Published: Dec. 9, 2017

Original article can be found at Harold-Mail Media  
Originally published on December 9, 2017 By Tim Rowland 

It cannot be argued that it is normal to pretend to be starving on the American prairie. Yet as a child, this is precisely what I did, and perhaps in that I am not alone. Blame those serial troublemakers, the authors of good books. 

It would usually happen on pancake night, the pancakes representing coarsely milled flour and the bacon representing precious scraps of salt pork. More drama probably plays out on a little boy’s dinner plate than in a whole season at the Kennedy Center, and I would gravely apportion the foodstuffs, piling up little cairns of pancake and separating out the fatty part of the bacon from the lean. 

The rest of the performance involved nibbling, very slowly, first the pancake and then the hoarded pork product. My companion was Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the scene was a desolate sod cabin parked directly in the path of a howling blizzard. How I made it out alive I don’t know. 

By the time “Little House on the Prairie” became a TV series, I was over it. That and, no offense to Michael Landon, but any attempt to live up to the expectations created by my own imagination was bound to fall short. 

Today, young and adventurous readers have Harry Potter, but a half century ago there was Laura Ingalls, a child who did not rub elbows with wizards, yet was every bit as heroic to a sizable swath of mostly rural (I’m guessing) young people whose fantasies — probably for the last time — were heavily influenced by the American Wild West. 

Reviewing a new biography of Wilder — “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder” by Caroline Fraser — Patricia Nelson Limerick, writing for The New York Times, says, “Wilder won for herself the status of a pre-eminent figure in the shaping of the myth of the West — that seductive collection of icons, images and articles of faith installed in millions of minds and souls worldwide.” 

As with the television show, I don’t know whether to buy into this book, because there are so many ideals that are there for the shattering. As a boy, for example, I looked upon Pa as a rock. A determined man of superhuman conviction who with a firm hand guided the family ever further west in the face of impossible adversity. 

It never dawned on me that he was more like a fiddle-playing ne’er do well, who participated in the great migration west not out of any particular heroism, but because he had no other choice. 

Whether these pioneers were brave and bold as we have been taught somewhat misses the point. Many pioneers were forced west because they had failed to make a go of farming not once or twice, but multiple times. They moved west not out of valor, but because the creditors had caught up to them and they were losing their land. Had Pa been any good at farming, chances are he would have stayed put. 

The point is that they persevered, and if they failed, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. 

The “whys” of the westward expansion never occurred to young readers, at least they didn’t to me. Children measure success with different yardsticks, and we didn’t care about the number of figures in a person’s bank account, we found value in adventures accumulated, in hardships overcome, in life lived. 

If Pa had been working every day from his study, overseeing a successful agricultural concern, we would have no use for him. We didn’t want to know about his retirement account, we wanted to be there with him at a party shucking corn, or stomping our feet to his lively fiddle. We loved Pa, and Pa loved his family, we could see, and wasn’t that enough? 

It is only later, as adults, that we shake our heads over Pa’s checkered existence, and wondered why he was such a failure, why the family always had to move on. 

Pa, for one, might beg to differ. Yes, we knew about his pain, the gaunt cheeks from a lack of food; the hands numb with cold; the tiny stores of grain (or pancakes as the case may be) that warded off starvations; the Christmases when the most spectacular gift was a simple orange. 

But we allowed ourselves to accept that pain and setbacks are part of the deal. We didn’t demand that every break in life go our way. We understood that a little girl could be a hero, every bit as capable as the men in her world. 

Good for us, and good for books like “Prairie Fires” that make us think about this stuff. For it’s quite the revelation that when we read Wilder’s books so many years ago, we were in some ways far wiser than we are now.