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.