Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Optimism of Louisa May Alcott, Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder

A few weeks ago, I was checking the Amazon best-seller charts for a niche that interests me, 19th Century US Teen & Young Adult Historical Novels.  I was pleased, but surprised, to see Laura Ingalls Wilder’s These Happy Golden Years.  Pleased, because it was in the local library and I could start reading it in an hour, but surprised because Ms. Wilder’s work reflects an optimistic world that I didn’t think would interest this audience.

I was wrong.   The book has held steady as a best-seller for weeks, and I’ve read it several times. I now feel that its optimism is possibly a touch unrealistic, but we need to read it now.  I’m curious, if the best-seller charts are a true indication of book interests of American teenagers who read with Amazon. If it is, I wonder if they read this book for the hope and optimism Ms. Wilder expresses so vividly. I’ve given this a great deal of thought and I hope you’ll become curious, again, about the books I’ll discuss for you.  Perhaps your reading of these books brought different opinions; I’m glad to bring them to you again. Maybe you'll re-read them and find your opinions right there.

In These Happy Golden Days, the heroine, Laura, has a secure home life, though it’s not very similar to what’s found in the diaries or journals from then.  Nor does it resemble many of the popular short stories about the West and young women. Her parents were rational and steady; her father stayed in the nest. Not a hint of bitterness was in Laura’s tone at any time, though she didn't graduate from high school because of a teacher's mistake, and her married life would be at the financial level she'd just left. (Many people have aspired to 'better themselves.')  I’ll note that her late teen-aged years held a hope well within her scope for imagining married life. She thought most deeply about her husband’s moral strength.

I enjoyed reading about her life as a teacher (I was a teacher for years).  This book reads peacefully, like gentle flowing streams, with scarcely a strong ripple to upset the waters.  As a teacher who ‘boarded’ at the expense of the school system, the life Ms. Wilder describes was pretty turbulent.  But overall, this is a magnificently optimistic and accepting book, showing patience, but also curiosity and a willingness to grow.

This optimism in the face of so much hardship and even failure is what fascinates me about this Laura Ingalls Wilder novel.  In Those Happy Golden Years, she builds the episodes with realistic touches, like a sister’s not coming home for summer vacation, which means the family, who works and spends what they earn to survive, can’t see her for a year. 

This reasonable, orderly home life isn’t the same as the complicated lives of the great novelist of the plains, Willa Cather.  Families aren’t always united, as in Ms. Cather’s The Professor’s House. Perhaps because of her great sympathy for all sides, I was never certain that the professor was dedicated to his work or removing himself from the world he hadn’t bargained for and couldn’t control under his roof. A similar theme is found in Ms. Cather’s last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl.

Another 19th century authoress whose worlds are peopled with deep characterizations is Louisa May Alcott.  Little Women doesn’t take place in the West, but Jo is a good example of quickness, patience and determination.  Take, for example, how Jo unashamedly dances wearing only one glove.  As we know, 19th century women were conservative in their clothes and accessories and in the evenings, women simply wore gloves.  She had only one unsoiled, decent glove, even to wear at a party, and had no money for another pair.  The creative solution she thought of was to hold one glove and wear the other.  Although Ms. Alcott’s works are often described as ‘didactic,’ I feel that Jo is a character who represents the best of us all – through Ms. Alcott’s excellent craft.

A young diarist I enjoy reading from the 19th century, Rolf Johnson, read Dickens and Sir Walter Scott.  This young plainsman was remarkably versatile, breaking mules or reading historical fiction in English, such as Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Swedish, not English was his first language and school for farm children wasn’t extensive out West.   Nor was Ivanhoe an easy or short book to read.  Unlike other residents of the Great Plains, young Johnson didn’t write.  

Young Mollie Dorsey, before she married, wrote a great deal of prose and verse; but neither was very cheerful, and later her diary showed cynicism about her youthful dreams.  After she left home for Colorado, she devoted herself to her new life with her family, though she wrote some diary entries then.

Other diaries, written by women whose lives held little but cleaning, cooking and sewing in mining towns or the plains vary in how accepting they are about their lives. The diaries I read seemed to notice, but usually didn’t judge their husbands.

 I hope this brief summary reminds you of your favorite topics and authors and you’ll refresh yourselves reading them.  As you remember, many of these books are found at no cost online; others are at your local libraries, often in digital form you can immediately download and read.

*****     *****     *****      *****     *****     *****     ******

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