Nightwood Editions - September 10, 2008 - 8 Comments
The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Sharon McCartney
Reviewed by Diane Tucker
When choosing a book to review, I was drawn right away to Sharon McCartney’s The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The cover image — a placid cat surrounded by stately circles of dancing household implements, broom, hatchet, washtub — awoke in me the old thrill of Garth Williams’ lyrical and serene Little House illustrations. I saw Laura living in the sod house, Carrie chasing blackbirds off the corn, Mary resplendent in the new dress Ma makes her to leave for blind school. Ah…I was twelve again.
If you grew up as a girl here in the 1970’s, there’s a good chance you have some sort of relationship with Laura Ingalls Wilder. The television show Little House on the Prairie ran from 1974-1984. I’m the same age as actor Melissa Gilbert, the television face of Laura Ingalls. TV Laura and I grew up together.
For some it stopped there, but thankfully the series inspired others to read the seven-book series of children’s novels Wilder wrote based on her life from the 1860’s to the late 1880’s. Like the Williams’ illustrations, Wilder’s prose, especially in the early books, is spare and serene, with unexpected bursts of lyricism. The cumulative effect of reading the series is an overwhelming sense of the tranquil refuge of farm routine and stable, strong family ties in the context of an unpredictable, harsh world.
Sharon McCartney has tapped into this feeling, but also into the sense one had as one got older and reread the beloved books: darker things are going on here. Ma’s long pauses and sighs; Pa’s frustrated wanderlust; Laura and Carrie’s dark dread of strangers and crowds: the life they led, the isolation and hardship, took its toll and always bubbles ominously under the stoic surface of the Little House books.
The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder does not, as I feared it might, take the characters and simply roll them around in revisionist mud. It’s a realistic book, but a loving one. The poems, written primarily in the voices of things in the Ingalls’ world — the rifle, the butter churn, the breaking plow — articulate all those misgivings you had as you read the series in your teens. “Duty dresses itself/as what I want…” thinks Ma, working herself up to facing another day of “sifting, wiping, straining/toward cheerfulness…”
So yes, we do hear from the folks, but sparingly, which is fitting. It was a largely tight-lipped life, after all. You set your jaw and did what had to be done. It feels appropriate that so many unexpressed feelings and thoughts find their way into objects with which the characters would have had daily contact.
Some of these objects are iconic for the books’ readers: Laura’s doll Charlotte, for example. Laura is forced to give Charlotte to a demanding little neighbour who whines for her and then promptly abandons her in a puddle. The doll herself laments: “Where was God? Must hope always be extinguished?” Poor Charlotte is like the Ingalls girls themselves, picked up and dropped in whatever seemingly God-forsaken place circumstance and Pa decide to take them.
And Pa’s fiddle, of course, speaking beautifully in “Pa’s Fiddle Recalls the Nightingale”: “…I sang and she answered, her voice/vaulting the willows by the creek. Above us/the night sky was a bowl dredged with cornmeal…” The nightingale woos the fiddle in a sort of musical one-night-stand, leaves and haunts it forever, mirroring what must have been a life of such leaving: moments of beauty and meaning followed by months of nothing but overwork, malnutrition and memories.
There are about forty fascinating poems in the voices of various objects, though not all of them felt equally successful. “Pa’s Penis”, for example, is sort of funny at first, but too long, an eventually eye-rolling litany of homesteading double-entendre: “Pioneer, each night under the nine-patch/I explore the territories, seek out the gap…” Nudge nudge, wink wink. It’s clever, but merely clever, and feels superfluous. “Bread Plate” stretches the speaking-object conceit too thin when the plate says: “I closed my eyes, tasted smoke, my throat/scorched…” My disbelief fell out of suspension when I tried to imagine it.
The majority of these poems, though, are breathtaking and intimate, melding the heart of the books with Sharon McCartney’s own. I think particularly of “The Stove Considers Pa” and “The Chinook”. And near the book’s end, just when you think you might have to listen to a monologue from everything in Oleson’s Mercantile, McCartney returns to human characters, beginning with Laura’s schoolmate Cap Garland (one of the greatest names in kidlit). Cap is the voice of Laura’s adolescence. He has Pa’s restlessness — “what I want won’t settle down”, he says — youth’s lust and fear and romanticism.
The final piece of the collection is the poem of the book’s title, and it’s stunning. Finally we hear from our heroine herself. It’s a great piece of work, proof being that I love it, its wonder and force and cunning, in spite of the fact that its lesbian overtones seem to me to be too easy, too current a speculative veil to lay over the incident, recounted in By the Shores of Silver Lake. On repeated reading, though, (and after rereading the relevant passage in Wilder’s original) I concede that the tone works and the scene comes off, more as wondering tenderness (on Laura’s part) and brash, older cousin taunting (on Lena’s part) than actual desire. Either way, it’s an accomplished, beautiful poem.
And this is an accomplished, beautiful book. I can see myself returning to it many times. It’s a must-have for Little House fans, and for other readers a fascinating journey into historical silence finally given a voice.