Sunday, November 25, 2007

Entry for August 17, 2007 - Rubber-necking at a Car Wreck

Pam Conrad's story of Nebraska pioneers, Prairie Songs, has a title that alludes (to me) to images of meadowlarks and wind in the grass, a peaceful scene. I think the title is misleading in that way -- though don't get me wrong -- I wouldn't change the title. After some thinking, the title seems right -- but only after some thinking.

The story starts with the arrival of a young doctor and his pregnant wife from New York City (I think -- the book doesn't give some details. It's like the narrator assumes we know them or that they don't matter.) to pioneer on the plains of Nebraska. The narrator of the story is a young girl whose family lives three miles away from the new arrivals, apparently their closest neighbors. The doctor, though citified with his waxed mustache, seems to adjust pretty well. His wife, Emmaline, is the problem. She is a beautiful and refined lady who makes the young narrator see her mother as a plain, brown walnut. Emmaline wears violet dresses with hoopskirts and perfume. She has trunk after trunk of books she has brought from the East. She abhors the fact she will be living in a sod house and burning cow chips, but she accepts it at first, not cheerfully, I suppose, but with a sort of resigned grace. It doesn't take too long, though, for the reader to know she's not going to make it. And from that point on, I read the book with the sort of grostesque fascination that people driving by a car wreck feel -- you don't really want to see the horrible details, yet you can't keep from looking.

I won't give away what happens to her in the end, but I will say I was surprised by the "weapon" that brought her final destruction. It's very appropriate, though.

The story really isn't about what happens to Emmaline, though. It's about what happens to Louisa (the girl who narrates the story). At first, Louisa is sort of ashamed of her mother in comparison to the beautiful Emmaline, but at the end, she "realized she didn't look at all like a walnut . . . . My momma was truly a beautiful lady . . . . Not beautiful, maybe, like Mrs. Berryman had been, but beautiful in a way that made me feel good inside."

That started me thinking about what it would take to be a woman on the frontier, and about why some women were able to survive or even thrive, and why some women collapsed under the strain. Didn't the doctor realize when he was planning to come to the West that Emmaline was unsuited for pioneer life? I suppose we all fool ourselves that people will "get used to the situation." One of the things that I sort of wish had been developed a little more in the book was the backstory for Louisa's Momma. There are hints that she may have had a hard adjustment to make when they first came to Nebraska, but just what kind of struggles she may have had or how she overcame them is never part of the story. I think that might have strengthened the theme (what I thought was the theme, anyway).

I guess it comes down to something the guy on that Discovery Channel show Man vs. Wild said about surviving in one episode (can't quote it directly) -- it's all in a person's outlook. If you have a positive outlook and believe you are going to make it, that you have to make it, the odds are much better that you will make it. Emmaline never believed it, not for a minute, and that's the tragedy of her story.

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