Circling the Wagons - A Personal Essay
photo by Mangrove Mike
Circling the Wagons
“Planting potatoes was fun. A good smell came from the fresh earth and from the clover fields. Alice was pretty and gay, with the breeze blowing her curls and setting her hoopskirts swaying. Father was jolly, and they all talked while they worked” (Wilder 1970).
Some of the fondest memories of my childhood were of the smell of river silt and the joy of sitting in a patch of clover. When I was asked to write my first fiction piece since high school, I imagined writing a similar scene. My ideas for a short short story were: a tobacco paddock, a Coolgardie safe in a peppercorn tree, and a yellow crank-start tractor pumping water out of the creek. I left out the part about the eight snakes I had once passed to get back to this idyllic spot.
At the top of the list was “magic realism”, this brought me to a 1458 word short story A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings (Marquez 1955). I think I enjoyed that story because the scene in the chook shed was relatable, “the hens picked at him, searching for the stellar parasites that proliferated in his wings”. When I got to the end of my jottings from the scene, I next wrote magic feminism so the story took a different shape.
I made myself into a witch, something my mother called me if I my hair was too long; like the inmates Jane Eyre’s Lowood School (Bronte 1992, p.54), my hair was short for a girl. The witch’s familiar was a crow, from a memory burned into my brain of crows pecking out our sheep’s eyes one dry winter. I moved the scene less than a mile up the road to my house and the town hall, and to a school concert with my Italian and Spanish classmates.
These mates and I had, in real life, worked late in the evenings when our families wished to get a kiln loaded before dark. One kiln was located away from the racks of fresh tobacco leaves tied on teatree sticks with string, so we passed them along a human chain to hang to be dried. I heard the mothers say, in languages I mostly didn’t understand, “water” and “run”. One night I arrived on the back of a trailer with the tobacco wrapped in hessian; pinned with spikes, and the watermelons that we ate with black tobacco juice hands.
Before these immigrants arrived to share-farm on our land and farm others, I attended a one room school house. I started at the age of four and a half, and spent the morning with the other preps in the school library, which was the entry tacked on the side. As I got older my mother ordered books from the book club at school, so I acquired part of the set that Farmer Boy (Wilder 1970) also known as Almanzo Wilder (and Alice’s hoopskirts) belonged to. Little House on the Prairie (1974) based on another part of this book series was one of my favourite shows. Unlike the book of the same name, Little House was based in Minnesota, not Kansas, and appealed because it was really filmed in California, so was easy to an Australian girl like me to relate to. The girl in the story, Laura Ingalls was born in the 1860s nearly a hundred years before me. Truth is by the time I became a teenager, my life more resembled the set of Wife Swap (2004) than Little House (1974). I missed my blue hills, and it took time for me to adjust to living in a mill town. Book reading and school work was what I did at night, and the habit has stayed with me. Later, when married, I helped research a family history book that I named Dear Clark (Clark 1993) which included excerpts from Agnes Bland (2006) and life in the Wimmera in the 1880s and 90s. I had lived on the farm with an extended family so it was my way of giving back.
In 2001 with five children ranging from zero to fourteen, I wanted to read again. I had just gotten the internet and Ebay was the first site I visited, so I bought the series written by Laura Ingalls Wilder which begins with Little House in the Big Woods (Wilder 1963). The reason for this was, I had no idea which genre I wanted to read. The enduring (perhaps imagined) passage I remembered about the books was about Laura wrapped in a shawl trying to stay warm coming out of her claim shanty. I had a fascination for blizzards. I moved on from Laura, to Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly (Oke 2003), which was made into a movie directed by Michael Landon Jnr (Love Comes Softly 2003). The movie starts off with a wagon train much like the cover picture of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie (1969), which was one solitary wagon belonging to Pa Ingalls, who ended up settled in South Dakota, scene of The Long Winter (Wilder 1962). I could empathise with Laura at the back of the wagon bed, much like my trailer, however in Little House on the Prairie (1969) Laura’s watermelons were blamed for the families’ malaria also known as fever ‘n’ ague.
I came upon the first book in the Red River Series by Lauraine Snelling An Untamed Land (Snelling 2006). Set in Dakota Territories with the same theme of blizzards and pioneering, it hooked me on the genre of historical Christian fiction, and gentle reads, perhaps my version of circling the wagons, reading uplifting novels.
I spent many writing hours on forums; one of them, I found, you guessed it, by typing prairie into a search engine. I wrote under the user name of Laura’s sister. Prairie Homemaker (2017) was part of the site Hillbilly Housewife (2016), so no wonder I was an unsuspecting victim of hillbilly jokes when I finally joined Facebook. It was here I found the beautifully illustrated ad for the Massive Open Online Course of my dreams, Laura Ingalls Wilder: Exploring Her Work and Writing Life (Canvas network 2016), it gave me the courage to enrol in a unit at the university.
Bland, AF (2006), JS Battye Library of West Australian History, Ephemera Collection. < http://www.slwa.wa.gov.au/pdf/ephemera/pr8894vol1.pdf>, p. 19.
Bronte, C 1992, Jane Eyre, Wordsworth Editions Limited, Ware, Hertfordshire, pp. 54.
Clark J et al. 1993, Dear Clark, Australian Art Information Service, East Malvern, Victoria. < http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/24240457?q&versionId=46717417>.
Hillbilly Housewife 2016, Frugal Recipes, HillBilly Housewife, viewed 15 March 2017, < http://hillbillyhousewife.com/recipeindex.htm>.
Canvas Network 2016, Laura Ingalls Wilder: Exploring her work and writing life, Canvas Network, viewed 15 March 2017, < https://www.canvas.net/browse/missourisu/courses/laura-ingalls-wilder-1>.
Little House on the Prairie (1974) Directed by Michael Landon, First broadcast 1974, Ed Friendly Productions, NBC New York.
Love Comes Softly (2003) Directed by Michael Landon Jr., written by Michael Landon Jr and Cindy Kelley, First broadcast 2003, Hallmark Entertainment, New York.Marquez, GG 1955, ‘A very old man with enormous wings’, in Leaf Storm and other stories, Harper & Row, New York. < http://www.jonescollegeprep.org/ourpages/auto/2014/1/29/42934518/A_Very_Old_Man_with_Enormous_Wings_pdf.pdf>.
Oke, J 2003, Love Comes Softly, Baker Publishing Group, Bethany House Publishers, Ada, Michigan.
Prairie Homemaker 2017, Prairie Homemaker forum, Prairiehomemaker, viewed 15 March 2017,
Snelling, L 2006, An Untamed Land, Baker Publishing Group, Bethany House Publishers, Ada, Michigan.
Wife Swap (2004) Created by Stephen Lambert. First broadcast 2004. RDF Media, American Broadcasting Company. < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wife_Swap_(U.S._TV_series)>.
Wilder, LI 1970, Farmer Boy, Lutterworth Press, London, pp. 126.
Wilder LI 1963, Little House in the Big Woods, Puffin Book, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Victoria.
Wilder, LI 1969, Little House on the Prairie, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Victoria.
Wilder LI 1962, The Long Winter, Lutterworth Press, Cambridge, UK.