Reading “Laddie” (and a Happy Birthday Dinner)
Once things settle down after the June convention and workshops, I always take extra time off for reading and projects. June is birthday month for four of us, so we all feel a bit celebratory.
This year, my very sweet daughter-in-law had a birthday dinner for those of us with June birthdays. Together with our April son, she fixed a lovely meal and decorated our new patio with sparkly lights, candles, and flowers, making it seem so very festive. The weather was perfect for a fire, so after dinner, we roasted marshmallows (sort of an appetizer before dessert;-)). It was a wonderful evening.
So… that was the kickoff for our summer break. As soon as the dust from convention subsided, I started reading. During the school year, it seems that I have time for non-fiction, and a lot of serious reading, but very little time for fiction or creative reading. This summer, I plan to re-read some of the books that have shaped my thoughts of home and family — some of those 1000 good books John Senior recommended, plus a few classics. Of the books I’ve read since June 11, one stands out — Laddie: A True Blue Story by Gene Stratton Porter.
Laddie offers a wonderful, semi-autobiographical picture of a family growing together on a prosperous mid-western farm. The author narrates the story through the eyes of Laddie’s Little Sister, and creates a compelling tale, inspiring both laughter and tears. Stratton-Porter’s love for nature, and her gift for observation, shine through in this, her own true story. (By this, I don’t mean that every detail of the novel is true, but that the setting and characters were truly taken from Stratton-Porter’s own life and experiences.)
Gene Stratton Porter on depicting the true, good, and beautiful
I re-read Laddie every few years, and I know that as I read it in childhood, it helped to shape my ideal picture of home, family, and education. The relationships between Father and Mother, and parents and children, are beautifully portrayed, though the family is far from unbelievably perfect. When critics suggested that Stratton-Porter was sentimental, she responded that she wrote about about the people she knew. Here is a brief quotation from Stratton-Porter’s biography, on her purpose and attitude in writing:
“In August of 1913 the author’s novel “Laddie” was published in New York, London, Sydney and Toronto simultaneously. This book contains the same mixture of romance and nature interest as the others, and was modelled on the same plan of introducing nature objects peculiar to the location, and characters, many of whom are from life, typical of the locality at a given period. The first thing many critics said of it was that “no such people ever existed, and no such life was ever lived.” In reply to this the author said: “Of a truth, the home I described in this book I knew to the last grain of wood in the doors, and I painted it with absolute accuracy; and many of the people I described I knew more intimately than I ever have known any others. Taken as a whole it represents a perfectly faithful picture of home life, in a family who were reared and educated exactly as this book indicates. There was such a man as Laddie, and he was as much bigger and better than my description of him as a real thing is always better than its presentment. The only difference, barring the nature work, between my books and those of many other writers, is that I prefer to describe and to perpetuate the best I have known in life; whereas many authors seem to feel that they have no hope of achieving a high literary standing unless they delve in and reproduce the worst.
“To deny that wrong and pitiful things exist in life is folly, but to believe that these things are made better by promiscuous discussion at the hands of writers who fail to prove by their books that their viewpoint is either right, clean, or helpful, is close to insanity. If there is to be any error on either side in a book, then God knows it is far better that it should be upon the side of pure sentiment and high ideals than upon that of a too loose discussion of subjects which often open to a large part of the world their first knowledge of such forms of sin, profligate expenditure, and waste of life’s best opportunities. There is one great beauty in idealized romance: reading it can make no one worse than he is, while it may help thousands to a cleaner life and higher inspiration than they ever before have known.” (From Gene Stratton-Porter: A Little Story of The Life and Work and Ideals of “The Bird Woman”.)
A learning lifestyle in Laddie
I have always liked to read books that encourage thinking on things that are “true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report” (from Philippians 4:8). There are lessons to be learned from other books, and there can be a time and place for them, but for personal reading, I know that I often need the kind of books that strengthen my vision, and encourage my heart. Laddie is one of these, and if you haven’t read it yet, I hope you can find a copy. It’s well worth reading.
Here’s an excerpt from Laddie to whet your appetite…
“When it grew cold enough to shut the doors, and have fire at night, first thing after supper all of us helped clear the table, then we took our slates and books and learned our lessons for the next day, and then father lined us against the wall, all in a row from Laddie down, and he pronounced words — easy ones that divided into syllables nicely, for me, harder for May, and so on, up until I might sit down. For Laddie, May and Leon, he used the geography, and the Bible, Roland’s history, the Christian Advocate, and the Agriculturist. My! but he had them so they could spell! After that, as memory test, all of us recited our reading lesson for the next day, especially the poetry pieces. I knew most of the, from hearing the big folks repeat them so often and practice the proper way to read them. I could do “Rienzi’s Address to the Romans,” “Casabianca,” “Gray’s Elegy,” or “Mark Antony’s Speech,” but best of all, I liked “Lines to a Waterfowl.” When he was tired, if it were not bedtime yet, all of us, boys too, sewed rags for carpet and rugs. Laddie braided corn husks for the kitchen and outside door mats, and they were pretty, and “very useful too,” like the dog that got his head patted in McGuffey’s Second.”
And another (after Little Sister was allowed to skip the last few weeks of the school year after an illness):
“Think of being allowed to learn your lessons on the top of the granary, where you could look out of a window above the treetops, lie in the cool wind, and watch swallows and martins. Think of studying in the pulpit [a sheltered fence-corner] when the creek ran high, and the wild birds sang so sweetly you seemed to hear them for the first time in all your life, and hens, guineas, and turkeys made prime music in the orchard. You could see the buds swell, and the little blue flags push through the grass, where Mrs. Mayer had her flower bed, and the cowslips greening under the water of the swale at the foot of the hill, while there might be a Fairy under any leaf. I was so full, so swelled up and excited, that when I got ready to pick up a book, I could learn a lesson in a few minutes, tell all about it, spell every word, and read it back, front, and sideways. I never learned lessons so quick and so easy in all my life; father, Laddie, and every one of them had to say so. One night, father said to Laddie: ‘This child is furnishing evidence that our school system is wrong, and our methods of teaching far from right.'”
Permaculture and good stewardship
There is tremendous food for thought in this book — even the description of the farm is instructive. Industrial agriculture has destroyed much, but modern permaculture and organic farmers are creating beautiful, living spaces based upon sound principles, just like the farm where Laddie and Little Sister grew up.
“Our road was like the barn floor, where you drove: on each side was a wide grassy strip, and not a weed the length of our land. All the rails in the fences were laid straight, the gates were solid, sound, and swung firmly on their beams, our fence corners were full of alders, wild roses, sumac, blackberry vines, masses of wild flowers beneath them, and a bird for every bush. Some of the neighbours thought that to drive two rails every so often, lay up the fences straight, and grub out the shrubs was the way, but father said they were vastly mistaken. He said that was such a shortsighted proceeding, he would be ashamed to indulge in it. You did get more land, but if you left no place for the birds, the worms and insects devoured your crops, and you didn’t raise half so much as if you furnished the birds shelter and food. So he left mulberries in the fields and fence corners and wild cherries, raspberries, grapes, and every little scrub apple tree from seeds sown by Johnny Appleseed when he crossed our land.
“Mother said those apples were so hard a crane couldn’t dent them, but she never watched the birds in winter when the snow was beginning to come and other things were covered up. They swarmed over those trees until spring, for the tiny sour apples stuck just like oak leaves waiting for next year’s crop to push them off. She never noticed us, either. After a few frosts, we could almost get tipsy on those apples; there was not a tree in our orchard that had the spicy, teasing tang of Johnny Appleseed’s apples. Then too, the limbs could be sawed off and rambo and maiden’s-blush grafted on, if you wanted to; father did on some of them, so there would be good apples lying beside the road for passers-by, and they needn’t steal to get them. You could graft red haws on them too, and grow great big, little haw-apples, that were the prettiest things you ever saw, and the best to eat. Father said if it didn’t spoil the looks of the road, he wouldn’t care how many of his neighbours straightened their fences. If they did, the birds would come to him, and the more he had, the fewer bugs and worms he would be troubled with, so he would be sure of big crops, and sound fruit. He said he would much rather have a few good apples picked by robins or jays, than untouched trees, loaded with wormy falling ones he could neither use nor sell.”