Thanksgiving is different this year. And it can help, when the holidays don’t seem quite good, to go back to the children’s literature holiday, where everything is codified and comfortably familiar.
You might think Laura Ingalls Wilder’s immortal Small house the books would suit our purposes perfectly. But in the entire nine-volume saga, there are only two Thanksgiving scenes.
It seems wrong. the Small house books are obsessed with food and patriotism, and what is Thanksgiving if not our national excuse to indulge both in equal measure? These books are designed to codify the myth of self-sufficient pioneers, lifting themselves up by their boots and living on the fat of the earth. They take almost pornographic pleasure in depicting the churning of butter, the slaughter of pigs and the harvest of corn. Thanksgiving should be entirely in their aisle.
But the Small house the books also deal with deprivation and hunger, as for the Ingalls family, luxury is always scarce and even the necessities are not really plentiful. So while Wilder always makes room in his narrative for a Christmas scene or two, the celebration is usually conspicuously minimal, to better showcase the Ingalls’ austere morality. Laura and Mary are delighted with tiny Christmas cakes made from white sugar and white flour instead of regular brown; they dutifully ask Papa to buy workhorses for Christmas instead of spending money on gifts.
There is simply no room in these books on survivalism for more than one pious celebration a year. So the two Thanksgiving scenes we get are for very specific purposes.
The first, in On the banks of the Plum stream, serves as calm before the storm: the Ingalls feast on goose stew with dumplings and give thanks for the bounty of their land, little knowing that a biblical plague of locusts is about to befall them and destroy their farm. Christmas this year is a disaster. Thanksgiving is the only reprieve they have.
The second Thanksgiving is coming Small town on the prairie, towards the end of the series, when the Ingalls family moved to the slowly developing town of De Smet, South Dakota. For the first time, they have neighbors living nearby; they have an infrastructure to provide them with benefits such as surplus food and charcoal and medical care.
For Laura, the city is both exciting and suffocating: she longs to travel further west, to be completely secluded in the prairie, but she also enjoys the camaraderie and sociability of the city, and she knows her delicacies disabled sisters (blind Mary, malnourished Carrie, and baby Grace) need her wealth to survive.
So when Thanksgiving comes into this book, it’s not just a family affair. It’s a town event, a New England dinner hosted by the church’s Ladies’ Aid Society. It’s a big, lively party filled with people and food, both lavish and exciting and overwhelming:
Laura stood still for a moment. Even Papa and Ma almost stopped, even though they were too grown-up to show surprise. An adult person should never allow the feeling to manifest itself through their voice or their manner. So Laura just watched, and quietly silenced Grace, even though she was as excited and overwhelmed as Carrie was.
In the center of a table, a pig was standing, roasted and holding a beautiful red apple in its mouth.
Laura and Carrie had never seen so much food in their entire lives. These tables have been loaded. There were dishes piled high with mashed potatoes and mashed turnips, and mashed yellow squash, all dripping melted butter down their sides from small hollows in their peaks. There were large bowls of dried corn, soaked again and cooked with cream. There were plates filled with golden squares of cornbread and slices of white bread and nutty brown graham bread. There were cucumber pickles, beet pickles, and green tomato pickles, and glass bowls on tall glass rods were full of red tomato jam and wild cherry jelly. On each table was a long, wide, deep pan of chicken pie, with steam rising through the slits in its flaky crust.
The most wonderful of all was the pig. He was so realistic, propped up by short sticks, above a large pan full of baked apples. It smelled so good. Better than any other smell of food was that rich, oily, brown smell of roast pork, which Laura hadn’t smelled for so long.
Laura, overwhelmed by everyone and all the rich food around her, can’t seem to immerse herself in this roast pig. Instead, she stays busy washing the dishes throughout dinner, like a conscientious and responsible young woman. But try as she might, she can’t help but think of that pig. She can only eat at the end of the night, when “a pile of bones was where the pig was”, although Laura optimistically notes that “a lot of meat was left on them.”
This onslaught of sensory details; the immense and sumptuous display of table after table of food after so many passages full of deprivation and misery; the desire for luxury which is so intense that it almost feels illicit; the ostentatious choice to turn away from physical pleasures to do one’s duty: it is the conflicting tensions that cross all Small house books, which give them their visceral emotional strength.
And here they argue that community is needed on Thanksgiving. in the Small house books, Christmas takes place every year, but Thanksgiving only appears in all its table-moaning glory when the Ingalls family is part of a town. Thanksgiving in Small town on the prairie means crowds that are both exciting and suffocating; it means piles of food and piles of dirty dishes that need to be cleaned. Most importantly, it means feasting after starvation, reveling in food after years with next to nothing – even if you are the last to eat.
In 2020, Thanksgiving for many of us will be a Thanksgiving with no crowds and no community, because that’s what we need to do in order to preserve our communities, so that they are there for us to celebrate next year. But Small town on the prairie is a reminder of what awaits us after going through this dark year.
This is the year of the grasshopper, the year when everything goes wrong. This is the year that time flies, and on the other hand, it will be our best Thanksgiving yet.