I love watermelon. The other day I picked up a beautiful one at Grocery Outlet for only $1.99. As I was slicing it up I was reminded, as I often am, of my favorite chapter from Little House on the Prairie, “Fever and Ague.”
Those of you who have read the book as many times as I have must recognize the connection. As the family recovers from a bad bout of Malaria, which they survived thanks to the medical savvy of Dr. Tan, Pa goes over to the neighbor’s house and comes back with a giant watermelon. He slices it open with a butcher knife but Ma refuses to let Laura or Mary have a bite because she believes the rumors that the fever they just suffered was caused by watermelons.
Back then they didn’t know that Malaria was carried by mosquitoes. According to previous chapters in the book the mosquitoes
were pretty bad on the prairie that summer so it’s not surprising that the Ingalls came down with Malaria. Even though they didn’t make the mosquito connection I always thought Ma was pretty naïve to believe the watermelon myth.
I mean seriously Ma! Pa says right there that he hadn’t had a watermelon “since Hector was a pup” thereby proving that there had been no watermelon in house before or at the time of the illness. If watermelon really was the culprit wouldn’t they have to eat it before they caught the fever? Ma was either still hallucinating or something else was going on – some nuance I still don’t get.
Not only that but how horrible is Pa in this scene? The entire family had been existing on nothing but wild game and cornbread for months, Ma refuses to let Laura and Mary even taste the watermelon and yet Pa eats it in front of them. Can you imagine watching someone eat a sweet juicy watermelon on a hot summer day and not getting to participate? Especially if you were a little girl who had just suffered a traumatic illness? Pa and Ma are just mean in this scene, mean I tell you!
As I recall, this is the only time in all of the Little House books that Laura Ingalls Wilder ever mentions watermelon. I hope she finally got a piece in her adulthood. I also hope she got a good deal.