Today N starts Grade 3. The butterflies were moving fast and furious last night in her belly, and again this morning. I remember that feeling still. I remember Grade 3, too, and how it was one of my favourite years. I had a teacher named Miss Way, who looked a bit like Snow White in modern dress. She taught us about pioneers and how to make candles, and only the formidable Harold Martindale and I still stood at the end of spellings bees, facing off, my heart racing as letters scrambled themselves into order in my brain.
I think this was the year I discovered the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I can still see them lined up on the library shelf, looking fat and important in their crinkly see-through wraps. It was so exciting to read one book and to know there were all those others still waiting to be devoured.
Little House in the Big Woods came first, and tells the story of Laura’s 1870s childhood in Wisconsin, where she lived “in a little gray house made of logs. The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees, and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees, and the wild animals who had their homes among them.”
These famous books have endured since the 1930s, when Ingalls Wilder finally set pen to paper to tell the story of her life. She was in her sixties by then, and had already been a teacher, a dressmaker, a farmer, and a columnist for The Ruralist. Her column, “As a Farm Woman Thinks,” had a small but loyal audience, and though her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, by then a successful freelance writer herself, encouraged Ingalls Wilder to expand her repertoire, she seemed content dabbling this way for many years. It was only when the stock market crashed and the family’s savings were lost that Ingalls Wilder embarked on a more ambitious writing career.
Which is amazing and impressive to me. I can’t imagine turning yet more toward writing, of all things, if I suddenly found myself destitute. But I love the idea that people’s lives have chapters; that we don’t know what lies ahead for us, even though we are the very ones who take ourselves there. And of course I love the idea of “success” at a late age. I put the word in quotes because I’m still not quite sure how to define it, at least for myself. But certainly publication in forty languages over a period of eighty years would be one way….
I’ve picked up both Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie, the second book, for N’s shelf, but we have not yet delved in. I’m curious to know what she’ll think of the stories, and also how I’ll find them after all these years — if indeed I’m reading them with her. As I’ve mentioned often on this blog, I can see the day is coming that she’ll want to read alone. But the summer months whizzed by with read-aloud Harry, all three of us engrossed first in The Goblet of Fire, which came with us on our cottage holiday, and then in The Order of the Phoenix, picked up a mere twenty minutes after Goblet was done. Our goal was to finish Phoenix by the time school started, but we haven’t quite made it. There’s only one chapter to go, though, so tonight’s the night. The story is as compelling as ever, so much so that N’s dad cheated, and read ahead without us after N went to bed, zooming to the end because he had to know what happened or sleep might elude him. He loves these stories as much as she does, and in fact the language of Harry Potter has worked its way into our regular vocabulary. The other day at breakfast, when he was feeling a little lackluster, distinctly unmagical, and middle-aged, he commented, “I don’t know what’s happening to me. It’s bad. I’m turning into a muggle.”
We love sharing these books with our daughter, but we also appreciate them from our own adult perspective: the shifting layers of right and wrong, of so-called good and so-called evil, have steadily become the very core of the series. What to make of how the wizarding world treats centaurs and giants and little house elves, essentially slaves who most wizards believe like working for free? As Dumbledore tells Harry towards the end of the book, when the Dark Lord’s power is on the rise, “We wizards have mistreated and abused our fellows for far too long, and we are now reaping the reward.”