When is a crab not a crab?

When it’s Laura Ingalls’s ultimate weapon in the struggle against Nellie Oleson.

Fearsome creatures roam through the pages of Wilder’s novels: howling wolves, screaming panthers, devastating grasshoppers, hungry bears lurking in the woods, and a badger that sends Laura into headlong retreat. But pound for pound, what can compare with the animal that Laura meets while wading in a pleasant pool? Ever-vigilant, swift to attack, slow to disengage, alien in form and bellicose in disposition, audacious, ferocious, tenacious: it is the Jabberwock of the Minnesota prairie, the legendary beast of Plum Creek—of course, I mean the old crab.

It is clear that her encounter with this crusty old crustacean made a strong impression on Wilder, who was eight or nine years old at the time. The crab first appeared in her autobiography, Pioneer Girl, where it is clear, as it is from her detailed description in On the Banks of Plum Creek (p. 129), that the animal was not, in fact, what we would call a crab. So what was it?

Orconectes virilis, one of the crayfish species indigenous to southwestern Minnesota.

“Don’t tread on me.”
Image by D. Gordon E. Robertson.

As it happens, we are not the first ones to ask. Wilder’s daughter and editor Rose Wilder Lane wondered, too, and wrote Wilder for clarification. Lane included her own description of a crab: about the size of a turtle, with eyes “like a snail’s,” and appearing somewhat like an oversize spider. Lane suggested that the creature that Wilder saw might really have been a crawdad or crayfish. Wilder confirmed her daughter’s suspicions but also affirmed that young Laura had not been frightened for no reason: “I assure you he was enormous.”1

One might wonder why Lane let the error stand, but perhaps that’s the wrong question. To declare Wilder’s usage to be an error is to make unwarranted assumptions about her historical and linguistic context. Wilder agreed that it was not a crab, but added, “we always called them crabs.” Wilder was no more wrong in calling her crawdad a crab than a Texan is wrong in calling her 7-Up a coke. Some words simply had different meanings to Wilder and her neighbors, and our job as annotators is to suggest an explanation when something doesn’t seem to make sense. It usually comes down to differences in time, place, and circumstance.

I would point out that none of the three crayfish species indigenous to southwestern Minnesota is exactly “enormous,” either—but history—and biography—are all about context. Wilder’s “crab” may not really have been so huge, but it clearly made an enormous first impression. Try running into one for the first time as an eight-year-old, with no internet or Animal Planet to prepare you, and let me know how it goes for you.

We know how it went for Nellie Oleson.

Rodger Hartley

1. The correspondence discussed here between Wilder and Lane dates to the summer of 1936 and is found in Wilder’s papers at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri.

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7 thoughts on “When is a crab not a crab?

  1. Now if only, instead of building a fish trap, Pa had gone crabbing. I’m sure Ma could have cooked up some nice crawdads.

  2. When is a crab not a crab?…I hope this post finds its way into the book. I’m laughing harder than that time I saw a couple of drunks busting screen doors up and down Main Street!!!! BRAVO.

  3. When I was about six years old, I caught a crawdad on my fishing line one night. I will never forget the sight of that alien-looking creature and those claws silhouetted in the lantern light as I pulled in my “catch”! Yes, it looked gigantic to me….so much so that in my memory now I see not a crawdad, not a crab, but a lobster!!
    June in KS

  4. It’s a crawfish. They are plentiful in South Louisiana. I’ve played with and eaten plenty of them in my lifetime. It’s interesting to know what Laura thought of them. I wonder what her reaction would be if she had eaten one.

  5. You know, we also don’t find wolf species as large as a horse any more. I’m guessing some of the aggressive old grandfathers a) got fished extinct or b) had more competition for food as the human population grew.

  6. When I was growing up in Sioux Falls, a grade-school friend lived on a small farm just outside of town, where his family kept horses and pastured them. I loved to go out there and roam the countryside either on horseback or on foot. One day we discovered a creek that flowed over a small embankment, and we proceeded to block its flow with a hastily constructed earthen dam and watched as it filled a reservoir behind the dam. We noticed that there were crawdads in this growing pond and started to collect them in t-shirts. After we had about 50 or so of them, we took them back to his house and boiled and ate them. They were delicious.

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