The girls are “tired and listless and dull.” Laura’s chief occupation is twisting hay into fuel until her hands can’t feel any more. School won’t begin again until the train comes through. The train won’t come through until spring. Ma proposes “an entertainment.” And the little-girl-reader within me perks up. Ooh! What will it be?
Every day Laura found time to study a little. When enough hay was twisted to last for an hour, she sat down by Mary, between the stove and the table, and opened the school-books. But she felt dull and stupid. She could not remember history and she leaned her head on her hand and looked at a problem on her slate without seeing how to solve it or wanting to.
“Come, come, girls! We must not mope,” Ma said. “Straighten up, Laura and Carrie! Do your lessons briskly and then we’ll have an entertainment.”
“How, Ma?” Carrie asked.
“Get your lessons first,” said Ma.
When study time was over, Ma took the Independent Fifth Reader. “Now,” she said, “let’s see how much you can repeat from memory. You first, Mary. What shall it be?”
Wait, whut? Round-robin recitation? Really?
So Mary chooses. And then …
“The Speech of Regulus,” said Mary. Ma turned the leaves until she found it and Mary began.
“‘Ye doubtless thought—for ye judge of Roman virtue by your own—that I would break my plighted oath rather than, returning, brook your vengeance!'” Mary could repeat the whole of that splendid defiance. “‘Here in your capital do I defy you! Have I not conquered your armies, fired your towns, and dragged your generals at my chariot wheels, since first my youthful arms could wield a spear?'”
The kitchen seemed to grow larger and warmer. The blizzard winds were not as strong as those words.
Then it’s Laura’s turn. She chooses the poem “Tubal Cain.” And just as standing for better breath is a natural response when singing, “Laura began, and the verses lifted her to her feet. You had to stand up and let your voice ring out with the hammer strokes of Old Tubal Cain.”
Pa comes in before she’s done, and tells her to keep going. “That warms me as much as the fire.”
Ma praises both girls for remembering every word correctly, and announces that Carrie and Grace will get their turns the next day.
It was time then to twist more hay but while Laura shivered and twisted the sharp stuff in the cold she thought of more verses. Tomorrow afternoon was something to look forward to. The Fifth Reader was full of beautiful speeches and poems and she wanted to remember perfectly as many of them as Mary remembered.
There’s no joy in food any more. The hay-fuel barely provides enough warmth for everyone, even when they’re snugged up to the stove as close as they can get. But reciting memorized literature warms them all. If they were playing an expanded game of rock-paper-scissors, words would beat blizzard.
What do you think? Are there families in which this still happens today? What memorized words do you carry within you? Memorizing poems might be easier than you think.
Even without memorizing, what are the stories you go back to? What stories do your children love? What’s your equivalent of Pa’s book about Africa? And what is it that makes those words so beloved?
We’ve had a mild winter here, but as I said at the beginning of this book club, winter is figurative too. If it’s a rough season for you, what words are getting you through?
Here’s a question about the work of fictionalizing life stories. Possibly these are exactly the two and only two things that were recited that night. But is there something about them that makes them excellent choices to develop the story here? What layers of meaning can we find in “that splendid defiance”? (You may, if you wish, choose that as an activity this week: Go down the rabbit hole a bit in learning more about the speech and the poem.)
What else stood out to you in this week’s reading? Here are some of mine (including some that could count as splendid defiances).
The Wilder brothers. There’s a moment when they do their own recitations: Things their parents said.
Mr. Foster. He didn’t know how to ride a horse or to hunt. But he had an idea about how they should approach the antelope. Then he got excited and blew the whole thing for everyone, and nearly lost one of Almanzo’s horses, too. Later, when Pa comes home with some meat, it’s because Mr. Foster butchered one of his animals. Did he feel guilty and want to provide for his neighbors in some way? At the end of this section, Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland are going off after a rumor of wheat, a rumor consistently attributed to Mr. Foster. Notice he’s not volunteering to go find it himself. Will this be like the antelope hunt, or will the fellows find their way there and back without getting stuck in a blizzard?
Ma. When Pa speculates that a fellow might go after that grain, Ma puts her foot all the way down.
Pa. Didn’t you love it when he went and got the grain? And told the Wilder boys how he surmised it was there? And insisted on paying something for it? And didn’t your heart break for him when he couldn’t play the fiddle right?
Laura. Oh, what a gesture can convey. Pa is about to head out to do the chores before dark.
His arm tightened and gave Laura a little hugging shake, before he set Carrie and Grace down from his knees. Laura knew what he meant. She was old enough now to stand by him and Ma in hard times. She must not worry; she must be cheerful and help to keep up all their spirits.
Thanks for being here. We’ve almost made it! One week to go. Maybe there will be a train after all.
Jan. 30 — Book club announcement
Feb. 3 — “Make Hay While the Sun Shines” through “Indian Warning”
Feb. 10 — “Settled in Town” through “We’ll Weather the Blast”
Feb. 17 — “One Bright Day” through “Where There’s a Will”
Feb. 24 — “Antelope!” through “Breathing Spell”
March 3 — “For Daily Bread” through “Christmas in May”