I've always thought epiphanies were the stuff of bad short-story classes, and the older I get the less use I have for anything that merely uplifts and enlightens. I crave sustenance. The sex I had with my wife Tuesday morning was pretty peaky, but we've been at it for 21 years, and there's satisfaction in knowing that the experience is sure to fade into past and future ones. It's the same with music. Elmore James and the Mighty Sparrow and Ornette Coleman and Mott the Hoople were all known to me, but that didn't stop them from revealing themselves afresh in 1993. And while it was a trip learning to hear techno on a home stereo, I'm years from full comprehension.
But Laura Ingalls Wilder pervaded my daily life so quickly and thoroughly that I have to pinch myself to remember what a revelation she's been. Wilder is the author of the nine-novel Little House on the Prairie series, of which I've now read something over half, aloud except when I cheat and look ahead or silently fill in chapters I've missed. For my wife, who alternates bedtimes with me, Wilder is closer than Ornette or Mott, because like our child my wife was a girl. Girls are the target audience for Wilder's tales of a young character named Laura Ingalls growing up in 19th-century Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, and South Dakota, and my wife first read them young. As a boy, I probably wouldn't have gotten the point. But now, each of us feels we've tripped over a great American realist who deserves more renown than she gets.
Although The Long Winter, in which the Ingalls family nearly starves, evokes deadening labor as unrelentingly as the rivet-removal chapters in Richard McKenna's equally gripping and unprestigious The Sand Pebbles, these children's books are a lot more optimistic than O.E. Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth or Willa Cather's O Pioneers! But that doesn't make them fantasy or propaganda. It makes them true to Wilder's experience, which included considerable struggle and failure and near destitution before she and the man she married at 19 became modestly successful farmers in Missouri--and also before her only child, Rose Wilder Lane, became a well-known journalist who talked her mother into novel writing when she was past 60. Some autobiography gets left out--the brother dead at nine months, the rich woman who tried to adopt her. But what remains--details of home construction and food preparation and yardwork and housework, the strict disciplines and encompassing support of a functional nuclear family, pioneer spirit in its crudeness and ignorance as well as courage and generosity--has few parallels in any fiction I know about. And the down-to-earth lyricism and candid physicality of the prose embodies Ingalls's morality perfectly.
Although spunky, smart Laura isn't as complex as Christina Stead's Louie or Henry Roth's David or Mark Twain's Huck, I'm glad she's there for my daughter as none of those characters could be--yet. And I'm glad she's there for me. She's simpler. But no way is she inferior.
Village Voice, Jan. 4, 1994