Monday, June 8, 2015

On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1937)

There are moments in On the Banks of Plum Creek when I remembered vividly being a child; it's something great writers for children have a gift of doing, bringing the adult reader back in time, and capturing the hearts and minds and motivations of children so they, reading the book, can see themselves in the characters.  Laura Ingalls Wilder makes "Laura" (herself but not herself) into something real and beloved by doing this. She continually shows us Laura's flaws and frustrations, her joys and sorrow, her sense of guilt and jealousy and her not feeling like she belongs.  The footbridge scene, when Laura lowers herself in to the flood, is one of these.  It's wonderfully written, scary and beautiful (Wilder is a great writer, her prose is simple but powerful).  But one of the scenes that stands out the most is when the Nelsons come over, and Ma forces Laura to give away her beloved doll Charlotte.  "For shame, Laura," says Ma.  "Anna's little and she's company.  You are too big to play with dolls, anyway.  Let her have it... a great girl like you sulking about a rag doll... you don't want that doll, you hardly ever played with it. You must not be so selfish."  Oh Ma, can't you ever remember being a child yourself (obviously she does a few paragraphs later, but it's too late then).  Laura may not play with Charlotte, but she represents childhood.  Once Charlotte is gone, it's like finding out Santa Claus isn't real - you transition from one stage of childhood to another.  That scene cuts to my heart every time; you remember realizing that you're growing up, you don't want things to change; you want to save "Charlotte" and hold her and keep her close.  "Charlotte" means so much to Laura, and we all have "Charlotte"s - riding in the back seat of the car at night, Christmas mornings, sitting in grandma's lap, favorite toys and books, childhood.  Oh Ma, how can  YOU be so selfish?

Plum Creek has all the elements of a good disaster movie, to be honest:  the flood, the awful winter weather at the end, the grasshoppers.  Wilder's prose captures the grasshoppers perfectly; she must have had nightmares about them over the years.  They are truly awful, the way she describes them. Great writers can make deadly and scary things beautiful too through choice and strong writing.  If you've read this book before, go back and read "The Glittering Cloud" and imagine how scary that must have been to see and live through.  Here is just a bit of it:  "Laura tried to beat them off.  Their claws clung to her skin and her dress.  They looked at her with bulging eyes, tuyrning their heads this way and that.  Mary ran screaming into the house. "   That's deliciously scary.  Grasshoppers are pretty damn alien looking; they invade and eat everything.  This entire chaper is  perfectly written.

Plum Creek does one other wonderful thing for literature.  Wilder introduces one of the best
villianesses of all time:  Nellie Oleson.   She ranks up there with the best villianesses:  Cruella De Vil.  Cinderella's stepmother.  The Wicked Witch of the West.  Veruca Salt.  The TV version of Nellie Oleson actually burns in the heads of anyone of a certain age far brighter and more glittery than her literary counterpart.  But Laura Ingalls Wilder shares something with almost all of us:  we remember those mean girls (and boys) long after they don't have power to hurt us anymore.  "Laura" got even with Nellie Oleson (leeches!) and Laura Ingalls Wilder sort of did too.
On the Banks of Plum Creek (Little House, #4)On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On the Banks of Plum Creek is sort of a disaster movie, told through the eyes of a child.  Fires, floods, snow storms - and the grand high poobah of disasters, a plague of locusts.  Wilder's descriptions of those grasshoppers is one of the most vivid and scary in all of literature too - she only needs to add some blood and gore, and she's entering in Stephen King territory (I exaggerate only slightly - those grasshoppers are terrifying).

Laura Ingalls remains such a real, living and breathing character to us because Laura Ingalls Wilder blew life into her through her plain but beautiful writing.  Wilder remembered what it was like to be a child, the frustrations and joys of being littler than everyone else, of getting even with bullies and being daring (that footbridge scene!  so terrifying and so true), of having a mother who doesn't understand you, being scared of going to school, having a goody two shoes older sister.  It might be 1870-something, but the reason we still identify with Laura is because all those feelings still exist today.  We see ourselves in Laura.  And probably in Nellie Oleson too.  When haven't we also been Nellie?  The TV Nellie is what we remember, but the seeds that wickeder than wicked character are found right here.  Like all villainesses, you want to see more of her - she makes all too brief an appearance!


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