CONJUNCTIONS:63, Speaking Volumes (Fall 2014)
Three Little Novels
I have extracted “Three Little Novels” from three books in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of children’s novels: Farmer Boy, By the Shores of Silver Lake, and Little House on the Prairie respectively. These are part of a larger project; moving book by book, I’m erasing the entire Little House series to create an alternative series. In my project, the text appears in the order it appears in the original books. However, I’ve erased significant amounts of Wilder’s writing in order to create new contexts that allow her classic stories to resonate differently. I see my process as parallel to that of Wilder’s pioneer characters: Like Ma and Pa, I’m appropriating resources I find—in my case, words that appear in a given order; in theirs, sod, trees, stones, water—to reshape a landscape.
Almanzo was eating.
He shouted, “Giddap!” a carrot in his hand.
Father came to the barn door and said: “That’s enough, son.” Almanzo went downstairs and took two more doughnuts from the doughnut jar while Father measured oats and peas into the feedboxes.
*At last they went in to dinner. There on the table was Mother, cooked in brown gravy and crab-apple jelly.
“It takes a great deal to feed a growing boy,” Mother said. Almanzo took up his spoon and ate every bite.
*Almanzo went into the kitchen for doughnuts. The place was full of their hot, brown smell. Mother, rolling, rolling into the big copper kettle, came popping up to float and slowly swell, her pale golden back going into the fat.
Mother said some women made a newfangled shape, round, with a hole in the middle, but Mother didn’t have time; Saturday was bath night.
The Comanches, pouring scrolls of molasses, flung rye flour and cornmeal and eggs and things; it was Saturday night.
*Ten stacks of pancakes rose in towers. Butter and sugar melted together and soaked and dripped all down Mother. She could never make too many stacked pancakes. They all ate pile after pile.
*On Sunday, Mother showed through the two pine trees she had cut in the dough. She had made her bonnet of brown velvet, with brown velvet strings under her chin. Father’s spoon cut deep; he scooped out the fluffy yellow. He poured gravy, dark and white meat sliding from the bones. Silently Almanzo ate it all.
*Almanzo licked his woolly mittens; Mother, ladled into six-quart milk pans, made all the sugar they could use.
When Alice came home from school she smelled Almanzo and said, “Oh, you’ve been eating! Boys have all the fun!”
On Saturdays, Alice ate so fast that she was turning back to the bin while her hoopskirts were still whirling the other way.
They carried crocks and jars and jugs of motherbutter to the Saint Lawrence River. Almanzo grew hungrier and hungrier. He was starving. Mother smiled. Just a minute; Mother is a root. Cut it up and plant it, it will always make more.
Alice said, I like to make butter.
*Alice ran, full of eggs. Supper! The best time of all was supper. Mother made little plopping sounds under her spoon.
*They were laughing when they heard the dinner horn. “The joke’s on you, John!” Father shouted. “Snap!” Mother was dripping into a cauldron. The cauldron boiled.
*It was strawberry time. Almanzo nibbled with his teeth. Next day Mother would make strawberry preserves.
*Almanzo was eating breakfast. Then it was time for dinner. Mother and the girls spread the picnic lunch. Almanzo smacked his lips and rubbed his stomach. “I’m going to look around,” he said, “and buy me a good little suckling pig.”
*Independence Day was over. Indian soldiers, traders, and farmers wanted the land. That settled it.
*Almanzo fed his pumpkin. He made a slit on the underside. The pumpkin drank milk. He fed her with a rag. Almanzo drank all the milk he could swallow. Mother was good.
*Almanzo ate breakfast, then dug worms for bait. Out in the rain, the big milk pan was full of Mother, dipped in cornmeal and churning.
Then they drove far into the mountains near Lake Chateaugay. The woods were full of wagons come to feast. For days Mother made pudding. One evening at supper Father said, “It’s time Mother had a vacation.”
*Mother was climbing into the big pail of yellow custard. They could eat all they wanted to; no one would stop them.
At noon they had eaten the whole and Eliza Jane said it was time to get dinner. Almanzo said, “I want a watermelon.”
So Alice went into the biggest melon. Royal stuck the butcher knife into the dewy green rind and bit deep into the juicy cold.
Then Alice said she knew how to make candy. Alice boiled. They rolled up their sleeves and buttered their hands to pull her.
*Lucy’s a little young pig but Lucy was very sticky & stuck to their teeth and their fingers and faces. Her tail hung limp and her head hung down.
*They made ice cream and Alice said she knew how to make a cake. Alice could sit in the oven. Alice hitched up her hoops and sat. Alice was giggling but suddenly was gone. They all stopped eating. Eliza Jane said, “Mother is all gone.”
Nobody ate any more. They looked into the sugar barrel, and they could see only Alice. “We must hope for the best,” she said. “There’s some Mother. There’s some around the edges.”
Almanzo was starved. Mother untied her bonnet strings, brimming full of eggnog and freckled with spices.
*Mother and the girls were pickles, soaking in a tub on the back porch. The motherbutter buyer went down cellar. Mother said proudly, “My butter speaks for itself!” From top to bottom Mother’s—butter—was—Mother! He paid her two hundred and fifty dollars to take to the bank. In a little while, Mother drove away. Almanzo was proud. His mother was probably the best butter in New York City.
*Almanzo said to Father, “I guess it’s dinnertime.”
John laughed at him.
*He knew he should get back to work, but he stood in the pleasant heat. He felt bad because he was letting Alice work all alone, but he thought, “I’m busy roasting her.”
*Florida was a forest of oranges and gingerbread, but Almanzo was hungry, so he went to dinner. The church kitchen was full of women and roasts of beef. Steam potatoes in clean skins broke when struck.
Almanzo was so hungry.
Almanzo ate and ate.
He ate and ate.
*The Indian judge let father gather beechnuts.
Almanzo could never eat enough, and Father was poor.
*It was a wonderful day for eating. Five hogs were to be killed that day and Mother. All afternoon the men were cutting up meat they slid into barrels of brown pork pickle. Pork pickle had a sting that felt like a sneeze and when it was done Mother made headcheese. She boiled the six heads till the meat was like jelly, and she let Almanzo eat.
Mother, molded into little cakes, was worrying and scolding because no one ate much.
*Mother wiped her eyes and shook her bulging skirts, making cobbler.
Almanzo could hardly wait. Maple cobbler.
Mother was cooking.
*Skeleton apple trees rattled like bones … Christmas! The kitchen was full of: new bread, cakes, cookies, and pumpkin pies. Cranberries bubbled on the stove. Mother was the goose. Drumsticks up, dressing out, white breast bare, hoopskirts pulled and backed.
Almanzo shouted, “Giddap!” and Father wallowed on. They had skids; they stuck these under and raised the poles up. They pushed and pried and lifted and gasped. Giddap giddap giddap giddap!
“Next time, son, you’ll know better than to put on such a heavy load,” Father said. Mother thought perhaps he should stop, but Almanzo, he was busy eating.
A strange woman, ashamed, untidy, wrapped in quilts, shorn head, turning her ear—hunted by hoppers, debt, and doctors—the strange woman, ashamed and limp, told the news. Her eyes were big and scared: “The horses, the horses!”
Laura had always been safe from wolves, cows, and rabbits, but now she heard a faint hum. Laura had to hold on to Mary. A roaring came rushing, swelling. Bumps, velvet, chunks of velvet, plump, springy velvet, jerked & jolted—slid the depot, moved the lumberyard and the church.
That was the last of that town. Horses!
There had never been such wonders in the whole history of the world. The horse, so wonderful and dangerous, bigger than Pa! Overhead, horses! Farther west, horses!
I thought we were going west.
We are going west, Pa said, surprised.
Jolt. Jolt. Jolt. Jolt. Horses kept turning the stars overhead. Far ahead there was a little twinkle. The tiny twinkle twinkled larger. It began to shine. It’s a horse!
Aunt Docia said, “Well, Lena and Jean, aren’t you going to say anything to your cousins?”
“How do you do,” Lena said. Lena was a horse. “Come on, Laura! We’re going to sleep!” Lena flopped down right away. Laura mumbled sleepily, “Don’t we undress?”
“What for?” Lena said.
From the huge blackness of the night came a wild, shrill howl. Lena said, “It’s ponies.”
Grass ponies, with blowing manes and tails, grazing on homesteaders! The ponies’ mouths clasp warm necks, the ponies’ tails whiffle, bug, and dip—grass, but faster. The ponies squeal. Bugs flap behind the running grass. Take care! Ponies touch noses and the wheat stacks hustle.
Lena tossed her black head and said, “I’m going to marry a railroader and keep on moving west.” At that instant, the ponies touched noses and squealed: Yi, yi, yi, yip-ee! The prairie was galloping! Its mane sailed up from the ground.
A mass of pony, moving rapidly, elbows and knees jolting the ground, smoothed into the smoothest rippling motion. Motion went through pony like music.
Lena wanted fun. Lena’s head, made from sharp grass, was running, pony mad, to supper.
The West Begins
Grass horses shone silver, rolling down a low bank to the river. Laura began to see out loud for Mary. “There aren’t any trees; just the sky and horses, stopping to drink.” Mary objected. “Grass? Silver? No. We should always be careful to say exactly what we mean.”
“I was saying what I meant,” Laura protested. There were so many ways of seeing things and so many ways of saying “Sioux.”
Dakotas could munch grass.1
Pa would be the storekeeper.
He would be paid fifty dollars every month. He said thousands of buffalo had grazed over this country. They had been the Indians’ cattle, and white men had slaughtered them all. The song he sang oftenest was “Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm.”
The Prairie Swells
A white horse wore a red shirt. (The white horse was a half-breed, French and horse.) Ma said, “Hullo, snow-white horse!” Ma held Grace snugly on her lap.
“Honk! Quanck? Quanck. Quanck,” said Pa’s spirit.
Pulsing in crimson, the horse glittered in a dazzle of light.
Pa had eaten grass.
Pa, in a duck, flew screaming.
Mary said, “Such a clamoring of wild birds! Like bedlam!”
Ma smiled. “Well, girls, we have a busy day before us!” She brought yards of calico and hung it across the horse—a striped blue-and-white shirt.
Pa, in a duck, exploded in squawking, quacking, quonking: Tigers stood by the doorway!
Mary said, “What a racket.”
The tigers—horse thieves—looked at the half-breed. The horse’s shirt was blue and white. They’d shoot him, bushwhack him!
The white horse (silver and velvet) put on his coat. He buttoned it all the way up and turned up its collar so that his shirt did not show. A quacking duck rose. “Ma, let me go out and find Pa,” Laura whispered.
“I had lovely long hair when your Pa and I were married,” Ma said. “I could sit on the braids.”
The white horse was dressing behind the curtain. Laura heard him say, “There’ll never be a horse stolen, never a horse stolen.” But cows ate grass, and milk streamed into tin pails. Cows’ cuds & milk were prairie ponies, sod horses; the railroad runs on horses, on cake and silver.
The duck was using swear words. The white horse reared and whirled and reared, went streaming away and was gone. “Well!” Ma said.
By Gum, the Devilment
Pa, chuckling, said, “There’s a riot! Everybody’s flocking here.”
Ma was quiet.
The crowd was breaking down the store door with neck yokes.
“Discretion is the better part of valor,” Ma murmured. She could hear the fierce sound of that crowd’s growl and Pa’s voice—a duck’s. Winter was driving them, and winter was a great, snow-white bird.
“I’ll pluck its feathers and you skin it,” Carrie said and opened the long bill. Dead fish fell out, so Ma shot ducks and geese for dinner. Wings made Laura want Pa.
Pa had said, “You and I want to fly like the birds, but I promised Ma that you should go to school.” Laura looked at Ma and saw a dishpan. She could not disappoint Ma.
Often at sunset a flock talked anxiously. Lena and the ponies, wicked and bold, chanted: No cooking! No dishes! No washing! No scrubbing! Good-bye! Lena was going out west. Ma said, “Maybe next summer I can get a job to pay for the lumber to build us a shanty.” It was so hard to get ahead.
Ma mended the wagon cover and cried. “It’s good, sound, weathertight,” Ma said. “Providential.” She felt her blood thin. The earth was hard and rough.
The winds blew bitter and a wolf put on overcoat and mittens. She was bound and determined to stick to the prairie cure. It was the one cure the doctors recommended. (Prairies are about the only thing that cures consumption.)
After breakfast the wolf got up and pretended to laugh. She went on, breathless and hot, then, shivering, howled. “Health,” she panted. The wolf gasped and gulped, catching her breath.
This wolf, all out of breath, whispered a howl. Poor girl; the wolf could hardly swallow an oyster. This wolf wanted a melody of grass and flower—a horse, a horse! A horse to drift over the slough, contagious with prairie & shining gold and silver.
“The seventies haven’t been so bad, but it looks like the eighties’ll be better,” Mr. Boast agreed. “Dakota land! Nobody’ll be there! I ought to show up at the land office bright and early! Don’t worry about the homestead, Mrs.!”
Mrs. Boast said, “Hurry up so we can read!”
A Beautiful Lady, Lost in the Words
But at the most exciting part, she came suddenly to the words “To be continued.”
“Oh dear me, we will never know what became of that lady,” Mary lamented. “Laura, why do you suppose they print only part of a story?”
They wondered what would happen next to the beautiful Mrs. Boast. Mrs. Boast, made of paper—folded, pressed smooth—overlapped Ma and talked mostly about homesteads. She said Ma need not worry; she would teach school and whatnot.
The fiddle squawked & dropped on the table. Pa’s spirit! Ma took hold of the edge. Her face startled Laura. “I will make … inquiries!” she said. Pa fluttered fast. “Trust in the Lord!” said Ma. “Talk, Pa!”
“Would you mind writing it down?” said Pa.
Ma got her little pearl-handled pen and the ink bottle and wrote; no one wanted to lose the opportunity to hear Pa fiddle in French. “No music,” said Pa. “Day after tomorrow. Strangers. Huron. Put them up for the night.”
The Huron men cleared the table and washed dishes. A young man pleasantly urged Ma and Ma could not refuse because she wanted that fellow. The fat was in the fire then! Caroline’s long, catamount screech curled against the walls. Ma yelled like a wildcat from Tennessee, tried every persuasion & filed on a claim south of here. Golly!
New grass was starting silver; the horses stretched and shone. Mary dreamed of wolves’ howling and sunflowers, her petticoats a snowdrift in the long room. The prairie grass pulled a street to fidgets; the street fidgeted so that men sat down.
“There’s murder south of town! A claim jumped,” Ma said. “We better get onto our claim before it moves.”
“It’s moving! Quick! The homestead’s moving!” They stuffed chimneys with paper and wrapped them in towels. Ma exclaimed, “Laura! This wind will ruin your complexion!” Suddenly, green horses gleamed in the sunshine, their necks arched and their ears pricked up.
“Oh, what beautiful horses!” Laura cried.
“The horses’ve taken up town, by George!”
To coarse grass horses—manes and tails marshy and silver—the shanty looked like a yellow toy on the great rolling prairie covered with rippling young. All over the prairie the blossoms were dancing; the whole enormous prairie was a green carpet of flowery colts.
In the shanty, tigers wagged to and fro, beside the clock and dog and bread sponge.
The horses dumped the wagon and stamped the shanty.
“I can’t find Grace! Go look for her!” said Ma. Laura ran. She could not see Grace anywhere. The silver prairie grasses stood higher than Laura’s head, over acres and acres, for miles and miles. “Grace! Grace! Grace!” Laura was dizzy.
Grace on the grass brutes that paw up the biscuits and the china!
The horses sang.
WE TRY TO LIVE PEACEFUL.“It sounds rather heathenish to me,” Ma said.
Gently, in the shadows, moonlight shone and touched Pa’s fiddle. The bow moved over the strings. It was just the night for fairies to be dancing. Green buds were swellin’ on Grace, and she fell asleep thinking of land.
They were going in, only in—2
Oh, must we go?
snow/fiddle & brindle
what is a Pa?”
A Pa is a little way through
the woods, a dot
on the wagon seat, a strange
noise, Ma said.
“Do you like going in?”
Laura asked if they were in, but they were not.
It was a long way in. They had to eat cold bits of food.
tin plate, tin cup, tin cup
they could not drink coffee
until they grew up.
Where is Pa, Ma?
Mercy, whatever makes you want to see in?
We will see more than we want to.
This is in, isn’t it?
She did not know whether this was in
or not, she didn’t know where the line
was, whether the iron
When would she see Pa?
You never see in unless they want you to see.
He had seen in, but Laura never had.
He would show her.
Why do you suppose we haven’t seen in?
The sun’s up, I want a clothesline,
and if we wanted to live in
you could make a roof.
Bachelors had seen in.
They were glad to see.
They had come from Iowa.
But you aren’t Pa, said Laura.
When are we going to see Pa?
What do you want to see in for?
This was in and she didn’t know why she couldn’t see in.
“In!” Mary whispered
feeling, in her middle
weak, but she looked
they did not know
there was no sound at all
oh I don’t know
Laura thought of Ma, said,
I’m going and if
she held still and pressed her nose
she couldn’t see in and felt safer.
she heard eating & turned
afraid in would hurt.
Ma said, we must get dinner
Pa must have dinner
tin plate tin cup tin plate
So you’ve seen in, have you?
I was afraid oh Charles I was afraid.
You don’t want in, he said. Never mind.
The main thing is to be good.
Laura held the edge of the skin while Pa’s
knife ripped off meat. After this you girls
remember. Don’t even think of in; it’s sinful.
He made a stout cupboard and padlocked it.
Laura held Mary and looked in
where fires had been. Fringes
& dust. Look! A thread!
Wet the thread in her mouth;
she could always think about in.
Fever shook the dipper
chimney burning up
chimney girl remember
I smoked better tobacco back in India
and we need more quinine
Pa went away. Pa
had gone. Mr. Ingalls
Who oo oo oo
Hope he have no trouble
Government made in.
I’ve heard the grown-ups talk
Ma, what’s a ma
An Osage camp, down among the bluffs
The government is going to move in.
But I thought this was in?
LAURA. PA IS GOING TO GET TAKEOUT. NO MORE QUESTIONS!
For a Christmas dinner?
I wish Pa’d come back (Pa had not come back).
A panther would carry off Pa.
Pa still had not come home. Mary was hopping. Suddenly she stopped on one foot and said, “It’s in.” She stood still. That made her feel funny. It was quite in. It was like a song, but not. Ma listened. It made Laura’s heart beat fast. They saw the colors fade from everything. Laura’s heart beat faster. Listen, Laura said.
Ma wanted Indian food for dinner, but black clouds were billowing up. Her middle shook and tears poured out. The big fire swallowed the little one. Ma smelled scorched. Pa was gone.
Laura listened in.
Mr. Edwards said Pa moved within.
Pa went whistlin’ and the tall grass
didn’t bother him anymore.
But there was uneasiness. For days, Mary and Laura seemed to be hiding and creeping. Children should be seen and mustn’t frighten Ma. Ma was covered with ashes and had not gone to bed. Laura felt as if she were falling; there was nothing in her middle. In was dancing around/inside her. Laura saw a flutter of moonlight, and then was gone.
Durned if she knew what to make of it.
An Osage ma was cooking dinner and she saw in—a long line, far away except rushing. Osage pa came riding far and fast—a happy pony, glitter-trippety-trip-trip, trippety-trip, pat-patter, pat-patter, trippety pat-patter; there was no end to that long, long line; that long line pulled itself over the edge; but it was a bean stem, coiled like a spring, that pushed its way to dinner.
1. “On August 17, 1862, after a summer season of failed crops and diminished lands, the Dakota Uprising commenced when the US government failed to pay the Dakotas’ annuities. Local trader and store owner Andrew Myrick refused to allow credit for food until their payments arrived. ‘Let them eat grass,’ he said. Myrick was killed on the first day of the uprising. Trudy Pashe, who learned about the war from stories passed down through her family, said, ‘My grandfather was Pazoiyopa. From what I understand, Grandpa Pazoiyopa was involved in a lot of battles. They killed some guys and he was the one who stuck the grass in his [Andrew Myrick’s] mouth.’” From Indian Country Today Media Network.
2. Wilder’s original title for the first chapter of this book—Little House on the Prairie— was “Going In” (to Indian Territory). This chapter was later retitled “Going West.” In many cases where Wilder uses the word “Indian,” I have erased the final four letters of the word.
This is an excerpt from Emily Anderson’s Little: Novels (forthcoming from BlazeVOX). Conjunctions and the author thank Brieanne Hauger for the Chinese-takeout emoji.