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.

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.

Her jittering soul paced on a stone slab in a grey room

Winter's Bone

Winter’s Bone
by Daniel Woodrell

When this book was suggested for book club I had never heard of it or its author, but in the months since then both have cropped up repeatedly in book blogs and podcasts, always being showered with praise. Thankfully this didn’t happen so much that I had crazy high expectations, but maybe that wouldn’t have mattered because I completely loved it.

Someone (I think on the Slate Culture Gabfest) described Woodrell’s books as the new westerns, and while the storyline may seem a long way from cowboys and indians I can kind of see what he meant. It’s certainly a remote, lawless setting, or not lawless but with a different attitude to crime.

The book follows Ree, a teenage girl living in mountainous Missouri in a very poor, very small community. Her mother is mentally ill in some way – switched off and unresponsive – so Ree has left school to care for her mother and her two young brothers. Her father is absent, and his absence, and the need to find him, is the catalyst for the story.

“She smelled the frosty wet in the looming clouds, thought of her shadowed kitchen and lean cupboard, looked to the scant woodpile, shuddered…there was no gas for the chain saw so she’d be swinging the ax out back while winter blew into the valley and fell around her.”

Woodrell doesn’t shy away from the harsh, even brutal, reality of poverty, but somehow it is made bearable by the beauty of his language. The facts can take a while to become clear. In fact for the first few chapters I wasn’t sure when or where or what this story was. But that’s part of the point in a way. You can easily imagine that this small society in this area hasn’t changed much in 100 years. Everyone knows everyone else, and there is no privacy, but secrets can be kept if they are for the good of the community. And they might all survive because the men are cooking meth but there’s still a strong sense of honour, albeit an old-fashioned one.

“Ree’s grand hope was that these boys would not be dead to wonder by age twelve, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean. So many Dolly kids were that way, ruined before they had chin hair, groomed to live outside square law and abide by the remorseless blood-soaked commandments that governed lives led outside square law…Sometimes when Ree fed Sonny and Harold oatmeal suppers they would cry, sit there spooning down oatmeal but crying for meat, eating all there was while crying for all there could be, become wailing little cyclones of want and need, and she would fear for them.”

Ree is a wonderful character. She’s so strong and driven by her responsibilities to her family, trying to be both father and mother while only on the brink of adulthood herself. When pain and possible death face her, she doesn’t flinch, but it’s not bravado, it’s just what she has to do, as if there is no option. Except the obvious option is staring her in the face – she’s offered hard drugs countless times and clearly wouldn’t be the first in this community to check out from reality that way. What she seems to choose instead is to try to distance herself from it all mentally.

“[Ree] pulled headphones from a pocket and clamped them over her ears, then turned on The Sounds of Tranquil Shores. While frosty bits gathered in her hair and on her shoulders she raised the volume of those ocean sounds. Ree often needed to inject herself with pleasant sounds, stab those sounds past the constant screeching, squalling hubbub regular life raised in her spirit, poke the soothing sounds past that racket and deep down where her jittering soul paced on a stone slab in a grey room.”

Someone at book club mentioned that the dialogue is slightly wrong for the modern era – people don’t talk like that. But I think I like that it’s slightly stylised. It adds to the timeless feeling of the story. Replace cooking meth with making moonshine and the rest still fits perfectly.

Woodrell uses the rural setting to great advantage, describing the woods and the winter in a way that reminded me of Frankenstein, with that idea of the sublime – the picturesque snow is juxtaposed with murderous cold and ice. But the descriptions are never overdone. In fact it’s a very slight book in which quite a lot happens.

“Keening blue wind was bringing weather back into the sky, dark clouds gathering at the edge of sight, carrying frosty wet for later.”

It should be a completely depressing story – indeed, some people at book club found it to be just that – and the facts of the story are indeed depressing, but the writing about these ugly lives is so gorgeous, almost magical, that I was left wanting more. Woodrell is very subtle and often only hints are given to what might be considered the key facts of the book, the possibility left dangling. But it’s not frustrating the way that could be with a less skilful writer.

Published 2006 by Hodder & Stoughton.

Source: Bought from Amazon.