Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her series of memoirs with the help of her daughter as editor – opinion is divided as to what extent the books were collaborative. Starting with Little House in Big Woods, the Ingalls family move on to Indian territory in Little House on the Prairie and then to On the Banks of Plum Creek, a respectful three year pause marks the point when Laura’s infant brother died and her elder sister Mary went blind and then they move on to On the Shores of Silver Lake, then they arrive in De Smet. From here, Laura chronicles the horrors of malnutrition and near starvation in The Long Winter, the gradual birth of a township in Little House on the Prairie and her own steps towards adulthood and marriage in These Happy Golden Years. That last book draws to a close on the evening of Laura’s wedding but an unfinished draft of The First Four Years was also published after Wilder’s death.
Laura’s travels with Ma, Pa, Mary, Carrie and Grace have remained with me for two decades. The Little House series is fiction for tough children. I don’t mean scrappers, I would never class my child self as one of those, but rather for children who are ready for an early dose of reality. The passage that scared off the other would-be readers was the part in Little House in Big Woods when Laura’s Pa slaughters Willy the pig. I remember, aged five, listening to my mother read the words. It’s been over twenty years but I still recall how Laura ran into the house and put her hands over her ears to try to block out Willy’s screams. It is an unpleasant few pages but it was not traumatic. At roughly the same time, I had nightmares for two weeks due to a kidnapping storyline on Eastenders but I remember just accepting Willy’s death as a fact of life. Even at five, I knew where sausages came from.
|L to R: Caroline, Carrie, Laura, Charles, Grace and Mary|
I do remember about a year or so later, while reading On the Shores of Silver Lake, my grandmother rang up to ask how we were and I said that I was fine but just sad because Mary Ingalls was blind now. My Grandma told me not to worry because it was only pretend and I started to agree but then remembered that … no, it was not. Laura Ingalls Wilder chronicles the challenges and hardships of life on the American Frontier, she does so unflinchingly and with good humour and all in a way that is accessible for children. The Little House series is a masterpiece but it is not for the faint-hearted.
|Carrie, Mary and Laura|
Westerns may capture the drama of the often unruly society out in the wilds but Wilder’s work describes this unpredictable yet breathtaking bygone way of life. My mother always recalls the passages describing Laura’s Ma ironing the girls’ dresses in the wagon because no matter what happened, standards had to be maintained. Laura Ingalls was born in 1867 and died in 1857, taking her from the age of the wagon trail through two world wars and to the era of electrical appliances. Laura belonged to a privileged generation who watched America grow before their eyes.
Of course, the simple fact that she bore witness is not what makes her books so appealing. The clear tones of her narration, her sparse yet powerful prose bring this lost world to life. From childhood, it had been Laura’s responsibility to describe her surroundings to Mary, giving her extensive practice in recounting what was going on around her. In the books, it also allowed Laura to illustrate the setting in a relatively organic way. The tone of Little House often reminds me of my grandmother, in particular the various snippets of memoirs that she has written to describe her own childhood which took place in rural Northern Ireland, meaning that despite taking place over fifty years later, she had a comparable level of modern technology at her disposal.
|The television Ingalls family … not as good.|
I remember being excited when the television series started being repeated on Channel 4 but it only took a couple of episodes for that to wear off. The harsh life that the Ingalls went through is bizarrely transformed into a series of syrupy ‘heart-warming’ anecdotes that are devoid of any true meaning. I do not take a issue with the insertion of the fictional adopted son, I can see how the Ingalls were a very girl-heavy family for mainstream family television. I do not even have a problem with Mary being happily married off. Mary’s true fate was to sit in the corner of her parents’ kitchen all her life and then after their death to go and sit in the corner of her sister’s kitchen. This was tragic, Mary was a bright girl, a beautiful young girl and a woman with an immense amount of potential but the time in which she lived meant that her disability and her family’s situation prevented her from assuming any real independence. Still, the episode where Mary forgets to pick up her baby when the house is on fire so it dies is just mind-blowingly idiotic. The television series goes heavy on the schmaltz and misses what was truly interesting about the series.
|Pa & Ma|
As a small child, a lot of things passed me by. Rereading the books as a ten year-old, at fourteen, eighteen, twenty, I pick up new things every time. Ma’s terror of the Indians leads her to racism but she is forced into some truly frightening situations with her children. Laura was clearly a Daddy’s girl and she portrays her father with such warmth that as a five year-old I thought Laura’s Ma was mean but her Pa was hilarious. Later readings showed me that Pa’s restlessness and ‘itching foot’ drags them across the country because he cannot settle to anything, leading to great difficulties and hardships as they try to scratch out a living from the land. I felt sorry for Laura’s Ma.
Laura Ingalls Wilder is a very discreet narrator. She never criticises her parents although at the beginning of The First Four Years, she extracts a promise from her future husband Almanzo that they will try farming for the first four years only and that if it is not successful by then, they will move on. She does not want to live like her parents. Laura never mentions the death of her brother Freddy, the baby who lived only nine months and it was only as I grew older that I realised how much of the family’s difficulties came from not having a boy to help Pa with the field work. Laura often volunteered to help him but her mother did not like it. Similarly, Laura is very reticent about her budding feelings for Almanzo Wilder, who first asks her out in Little Town on the Prairie when she was fifteen and he was twenty-five, although Laura fudges his age for the reader by saying that he had claimed to be older so that he could get a land claim.
|Laura and Almanzo|
Laura is a passionate heroine, refusing to conform to the narrow expectations laid out for her by society. She does not always wear her bonnet like her mother wants her to. She allows her imagination to roam free. She stands up for her sister when Carrie cannot speak for herself. Laura is often shy in front of strangers but over the course of the series, she shows an immense amount of courage without ever seeming arrogant. She gets the entire woodpile in the house during a blizzard when they are living at Plum Creek. She teaches school when she is only fifteen, even though her landlady is having a mental breakdown. Laura is not even scared of Almanzo’s crazy horses. I had a real issue about not liking ‘soppy books’ when I was a child and tended to make gagging sounds during any romantic passages but Laura and Almanzo’s relationship only ever made me smile.
This series is nostalgic in many ways, a retrospective on an age that had passed by the time that Wilder came to write it. The country grew so quickly that there was barely time to admire its wild beauty before it was gone. Many of the snippets of stories that Wilder sprinkles in are the kinds of stories that the older generation do tell when reminiscing. The boy Cap Garland who is the focus of so much of the comedy in the later books turns out to have died in a threshing accident when he was only seventeen – so often those fallen idols do become the stuff of legend. The terrible consequences of the hurricanes and storms are remembered years later. Still, the one I remember as being most poignant was the final story about Mr and Mrs Boast where it becomes clear how difficult they had found being childless – the Boasts have been such a consistent part of the latter half of the series but when they ask Laura and Almanzo to give them their new baby Rose, one senses Wilder’s intermingled horror and pity is as fresh as it was when the incident first occurred.
|Laura and Almanzo in 1940|
There is so much beauty to The Little House series, this tale of a family bound together tightly against all difficulties. I read a quote from Laura that said that without Pa’s fiddle, they would never have got through it all. Music is a huge part of their family life and Laura writes very evocatively of a close-knit family. The final chapters of These Happy Golden Years portray Laura packing up her possessions, including Charlotte the rag doll she received in one of the early books, and getting ready to be a wife. There is a homesickness to her as she departs her family home for the last time, handed into Almanzo’s buggy by her father. Yet, there is also the excitement of her new life as she explores the new little house that Almanzo has built. Laura and Almanzo have an understated courtship, after he has proposed, Laura’s Ma frets that she prefers the horses over him but the reader never doubts that behind her shyness there is a real affection – a deep love. The two of them were married for over sixty years, enduring the death of their baby son, extreme financial hardship and personal difficulties. Yet it is impossible to imagine anything other than a happy ever after for them as they sit together on their first evening as husband and wife.
The Little House books are about growing up, Laura goes through all of the traditional milestones, starting school, getting her first job and having a boyfriend – she just does it on the frontier. Wilder never dumbs down what she has to say, she is discreet but she never minces her words. In The Long Winter, they really are in danger of starving to death. During the blizzards and hurricanes, there are people who really do die. Willy the pig really does have to be slaughtered so that they will have meat. Yet Wilder is never sensationalistic, merely factual about a time when times were often tough and so the people were too. There is a valour to Caroline Ingalls ironing the girls’ dresses even though there is nobody to see if they are not. The same valour meant that she ensured that her daughters were educated and that her second daughter was able to write one of the finest memoir series that has ever been published.
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Published by Scholastic Inc. on January 1st 1971
Genres: Young Adult, Classics, Historical, United States, 19th Century, Lifestyles, Farm & Ranch Life
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