The Wilder Life

The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

Book: The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure Read Free Book Online
Authors: Wendy McClure
the midst of brave rescues or tomboyish adventures. Across from the wall of the historical books were all the guides and advice books, including The Smart Girl’s Guide to Parties, The Care and Keeping of You, Stand Up for Yourself and Your Friends. There were books about dealing with boys, siblings, emotions; books about dancing, knitting, food, diaries, hair. It seemed American Girl had a book for every aspect of girlhood, collectively forming an encyclopedic master guide to being a girl. It made me feel a little jealous, though I think American Girl has a book for that, too.

    A lot of what I learned about being a girl I learned from Laura Ingalls. I discovered that it helps if you try to love your own brown hair as much as you love your pa’s. Not for nothing, it also helps to know that feeling bad about your looks is apparently such a universal thing that even little girls who live in isolated Wisconsin cabins (as far as one can get from fashion magazines) can experience it. I also have this crazy theory that the scene when Laura gets leeches on her legs in On the Banks of Plum Creek is a metaphorical preparation for menstruation, so that when Laura finds it terrifying and gross at first but quickly learns to deal with it, it brings us girls all one step closer to being able to handle Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Of course you’re welcome to disagree.
    However, I never agree with those who characterize Laura as a “tomboy.” I know it’s a widely held notion, no doubt put forth and perpetuated by folks who identify with Laura and who, unlike me, considered themselves to be tomboys in their childhoods. While I’m willing to accept many things as matters of interpretation, wherein your Laura Ingalls Wilder is different from mine, I’m holding my ground here: LAURA IS NOT A TOMBOY.
    I will not deny that Laura did some decidedly un-girly things in the books, especially in On the Banks of Plum Creek. I understand that haystacks were climbed and old crabs were taunted. However, I refuse to believe these things make Laura a tomboy. I will also cite page 146 of my Little Town on the Prairie paperback, which states that Laura “was not really a tomboy,” just a girl who sometimes likes to play catch and ante-over (whatever that is) with the younger boys at recess, and is therefore merely “tomboyish” (see page 145), a distinction that I maintain is important. It’s enough for her just to be a girl , even if she doesn’t throw like one, okay?
    I suspect a good deal of the tomboy associations come from Melissa Gilbert’s rendition of Laura on the NBC television show, with her chirpy voice, spunky demeanor, and occasional tendency (inherited, of course, from her TV dad) to throw punches. I’ll accept that Laura as a tomboy, I suppose, but not the book Laura. Plus the TV Laura had a sort of string-beany awkwardness to her and stomped around in her tight pigtails as if waiting for adolescence to relieve her from skinny androgyny. (Though in Miss Gilbert’s defense, I don’t imagine that “as round and strong as a little French horse” is a type much in demand among Hollywood actresses.)
    Whereas the Laura who lived in those yellow paperback pages appeared, in those Garth Williams illustrations, much more unabashedly feminine, with her bare feet and the gently rippling skirt she lifted to romp through the grass on the cover of On the Banks of Plum Creek. I held that image in my mind constantly while growing up: in all its sensual freedom, it seemed to me the very essence of girlhood.
    Maybe what bugs me the most about the tomboy designation is the way it implies that Laura’s grubby antics are somehow beyond the realm of ordinary girl experience. Certainly Plum Creek never draws that line, and by the time I’d reached that book in the series I understood that Laura did more so-called boyish things because she was a pioneer girl.

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