it’s well wrought turns of phrase, the mixture of biographical detail keeping it personal, and made me want to read the Little House series, a pleasure I never had as a girl.

  3. Roxane | August 11, 2011 at 12:01 am

    This is fantastic. I’m always interested in stories of women in the west. I am pretty obsessed with the Little House books but also any stories about women on the untamed plains. Life seemed so difficult and miserable and women had so few choices. I’m always interested in how those narratives play out when read from a modern perspective.

  4. Bob | June 5, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    I, too, was attracted to your article because of the Cather title, but I’m glad I stayed to read your piece — and glad it was written by a fellow Georgian. It was a pleasure to read such good writing. ~Robert Lamb, author, Atlanta Blues and A Majority of One.

2 Pingbacks

  1. [...] O Pioneers! – A great story on our love for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books, and other examples of that same brave, adventurous spirit demonstrated by women who helped settle the west. [...]

  2. [...] Frontier ladies. [...]

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