Little House on the Prairie, Explained

When I was eight, I asked for a Little House on the Prairie book for Christmas.  I already owned one, and thought I’d like the next book in the series.  On Christmas Eve, in the midst of the annual party, I was given a large gift bag filled with the gingham-bordered books.  All nine of them, including the one I already owned.  The party, needless to say, was lost to me after that.  I plucked out Little Town on the Prairie, because the girls looked the prettiest on the cover.  That was important to me then.  I read as adults flitted about with wine in hand and I ignored Amy when she tugged at my arm, begging me to help her chase our particular favorite adult, deemed “Tim the Alien.”

Ironically, I forgot Little Town on the Prairie at my aunt and uncle’s house that night, and didn’t get it back until I had read through the rest of the series.  I started it first and finished it last.

Once I had read the books at least five times each, had sufficiently cracked the spines and dotted the page corners with peanut butter, I began to make up my own versions of the prairie stories.  Specifically, I liked to make them up alone in my room, using my American Girl Dolls as my daughters.  I had the role of omnipresent mother, and would lecture the dolls as I tugged a tiny plastic brush through their hair.  Things like, “I know you don’t like school, but it’s very important that you have an education,” and “Felicity, you look beautiful.  Any boy in town would be lucky to dance with you” were oft-used phrases.  In fact, I don’t believe I ever did anything with the poor dolls but boss and brush.

When I was twelve or so, mom heard about a pioneer school held in a nearby town for a few days in the summer.  The classroom was a circa 1852 schoolhouse.  Pupils were encouraged to dress as early pioneers.  It was a dream.

I don’t remember much about the lessons, nor about the field trips we took to local historic sites, but I do remember the teacher.  She seemed to me very old and wise, and was almost a cartoon in her elderly perfection.  The throat of her dress was clasped with a large brooch, her hair was an airy puff of white, and one day she drew some of us older children to her.  Her “big girls,” she said, deserved a treat.  In her open hand were three small stones.  They were all alike, save for the varying patterns of gold stripes upon the brown fields.  Tiger’s Eyes, she whispered, as if sharing a great secret.  We took our stones solemnly and pocketed them so that the other pupils wouldn’t see and be jealous.  I showed mine to Amy anyway.  Tiger’s Eye, I told her.  Maybe when you’re older you’ll understand, I said.

Later, the big girls sat on the steps together to eat lunch.  We hadn’t spoken to each other yet, but the stones in our pockets had bonded us somehow.  It wouldn’t take much for us to be friends, but it was difficult to begin.  Amy had been picked up by mom for an orthodontist appointment, so I was without my usual freckled buffer.  I had her can of root beer, though, a great treat.  I offered it to one of the girls.  They offered me a cookie in return.  That was all it took.

The other big girls were sisters.  Laurissa, Katherine, and Emily, I think their names were.  The cookie they gave me was good; it was oatmeal chocolate chip.  I politely said so–we were old enough to wade into friendship slowly–and the girls offered to get the recipe from their mother.

Over a decade later, I still have the recipe.  Laurissa copied it out on two neon orange index cards.  The handwriting is painstakingly neat, and the very last step, punctuated with a period, reads: eat.  I made those cookies tonight, wanting the rustic, pioneer-ish task of stirring together butter and sugar, of patting down cupfuls of flour with my fingers.

I haven’t seen those girls since the last day of pioneer school when they trotted off down the sidewalk in the opposite direction.  The American Girl Dolls are packed snuggly in a large box in my closet.  I still peek in now and then to scold Molly for letting her bangs get so tangled.  My Little House books, still the ones from that long-ago Christmas gift–the new color editions are lovely, but I just can’t bring myself to upgrade–have a place of honor on my bookshelf.  I can’t say for sure how many times I’ve read them, but I suspect at least twenty times each.  I still have my Tiger’s Eye.  Its great significance hasn’t yet been  revealed to me, but I don’t worry about that.  Maybe when you’re older you’ll understand, I tell myself.

Aslan Reapproaching

I am afraid I may have forgotten what it’s like to be a reader.  I’ve forgotten, beginning with my transition to the freedom of college, what it’s like to stay up until the wee hours, submerged completely in a book.  I’ve forgotten about “the point of no return,” which I not-so-cleverly used to call that precipice you find yourself crouching on late at night, knowing  you can either turn back to the comfort of pillow and sleep, or plunge into the abyss, not to emerge until you’ve read the very last page.

Books were everything when I was younger.  There was little TV, few movies, and absolutely nothing more important than going to bed as early as possible, that I might read a few hundred pages before falling asleep.  I remember vividly the night when I, in my haste to hide my reading light from suspicious parents, pushed my lamp down on top of the stack of books on my nightstand.  A few seconds later, confident that Mom had retreated back down the hallway, I pulled the lamp back up, only to discover that the heat of the bulb had partially melted the protective plastic on the book’s cover.  The elementary school librarians never quite recovered from that incident.

Then there was 5th grade, when I actually got a check next to my name on Mrs. P’s behavioral chart for immersing myself too deeply in a book.  She was calling us up to her desk, one by one, to hand in an assignment.  I was reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.  It was my favorite part, when Mr. Beaver says, in a curiously intriguing voice, “They say Aslan is on the move-perhaps has already landed.”  All of the sudden, my friend Jessica, sitting behind me, whacked me on the back, and I watched in confused horror as Mr. Beaver wavered and then retreated to a thin mirage in the corner of my consciousness. Mrs. P, despite Jessica’s rather violent warning, had reached my name on her list, looked up to see that I was too far gone to hear and respond, and simply skipped over me with quiet disapproval.  Now that I was aware, all I could do was watch helplessly as the H’s, and then the M’s and the N’s walked up to her desk, shooting me sympathetic glances as they went.  I stayed after the bell to talk to Mrs. P, clutching C.S. to my chest for courage.  She informed me that she had already marked the chart, and that I was up to two checks for the week.  One more and I would be staying in for recess.  And no, Mr. Lewis would not be joining me.

A little of the old Holly came back last night; I stayed up until one, poring over the last hundred pages of Gone With the Wind.  I felt like myself last night, burritoed into my covers, listening to the comforting sounds of the Beagle Next Door shuffling around in our bushes, and pressing my nose into the rough pages of the book whenever my eyes started to close.  I felt like the girl who stuck mozzarella cheese into Drew Steinert’s yogurt cup, and then dared him to chug it.  I felt like the girl who would inaugurate the deathly sledding hill in our backyard, even though it petrified me to do it.  I felt like the girl who used to spend hours locked in my room, acting out Little House on the Prairie with my American Girl Dolls.  I felt, for the first time in years, that if I could relive that scene in 5th grade, even now with my sophisticated twenty-one years of age, I would behave in exactly the same way.  After all, witnessing Aslan’s approach will always be more important than a great many things, recess included.