by guest contributor Laura McLemore (aka Dr. Laura)
Well, this chapter sure opens a can of worms. Racism rears its ugly head once again. Since we have discussed the topic at least three times I will simply refer you to Laura Welser’s post, Should Little House Be Banned? It is a worthy discussion and has been addressed on several other blog sites. (Google “racism in the Little House books” if you’d like to know more.)
Our chapter cozily opens one afternoon following the October blizzard. Several of the town’s men folk are gathered in Harthorn’s store. The trains are running again and the men are there to buy supplies but more importantly to catch up on the local gossip. Who says men don’t gossip?
Mr. Boast is there entertaining the group with stories and “setting it laughing when he laughed.” Poor Pa walks in with his gun on his arm to buy salt pork. Seems he was hunting for jack rabbits but didn’t see a one (an ominous sign for sure) so he had to buy salt pork instead. Cue entrance of a mysterious visitor:
No one heard a footstep, but Pa felt that someone was behind him…Then suddenly Mr. Boast stopped talking.
The men all stand up indicating the presence of something unfamiliar that they need to be wary of. Even Almanzo slides down from the counter in preparation. Then we know “it was only an Indian.” This indicates several things, in my humble opinion. It signals that perhaps he wasn’t a person of great importance and apparently he wasn’t a person of danger either. He was “only” an Indian. Laura respectfully describes a very old Indian but her description seems to be a stereotypical description. Garth Williams’ illustration of the Indian looks more like an Osage rather than Dakota and Cheyenne.
The Indian has apparently come to tell the men something.
“Heap big snow come.”
I have to admit that when I read this to my grandson the other night I cringed for the very first time. I have always been able to glide past the politically incorrect scenes in Laura’s books and have held many discussions with people about historical fiction and racism. But somehow, this time, the language really affected me.
“Heap big snow.” “Many moons.” “I tell-um you.” This sounds like movie dialogue from the 1930’s. Oh wait, that’s when Laura was writing her books! Anyway, for me, the wording really got in the way of understanding the importance of the message at this point in the chapter.
The Indian had come to warn the white men that a bad winter was coming. Seven months of blizzards every seven years and, after three seven-year cycles, the hardest winter of all. Pa knew that what the Indian was saying was true. He had seen the signs himself, the thick walls of the muskrat lodge, the little auk, and now the absence of jackrabbits, a prairie staple.
Royal, Almanzo, Pa and Mr. Boast discuss their options. The Wilder boys and Pa decide to move into town while Mr. Boast realizes that he cannot leave his livestock and that he has too many animals to move into town. We sense Pa’s urgency as he walks quickly home. The family can tell immediately that something is wrong. He tries to assure Ma and the girls that nothing is wrong, but Ma knows better. Perhaps it is because he so bluntly said “We are moving to town as quick as we can.” Ma expresses her distress at Pa’s action but Laura, the ever-faithful daughter, tells her that nothing is wrong because Pa said so!
Ma asks Pa why they must hurry so. He said only that he feels like hurrying. He then makes an error by telling Ma that an Indian had somehow figured into his decisions. This gets Ma’s dander up. Laura tells us that Ma despised Indians and that she wrinkled her nose in disgust when Pa mentioned the old Indian. Pa as always, defended the Indian and then dismisses the subject. He hurries out to load hay with Laura in tow to help.
Laura is not allowed to go to town with Pa. She stands looking across the prairie on the Indian Summer afternoon. Laura dreads going to town and wishes for the wings of a bird so that she could fly away “fast, fast and far away.” With sobriety she realizes that none of them had wings and that after all, they were only moving to town.