It’s a queer thing, people always moving west

These Happy Golden YearsThese Happy Golden Years
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Here I am already, at the end of the Little House series. I guess that’s how you can tell they’re strictly children’s books, the way I got through seven of them so quickly! Despite a rocky start, I enjoyed the series overall and am a little sad to have reached the end.

The previous book, Little Town on the Prairie, ended with Laura being offered a three-month teaching job, aged just 15. She knew she had to accept it because she desperately wants to help with the fees to keep Mary at the college for the blind, but this teaching post is in midwinter at a town 12 miles away from her home in De Smet, so she will have to live with strangers. And she’s so young still, she doesn’t even know how to teach.

This book picks up just a few days later, with Laura being driven by Pa to her new job. I would be fascinated to know how accurately this reflects the author’s real-life experience because this first job is not a happy one. Laura must teach children who are her own age or older and who don’t recognise her authority. But even worse than that, she must stay with a couple who argue constantly, the wife of whom makes it clear she resents having Laura there. It is an intensely uncomfortable situation.

The light in the darkness is that every Friday afternoon, Almanzo Wilder turns up with his sleigh to take her home to her family for the weekend. No-one has asked him to do this, and Laura is so grateful to be able to see her family, albeit briefly, that for the first few weekends she doesn’t question it, though she feels awkward not knowing what to talk about for the long journey each way. Eventually, she figures out that Almanzo likes her like that and has an interesting reaction.

This book really is all about watching Laura grow up, from 15 to 18, from that first teaching post to accepting any job she is offered to help Mary out, from being nervous of Almanzo’s interest in her to requiting it. After those first few months, there isn’t much that’s negative, but I still found this book deeply touching. I was caught up emotionally in Laura’s story and related to her in many ways, as she worries about being quieter than other girls, and therefore less interesting. But of course Almanzo likes her for her wild spirit and sense of adventure, which he shares. It seems the name “Wilder” was a bit of nominative determinism!

I really do feel like the Little House characters have become friends and I’m sure I will come back to them in the future. It’s also made me want to go back to the series that I loved when I was young – Anne of Green Gables. But maybe I should make a dent in the TBR before I embark on that!

“‘It’s a queer thing,’ said Pa. ‘People always moving west. Out here it is like the edge of a wave, when a river’s rising. They come and they go, back and forth, but all the time the bulk of them keep moving on west.'”

Published 1943 by Harper & Brothers.

Source: Google Books

The wind had a desolate sound

Little Town On The Prairie

Little Town on the Prairie
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I read a couple of other books in-between, but now I’m back with the Little House series. Not many left to go now. This is book 7 in the series, so this review may contain spoilers for the previous titles.

I have mixed feelings on this one. After three great books in a row, this one just didn’t maintain the standard. I mean, obviously I am now hooked and want to find out how things turn out for everyone, so I’ll keep reading the series, but there was something missing here.

This book follows on from the terrible winter of 1880–1881 and shows the Ingalls family finally back on their feet, getting the land producing and getting used to the town of De Smet as well. Certainly, plenty of things happen – Mary finally leaves for the blind college in Iowa, Laura has some trouble with a teacher at school, Carrie has some health troubles, Almanzo Wilder starts showing an interest in Laura, though she doesn’t seem to have figured out why yet – but I suppose after the genuine fear-for-their-lives stuff of the last few books – a plague of locusts! wild fires, wild gangs of men, seven long months of blizzards – it all feels a bit tame.

Pa is becoming a bit of a town elder. And Ma now has a church social group, though she doesn’t like the priest. Until the last few pages of the book, it’s all got very settled, but I’m not even sure that’s what bothered me. Several times, there would be a major plotline about something negative, and then with the very beginnings of a possible solution, the subject wouldn’t be mentioned again.

It’s not that I disliked this book. It still had charm and great characters. I guess now the family’s settled there’s not a lot of historical stuff here for me to learn, but there are still anecdotes that stuck with me enough that I found myself recounting them to people who ask me about my reading.

“The wind had a desolate sound. The sun was small and the sky was empty of birds. On the endless dull prairie the grasses lay worn-out and dead. The schoolhouse looked old and gray.”

First published 1941.

Source: Google Books.

The silence was as terrible as cold is

The Long Winter

The Long Winter
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Appropriately, I read the majority of this book on a cold, windy November day, feeling increasingly grateful for central heating and a cupboard well stocked with teabags. Before I carry on, this is book 6 in the Little House series, so this may contain spoilers for the previous titles.

No sooner have the Ingalls family installed themselves in their claim shanty (their littlest house yet) on their brand new Dakota farm that they hope will be their last home, than what should come along but a prediction (and early signs of) a seven-month extra-harsh winter. The shanty is far from weather-proof and they haven’t been able to grow themselves a winter store of supplies yet, so there’s nothing for it but to move into the nearby new town (De Smet) where Pa owns a store building they can live in. The store building is weather-proof and just over the road from shops that can sell them supplies as they need them. And there’s a school in town, so Laura and not-so-little-anymore sister Carrie can go to school and make new friends.

The bulk of the story to this book is: really bad winter, poor family barely scrapes through. But it’s actually pretty gripping. Wilder tells us how monotonous it got eating nothing but potatoes and brown bread and desperately trying to eke out the kerosene by using the lamplight as little as possible, but she doesn’t repeat these details more often than needed.

One way that she manages to bulk out the narrative is by adding in the Wilder brothers as new characters. Obviously we all know that Almanzo Wilder is going to wind up marrying Laura Ingalls – it’s right there in her name on the cover of the book, after all! But I still found it odd that after four books written from the perspective of Laura, we now have scenes following Almanzo’s story, scenes Laura isn’t in at all. The thing is, the narrative is third person, not first, but it’s most definitely not omniscient. We only ever, before this book at least, experience events as Laura experienced them. So, for instance, when Pa meets an Indian when he’s out hunting the panther in Little House on the Prairie, we only hear that story as Pa recounts it to the family when he gets home. But now we get scenes of Almanzo and his brother Royal cooking pancakes and making plans for their own homestead, next door to the Ingalls’ new land. Perhaps if I hadn’t skipped book 2, Farmer Boy, which is about Almanzo’s childhood, this would have been less strange. I’ll probably go back to it.

Incidentally, much is made in this book of Almanzo being 19 years old, which means that he has lied to the officials to make a land claim because the rules say he’d have to be 21. But in real life Almanzo was 24 at this point. Wikipedia suggests this change was made so that the age gap between Laura and Almanzo is only 5 years, which would be more palatable to 20th-century readers than the true gap of 10 years once their romance gets going in later books. Personally I think knowing they were happily married for several decades, until Almanzo’s death, negates any question about the age gap being inappropriate, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the same concern would be raised by a publisher today.

“Everything was still. No wind stirred the grey-bleached grass and no birds were on the water or in the sky. The lake faintly lapped at the rim of that stillness. Laura looked at Pa and she knew he was listening too. The silence was as terrible as cold is. It was stronger than any sound. It could stop the water’s lapping and the thin, faint ringing in Laura’s ears. The silence was no sound, no movement, no thing; that was its terror.”

Published 1940 by Harper & Brothers.

Source: Google Books.

Cold purple shadows rose in the east

By the Shores of Silver Lake

By the Shores of Silver Lake
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I may have been sold on this book by the section where Ma mourns the lack of trees on the prairie. I do love me some trees. This is book 5 in the Little House series, by the way, so this may contain spoilers if you haven’t read them.

Laura’s getting all grown up! I almost don’t want to carry on with the series now, but leave them all here, with 13-year-old Laura interested in that Wilder boy only for his beautiful horse. Wilder has apparently skipped the few years her family spent running a hotel in Iowa so that her fictional age and real-life age finally match up. This might be because she had a baby brother who died during that time, which isn’t exactly kids’ book material. Or it might be because living in an established town and running a hotel doesn’t fit the pioneer theme of the series.

Despite skipping over the baby brother, this book has a pretty depressing opening. Obviously bad stuff does happen in life and Wilder chose not to omit all of it from the books, so she threw it all into the opening chapters of this volume (or that’s how it felt reading it). The first chapter is actually a bit of a catch-up because a couple of years have passed since the end of On the Banks of Plum Creek. Carrie is no longer a baby, but now there’s new baby Grace. And they’ve all had scarlet fever, which has caused Mary to lose her sight, so Laura must be Mary’s eyes. (This is actually rather well dealt with and reminded me a lot of the Helen Keller book I read recently.)

Once again Pa has itchy feet. He wants to go out west but Ma will only agree to go where there will be a school nearby, so they head to Dakota, where a new town is planned for the following spring on the path of a railroad that’s under construction.

I enjoyed the children riding on a train for the first time, and the combination of excitement and fear that came with that. I liked the interactions with some very different people – the construction crews and fellow would-be settlers are a wilder lot than the townfolk they’ve left behind in Plum Creek.

In this book I really felt how much this series is teaching me about the history of the USA. It is so strange to be sat here in a house that’s older than the town the Ingalls family helped to create, back in 1879. Obviously this is a children’s book so it doesn’t go into the politics of the population boom in Dakota, or the question of it being a territory rather than a state, but the fact that I have gone and looked up that history says something about Wilder’s ability to drop in just enough detail to pique interest. Some details might well be coloured by hindsight – did Pa really talk about how all the buffalo are gone because white men have come and shot them all? Or is that 20th century Laura Ingalls Wilder speaking? But really I don’t mind that and it’s interesting to see what Wilder does choose to comment on.

On reflection, a lot happens in this book. It meets the same criteria as Plum Creek, in that it’s well written but also has plenty of story and isn’t hideously racist. There is actually a slightly dodgy character who’s half American Indian but he’s Pa’s friend and Laura really likes him so Ma’s distrust passes as just one character being racist, rather than Wilder herself.

“The sun sank. A ball of pulsing, liquid light, it sank in clouds of crimson and silver. Cold purple shadows rose in the east, crept slowly across the prairie, then rose in heights on heights of darkness from which the stars swung low and bright.”

Published 1939 by Harper & Brothers.

Source: Google Books.

The little cloud was glittering gold

On the Bakns of Plum Creek

On the Banks of Plum Creek
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Finally a Little House book that didn’t upset me politically and had plenty of story and good writing! This is the fourth book in the series, so this may contain spoilers if you are that rare breed like me and haven’t read the Little House books.

The Ingalls family have moved on to Minnesota, buying land from a Mr Hanson who wants to travel out west. Initially, they live in Hanson’s small dugout home, quite literally built into the banks of the creek, but Pa is certain that once he grows a good crop of wheat they can afford to build themselves a proper house and have all the treats they could dream of.

It’s clear from early on that Pa is setting himself up for a fall, especially when he borrows money in anticipation of the wheat crop, but I think that just shows how Wilder had developed as a writer by this point. Again, Laura’s age is not quite accurate to her real life as she is depicted as 7–9 years old rather than 4–5, which would actually make more sense of some details in the story. Laura and her big sister Mary are sent to school for the first time in their lives (they are only two miles from a small town) and while Mary can read and write already (having submitted to lessons from Ma), Laura can’t yet do either.

This really did have the best qualities of the previous two books. There are lovely descriptions of the landscape, both in good times and bad, there are interesting details about farming and housebuilding, there are Laura’s moments of naughtiness (Wilder has set herself up from book 1 as the wild child and Mary as the goodie goodie) and a stark contrast between the highs and lows that the family goes through. There are genuinely life-threatening times, standing beside Laura’s petty conflict with another girl at school.

“The sky was very faintly pink, then it was pinker. The colour went higher up in the sky. It grew brighter and deeper. It blazed like fire, and suddenly the little cloud was glittering gold. In the centre of the blazing colour, on the flat edge of the earth, a tiny sliver of sun appeared. It was a short streak of white fire. Suddenly the whole sun bounded up, round and huge, far bigger than the ordinary sun and throbbing with so much light that its roundness almost burst.”

Published 1937 by Harper and Brothers.

Source: Google Books.

There was only the enormous, empty prairie

Little House on the Prairie

Little House on the Prairie
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Strictly this is the third Little House book, but book 2 (Farmer Boy) is actually about Wilder’s husband’s childhood, not her own, so I thought I’d skip that one for now and follow the Ingalls family story.

This is pretty different from the first Little House book. From the first page there’s loads happening, with lots of genuinely fraught moments. The Ingalls family are travelling out west in a covered wagon because Indian land in Kansas is being opened up to settlers.

Now, this is the part I have a problem with politically, because the American Indians (the Osage tribe) are being moved on by the US government and their homeland handed out free to anyone who comes and stakes a claim. I know hindsight is a fine thing and all, but it’s not like the settlers don’t know the situation. In fact, they have – knowingly – jumped the gun and turned up before the deal is final and the American Indian have been moved on, because that way they can claim the best plot of land. But that means they have some trouble to deal with – they’re in the middle of nowhere, and the American Indian aren’t too happy with the presence of these settlers and don’t seem to speak English, so communication is fraught.

However, despite my political feelings (and they weren’t helped by the racism), this was a much more enjoyable read than Little House in the Big Woods. There’s a clear story arc, with difficulties overcome, character growth and then that crushing (though possibly redemptive) ending (I won’t spoil it for those who don’t know but you can fairly easily look it up if you’re curious). It felt better written and Wikipedia suggests that Wilder did more research for this book than the rest, because she was actually only 2–3 when she lived in Kansas, not the 6–7 depicted, but she wanted to get the details right. Which I found surprising, because the descriptions of the prairie itself were so evocative, they felt like the words of someone who really knew and loved that landscape.

“There was only the enormous, empty prairie, with grasses blowing in waves of light and shadow across it, and the great blue sky above it, and birds flying up from it and singing with joy because the sun was rising. And on the whole enormous prairie there was no sign that any other human being had ever been there.”

It was also kinda fun discussing the book with Tim, who read this about 25 years ago yet remembers it surprisingly well! I’ll continue reading and reviewing the series over the next couple of weeks.

Published 1935 by Harper and Brothers.

Source: I think this was a present, but I’m not 100% sure as I didn’t write in the book at the time.

Cosy and comfortable in their little house

Little House in the Big Woods

Little House in the Big Woods
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I didn’t read the Little House books growing up, nor did I watch the Little House on the Prairie TV show, but they are referenced so often and are clearly so beloved that I thought it was about time to rectify the situation. Also, thanks to a bit of a mini lupus flare I’ve been struggling a bit with reading lately so I thought it might not hurt to try a few children’s books!

At this point I have read three of the series and I must admit it took me a while (a book and a half) to be won over but I am now engrossed and want to read the rest of the original Wilder books. I am intrigued by the decisions she made about which parts of her life to write about (albeit fictionalised) and which facts to retain, change or drop entirely. No doubt her publisher had some part in these decisions, but she was also apparently heavily influenced by her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who was already a successful writer herself when she persuaded her mother to write down some of her stories of childhood.

On reflection, this first book paints the picture that appeals to me the most. But I am predisposed to like woods (I grew up in the Forest of Dean). The life of the Ingalls family (Ma Caroline, Pa Charles, big sister Mary, baby sister Carrie and Laura – aged five – plus their bulldog Jack) sounds idyllic, in a basic, rustic kind of way. They live, as the title suggests, in the middle of the woods in Wisconsin, with Laura’s grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins all within a few miles in the same woodland. They have a small garden and raise animals or hunt for their meat. They make a little money from selling animal pelts to buy the few things they need that they can’t provide for themselves.

Not a lot happens and, while it’s fun to learn how maple syrup tapping works or how Pa makes his bullets, this book wasn’t especially gripping. It must have been less idyllic than described or the family would never have left, but nothing in this book gives you a clue as to what was wrong with this life. (I suppose you might suggest the lack of schools or the opportunity to make a little more money, but neither of those is any more available in their next home.) The writing is also a little simplistic – of the three Little House books I’ve read so far this was the one that felt most clearly like a children’s book. Ingalls referring to herself in the third person, as Laura, also threw me at first, but I guess that’s just a clear marker that this is fictionalised.

“They were cosy and comfortable in their little house made of logs, with the snow drifted around it and the wind crying because it could not get in by the fire.”

Remembering how long ago these books were written, and how much longer again it is since the time in which they’re set (1868 onward), I’ve tried not to judge them on things like gender politics and racism, but as you’ll see from my mini reviews through the next couple of weeks, there are some things I just couldn’t ignore!

Published 1932 by Harper and Brothers.

Source: Project Gutenberg Canada.