Funny how a character from a book can grab you in childhood and never ever leave you. I found myself thinking again about the Laura Ingalls books the other day, and wondered what had so captivated me about those books. First I thought maybe it was Laura. Definitely there were times in my early life where I felt like I fit awkwardly into my world, which was also a common feeling of Laura’s.
But thinking deeper, I realized that it was actually Caroline Ingalls who made the biggest impact on my adult life. She was always making the best of her circumstances, adding beauty to her home in all sorts of ways, and encouraging her family to learn and to be graceful and courageous in the midst of challenge.
One of the stories that comes back to me often is the way she used carrot juice to color winter-pale butter. She got the juice by grating a carrot over an old tin pan pierced with nails, and then wrapping the carrot bits in cloth and squeezing the juice out. She wanted her butter to be pretty even in the winter time.
There are stories of her making over dresses, and telling her girls stories from her childhood, and putting colored ribbons in her girls’ hair, and teaching them to read from the two books that they owned. She treasured a little china doll that she kept on a pretty shelf, and was dismayed at first by living in the sod house built into a hill on the banks of Plum Creek. Then, just like always, she squared her shoulders and made the best of it.
The book most memorable to me and my very favorite was ‘The Long Winter”. Caroline had to call on every skill to help her family through that terrible winter. They ground wheat in a coffee grinder, and burned hay in the wood stove when the firewood was gone, and barely, barely lived through those long cold days.
It was not til adulthood that I understood another, equally powerful strength that Caroline possessed. She was able to love her husband well, and support and treasure him even as he carried his family hither and yon to all the different places they lived during Laura’s childhood. Charles was a dreamer, a restless soul, and (I think) not always a good decision-maker. Very often he asked his family to move right as life was getting easier for Caroline– when the garden was getting productive and the children were enjoying school and the well had been dug and the house was cozy and warm.
How hard it must have been for Caroline to acquiesce to each move gracefully, to trust her husband’s judgement though she knew his decisions often brought her family great challenge. Of course it was a different time, one where men were expected to lead and women just followed. And Laura probably omitted some of the hard moments and hard conversations that his decisions sparked.
But what I read in those books, even now as an adult, is strength and grace and a powerfully honoring way about her. I think it was she who helped him be the best man that he could be.
In my mind, she’s the real heroine in the Laura Ingalls books, possessing both skills that I’ve worked to cultivate and others that I don’t remotely yet have a grasp on. I’m glad to have had such a strong woman to inhabit my mind, both in my childhood and even now that I’m all grown up.
What about you? Do characters in childhood books still live in your mind?