“So that’s why we’re so messed up!”
I was sitting at the very nice bar of a very nice restaurant enjoying a cocktail and some cheesy spaghetti squash concoction from heaven on high and having a conversation with a new friend that swerved from the book I was reading, to childhood entertainment, to perhaps how watching too much “Little House on the Prairie” warped an entire generation. We nearly fell off our stools cracking up about how stark a reality NBC’s version of Walnut Grove was – “Bad things happened to those people every week and people just dropped dead!” my conversation partner said. “That just makes you nervous as a kid.
He ain’t wrong. About five years ago I went on a brief “Little House” binge and it blew my mind how much messed up stuff happened to the Ingalls and company, and it blew it even further when certain episodes triggered 40 year-old memories of experiencing them as a kid, and wanting to hide behind the nubby soft pilling of our family room couch and cry. That started me thinking of how many other lessons Gen-X learned at the hands of Laura and Mary, Pa and that sneaky Nellie. Some of them were terrifying, But all good.
Lesson #1: Death is everywhere. Over there. Over there. And even over there. Like I said, “Little House” was my first lesson in the law of the prairie. And that lesson was that the prairie – all of nature, really – wanted your butt dead. If growing up in Baltimore could be scary, Walnut Grove was the most gangsta schiznit you could imagine. Parents died in tragic wagon accidents. Little friends drowned. People got kidnapped. And don’t even get my started on Merlin Olsen’s wife and Mary’s baby dying in the fire at the blind school. I saw that happening as a kid, and remember feeling so panicked, like I could stop it if I could just get to the baby. That’s a bad thing to do to a kid. The show did not hide from the risks that these pioneers were taking with their family’s lives, because they were attempting to make settlements out of wilderness (Wilderness where there were already people living, of course. This story makes me not want to re-read the novels, because hello, racism!) And sometimes, wilderness was not feeling you.
Lesson #2: Hard work is a character builder. I have so many memories of scenes of people just doing laborious chores in the hot sun – including sweaty-cute Charles “Pa Little Joe” Ingalls – like putting up houses, throwing around hay bales, and making everyone sitting at home watching on the moving picture box seem like big fat fatties. Every time you saw people, they were working, whether they were doctoring, or teaching or preaching or cooking for all the various children and orphans that showed up. And it was instructive – my “Little House” play time as a kid, dressed in the Laura-like aprons and bonnets our Grandma Chuckles made us – usually included working at the General Store or in the one-roomed school house. It’s a good lesson.
Lesson #3: It takes a village. As a adult, I understood that the reason the Ingalls kept taking in kids was the Cousin Oliver effect – that when your kid stars get older, you just got newer, cuter kids. But in my youth, it made an effect on me because adoption, formal or otherwise, was just part of my family’s life. If someone’s parents were sick, they went to stay with someone else. If a friend was down on their luck, you invited them to stay or at least to dinner. That’s the way the Ingalls worked, and the way my family worked, too.
Lesson #4: You do not have to put up with bullies. Nellie Oleson was the WORST. (Watching as an adult, I can also say she was hilarious, in a wrong way) And she was always pinching people, threatening folks and generally being a bisnatch. And Laura, while vexed, did not back down, even though she was just a little half-pint. I wish I’d been more like her as a kid, honestly. Laura. Not Nellie. Nellie was wrong.
Lesson #5: No matter how many toys you have, sometimes there’s nothing more fun than launching yourself down a hill and smelling the flowers. Just watch your head, Carrie.