Many of my mentors are fictional. Characters in novels whom I not only like but also want to be like.
I really like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, and I’d even enjoy being her for a bit, apart from the lack of modern plumbing, medicine and feminism. But I don’t find myself thinking ‘now, this is what Lizzie would do!’ and being inspired to do it.
So Lizzie is much loved but not a mentor for me. And the list is much shorter than I thought it might be when I first started thinking about this post.
I love books. I love them. Even in the squished timetable of parenting I spend a fair amount of time on reading, mostly novels (and parenting books!). So I thought I would brainstorm a list and it would be dozens of names long, but no. It’s a rare thing to have a character so richly drawn in three dimensions, so likeable and striking that I find myself thinking about her for years afterwards.
Most who made the cut I first encountered as a kid and have re-read more than once, so perhaps that’s part of it for me.
Other books might linger for years in the consciousness through their phrasing (the feeling of sleeping in ‘gritty sheets’ in summer in The Little Friend or going on ‘expotitions’ like Winnie the Pooh) or evocation of place or time (The Book of Fame got me inside rugby and emerging New Zealand identity, the American Midwest is entirely created by Jane Smiley for me), but not because I want to be like the characters, so while that’s no bad thing, they’re not on this list either.
This is the first in an occasional series on my fictional mentors, many of them ready to be introduced to children of my acquaintance as soon as possible. The adult novels may capture teenagers and young adults who are strong readers. I’m super keen to hear your recommendations and ideas, and please, if you’d like to write an extended guest post on Mighty Girls and Boys whom our kids could benefit from meeting, let me know. The ‘Mighty Girls’ phrasing comes of course from the fabulous resource website aimed at equipping girls with role models, fictional and real, beyond princesses and fairies.
Laura is first. A character built from the bones of autobiography, Laura Ingalls was born into a pioneer family in America. The Little House books are told from Laura’s perspective, but always in view are her adventurous, self-sufficient Pa, yearning to go ever further West and super-competent Ma, who seems quiet and gentle on early readings, but whom I now realise just had formidable self-control, and perhaps resignation.
They had high standards, the Ingallses. Obedience was expected immediately. Pa gave his new boot money to the church when he saw a need that matched the contents of his wallet. The whole family worked hard to keep the household viable, and Laura worked for over a year as a teacher, hating most minutes of it, to give all her salary to fund her blind sister Mary’s education. Even her ingenious schemes to get revenge on the awful Nellie Oleson or an unfair teacher (there are leeches and a nasty song involved) are acted out in a clear moral context. Laura knows she’s being wicked, and she doesn’t care. And then, on reflection, she really does.
Because the stories are composites from the real Laura’s life, none of this seems moralistic or heavy-handed. The Little House books are about the wildness inside Laura and Pa as much as the honour the Ingalls family lives by.
It’s just that they live in times where there is a strong overlap between the gospel and social mores. Maybe not any more than now, perhaps the overlap is just different in content. Now, we have freedom for women and slaves (at least in some parts of the world), but tolerance for violence and vindictiveness, idleness and gossip and greed that would shock not just upright Ma but mischievous Pa too.
It’s restful to live for a while in a world where kindness, hard work, honesty and neighbourliness are the most important things for a community, and the measure of each member in it.
I am attracted to Laura because of her cleverness, her hard-fought boldness, the way she doesn’t quite toe the line, and would rather follow the wolves West than settle down. But her influence on my own life has been more about her conscious Christianity.
These are detailed accounts of pioneer life that also give me a context for gratitude, for everything from our washing machine (no Monday-Washday for us) to warmth in cold weather. The bite of The Long Winter will never leave you once you read about Laura and Pa chafing their hands raw twisting hay, when the wood has run out, to keep the temperature above freezing while another three-day blizzard covers the little town on the wild prairie.
I find I know a song for most situations in SBJ’s life. I know songs about elephants, butterflies and porridge. I know songs about going downstairs, washing fingers and riding on trains. Whenever a song fits a moment in our day, I think of Laura and Almanzo courting on long drives around the lakes, singing to accompany the scenery and conversation.
I’m far too attached to the comforts and conveniences of industrial life to want to move to a prairie off the grid. But I don’t think I’m romanticising pioneer times – Laura certainly doesn’t – when I see parts of the Ingalls family life that I’d like to capture. Winter evenings were spent dancing and singing and reading aloud and knitting. Pa taught Laura to play checkers (he carved the set too, of course) but they only ever played one game a night, because it was exclusive, ‘a selfish game,’ I think Pa calls it.
All the girls (Laura has three sisters and no brothers) were fully competent at running a household at an early age, from doing dishes to churning butter and looking after livestock. Your mouth will water every chapter or two as the bread, cookies and pies are baked and the summer plenty harvested.
Within practical limits, Ma and Pa encouraged each girl to be an individual. Laura is allowed to do all sorts of farm work with Pa and encouraged to shine in school exhibitions while Carrie gratefully stands out of the spotlight. Laura negotiates to leave ‘obey’ out of her wedding service.
The harsh climate, near poverty and strict personal discipline didn’t squash Laura. She enjoyed her life, found fun, mischief and fulfilment in it, and eventually wrote a set of books that made her a giant of children’s literature.
The Little House books are a window into a world that has disappeared, socially, morally and ecologically. But Laura lives on, with her sun-bonnet hanging naughtily down her back by its strings as she sings across the prairie.
This is the first in a series on inspiring fictional characters. Check out the rest here.