Done with The Long Winter/Little Town on the Prairie

When Chris and I went on our musical roadtrip earlier this month, among the books I took along was The Long Winter, thinking that I might need an occasional break from the heavier reading I also packed. It turned out to be the only book I read—I was riveted, and pulled it out at every spare moment. I suppose it was an odd sight when we went to the new Starbucks for my morning coffee, Chris reading a fat authorized biography of Lawrence of Arabia while his dad read one of the Little House books.

With every book in the series my admiration grows for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s accomplishment, and I can’t really do her books justice here; it would take an article much longer and more detailed than I have time to write. But she has done something in these books that is unique in my experience, perhaps unique in literature, by telling such a rich tale in such an artless manner.

In Wilder’s writing the flourishes, such as they are, are restricted to descriptions of nature. Her words almost never get in the way of her account of events. Important details are presented matter-of-factly and left uninterpreted except by subsequent events. Sometimes subsequent events don’t cooperate, and we are left hanging, as when the family was walking home after a community Thanksgiving supper put on by the church’s Ladies Aid Society:

 “I know you are tired, Caroline,” said Pa as he carried Grace homeward, while Ma carried the lantern to light the way and Laura and Carrie followed, lugging the basket of dishes. “But your Aid Society sociable was a great success.”

“I am tired,” Ma replied. A little edge to her gentle voice startled Laura. “And it wasn’t a sociable. It was a New England Supper.”

Pa said no more. The clock was striking eleven when he unlocked the door, and the next day was another school day, and tomorrow night was the Friday Literary.

Why did Ma have an edge in her voice when she replied? I have no idea. The supper is never mentioned again, and Ma doesn’t express any unhappiness in the rest of the book. All I can figure is that, here as elsewhere Laura Ingalls Wilder records the events as she remembers them, without using them to drive some writerly purpose. And snippets like this reinforce my impression that Wilder has not shaded the truth in her writing, leaving me free to speculate about the meaning of various trends and turns in the tale.

Here are a few thoughts I have about the story of the Ingalls:

  • As much as I admire Charles Ingalls, his major shortcoming was what I can only call a pioneer spirit. Most of the heartaches and setbacks suffered by the family were the result of Pa’s willingness to take risks so as to improve their lot, whether it be more land or a frame house or better hunting or a place to grow cash crops. A less generous name for this is discontentment.
  • Most of the setbacks and heartaches suffered by the family were tied to modern innovations and conveniences—cash cropping, railroads, using coal for heating, store-bought food and dry goods. There is a slow but inexorable shift from directly providing the family’s needs to earning money to pay for things.
  • Pa was aware that it was courting trouble to become dependent on modern conveniences. During the long winter the Ingalls ran perilously short on supplies:

    “If only I had some grease I could fix some kind of a light,” Ma considered. “We didn’t lack for light when I was a girl, before this newfangled kerosene was ever heard of.”

    “That’s so,” said Pa. “These times are too progressive. Everything has changed too fast. Railroads and telegraph and kerosene and coal stoves—they’re good things to have but the trouble is, folks get to depend on ’em.”

    So after the long winter was over, why didn’t Pa renounce his dependence on newfangled things?

  • Ma Ingalls’ major shortcoming was a concern for the opinion of others. The worst part of this was her insistence that her girls get proper schooling, an insistence that leads them repeatedly to live in or near town. And town life changed the Ingalls family more than any other single factor. But there are many, many other moments where Ma’s reaction to a situation is “What will people think?”
  • The Homestead Act was probably not a good thing, because it played on people’s desire to get something for nothing. The deeper I look, the more I think that this goes for the pioneering spirit in general.
  • Why was Ma so insistent on schooling for her daughters? Time and again in the books either weather or circumstances prevent Laura and Carrie from attending school for long stretches—and when they finally return, they haven’t fallen behind a bit, because they kept up with their lessons at home. Why bring schools and teachers into it?
  • Nobody in 19th century America seemed to blink at the idea that the average woman (girl, really) was competent to teach other people’s children, much less her own.
  • Although it isn’t clear in the books (so far, anyway), the state paid nearly all expenses for Mary’s time at college, with the Ingalls only having to pay for her transportation between school and home, and to provide her with clothing. But somehow this was a major hardship for them, to the extent that Laura needed to do piecework sewing in town and hire on as a schoolteacher before she turned sixteen. Why was the expense so high—the fashionable clothing needed to be “presentable”? Was the training and education that Mary received worth the toll it took on the family?

Many other thoughts came to me as I was reading these books; these are just the ones I can recall off the top of my head.

New shipping option in the store

Nothing about running an internet bookstore has caused me more headaches and heartaches than shipping costs. We like to ship via UPS for three important (to us) reasons: (1) UPS picks up shipments at the house, saving us the time and expense of a trip to town; (2) UPS tracks the package throughout its journey, and will make good on any mistakes it makes in delivering it; and (3) our internet bookstore software will automatically calculate the cost of shipping an order to a customer. We don’t like to ship via UPS for one important reason: the cost is high, especially for small orders, and is very high if the destination is rural.

When we first opened we shipped everything via the Post Office, requiring a daily trip downtown and much time spent in line and at the counter. Finally we were doing enough business to merit daily UPS pickup, and switched exclusively to shipping that way, with a few specific exceptions. Since then, not a week has gone by without a few orders whose shipping costs we thought were much too high (even more so since we lowered our prices).

So we’ve decided to add USPS Media Mail as a shipping option. If you’re not in a hurry (2-9 days transit time within the 48 states, 3-6 weeks to other domestic locations), you can save a few dollars by having your order sent this way.

Grateful for Google

I don’t know if other people do this, but I am constantly using Google to protect myself from saying boneheaded things. Just this morning I received a letter from a friend in which he joked that his children were spending their quiet time reading Calvin’s Institutes in the original Latin. Now, I distinctly remember reading that Calvin’s Institutes had done much to influence French writing style, so I thought about sending a quick email telling my friend that he was funny but wrong.

Almost without thinking I typed into my Google search box the string “Calvin’s institutes original language”. The third result was the Wikipedia entry for the Institutes, which contained this paragraph:

The original Institutes were written in Latin. Calvin wrote five major Latin editions in his lifetime (1536, 1539, 1543, 1550, and 1559). He translated the first French edition of the Institutes in 1541, corresponding to his 1539 Latin edition, and supervised the translation of 3 later French translations. The French translations of Calvin’s Institutes helped to shape the French language for generations, not unlike the influence of the King James Version for the English language. The final edition of the Institutes is about five times the length of the first edition.

One more embarrasment avoided.

Random Notes

Last week Chris and I spent four days in eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia, helping Ron Short with his annual Christmas in Appalachia program. The show is a combination peformance/singalong; we were backup musicians for most of the show, but also had the chance to do three songs of our own. This is the third year we’ve participated.

The four performances were over four consecutive days, which left us at loose ends during the day. We had a few in-town errands to run in Bristol, and one day we had a pleasant visit in Mendota with our friends the Hammonds, ending up an unseasonably warm afternoon with an impromptu performance of Christmas songs on their porch. But there was still time to kill, which we did at the comfortable, posh, and outrageously expensive new library in downtown Bristol. All in all we got by, but it was a good reminder that there are many, many downsides to life as a traveling musician.

Thursday night was the Christmas play at Christ Community Church in South Fork, where we used to attend. This is Jerome Lange’s big production for the year; he works hard to get the kids ready, and is always proud of the results. Our whole family went last year, but this year Debbie stayed home with the younger children while Chris, Maggie, Matthew and I went. Chris and I played music along with Jerome while people ate supper, and I videotaped the play for Jerome after that.

My camera is a Mini-DV camera, which means I can download the contents of a tape directly to the computer. I haven’t used it much in the past few years, though, and the last time I downloaded video was on a computer that has since been retired. But I had the proper connector (Firewire) on the new computer, and thought it should just work. Well, mostly it didn’t, and the couple of times I got it to work it would only download about two minutes of video before complaining.

Finally I remembered that when I bought the camera I had also bought a Firewire/Video card to do the downloading. So I liberated that card from the old computer, installed it in the new, and things started working properly. I might not have been so diligent to get things working just for the sake of the Christmas play, but unless it works the video camera is useless to me.

We still haven’t located a family cow, but the pressure is off for now because some friends from church recently bought two cows and are milking them. So we’re back to our customary 12-14 gallons per week, along with butter when they make it.

We really missed the milk. Chris and I even took a couple of gallons along on our road trip last week, so we could avoid eating breakfast out. And the kefir grains we’ve been using were getting dangerously feeble in store-bought milk, but with the fresh milk they have rebounded nicely.

The revised Cumberland Books website is now live. For the most part you shouldn’t notice much difference, except for a few glitches that need to be worked out. I plan to spend the next few weeks reviewing the contents of the entire site, shoring up some of the inevitable erosion that has taken place over the past few years.

Nina Planck, in her book Real Food, tells of growing up on a farm healthy and happy, then going off to college, falling in with a crowd of enlightened eaters, going vegan, and eventually becoming fat, sickly, and cranky. For reasons I don’t quite understand she fell into starting and running a series of farmers’ markets in England. With access to good, fresh food her eating habits began to migrate back towards the farm—and without intending it she became thinner, healthier, and more cheerful.

Planck’s book makes a strong argument that traditional eating, particularly with respect to animal fat, is good for you. We’ve been testing this out by doing what we can to replace vegetable fat with animal fat in our own diet. In particular, we have started to use lard where it was once common, e.g. in pie crusts. They certainly taste better.

One problem with commercially available lard is that the only stuff we can find is hydrogenated, which is unnatural and bad for you. So we’ve been wanting to render our own, but pig fat, though worthless, isn’t easy to find. After a performance in Virginia I was talking to a fellow about farming, and he mentioned that he occasionally slaughters hogs for friends. I started moaning about how hard it was to find pig fat, and he offered to walk down the hill and get twenty pounds of it out of his freezer. We tossed it in the cooler along with our milk, and soon enough I’ll spend a morning rendering it. 

According to an article in Grit, the APPPA newsletter, broilers were originally a minor byproduct of the egg industry, cockerels that were killed at about 12 weeks and 1.5 pounds. At that time chicken was more expensive than steak. The Cornish Cross breed was introduced in the 1930s, and took more than thirty years to catch on; now customers will hardly tolerate any other sort of bird.

Website work

I mentioned in a recent post that I buckled down and learned the basics of Cascading Style Sheets, a technology that makes it easier to design web pages sensibly. I’ll be using this new knowledge soon, on three projects.

The first is the redesign of the Cumberland Books website, which should be done in a few days; for the casual website user the changes will be subtle, but as I go through the website re-implementing the design I am quite pleased at how much simpler and cleaner the new web pages are. The second is a website that will be a repository of agrarian information, which probably won’t go public for another couple of months.

The third project has already gone public on a small scale, a couple of weeks back. It is a website about the Old Regular Baptists, a denomination about which there is precious little to be found on the internet. Normally I wouldn’t have published it in such rough form, but friends and friends of friends were clamoring for me to make parts of it available, so I went ahead.

You’ll find a link on the home page to a weblog where I post weekly recordings of the services at Blessed Hope Old Regular Baptist Church, the church we are currently attending. Everyone ought to check out at least some of the singing. For those of you who are up to it, go ahead and check out some of the sermons; the style is striking, and both Roger Murrell and Mike Slone can preach with an intensity that will blister paint.

(For the technically curious: the design of the ORB website was taken with minor modifications from a set of CSS templates that are freely available. But that doesn’t mean that it is hard to write CSS from scratch; I’m doing that with the Cumberland Books website, and it is straightforward. As to the agrarian site, I haven’t decided yet whether to borrow a set of templates, build my own from scratch, or something in between.)

Economic imbalance

Before reading so many distributist polemics, I wouldn’t have thought twice about the statistics found in this article. But now they are very striking:

  • The richest 2% own half the world’s assets, while the poorer half own only 1% of the worlds’ assets.
  • Almost 90 percent of the world’s wealth is concentrated in North America, Europe, and high-income Asian and Pacific countries (remember Hilaire Belloc’s observation that while free trade will maximize the economic benefit within a particular region, it allows great imbalances within the region).
  • To be in the richest 1% you need $500,000 or more in assets, which I think is much less than financial planners recommend for a “comfortable” retirement.