- "It is better farther on":Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Pioneer Spirit
"I would like to go West," [Pa] told Ma one day. "A fellow doesn't have room to breathe here any more."
"Oh, Charles! No room, with all this great prairie around you?" Ma said. "I was so tired of being dragged from pillar to post, and I thought we were settled here.". . .
Laura knew how [Pa] felt for she saw the look in his blue eyes as he gazed over the rolling prairie westward from the open door where he stood. He must stay in a settled country for the sake of them all, just as she must teach school again, though she did so hate to be shut in a schoolroom.(HGY, pp. 138-39)1
Reading this passage as a child, my heart yearned westward with Pa's and Laura's. Go, go, I cried silently, don't let Ma hold you back. On to Oregon and the Pacific! As I read my way through the series, my identification with Laura, and my adoration of Pa, mirroring hers, never faltered. Like them I wanted to be free, to "fly like the birds," to go West, and when I was old enough to get out a map and trace the travels of the Ingalls family, I felt a stab of disappointment looking at the distance between South Dakota and Oregon, where Pa wanted to go. He never made it, I thought sadly. Ma made them stay in De Smet, and the geese all flew away from Silver Lake, and there was never any good hunting for Pa again.
In recent years as I have shared the stories with my own children, it has been a pleasure to rediscover the books. I found that I could still identify with Laura and that I still adored Pa and his fiddle, the wonderful fiddle Wilder so often uses to show how Pa unites the little pioneer family with tunes which reflect the changing patterns of their lives. But there were times [End Page 74]
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when my response did not seem to follow that of my children, nor that of my remembered childhood self. I began for the first time to sympathize with Ma and her reluctance to be always moving on. As a mother, I warmed to Ma's desire to put down roots, to build up a farm and find schools for the children, and I was amazed by her eternal loving acceptance of Pa's mercurial decisions as well as her ability to cope bravely and cheerfully with the dangers of pioneer life. Looking at Pa with a cool objective eye, I saw him as a ne'er-do-well, a little child, lovable but irresponsible, always wanting to go on to the next thing instead of committing himself to the present reality. I began to wonder, moreover, whether Wilder had not failed as a writer to do justice to the character of her mother, who, I was coming to feel, ought to have been the true heroine of the series.
Going back to the first book, I began to read my way through the series once more, and I made some surprising discoveries. Wilder has in fact given the adult reader a more subtle and sophisticated portrait of Ma than I had thought. As Laura, through whose eyes we see the characters, develops from a six-year-old child to a young married woman, there is a corresponding growth of complexity in the depiction of the tension between Pa's craving for freedom and mobility, and Ma's wish for a home and stability; indeed this tension is increasingly represented and internalized as a tension in Laura's own character. Laura's slow progress toward a sympathetic understanding of her mother parallels her own growth toward acceptance of her identity as a woman.
Nonetheless a certain blindness in Wilder's vision persists to the very end...