History Worth Shouting About

I tend to think of history as one of those long ropes we were forced to hold on to during kindergarten field trips.  When one kid tripped or veered sharply in one direction, we were all tugged after her.  In short, no one could move without impacting the rest of the group.

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While “rope theory” speaks more to the general ebb and flow of history rather than to the “what a small world” coincidences I’m about to describe, I believe the two are related nonetheless.  After all, we’ve all got hold of the same rope.  Of course we’re going to bump into each other every now and again.

I recently read a biography in which the author insisted on loudly pointing out every historical coincidence.  “How ironic!” he would shout from the pages, “This guy lived and this guy died!  Just imagine if this guy had died and this guy had lived!  How different everything would have been!”  If we ignore the fact that this author would do well to check a dictionary definition of “irony,” his shouting is still obnoxious, because if everyone shouted about every historical coincidence, we would all be shouting.  All of the time.

But it’s fun to shout, especially when the children in front of you and behind you on the rope join in and you wail on and on until your teacher agrees to pass out graham crackers earlier than usual.

So here’s my most recent shout-worthy discovery:

Last night, into the wee hours, I was reading Heather Williams’s Farmer Boy Goes West.  It’s a recently published Little House on the Prairie spinoff, picking up where Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy left off.  I take it upon myself to read all attempts to carry on Laura’s work and to criticize them mercilessly.  This one, however, was well done.  Williams clearly did her research, not only regarding the Wilder family, but also regarding matching her writing style to Laura’s.  This book, I daresay, actually fits in with the rest of the beloved series.

One detail perplexed me, though: at one point in Farmer Boy Goes West, Almanzo Wilder (Laura’s future husband) is reunited with his older brother, whom he hasn’t seen in a few years.  Immediately, his brother remarks on how tall he is.  “That can’t be right,” I said to myself, “Almanzo was a shorty.”  Sure enough, a Google search told me that Almanzo’s adult height was 5 feet 4 inches.  Another Google search told me that average male height in the 1870s (Almanzo’s growing-up time) was around 5 feet 6 inches.  So not such a shorty in those days.  My 5 feet 10.5 inches would have made me the town giant.  For an explanation of why people were shorter in the 19th century, read this fascinating article (scroll down to “Heights” section).

Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder, 4 feet 11 inches and 5 feet four inches, respectively.  (Photo circa 1940)

Almanzo Wilder and Laura Ingalls Wilder, 5 feet 4 inches and 4 feet 11 inches, respectively. (Photo circa 1940)

This was interesting, but not a shout-worthy coincidence.  Here’s the star of the show:

The same website that told me how tall Almanzo Wilder was told me something else: The Ingalls’s and the Bloody Benders’ paths may have crossed in Kansas Territory (setting for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie).

If you don’t know about the Benders, or the Bloody Benders, read here.  It’s a gruesome story, and I don’t want to scare you with it without your consent.  There’s also a Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast about them.  Essentially, they were a family of serial killers who ran an inn and a general store in Kansas in the 1870s and who used these businesses to lure travelers whom they would then brutally murder.

From a speech Laura gave in 1937 regarding the truthfulness of her novels (warning: gruesome):

There was the story of the Bender family that belonged in the third volume, Little House on the Prairie. The Benders lived halfway between it and Independence, Kansas. We stopped there, on our way in to the Little House, while Pa watered the horses and brought us all a drink from the well near the door of the house. I saw Kate Bender standing in the doorway. We did not go in because we could not afford to stop at a tavern.

On his trip to Independence to sell his furs, Pa stopped again for water, but did not go in for the same reason as before.

There were Kate Bender and two men, her brothers, in the family and their tavern was the only place for travelers to stop on the road south from Independence. People disappeared on that road. Leaving Independence and going south they were never heard of again. It was thought they were killed by Indians but no bodies were ever found.

Then it was noticed that the Benders’ garden was always freshly plowed but never planted. People wondered. And then a man came from the east looking for his brother, who was missing.

He made up a party in Independence and they followed the road south, but when they came to the Bender place there was no one there. There were signs of hurried departure and they searched the place.

The front room was divided by a calico curtain against which the dining table stood. On the curtain back of the table were stains about as high as the head of a man when seated. Behind the curtain was a trap door in the floor and beside it lay a heavy hammer.

In the cellar underneath was the body of a man whose head had been crushed by the hammer. It appeared that he had been seated at the table back to the curtain and had been struck from behind it. A grave was partly dug in the garden with a shovel close by. The posse searched the garden and dug up human bones and bodies. One body was that of a little girl who had been buried alive with her murdered parents. The garden was truly a grave-yard kept plowed so it would show no signs. The night of the day the bodies were found a neighbor rode up to our house and talked earnestly with Pa. Pa took his rifle down from its place over the door and said to Ma, “The vigilantes are called out.” Then he saddled a horse and rode away with the neighbor. It was late the next day when he came back and he never told us where he had been. For several years there was more or less a hunt for the Benders and reports that they had been seen here or there. At such times Pa always said in a strange tone of finality, “They will never be found.” They were never found and later I formed my own conclusions why.

According to Deb Houdek Rule’s website, which quotes Laura’s unpublished memoirs (warning: gruesome):

Laura, in her memoirs, says, “…he had had some thoughts of stopping at the Benders’ for the night… Kate Bender came out and asked him to have supper there and put up for the night… Mary and I had those names in our minds, Independence, Kansas and Benders… I heard Pa say ‘dead… Already twenty or more, in the cellar… Benders–where I stopped for a drink. She asked me to come in… They found a girl, no bigger than Laura. They’d thrown her in on top of her father and mother and tramped the ground down on them, while the little girl was still alive…’ Laura then describes Pa riding off, returning to say, ‘Yes, Caroline. Kate Bender with the rest. She deserved it just as much as they did.’

Laura says, “For a long time, even for years, after that, I dreamed about a little girl thrown on top of her father and mother and buried alive. Sometimes I was the little girl.”

She says she was grown before she ever asked Pa about the Benders. The information she records in her memoirs is correct, and the dates and location are correct for her Pa to have passed by the Benders’ house. But the date the Benders were found out doesn’t fit having Charles Ingalls being part of the group who went after them. That took place in 1873, a couple years after the Ingalls had left Kansas–they were back living in Wisconsin at that time. It is somewhat possible Pa made the trip to Kansas, or was there on some business or exploration trip, however.

Asking Pa about it, Laura recounts, “Wasn’t he one of the Vigilantes who went after the Benders, and didn’t the catch them? He only said, ‘We thought you were too little to understand.’ As for what became of the Benders, he would not answer. He said, ‘Don’t worry. They’ll never find Kate Bender anywhere.'”

Mind. Blown.  One of pioneer America’s most beloved, wholesome families neighbors with one of its most notorious.

Of course, the Charles Ingalls/Benders encounters are somewhat shadowy.  The vigilante action dates, as Houdek points out, don’t exactly match up.  And Laura was, after all, a very little girl (four years old or so) when her family lived in Kansas territory.  Too young to have detailed memories, not to mention too young to be told outright by Pa and Ma what was going on.

Maggie Koerth-Baker suggests in an article that perhaps what Laura thought she remembered wasn’t entirely true:

To me, the body of research on false memories suggests that Laura Ingalls Wilder might not have been lying when she told a story about her family crossing paths with the Bloody Benders. If you think about it, it would be pretty simple. A young Laura might simply have heard her parents talking about the Benders, misconstrued the situation, and created memories that fit her understanding. In the course of telling the story to friends and family, her parents might have changed it themselves — a simple “and it turned out they lived right down the road from us!” story became, over time, a story of participating in the downfall of the serial killers. 

I think it likely that the events Laura described did happen, that perhaps she didn’t remember them herself, but was filled in later by her father.  In her memoirs she records only a short, cryptic conversation with him, but that could have been for dramatic effect.  We’ve all done it.  And even if Laura’s family didn’t actually encounter the Benders, they were in the same area at the same time.  Still mind blowing.

The Ingalls’ and the Benders: a pairing only history could dream up.

Hold the rope tightly, kids. The world is only getting smaller.

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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.

Ruby

Ruby

is my family’s dog.

She is a long-haired German Shepherd.

My mom and sister brought her home after dad distinctly said: do not bring home a long-haired.

I was a freshman in college at the time, and came home for Spring Break to a new puppy in the kitchen.

We stayed up late deciding on a name.

I came up with Ruby because it’s the name of one of Laura’s grown-up aunts in Little House in the Big Woods. 

I didn’t tell my family about that particular origin.

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Ruby didn’t actually bark until she was three years old.  Before then, she whined.

It was effective enough, I suppose.

Ruby will lick your hand, your face, your toes until they’re dripping with slobber.

If you’re napping on the couch and forget to turn your face toward the shelter of the pillow, she will come upon you as you sleep and swipe her tongue from your forehead to your chin.

If you choose to nap on the couch at our house, do not sleep with your mouth open.

Ruby is the only dog I’ve ever known who snorkels for rocks in the lake.

She will stick her entire face in the water, clamp her jaws around a particularly fine specimen, and tug until with a suction-like sound, she frees it from the sand.

She prefers to make as much noise as she can while she does this, in case you hadn’t already noticed what she was doing.

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Ruby likes to tear up divots of grass and earth in the front yard.

It is not uncommon to spot a clover or two drooping down from her molars.

Ruby wags her tail with delight when I hide behind a door to scare her.

Sometimes she also pees a little from fright.

Hence, we now take our hide and seek outside.

Ruby will not go into the basement.

I once carried all forty pounds of her terrified puppy girth downstairs during a tornado warning, and she hasn’t gone near the stairs since.

If you try to beckon her downstairs, she will pee a little from fright.

And hide under the kitchen table.

Ruby perks her ears during animal programs on TV.

She will catch pieces of popcorn on the fly should you toss some her way.

She has quietly and swiftly dismembered every toy we have given her thus far.

Ruby hasn’t the courage of Lassie, the brute strength of Beethoven, nor the sensitivity of Hachiko.

She doesn’t seem to mind, though, so neither do we.

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Relinquishing the Hoard

I’m taking a hiatus from writing my graduation saga in order to write about another momentous event:

I have cleaned out my bookshelf and donated one hundred of my babies to my old K-8 school library.

My bookshelf is a giant, unvarnished, red-brown thing, looming over all of the other furniture in my bedroom at home.  I’ve had it since I was about eleven years old, when my grandparents, knowing my tendency to stash overflowing books in piles around my room, got it for me for Christmas.  The bookshelf was initially supposed to be hidden in the detached garage.  Grandpa had written a clever poem which was meant to lead me to its location.  Unfortunately though, Christmas morning dawned especially cold that year, and my parents thus decided to spare me the traipse outside.  The bookshelf waited beside the Christmas tree instead.

For years, this bookshelf has been large enough to hold all of my books.  Sure, there’s some double layering going on.  Sure, when I ran out of room to arrange spines vertically, I stacked more horizontally on top of the vertical.  But I don’t especially mind having a packed bookshelf: I have a system of arrangement, and I do, contrary to my family’s belief, generally know which titles I own and which I don’t own (and how to find them).  Plus, a packed bookshelf implies literary affiliations.  I feel proud and cozy and like an English major when I gaze upon it.

Today, however, when standing in front of the dear thing, trying to decide what to read next, I tipped back a few titles to peek at the ones behind.  And some of the ones behind, I realized, I hadn’t seen in a while.  And I hadn’t missed them.

I decided it was time to pare the collection down.

I have long thought that if an eleven-year-old girl in possession of familiar bookworm tendencies were to stop me on the street and ask me for a suggestion regarding what she should read next, I would undoubtably pile all of my Gail Carson Levines, my American Girls, my Nancy Drews into her hands.  I would happily pass my books off to someone who I knew would enjoy them as I had.  Why, though, was I sitting like a miser on a mountain, hoarding books I had long outgrown, waiting for the right young prodigy to come along and ask for them?  Surely it would be better to put the books in a library, where they could be paged through and jam-smeared by hundreds.

I quickly had all my books off my shelves and into piles: Classics; Popular But Still Quality; Popular; Teen Fiction I Still Love; Short Stories, Poems, Plays; Reference; Series; Children’s With Sentimental Value (Little House, Betsy-Tacy, Charlotte’s Web); and Donate.

I dusted the empty shelves, and then slowly started refilling them.  I moved my most beloveds to the top, and–vainly–put the classics front and center.  I pulled out the books I plan to attempt this summer and stacked them separately, for easy access.  I bagged up the “Donates,” including A Series of Unfortunate Events.  Perhaps the ban has been lifted since I left middle school?

Mom (a teacher at my old school) placed the bags in her van.  While I’m a little ashamed that it’s taken me so long to pass all of those books on, I’m glad it’s finally happened.

 

Will You Be My Valentine?

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Happy Valentine’s Day!  I’ve noticed that when it comes to this particular holiday, there are lovers and there are haters.  I am a lover.  I love the chocolate, I love the cards, I love the flowers, I love the red and pink.  I love the air of excitement: you never know who you’re going to get a Valentine from.  It’s the day of the year, in my opinion, when those who are too cowardly at all other times to profess their love can do so without shame.  (And anonymous notes count).

Believe me, I’ve done the anonymous notes.  That was fun.  But this year, as I have a gentleman caller, I got to be a little more up front about my feelings.  I also got to suggest that instead of attempting to choose between the sub-par Morris restaurant options (think a fancy but gross Italian place, a Subway, and a Pizza Hut), we make our own gourmet meal.

Steak, twice-baked potatoes, salad, and chocolate mousse for desert.  (By far the fanciest meal I’ve ever had whilst at school)

Let me tell you that having just finished making the mousse, I think the g.c. will have to take the reins on the rest of it.  I’m actually tired.  I really am a pretty good cook (thanks Mom and Dad for forcing me to start dinner all throughout high school), but mousse was over my head.  It’s putzy: you need about four different bowls, you have to constantly mix things just until they reach a specific consistency, and if you do something wrong, your mousse will lack volume.  The horror!

Plus, there were a few setbacks that stressed me out considerably.  Firstly, someone ate one of my eggs.  I had precisely four left in the carton, the exact number needed for the recipe, and this afternoon, one was gone.  Okay, well, I’ll just do a half recipe.  But wait, will that work?  Aren’t people always going on and on about how halving recipes isn’t reliable?  All right, calm down Hol, we’re just going to have to try it.  (five minutes later) I need a bowl filled with ice water?  We don’t have ice!  There is no ice in our freezer, because we are college students and don’t own things like ice cube trays or whisks or measuring cups.

I finally realized that I could use snow in lieu of ice water.  It worked rather well, and provided a much-needed Little House on the Prairie moment.

All drama aside, the mousse is currently setting in the fridge.  No housemates are home yet, but I intend to guard that darn mousse with my life.

If you want the recipe (may you have more patience than I with it), it’s right here: http://www.davidlebovitz.com/2008/05/perfect-chocola/

The batter (which I unabashadly tasted), was delicious.

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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.