Chapter 6, Two Big Bears, is where we see for the first time what a total badass Caroline Ingalls actually is. She may be all dainty on the outside, but inside she’s pure steel. We also see Charles Ingalls acting like a dangerously-stupid lunatic; sadly this becomes all too common as the books progress.
(Aside: Harry and I are re-reading By The Shores of Silver Lake together right now. During last night’s chapter, he mused aloud that Ma really spends a lot of time “trying to protect Pa from himself”. AMEN, little buddy.)
The chapter opens with an evocative description of spring’s arrival:
In the Big Woods the snow was beginning to thaw. Bits of it dropped from the branches of the trees and made little holes in the softening snowbanks below. At noon all the big icicles along the eaves of the little house quivered and sparkled in the sunshine, and drops of water hung trembling at their tips.
I grew up in a little house in the woods and I can tell you, this passage makes me kind of homesick – that’s exactly what early spring is like. Here in the suburbs early spring means the annual frozen dog poop harvest, and a winter’s worth of Tim Horton’s coffee cups in the ditches. It means mucky lawns and grey snowbanks. It’s just gross, and every year in early spring I want that woods-in-spring smell.
But I digress. Since it’s spring, Pa is taking his furs to town – he spent the winter trapping, and has a bundle to carry that’s almost as big as he is. He has to walk (!!) and so he can’t take his gun (!!!) because the bundle is too big to manage while carrying a gun, too. This is completely contrary to the lesson he taught us back in Chapter 2, when he told us the story of Grandpa nearly getting eaten by a panther because he didn’t have his gun, but whatever. If you’re expecting logical consistency from Charles Ingalls, you are doomed to disappointment, my friends. Pa heads off into the snowy woods with his giant bundle of furs, promising to be home before dark.
Of course he doesn’t get home before dark, so Ma has to go milk the cow. She gets Laura to come along, to carry the lantern. They make it to the barnyard, and Sukey the cow is inside leaning against the gate, so they can’t get it open. Ma slaps the cow and tells her to get over… only to discover that Sukey is safe in the barn and the thing in the barnyard IS AN HONEST TO GOD BEAR. Which Ma straight-up SLAPS, and then when she realizes what’s happening does she freak out? Does she lose her cotton-picking mind? Nope! She says “Laura, walk back to the house”.
Pa still isn’t home by the time Laura falls asleep, but he turns up in the morning, bearing gifts of candy and calico for dresses (Mary gets blue and Laura gets red, in a pattern that continues until Laura is old enough to earn money and buy her own damn clothes). Then, because he’s Pa, we get FIVE PAGES explaining that he was coming home, and blocking his path was a bear. A big, mean bear. A big mean probably-starving recently-woken-from-hibernation grumpy bear. THE WORST BEAR EVER. URSA MAJOR.
He describes in loving detail how he ran at it, yelling and waving his arms to try and scare it away. He finally picks up a dead branch and goes to club the bear, sweet jesus and all the saints, because surely that won’t end badly. Fortunately, the bear doesn’t attack him, because it’s not a bear at all, it’s a tree stump that looks like a bear.
At nighttime the girls say the ever-charming prayer Now I lay me down to sleep / I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake / I pray the Lord my soul to take. Even as a kid who still went to church most Sundays with my grandmother, this little ditty scared the hell out of me. “If I should die before I wake?” WHAT THE FUCK??????
Then, as they’re drifting off to sleep, Pa is “whistling cheerfully” as he greases his boots… then bursts into song and this is what he sings:
The birds were singing in the morning (isn’t that nice?)
and the myrtle and the ivy were in bloom (aww, that’s a pretty image)
And the sun o’er the hills was a-dawning (sunrise! lovely!)
‘Twas then that I laid her in the tomb. (WHAAAT?)
I realize that mortality rates were high in the 1870s and people lived cheek-by-jowl with death all the time, but good grief.
Next chapter – The Sugar Snow! Followed by Dance at Grandpa’s. They go together so I’ll probably write them up as one big mega-post.