Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Chris Ware

By posted at 3:00 pm on December 10, 2012 9

coverThough as I kid I’d read The Long Winter, I was really more familiar with the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder via the long-running NBC television series, which recast her work as a warm paean to family togetherness during the cocaine-dusted, wife-swapping 1970s (and a show now appropriately preserved in the golden amber of the Hallmark Channel). Bolstered by the anti-sentimentalism of art school, I’d somehow fallen in line with this received opinion, dismissing her work as innocent and sanitized, of no real value except as a way of passing one’s time in a false nostalgia for a Good Old Days that probably never existed. But during a recent snowstorm here in Oak Park, Illinois, vaguely remembering a detail of Wilder’s Long Winter – how the snow drifted so high that she could watch the feet of passersby from her attic window – I started rereading the 1940 book with my daughter Clara, just to pass the time during our own little blizzard.

Well, was I proved wrong. Really wrong. Not only by the book’s utter lack of sentimentality, but by the surprisingly lean, stark, and even occasionally self-deceiving personalities Wilder brings to life through her clear memory and clean prose. Warmth and love were indeed present, but they were a warmth and love that felt absolutely genuine, forged of clinging, human suffering, and tempered to a ring of authenticity by the details of close-quartered familiarity its characters endured. Sacrifice, self-denial and desperation blow through the book’s pages, and the frozen panic suffered by the Ingalls family during that 1880-81 South Dakota winter ended up feeling almost as immediate as the snowstorm framed by the windows of our 98% Energy-Star-rated-furnace-heated house, my daughter taking refuge under a blanket in a hinged ottoman as shelter from the real-er snow of Wilder’s words.

coverOnce both storms had subsided, Clara and I started the nine-book Little House series from the beginning and set out on a tour of literary discovery that surprised and amazed me, from the grisly sweet early memories (the “pig-bladder” episode that every kid reader remembers) to her middle years following her possibly deluded father all over the midwest in search of a reliable land claim, to her onerous marriage and house-keeping with Almanzo Wilder. Looking back on the books as a single work, Wilder not only creates an almost sculptural sense of time’s passage – what it feels like to go from childhood to adulthood – but also seems to adapt her writing to the task, beginning with simpler words cradling simpler, childish images and ending with more detailed, complex, uncomfortable and disjointed chapters, the bone-lean accounting of her marriage in a semi-unfinished follow-up of her First Four Years with Almanzo in which their crops repeatedly fail, their house burns and a bereft neighbor asks Laura to make a gift of her only child acting as a bitter chaser to the whole.

Apparently I’m not alone in this rediscovery, as her work has inspired an explosion of post-NBC Ingalls Wilder-loving websites and memoirs, myriad fictionalized follow-up book series extending other characters’ lives (and I will nose-holdingly overlook the whole itchy connection of her daughter Rose Wilder to the Libertarian party though I won’t overlook recent scholarship which reveals her semi-fictionalized writing as a collaboration between her fact-flat mind and Rose’s more rounded powers of literary empathy) to her just this year being inducted, as a real literary writer, into the Library of America. Such a plaudit is justified. She breathes on the page as a clear-aired voice who speaks not only to children, but to the children that wii-playing/guitar-polishing/adventure-movie-watching America claims we can remain regardless of our age. In short, Laura Ingalls Wilder tells us, and tells us quite beautifully and bluntly, to grow up.

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9 Responses to “A Year in Reading: Chris Ware”

  1. Darcy
    at 8:49 pm on December 10, 2012

    Yes, yes, yes.It makes me so happy to read this. However exactly they came to be, these are amazing books. So carefully observed, such a sense of what it means to be in a body in an unfenced world, such amazing physical detail. Thanks for maybe helping people discover or rediscover them.

  2. Janet Magnuson
    at 9:06 am on December 11, 2012

    Yes, thank you so much. They were the first books I remember reading, not that long after they were published. My first grade teacher read Little House on the Prairie to the class and I submerged myself in the prequels and sequels for several years after. There is a part of my brain where they all still live. The Long Winter is sublime; I grew up in Northern Illinois too. There is some negative press right now, Judith Thurman of course. I can’t believe she actually read the books. Yes, Laura’s mother was a narrow bigot, but wasn’t Ma the villain of the whole work with her corsets and hatred of Indians? As for Rose Wilder Lane, many have fallen prey to Rand, but that says nothing about Laura Ingalls and her life.

  3. Jessica Vealitzek
    at 2:29 pm on December 11, 2012

    I literally just finished reading the children’s book version of the Christmas chapter from the Little House in the Big Woods to my daughter, also named Clara, before her nap. Now I’m even more anxious to re-read the original series to her as she gets older.

  4. Barnstorm » Blog Archive » Wednesday Linkstorm
    at 11:20 am on December 12, 2012

    [...] Millions continues its Year in Reading series. Here is Chris Ware's post. Here is Zadie [...]

  5. Nicole
    at 5:17 pm on December 13, 2012

    Great article. I really enjoyed it. I encourage our visitors to re-read Laura’s books and to share the stories with the children and grandchildren!

  6. Genevieve
    at 11:04 am on December 14, 2012

    Thanks for mentioning the collaboration with Rose. So many adult Little House fans sweep it under the rug, but I think it’s so important she be recognized for her contribution. Reading West From Home–or even The First Four Years, which I remember being thoroughly disappointed with as a child, teen, and adult reader–proves that Laura wasn’t the writer she’s purported to be.

  7. Rookie » Saturday Links: Our Hearts Go Out to Newtown Edition
    at 12:05 pm on December 15, 2012

    [...] in the last year, regardless of publication date. One of my favorite entries so far this year is Chris Ware’s, all about reading Laura Ingalls Wilder with his [...]

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