Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, read by Cherry Jones
I loved these books as a kid - loved the simplicity, loved the ingenuity, thought there was something wrong with me because I couldn't entertain myself for hours (days! months!) playing with wood chips and/or grass. Begged my parents to tap the maple trees out front of our suburban house. Sigh.
Recently, I thought I'd pull them out and see if my boys would be as spellbound as I had been. Well, they are. My copy of Little House in the Big Woods is inscribed "To [Your Neighborhood Librarian], on her eighth birthday -- Love, Granny and Sam," and that was as fascinating to my sons as the Nazca lines are to conspiracy theorists. I can't imagine their ideas of me as a child.
What I didn't expect, however, was that my husband and I would become spellbound as well. After we read Little House in the Big Woods aloud, we switched to audio. Cherry Jones (the president on 24 and Matt Damon's mom in the Ocean's Eleven movies), is the perfect reader for these books. Her voice is both warm and dry - though she sometimes reads with a smile in her voice, she never, ever gets sugary. There's just enough astringency there to give a hint of the extraordinarily isolated and precarious life Pa has signed the family on for, and her slightly measured pace is just right for young listeners. A frequent reader on NPR's Selected Shorts, Ms. Jones has a voice you want to listen to.
That's a real plus, because these books have so much to offer beyond the narrative. The choices that Mrs. Wilder made when she wrote them reveal the changes that she observed in her lifetime. She wrote the books in the 1930's, when she was in her 60's, and took care to scrupulously document such processes as building a log house (with only hand tools and two people) and packing a covered wagon. She takes the time to describe food and objects that, by the 1930's, were no longer in use, like the three-legged iron pot that Ma cooks in over the campfire.
However, many frightening or dramatic events are recounted without much comment and without echo. When the entire Ingalls family is so sick with malaria that none of them can get up for a cup of water, Laura narrates the incident, mentions that it was awfully lucky that one of their (distant) neighbors happened by, and moves on. But - says the adult reader - those people could have died! How many little houses on the prairie ended up little mausoleums on the prairie? And later the adult listener gradually realizes that the family has eaten nothing but meat and cornmeal for the better part of a year. No eggs, no vegetables, no wheat products. If I were Pa, I'd have taught those girls to steal eggs from the prairie chickens.
At the end of the book, Pa learns that they must vacate the land that they have settled and plowed. Without discussion, despair, or dithering, and with a minimum of planning, Pa announces that they are leaving the next day. The family gets up in the morning, puts all their things into the wagon and leaves behind those extraordinary structures that Pa built with his bare hands, seemingly from thin air: the house, the well, the stable, and the plowed field full of seed. That's just what they did, and through the level-headed offices of Mrs. Wilder and Ms. Jones, we hear it, we understand it, and, like Pa and Ma and the girls, we move on.
I don't know if historical fiction will ever get better than this.