Jia Tolentino talks to Rebecca Traister

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com


Jezebel: Your book starts with a big first line.“I always hated it when my heroines got married,” you write. You talk about Laura Ingalls Wilder, and how as soon as you look at the book cover for The First Four Years, you know her story is over now: she’s a mommy, she’s a wife. There’s Jo March, who suddenly phones it in, gets married and opens a school for boys; there’s Anne Shirley, who passes the narrative to her daughter.

I’m wondering when you noticed that marriage was the end of our heroines’ stories. As a kid, or later?

Rebecca Traister: I was four or five when my parents read the Little House books to me, so I certainly wasn’t putting together a critique of the marriage model, but I do remember being bizarrely sad when the stories ended. When I was nine or ten, I read the books again on my own, and the same sadness came back: my friends, my funny friends—they got married, and they were done with their wild adventures.

Of course, these are coming-of-age novels. Of course their stories were over when the characters came of age. But the fact that their adventures ended when they marry became what, as an adult, I understood to be a truth of female life.

I was pregnant when I got the book deal. Now, the book is done, and my daughter’s almost five, and I’m back to the Little House books, reading them to Rosie. A few months ago, we were reading By the Shores of Silver Lake, this chapter where Laura meets her cousin Lena, who’s this wild girl, and they take a horseback ride to deliver laundry. They’re riding as fast as they can; it’s the most exciting scene, so beautifully rendered. And they find the homesteader’s wife with the basket of washing, and she said—I just grabbed the book, because it’s just so stunning that this is in here:

“You must excuse the way I look,” she said. “My girl was married yesterday.”

“You mean Lizzie got married?” Lena said.

“Yes, Lizzie got married yesterday,” Lizzie’s mother said proudly. “Her pa says 13 is pretty young, but she’s got her a good man, and I say it’s better to settle down young. I was married young myself.”

“Laura looked at Lena, and Lena looked at her. On the way back to camp, they did not say anything for some time. Then both spoke at once. “She was only a little older than I am,” said Laura, and Lena said. “I’m a year older than she was.” They looked at each other again, an almost scared look. Then Lena tossed her curly black head. “She’s silly! Now she can’t ever have any more good times.”

Laura said soberly, “No, she can’t play anymore now.” Even the ponies trotted gravely.

After a while, Lena said she supposed that Lizzie did not have to work any harder than before. “Anyway, now she’s doing her own work in her own house, and she’ll have babies.”

“Well,” Laura said, “I’d like my own house, and I like babies, and I wouldn’t mind the work, but I don’t want to be so responsible. I’d rather let Ma be responsible for a long time yet. Besides, I don’t want to settle down.”

[...] “May I drive now?” Laura asked. She wanted to forget about growing up.