Hard life, simple life

I love the Little House on the Prairie books. I remember reading them as a child and thinking how basic life was for Ma, Pa, Mary, and Laura: a stick of candy and an orange in the Christmas stocking was a thing to get excited about, to be giddy about. They got candy and oranges once per year. As a child, I had access to candy and oranges every day. I liked the thought of appreciating such a simple thing.

In our house, we currently have at least 13 large glass windows and walls that lets in no drafts. We have four kinds of sugar (white, brown, powdered, turbinado) and at least four types of flour (white, wheat, corn, semolina). We keep all of these on hand at all times, and when we’re almost out, we make a quick run to the market to replace them. We also have bread, bagels, 2 types of breakfast cereal, quick oats, instant oatmeal, 4 boxes of pasta, frozen waffles, and at least 3 types of crackers, including cheddar Goldfish. And that’s just a sampling of the flour-based products in our cupboard.

In Little House on the Prairie, though, when the family moves from the big woods of Wisconsin to the unsettled grasslands of Kansas, they eat corn meal and whatever game Pa hunts. They have no milk, cheese, sugar, flour, Pop Tarts, bread, eggs, cereal, waffles, pasta, cheddar Goldfish crackers. None of that. They have none of it. And they have no way to get it. They live in a wagon. They build a cabin out of logs from trees they cut by the stream they settle near. They cut holes in the walls for windows. Holes. As in, open gaps. No glass.

For almost a year they did not visit a store. If they wanted sweetener, Pa found a bee hive. One of my favorite scenes, aside from the passages about the prairie grasses as far as the eye could see, was when Pa returned from the four-day journey to the store and presented his family with a small paper sack.

Ma opened it and Mary and Laura looked at the sparkling whiteness of that beautiful sugar, and they each had a taste of it from a spoon. Then Ma tied it carefully up. They would have white sugar when company came.

What appeals to me about these books is the specialness of the very simple things that are so easy in my life: sugar, flour, “eight small squares of window glass.” I am numb to the sparkling beauty of the sugar in our cupboard. I don’t have to work that hard for it, and so I don’t notice it. I’d like to appreciate it more.

Writing helps with appreciating things. It makes me notice them, makes me roll them around through my senses. Reading does the same thing.

Pioneer books are among my favorites. Little House on the Prairie. The Snow Child. O Pioneers! Pioneer living is hard, endless work. Food, shelter, the basics necessities for life — all are hard won. Nothing is easy. Very little is bought in a store. Almos everything is made by hand.

I know I romanticize the life, the simplicity of it. I would probably hate it. I’d be tired all the time. But the closeness to the earth appeals to me. The minimalism. The gratitude.

Beware the hype

More than two years ago, I first learned of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, set in Iowa, and heard people rave about it. “One of the best books I ever read!” “OMG you have to read it.” “You’re going to LOVE it!”

Gilead by Marilynne RobinsonWhen I started my project, to read 3 books set in each US state, I thought, Oh goodie! I can read this one when I get to Iowa. When I hit the “I” states — Idaho, Illionois, Indiana — I started getting excited. I was almost there.

A couple of weeks ago, I finished my final Indiana read. The moment I closed the book, I picked up my Nook and purchased Gilead.

I started reading. I puzzled. I kept reading.

I waited for the goodness. I waited for the Iowa.

For me, they never came. The narrative — letters from an aged, ill pastor to his small son — did not engage me. The spiritual questions did not interest me. There were a couple of lovely passages, like this one, but overall, it was a huge letdown.

Often, a hyped book works out for me. The Goldfinch for example, or The Woman Upstairs. I loved those. I devoured them. They were massively exclaimed over: I expected 5 star reads from those, and they delivered. With this one, though, I expected 5 stars and ended up with 2. Maybe I would have given it 3 had I had no expectations.

The good news is that Iowa presented me with four books I really wanted to read, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to pick only three. Gilead eliminated itself and made that choice for me.

A Thousand Acres by Jane SmileyNow I’m onto the next Iowa book I was excited about. I’m trying to temper my enthusiasm so as to not fall into the same trap as with poor Gilead. It was on a pedestal and had a long way to fall.

My excitement this time is based on something much more superficial, though. It’s not based on the hype of professional readers, book bloggers, or literary critics. It is based solely on the cover: it has a hay bale on it!

The Internet failed me! My first Indiana read was a bust.

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields book cover

I don’t mean to shock you, but it’s true: you can’t trust everything you read on the Internet. The Brooklyn Magazine map of the best books for every state claims that Carol Shield’s The Stone Diaries is the best book of Indiana, but I think the magazine was putting more emphasis on literariness than on sense-of-place when it compiled the list (The Stone Diaries won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction).

I read The Stone Diaries because it was pitched as a novel set in Indiana, but I was disappointed by how little of the novel actually takes place there. The novel is set mainly in Canada, with a few scenes in Indiana and a few more in The Orkneys. More importantly, aside from the scenes in Scotland, setting was mostly irrelevent in this story. It could have taken place anywhere: place was definitely not a third character in the story. I did not walk away from the book feeling like I knew any more about Indiana than I did when I started reading.

That being said, as I begin my second Indiana novel and quarries are mentioned in the opening pages, perhaps I’m not giving The Stone Diaries enough credit for capturing Indiana. In the opening scene of Shield’s novel, we are introduced to Mercy Stone Goodwill, the mother of the novel’s protagonist, Daisy, and I immediately tied Mercy’s maiden name to the book’s title.

Yet the stone of the story is more than the Stone lineage carried through Mercy, and as I read more from Indiana, it seems stone is a part of Indiana as well. Stone is a metaphor used throughout The Stone Diaries, from Daisy’s quarry-man-turned-stone-carver father who builds a replica of a Great Pyramid in his back yard, to her paleobotanist niece who searches for fossils: “Life turned to stone.” Fossils. Like statues. Like the words engraved on a tombstone. Life turned to stone.

Rock runs throughout the book — a fictitious autobiography — in nearly every chapter. The novel, and its structure, seems to be making a point about the impossibility of shoving the whole of one person’s life into finite words, and the difficulties inherent in penning an autobiography. Shields is clever with her narrative choices, sometimes naming the person who’s perspective we are hearing, sometimes telling the story through letters to Daisy, and sometimes narrating through an omnicisient narrator whose identity is unclear, but who seems to be Daisy herself.

The way Shields executes changes in point of view is brilliant because she demonstrates how unattainable it is to share the full story of a life, and to share it accurately. From Daisy’s friends we hear different opinions than we do from her children or former lovers. And Daisy herself — what was her perspective? It’s difficult to know, but Shields certainly gives clues that help you form a theory.

While the book didn’t blow me away, and I’m still thinking about the significance of stone throughout it, there was a genius in the way Sheilds ended the novel, sharing the detritus of Daisy’s life, and how much the mundane odds and ends we leave can tell about us.

I think part of the cleverness of the title, along with the way Shields demonstrates the difficulties of sharing or knowing a person’s true story, is a play on the expression, “written in stone.” When a biography is set on paper, with specific perpectives shared and words carefully chosen, the written, indelible story persists long after the person is gone, like a statue carved of stone.

If you have a favorite book set in Indiana and written by an Indiana author, please let me know in the comments! I’m currently reading The Bright Forever by Lee Martin, and I am getting a good feel for Indiana from it.