Laura, Dorothy, Jo

October 28, 2009

At the end of Little House in the Big Woods, Laura is gazing into the firelight, safe with her family and holding fast to the moment, fixing it forever: Now is now, she thinks. It can never be a long time ago. And for the little girl reading those words in the 1970s (me, of course!), the gulf of a hundred years had  vanished, and the world was a place where you chinked the logs of your cabin and made your own bullets and looked forward to simple pleasures like sugaring time and butchering the hogs. How dull to return to the actual now, I thought, where the winter’s provisions are simply purchased at the grocery store, and balloons were not inflated pig bladders. We ought to at least have to make a day’s walk of it or dig a root cellar.

I didn’t know then that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books were a kind of anti-New Deal propaganda penned in the 1930s, strongly finessed if not outright ghostwritten by her radical globetrotting journalist daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. I didn’t know then and I don’t care now–just like I don’t care that The Wizard of Oz might have been some kind of economic fable promoting the gold standard, with Oz for ounce, and Dorothy’s silver shoes (not ruby slippers in the book) following the yellow brick (read: gold) road to redemption. It’s interesting, and weird, but irrelevant to the girl I was then and the effect these books had on me.

Like many girls, I suppose, I loved Laura and Dorothy, and certainly fierce tomboy Jo from Little Women, though not their filmic counterparts–with the exception of Judy Garland, but she was always Judy Garland, never Dorothy Gale of the baked mud Kansas plains. I was no fan of the Little House TV show–nothing against Melissa Gilbert’s Laura, but she was just a cute little freckle-faced girl, no “Half-Pint” whose Pa said was “strong as a little French horse.” (And how surreal to see her appear in recent years on an episode of Nip/Tuck as a woman sexually involved with her dog.) When a film version of Little Women came out in 1994, I was horrified that to learn that Winona Ryder, that frail little wisp, had been cast as Jo. She seemed as authentic a Jo as the Madame Alexander doll version with its vacuous stare and pristine red dress–why no scorch mark?  It’s the flaws that make Jo interesting.


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