Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Little Stitches on the Prairie

A few weeks ago my mother asked me "What are you reading? I'm almost done my book and I need something new." I told her "I'm rereading the Little House books right now." She didn't think I was serious. I was. My mother will not reread something as there are so many other books out there. I, on the other hand, have and do. It appalled my sister a little bit that I was reading what is basically a children's series. My take on it is that I am a different person than I was the last time I read them, high school? I don't remember... The first time I read the series I was in sixth grade and loved the historical aspect of it. I remember then reading them several years later, and identifying with Laura's introversion and love of her family. This time I found myself paying attention to the more adult things--how long those wagon rides must have been when a ride out to Pittsburgh makes me crazy; making a campfire meal with not much more than a pan and some flour; how Pa would do whatever it took to provide for his family in lean years; the unimaginable cabin fever they must have experienced during the long winter. And then when Laura left home to be married and enter a completely new life? I felt the same sadness she must have.

One thing I certainly zeroed in on this time around was the sewing and knitting that was always taking place. Knitting needles always had stockings and mittens on them. Secret embroidery projects became unexpected Christmas presents. Lace was crocheted for petticoat edgings. Things I know I glanced right over before now stood out to me, in a kindred spirit sort of way. And, of course, the sewing. Hehehe--were you wondering where I was going, or are you used to me by now?

Truth be told, when I was younger Laura Ingalls Wilder was my idol (this was before I realized the whole lack of indoor plumbing thing), but I do not think I would have been able to hang on the prairie. Take, for instance this bit from On the Banks of Plum Creek:   
Mary was still sewing nine-patch blocks. Now Laura started a bear’s track quilt. It was harder than a nine-patch, because there were bias seams, very hard to make smooth. Every seam must be exactly right before Ma would let her make another, and often Laura worked several days on one short seam.

Yeah, I can see me working for days on one seam. But this time I knew what bias seams are. 

Or how about this bit when Laura had to help Ma sew new sheets just before The Long Winter?  

Laura  was sewing two long breadths of muslin together to make a sheet. She pinned the edges together carefully and fastened them with a pin to her dress at the knee. Carefully holding the edges even, she whipped them together with even, tiny stitches. The stitches must be close and small and firm and they must be deep enough but not too deep, for the sheet must lie smooth, with not the tiniest ridge down its middle. And all the stitches must be so exactly alike that you could not tell them apart, because that was the way to sew.

Without even focusing on all those hand-stitches, how about we focus on the fact that they all had to be identical?

If you modernized this statement from Little Town on the Prairie  it would kind of be exactly why I dislike sewing garments for myself:  

She had cut the patterns from newspaper, using her dressmaker’s chart of thin cardboard as a guide. Lines and figures for all different sizes were printed on it. The trouble was that nobody was exactly any of the sizes on the chart. After Ma had measured Mary, and figured and marked the size of every sleeve and skirt and bodice piece on the chart, and cut the patterns, and cut and basted the dress line, then when she tried the lining on Mary she had to make changes all along the seams.

But then, of course, came the invention of the sewing machine. Pa was describing it to Ma, and while things have gotten fancy the basic principles are still the same: 

"You work the pedal with your feet, and that turns the wheel and works the needle up and down. There’s a little contraption underneath the needle that’s wound full of thread, too. It goes like greased lightning, and that makes as neat a seam as you’d want to see."

Which led to much simpler sewing and some subsequent grave-turning during These Happy Golden Years:

"I have an idea for making the sheets,” Laura said. “I’m not going to sew those long seams down the middle with over-and-over stitch by hand. If I lap the edges flat and sew with the machine down the center, I do believe they’ll be smooth enough and even more serviceable.” 
“It may well be,” said Ma. “Our grandmothers would turn in their graves, but after all, these are modern times.”

My grandmother might get twitchy if she saw how I don't baste anything (or even use pins sometimes), but these are modern times...

But the passage that made me put the book down for a minute (Little Town), and just think and imagine? The description of the dry goods store where Laura worked basting shirts and sewing buttonholes (again, by hand): 

At her right hand was a short counter-top of glass, and inside it were cards of all kinds of buttons, and papers of needles and pins. On the counter beside it, a rack was full of spools of thread of every color. Those colored threads were beautiful in the light from the windows. The sewing machine stood just behind the front end of the other counter. Its nickel parts and its long needle glittered and its varnished wood shone. A spool of white thread stood up on its thin black ridge. Laura would not have touched it for anything.

Do you ever read something more than once? Do you wait a few years, or just turn right back to the first page and start over (like I may or may not have done with Fried Green Tomatoes)? If so, what was it? And what sorts of things jumped out at you?


  1. I've never read The Little House on The Prairie books (although I loved the TV programme when I was young) - you made me want to rush out and get them :). I do re-read books if they're particular favourites And, like you, always find new things that I missed before. I love Jane Austen books, have done since my teens. Oh and Terry Pratchett books - who wouldn't revisit a book that makes them laugh aloud? To me it's no different to a favourite film that I's happily watch repeatedly - how else could I be word perfect when quoting Star Wars films!

  2. I read the Little House series about seven years ago. My daughters were in their first year of homeschooling (2nd grade and 4th grade) and I thought it would be a good series. THEY refused to read it (it bored them). I however, read it and LOVED it. I completely understand what you mean about identifying with the characters from a different maturity level. It's pretty interesting to see that. I've reread lots of books...The Left Behind series, The Green Mile, John Grisham books, etc... I find it interesting to see what I've missed, forgotten, or just didn't pay attention to last time.

  3. I have no idea on the book you read, way too 'Merkin I think ;-) Or are they the ones that the TV show is based on?? I've reread my fav young adult book over 20 times. It's called Joop ter Heul by Cissy van Marxvelt and it's about a girl and her friends in 1920's Amsterdam. My gran bought the first print in 1925 and I still have that book (but hidden away as it's so fragile) but bought a new version that I can reread. Yes, I am practical like that. Other than that I have reread some books, if they were really good, but otherwise I just love browsing at my local library for new things to read. Currently I am reading New York by Edward Rutherford. It's a little impressive when you see it (over 1100 pages) but DAMN it's a good book and I am definately going to miss the characters when I finish it.

  4. Oh Bee! I have read those Little House books several times, the most recently was when I read them to my daughter. We were so in love with them, we actually went to Kansas (where the little house replica is outside Independence) and Missouri (where her real adult house is - and we saw Pa's real fiddle!!! and the exact desk in the exact spot where she wrote the books - I thought I'd died and gone to heaven - my daughter dressed in a dress I'd made her that fit the era, I have the picture). I could easily sit down today and read straight through them again. Thanks for bringing back all the great memories!

    Hugs ~ Mary

  5. I read the Little House books when my older girls were very young, I was fascinated with the historical details. I've actually been thinking of reading them again, this time to my grandson. He would be fascinated with stories. I'm sure he'll be convinced that it all happened when I was little!

  6. I reread both the little house books and Little Women as an adult - it was like reading a completely different book! So much more jumped out at me and made sense, although I do remember loving them when I was in 5th and 6th grade. Now you make me want to read them again!

  7. I reread, especially classics... lol I may have to reread Little House now!

  8. I love the Little House series! I've read them all at least 4 times, though the last was quite some time ago... maybe my daughters will be old enough to listen to them soon. Those books are the main thing than inspired me to learn to sew and knit, as well as attempting cheese-making (Ricotta worked, mozzarella kinda did.) and soap-making (Still using bars of soap from when I tried it 3 years ago). =)

  9. I home schooled my daughters and we used the The Prarie Primer a curriculum based in The Little House series. It was wonderful! We enjoyed all of the books and activities. Then we went on to read all of The Ann if Green Gables series as the well as Ann of Avonlea. My girls are grown now but we all cherished those adventures.:)

  10. I've never really read the Little House series (not popular/common here), but I loved the Anne of Green Gables series, mainly because I was rather like Anne I think lol I also loved a series called the Chalet School books that were written about a girls' boarding school in first Austria and then Switzerland from the 1920s til about the 1950s (there were about 60 books in total, although I didn't read them all) The thing that totally fascinated me was the medical approach to things. The woman that set up the school to start with went there because her sister was 'delicate' and needed the mountain air to thrive, and there were so many things connected to the sanitorium that opened next to the school, run by the teacher's eventual husband. The things they did when people were sick or hurt were mind boggling!

    Currently I'm reading some Ngaio Marsh books, the Inspector Alleyn mysteries, set in the 1930s, I do love me some vintage detective fiction!

  11. I'm an unrepentant re-reader. Once a year or so I re-read Gone with the Wind. Laura Ingalls as well as Chronicles of Narnia are favorite series of mine, it's just comforting to revisit books!



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