- The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder
For better or for worse, it is difficult if not impossible to find someone in the West who has not heard of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series. From wincing memories of the nasal, shrill call "Pa!" from a young Melissa Gilbert and the illustriously coiffed Michael Landon on the television series to recollections of long afternoons spent with book in hand, this series has had one of the strongest influences on how people envision the West.
Sharon McCartney, poetry editor of The Fiddlehead and author of two previous poetry collections, pushes the reading experience of the series to the limit, refusing to ignore questions of what happened to the people and the places that the Ingalls family left behind on their many journeys westward. This sequence of fifty-four linked poems explores the Little House series and also relies heavily on new western history, highlighting the less mythic and more troubling aspects of the Ingalls and Wilder families' journeys. McCartney emphasizes the death of Caroline's first son, Freddie, who died as an infant and was written out of the series. She also emphasizes that the Ingalls family was not in grave peril of being killed by the Osage in Little House on the Prairie (1935) but was tolerated as squatters on the land. Cleverly adopting the voices of many of the places and characters in the series, McCartney demonstrates that there is no reason to read the series uncritically.
A major strength of the collection is its foregrounding of the natural world that is part of the series. In "Blackbird in the Corn," the bird-speaker begins with a pertinent question: "Who says it's their corn? Why should they / pump us full of buckshot just for eating?" a question that does not assume that the earth is a bounty awaiting human consumption, one of the beliefs that formed the discourse of western settlement (60).
McCartney's tone is not for those who do not tolerate a dry joke well (the Ingalls horse, Lady, wonders if her mate's behavior is "mere horsing around"). However, the collection is successful because this tone parodies that of the series itself, full of platitudes such as Ma's Prairie-Poppins-esque famous concluding phrase, "all's well that ends well." Aphorisms such as "Sewing means pulling / together as well as poking holes" picks up the tone of the series and distills it into poetry by exploring the boundaries of this voice (58). [End Page 292]
On the scintillating side, McCartney imagines an erotic experience between Laura and her cousin Lena in which the girls confirm their definitions of intercourse and explore their bodies, the "love song" to which the title refers. The radical re-imaginings in this collection demonstrate a long engagement with this stubbornly influential series. This collection questions inherited foundational myths that consider female work, environmental damage, and strict social norms. McCartney, witty but never smug, succeeds by imagining the series' wilder side, one which many readers of the original series will be ready to engage. [End Page 293]