Friday, August 12, 2011

Back to the Prairie

My summer reading list has been a strange combination of Aspergers this, special ed that, and…Little House on the Prairie? Not the books. Not the TV show. Books about the books and the TV show.

The best by far was The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure, in which the author and her boyfriend set out on a series of road trips to visit all things Little House. McClure delves into the beloved books of her youth, examining history and nostalgia; the books’ cultural impact and wide variety of fans; which parts were fictionalized; whether the books were mostly written by Laura Ingalls Wilder herself or by her daughter Rose; the books’ occasional cringe-worthy racism and politics; the sweetness and absurdity of Little House tourism; and the author’s own need to connect so deeply with the Little House world again in the first place. Loved it.

The other two books were more beach reads and Hollywoody than I usually prefer. But how could I resist Confessions of a Prairie Bitch by Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Oleson on the TV series? Delicious. I wish I’d stopped with that one instead of slogging through Melissa Gilbert’s Prairie Tale, which read like a Twilight book without the vampires. Likeable enough, moderately introspective, but in the end I didn’t much care about all the boyfriends and Lifetime movies that followed her Little House career. Sorry, Half Pint.

Rather than plunge into Melissa Anderson (Mary)’s poorly reviewed The Way I See It, I’m thinking I might go back and read the later books in the Little House series: Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years. I read them both during the summer between 5th and 6th grade – an awkward, searching, “crossroads” kind of time in my life for which I’ve recently, inexplicably, become rather nostalgic.

Then, as now, I was an anxious dreamer – yearning for adventures, but ultimately too freaked out by the whole business of dealing-with-other-humans to do much about it. So I wrapped myself in the comforts of bookworm solitude and the notion that things must be so much better on the prairie (or in Narnia, or Marilyn Sachs’ Brooklyn, et cetera).

The Little House books exemplified the very “simple country life” dream my family was striving for, with Emmylou Harris on our stereo and a brooder full of chicks in our living room. Reading those books was simultaneously escape and home…or escape to an idealized version of home. We already had the old stone farmhouse, the woods, the fields, the antique rocking chairs. All I had to do was glorify the mundane spaces with Laura’s wide-eyed narration; apply her pure sense of joy and wonder to my ordinary life.

That summer, as middle school drew nearer, I immersed myself even further in the Little House fantasy – imagining my shirts were long dresses, that our station wagon was a horse drawn wagon, describing my surroundings to myself in third person narrative prose. I’d read all the earlier Little House books about Laura’s girlhood. Now it was time to read about Laura as a teenager. It was the safest way to dip my toes in my own impending adolescence, wrapped in layers of braids and calico, buggy rides and sociables.

I remember holding on to the Little House fantasy well into 6th grade, willfully blurring the edges of my reality into a nice, gentle fictionalization. Maybe I was scared or overwhelmed, but I don’t remember feeling that way. I think I just really wanted life to be that joyful, instead of the raw mess of clanging lockers and flailing hormones and insecurities.

Looking at the covers of those later Little House books sends me right back there again, reading in my nightgown, yearning for my almost-teenage life to start but holding dearly to my summer. And – come to think of it – holding dearly to my childhood. Because, really, that was the last true summer of my childhood. The calm before the storm.

It’s nothing I’d ever want to relive. Yet I’m strangely, strongly compelled to revisit it now. Perhaps I’m just nostalgic for a time when I had the ability to escape and imagine. To delve into a jarring situation and soften it with idealizations and hope.

This isn’t the last summer of my children’s childhood. Not even close. But it feels like an end of sorts, at least with The Boy. I’m striving to see him, the real him, not my hopes and disappointments, not my advocacy for him at school, not the politics of Aspergers. Him.

And part of what I’m seeing is that even now, even at age seven, he’s miles beyond my grasp. I can’t impose peace and happiness on him any more than I could impose it on those noisy middle school hallways years ago. He is on his journey, not mine. I’ve always known that. But I’m only just now feeling the sharp truth of it.

Is it any wonder I find myself grasping prairie-ward again, seeking the comforts that got me through the first steps on my own path? Fasten your sunbonnets, pioneers. We’ll get through this one, too.

1 comment:

Jan said...

Floor Pie: I wound up here by "following" your entries at saveseattleschools. I can't figure out from this site how to actually contact you (that might be by design, I realize). BUT -- I have a "sort of but not really totally" aspie kid, who may or may not be 2E (probably is, but we are not talking about genius level gifted, if so). At any rate, we found a great school for him -- not public, but also not an arm and a leg (maybe just a forearm). These folks were beyond wonderful -- and the head of school founded the place because HER child (full blown autism and an IQ of about 140 or so) was impossible to place in the Kent schools -- couldn't begin to navigate regular classes- and was just being warehoused with virtually no learning going on -- for a truly brilliant boy. When my kid started, they were hoping for a mix of 1/3 gifted neurotypical, 1/3 regular neurotypical, and 1/3 learning disabilities/aspergers/etc -- with or without also being gifted. But it wasn't ever very rigid - no quotas -- just sort of the vision for the place. They just take kids and figure out how to teach them. Frankly, until we switched to Garfield at 9th grade, my child had no clue he was even a special ed kid (he knew he struggled with language, but he also knew he had huge strengths in math and music -- and that with hard work, he could deal with the rest). There was no bullying. There was no ostracism. There WAS a long commute -- but they have moved further north (to Tukwila). If you ever think you might want to at least explore something other than public school, give me a call (my work number -- which has voice mail on it that I don't ignore for days -- unlike all the other voice mail - is 206 757-8110.) And I would be glad to give you whatever information I can that you want.

Jan Murphy

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