Sunday, January 20, 2013

Willa Cather's Hobbit Hole

Celebrating cultural highlights of 1913...
Pioneer-blogging, essay 4 on
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

“No house should ever be on a hill or on anything.  It should be of the hill.  Belonging to it.  Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.”
                      Frank Lloyd Wright
                      An Autobiography (1932)

Sod houses are looked down upon in Willa Cather’s novel O Pioneers!  As Cather writes, “The Bergsons had a log house, for instance, only because Mrs. Bergson would not live in a sod house.”  (Note:  Mrs. Bergson is our heroine Alexandra’s mother.)

But sod houses aren’t all bad.  The very sympathetic character Ivar lives in a sod house, and it seems a perfectly appropriate place for his barefoot, mystical personality.  It’s just not the sort of place that’s wanted in the newly emerging domesticated landscape of plowed farmland and respectable farmhouses.

Ivar runs back to his sod house in
the Hallmark production of O Pioneers! (1992).
Early in the novel, Alexandra, her three brothers, and her friend Carl Linstrum travel out to see Ivar.  Alexandra points out Ivar’s property and sod house to her youngest brother Emil.

“At one end of the pond was an earthen dam, planted with green willow bushes, and above it a door and a single window were set into the hillside.  You would not have seen them at all but for the reflection of the sunlight upon the four panes of window-glass.  And that was all you saw.  Not a shed, not a corral, not a well, not even a path broken in the curly grass.  But for the piece of rusty stovepipe sticking up through the sod, you could have walked over the roof of Ivar’s dwelling without dreaming that you were near a human habitation.  Ivan had lived for three years in the clay bank…”

I wonder if Frank Lloyd Wright would approve?  Ivar’s house is certainly “of the hill,” prairie-style!

My daughter at the entrance of a
reproduction sod house at the
Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in
Walnut Grove, Minnesota.
Reading the passage about Ivar’s house, I recalled our family’s Laura Ingalls Wilder vacation, when we spent two weeks touring the Midwest in search of the Little House sites.  In Walnut Grove, Minnesota, we visited the place that Wilder knew as Plum Creek.  Her fictionalized memories of her life in a sod house on Plum Creek are captured in the first third of On the Banks of Plum Creek (the third book in the Little House series).  She would have been seven or eight at the time.  In the book’s second chapter “The House in the Ground,” she recalls how her family adjusted to life in their new sod house:

“That front wall was built of sod.  Mr. Hanson had dug out his house, and then he had cut long strips of prairie sod and laid them on top of one another, to make the front wall.  It was a good, thick wall with not one crack in it.  No cold could get through that wall.

“Ma was pleased.  She said, ‘It’s small, but it’s clean and pleasant.’ ”

Except for the time when an ox put his rear leg through the roof, the Ingalls’ time in their sod house is fairly idyllic.  Nevertheless, they’re all happy when Pa begins building a log house for them.  It’s a step up.

But what’s wrong with the humble nature of a sod house, barely visible in a hill?  It’s good enough for Bilbo Baggins, after all!

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.  Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat:  it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
                                                                                      The Hobbit
                                                                                      by J.R.R. Tolkien

A wizard and hobbit travel past a traditional hobbit hole in
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring  (2001).

Reference Sources

Willa Cather: A Literary Life by James Woodress
Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice by Sharon O'Brien
Willa Cather: A Pictorial Memoir by Bernice Slote
O Pioneers!, the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition at the Willa Cather Archive
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2013 Lee Price

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