Monday, May 7, 2012

April Storytellers: A Month of Books

One of the first pieces of furniture I brought into our new home was my bookshelf. Books are going to be in every room. Pioneer books in my Laura Ingalls Wilder-prairie themed guest bedroom, Native American and Southwest books in the Southwest office along with the bookshelf, cookbooks in the kitchen of course, nature books in the room that leads to the patio, a book on my nightstand. Before the unpacking was done and many things accomplished, I headed straight to my town library since I got the DMV change of address stickers for proof of residence. I felt like a kid in a candy store. But I also felt like I was part of a community: of seekers of knowledge, dreamers, adventurers.

These were my storytellers for April.
By the Shores of Silver Lake, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, $6.99, Shaw's Book Shop, Westwood, New Jersey. I found most of the Little House books thrifted at Housing Works but this one was missing, so I wanted to support my local book shop. The Ingalls family has just battled scarlet fever and Mary has gone blind as a result. Laura is the eyes for her, and her descriptions of the West are as poetic as ever. Imagine if you had to be the eyes for a blind loved one and had to look at the world and note what you saw. Think of how honed your observation skills would be. They are now on the move to South Dakota. The railroads are being built just up ahead. The landscape and the country are changing. Laura quickly hones in on a difference here, not just in grasses and wildflowers, but, "There was something else here that was now anywhere else. It was an enormous stillness that made you feel still. And when you were still, you could feel great stillness coming closer. All the little sounds of the blowing grasses and the horses munching and whooshing in their feedbox at the back of the wagon, and even the sounds of eating and talking could not touch the enormous stillness of this prairie."

It's hard to imagine such stillness in modern life. No airplanes overhead or humming of cars in the distance. The closest I came to the stillness she describes was when Steve and I were in the parks in the Southwest, many in Utah when we were some of the last hikers about. There was a reason, though, for the some of the stillness Laura describes,

"Laura saw old Indian trails and buffalo paths worn deep in the ground and now grassed over. She saw strange large depressions, straight-sided and flat-bottomed, where now the grass was growing. Laura had never seen a buffalo, and Pa said it was not likely that she ever would see one. Only a little while before vast herds of thousands of buffalos had gazed over this country. They had been the Indians' cattle, and white men had slaughtered them all."

It's funny how books enter your life. My next storyteller was Louis Erdrich's The Birchbark House.

I bought a used copy for about $3.50 including shipping from Better World Books, an online bookseller my writer friend J.J. Brown told me about. I was excited to learn about an alternative to, which made headlines with questionable labor practices in Pennsylvania. Since the book has a recurring thread about respect for the environment, it's appropriate I got a recycled copy from an ethical retailer which takes many discarded library books and resells them. I discovered Louis Erdrich at Our Thrift Shop in Westwood, New Jersey, where her Love Medicine was waiting for me for 25 cents. Upon looking up online reviews for the book which I haven't read yet, I discovered she penned a series considered to be the Native American version of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series. Erdrich's Birchbark House leapt to the top of my reading list. Omakayas is a girl of seven winters who, as a baby, was the only one to survive a small pox epidemic that wiped out her village. I love thinking of one's life of the winters one has survived, for winter at that time truly was about survival. No trips to ShopRite for stockpiling of food upon a weatherman's report of three inches of snow like here in New Jersey. This is a great book if you are reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books with your children or even on your own since these are essentially the people who the Ingalls displaced. The attitude in the Little House books is very much this land is all ours for the taking. Not so in the Birchbark House. I love that when they need to use the birchbark tree for the house, the grandmother acknowledges the tree, "Old sister...we need your skin for our shelter." When Omakayas and her sister have to trap birds who threaten their corn she says, "Forgive us, forgive us, we have need, we have need." It's very much about need and reverence. I've mentioned before how if we are saying grace for meals, shouldn't we also thank the farmer, the animal and the land? From fracking to obtain natural gas (I've written about my opposition to it) to opposition to everything from solar panels to Mrs. Smith's towels hang drying both due to aesthetic reasons, it's still a little too much, this is my land for the taking attitude in 2012.

Like the Little House books, the Birchbark House focuses on seasonal challenges but also delights, namely two of my favorite things: food and stories. Little Omakayas so loved story time on cold winter nights and maple sugaring time. So did Laura. Laura talks always warmly of food often. After a New Year's feast at Mrs. Boast's of oyster soup, "When the last drop of soup was gone, and the last crackers were divided and crunched, there were hot biscuits with honey, and dried raspberry sauce. And then a big dishpan full of tender salty popcorn." I think I shall make biscuits with honey, and some raspberry jam and think of Laura.

The Courage of Sarah Noble by Alice Dalgliesh, 25 cents, garage sale.

I'm not ashamed at all to say I'm reading more children's books this year. This book was published in 1954 and tells the tale of young Sarah Noble, traveling with her father in the woods of New Milford, Connecticut to build their new home. She's on the journey to cook meals for her father, and remembers her mother's words, "Keep your courage, Sarah Noble." It's a simple and short story but one that will stay with me. Sarah father instills great respect for the Native Americans, and Sarah makes friends with them. She encounters briefly a mother and her children who have fear in their heart. When Sarah's mother arrives at the end, she's the same ignorant racist Ma Ingalls is. What's with these narrow-minded pioneer women?

Please share your thoughts on my storytellers or any great ones you'd like to share.


  1. AnonymousMay 11, 2012

    Thanks for this reflection on the different points of view in the pioneer experience, it is refreshing. Young people need to have both kinds of books on the shelf!

  2. Thanks for the comment. Caroline "Ma" Ingalls considers the people they are displacing "savages." Erdrich shows they are not at all.

    I feel very drawn to Native American cultures, and am saddened by their exploitation, both in the early part of our country's history and in present day. More Native American storytellers will be in my life this year, and I'll share them here throughout the year.

  3. Catherine -- I have leaned towards reading children's books most of my life, and so I greatly enjoy hearing what you are reading and your thoughts, and also the ways in which you find your little gems! Amazingly, for all the children's books that I have read, I have never read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books! But you are encouraging me too, along with these other related titles. I shall have to put them on my list. I hope you are settling into your new home (and visiting your new neighborhood library!). Thanks.

  4. Hi Amy! Thanks so much for the comment and well wishes. Isn't it funny how we find books, but they "find" us and shape our lives? All because in my local book shop window I saw Wendy McClure's The Wilder Life about her experiences visiting the Little House sites, and then finding the Little House books thrifted, did I start reading these. My sister and I loved the show growing up, but I never thought about Laura's life. They have been some of my favorite books. I also adored the Julie Andrews books!

    We are still busy with our new home. I'm having fun at garage and estate sales on the weekends, finding great buys - everything from $1 butterfly curtains for the bedroom, $1 calico artwork for my Laura guest bedroom, and $30 patio furniture. More garage sales, less blogging! Will post some things this month, including May Storytellers, which includes a library book. :-)