As soon as I looked at this picture that my sister took on the banks of the Mississippi at Clearwater below a good friend’s house, I thought of a title for my next blog. Unfortunately, “Bottle of wine, fruit of the vine . . .” came to mind first. I couldn’t remember the rest of the song. When I found the lyrics, I was a bit shocked. I had no idea back in the ’60s I was dancing happily to someone’s struggle with alcohol. Like music, time and circumstances change everything and everyone.
I had a chance to visit Albersweiler, Germany, (Südliche Weinstraße meaning, “Southern Wine Road”) from where some of my ancestors came. I stood on the same soil and probably in the same vineyards where they raised their prized Burgundy grapes for which Pinot Noir and Burgundy wines get their start. I learned that too much water or not enough and large variants in temperature can ruin a crop (even making the juices smell like the barnyard) while a good, better, best grape needs cool temperatures and just enough water to bring it to harvest.
Like the grapes’ relationship to the wine, writing strong, believable characters in a story depends on so much. Someone I might have written about way back when I first started writing may have had a sunny disposition, but after I’ve matured more into life and researched that same person, he or she could now be a villain or at least a crank.
For instance, I grew up loving and reading all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books over and over again. I loved her romantic and adventurous views of homesteading in the Midwest. Later, even though I still continue to love Laura’s writing as well as other homesteading stories, I’ve learned what it took to survive in these harsh atmospheres. My 20th-21st century self would have died having to deal with all the hardships (seriously, I had pretty tough childbirth experiences and probably would not have lived through either of them), and all those wild animals crawling in my dugout? I jump on the nearest bed if someone says a mouse has entered the house.
I’ve also read all the biographies people have written about the Ingalls/Wilder families. I included Laura’s work in my comparative thesis, Harvesting Their Stories: South Dakota’s Writers’ Perspective on Pioneering Women, 1870-1900 where I explain that some male authors of the nineteenth century like Ole Rolvaag and Hamlin Garland developed women as weak individuals who suffered greatly helping their families homestead in the Midwest.
On the other hand, female authors of the twentieth century like Wilder, Willa Cather, and lesser-known, Rachel Calof, show their same sex as strong enough to help establish the west.Without Ma’s steadying hand on the reins of the covered wagon, Pa wouldn’t have settled down until he reached California, or maybe Alaska. In her Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder depicts this hard-working, musical, intelligent, and dynamic character who is well-respected wherever he goes. He did what he could to help his family survive in the toughest times like during the Long Winter when he, his family, and everyone in the DeSmet, Dakota Territory area, nearly starve to death. Yet, Laura tells us through the many biographies written on her and her family that Pa was a wanderer.
Laura’s portrayal of Ma as this calm, religious, educated (she was a teacher), and gentle woman who loves her children and husband changes over time as well. She he puts up with Charles’ wanderlust for awhile. After leaving Lake Pepin in Wisconsin, he roams the country until Ma finally pulls on the reins in Dakota Territory. She and her children have suffered enough for his weakness–that look in his eye that sees how green the grass is somewhere further west. Ma has become stronger from all the suffering she and her children have experienced.In so many words Caroline says enough is enough and tells Charles her children need to become established in a community with a church, school, and community.
Time changes some perspectives on what we all read too. Laura is honest in her showing Ma’s fear and dislike of Indians, which has caused her work some consideration. Like Twain’s Huck Finn due to the author’s references to Jim’s race and calling him the “N” word, Wilder’s works like his and others have been banned from some libraries and bookstores.
Wilder’s biographers have written different accounts through oral reports from neighbors, friends, and other historians of Ma showing that as she aged, she was a bit cranky. After Charles died, she and Mary (still blind, unlike Michael Landon’s programs) lived together in the home Pa built in DeSmet, South Dakota. The two kept to themselves, and apparently, Caroline ran young children out of her yard more than once, one time for running through her just washed clothes on the clothesline and another time for taking water from the pump outside. This gives us a different view, three-dimensional, of Ma Ingalls.
Characters, like real human beings, can change for the good, better, best or sometimes the more interesting worst. I love creating women like Livy Powers Paisley for my Minnesota Main Street Women’s series in Jennie’s story, Scruples and Drams, as well as Maude’s story, Pins and Needles, hopefully published next year. I have experienced enough manure in my life to pull this bigoted, snoopy, and critical woman together.
Yet, I have to remember, and I taught my students in lit class that even the worst criminal on death row wasn’t 100% villain and probably loved his mother, father, or rose petals. They have to have some dimension to be believable, to expose some human truth–like when a good grape turns bad if all the wrong elements are there –the not-so-right temps, moisture, and cloud cover or sun.
Somehow I have to get Tom Paxton’s song, “Bottle of wine, fruit of the vine,” out of my head. I know many writers used drugs and alcohol to help them with their writing, but won’t be one of them. I understand their challenges that brought them to this need to create. Instead, I think I’ll pour myself a glass of Burgundy, settle in for the night, and toast some of the best characters I ‘ve read and hopefully will write.
I will probably go to bed humming the tune even