For the next few weeks, Francesca will be recommending a sprinkling of books that offer windows into the American psyche– little bits of Americana– some delightful, some disturbing, all interesting. We will go in sort-of chronological order by setting (that is, when the book takes place, not when it was written). Here we go . . .
Let Francesca guess: You were assigned The Crucible in high school, but you had a history paper due the same week, and something had to go. So you just showed up for the class discussions, BS-ed your way through, and got a B+ in the course anyway.
The time has now come for you to do what you should have done then! The The Crucible, by Pulizter-winning playwright Arthur Miller, is ostensibly about (to take words from Amazon), “socially sanctioned violence” in colonial America, based on the real events which led to innocent young girls being convicted of witchcraft. In truth the play is a parable for McCarthyism, but it can be enjoyed on both levels. It is a gripping and disturbing read. And pretty short. Do yourself a favor and spend a Sunday afternoon reading it.
Next. No matter how much you love the movie, nothing compares to the original, Pulitzer-prize winning book version of Gone with the Wind. Nothing. Scarlett is so . . . so . . . deliciously hate-able, and yet we want her to learn, to grow, to survive. Find out about the marriage, and the children, left out from the film . . . go back to Civil War-era Georgiea with Rhett, with Melanie, with Ashley, with Scarlett . . .
And now, on to Westward Expansion. Laura Ingalls Wilder did us a great service by documenting (and only slightly fictionalizing) her growing-up years on the Frontier, in a series which has since come to be known as “The Little House Books.” Again, forget the television show. Forget everything you think you know about Little House on the Prairie. The show was OK for what it was, but there was very little in the show that was actually based on the books. And also, if you read the books when you were a child, re-read them because so much becomes more clear when you are a grownup. Of course, they are much faster to read when you are a grownup, but many of the nuances of the characters and what they do become easier to pick up.
Francesca’s 2 top picks from the Little House series are Little House in the Big Woods, the first installment, which chronicles Ingalls’ life when she was an extremely small child and her family lived in a log cabin deep in the woods of Wisconsin, and The Long Winter. The Long Winter explains how the Ingalls family survived in De Smet, South Dakota, when it snowed so hard and so long that the residents of the little town ran completely out of food and coal. Only as an adult, re-reading the book, did I understand the gravity and drama of the story, the fact that “Pa” and “Ma” and the other characters are not simply hungry and cold. They are, literally, in danger of starving to death. The episode in which Almanzo Wilder risks his life to try to find food for the town is breathtaking. But I didn’t get that when I was ten.
If you don’t plan to read the entire series, then I might suggest that before reading The Long Winter, you read Little House on the Prairie, in order to come to understand how the Ingalls’ came to live on a homestead outside of De Smet.
Here is a link to a 9 book box set containing the entire series, for under $30! A great deal!
Finally, if you are a fan of American history, or of food history, or of the Little House books, Francesca highly recommends The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories . As author Barbara Walker explains in the fascinating book and chapter introductions, much of the Little House series is concerned with food: the hunting of it, the preparing of it, and the storing of it. This is because, on the Frontier, food was a major occupation and the Ingalls family had to work hard in order to not go hungry (which they sometimes did anyhow). The cookbook goes through the foods in the series, many of which come with cooking instructions in the books, and approximates the recipes for modern kitchens. Thus, we learn how to make, among many other things, sour-dough starter, stewed rabbit with dumplings, succotash, and cucumber pickles the old-fashioned way (but with an electric or gas stove, not a wood-burning one).
Francesca has tried a couple of the recipes, and truthfully they are not good eatin’. But the book is a wonderful read.