For February’s entry into Emlyn Chand’s “Books that made me Love Reading” Challenge, I reread Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books.
My third grade teacher loved these books and read us several of them in class. I immediately fell in love with them, and the whole pioneer spirit thing. In sixth grade I got the boxed set for a Christmas present, something I still have on my bookshelf today. I read them all to the point that I still have them mostly memorized, despite the fact I probably haven’t picked them up since college (except maybe These Happy Golden Years; that’s my favorite). At the least, I haven’t revisited them in a meaningful way.
Overall, they held up pretty well. Here are my thoughts on each one:
- Little House in the Big Woods – This was always my least favorite one, and it still is. The whole thing pretty much is descriptive narrative, with very little dialogue. Mainly it’s just a bunch of vignettes about a year of Laura’s life, with very little character development of anyone. (Also, just a little nitpick – I drove past Lake Pepin this summer, and it’s really not that big, or even a lake – just a wide spot along the Mississippi. I guess maybe it seemed a lot bigger to a five year old who lived in the middle of the woods.) However, it’s very impressive how self-sufficient they were.
- Little House on the Prairie – Finally we get more plot. There’s so much historical stuff happening in here, and irrational racism against the Indians, but it’s all filtered through the lens of a small girl. Also, I’ve lived on the High Prairie (in North Dakota, not Kansas), so I could envision the scene very well. That helped in reading the story this time around.
- On the Banks of Plum Creek – These books are constantly evolving, and in this one Laura gets a personality. She has her own thoughts and feelings, and she’s starting to butt heads with Ma. Also in this book we’re bombarded by Pa’s optimism for the family. Things didn’t work out in Kansas, but now they have the chance to earn a comfortable life: horses and buggy, salt pork everyday, silk dresses for Ma. Even with weather setbacks, that hope for a better future shines through.
- Farmer Boy – A break in Laura’s story, this one contrasts her childhood with her husband Almanzo’s. And truth be told, I’d take Laura’s hand-to-mouth existence over his any day. Almanzo doesn’t get a childhood; it’s work, work work. Maybe it’s because Laura’s a girl, or because Almanzo’s father has such a big farm, but he rarely gets a moment to himself in between all his chores. In his family, it’s not about being your own person or candidly expressing your thoughts; it’s about how much work you can do. His family is pretty well off – they have a nice house, lots of land, always enough to eat, and money in the bank – but I’d take Laura’s laidback, value-you-as-a-person family in a heart beat.
- By the Shores of Silver Lake – This book picks up four years after the last one left off, and even though it isn’t really discussed in detail you know life has hit the Ingalls family hard. Mary’s blind; the family’s in debt due to poor crops; and unmentioned is the death of Laura’s little brother. The optimism in the last book is gone; now it’s just about getting by. Laura’s character grows even more in this book. Mary is pretty incapacitated, and with no sons, Laura must shoulder a lot of responsibility. Typical for a teenage girl, she tries to find the balance between being herself, and being the dutiful daughter.
- The Long Winter – This one was another of my least favorite. And after surviving one of the top 10 snowiest winters on record in North Dakota, I’m going to have to call the BS card on this book. Yes, there were quite a few days when you couldn’t see more than about fifteen feet in front of you due to the nasty snow, but it never got to the point where you couldn’t see your own hand in front of your face. On the plus side, it’s nice to see Almanzo thrown in for the budding romance, since we as readers of course know how it ends.
|Routine January Sunday afternoon drive in North Dakota|
- Little Town on the Prairie – This one I think is best described as “tempered optimism.” The Ingalls no longer talk about getting rich; now what they want is to have a warm, comfortable house; enough food to eat; and money to send Mary to a college for the blind. We continue to expand the character development, especially with younger sister Carrie, but it’s obvious that these books were written 75 years ago for kids, as growing up is glossed over to show happy, obedient children.
- These Happy Golden Years – This one has always been my favorite. Laura is just about an adult, and she’s cluing into the fact that no one else knows what they’re doing either. She teaches school even though she doesn’t really want to; realizes Ma hates sewing but does it anyway; and gets herself a boyfriend although she’s pretty ambivalent about leaving home to get married. On rereading this one, the romance part disappointed me. Maybe it’s that dated/kids’ book glossing over, but there’s no real sense of falling in love, or being in love, on Laura’s part. She loves Almanzo’s horses, and she loves the prairie, and she hates Nellie Olesen, but when it comes to her future husband all we get is that after he proposes, she realizes she misses not seeing him. Maybe it was that this part of her life, like the loss of her baby brother, was too special to share with the world?
- The First Four Years – Rereading this, I was surprised to find it was a lot better than I remembered. Yes, it’s rough compared to the other ones, and short – more descriptive narrative than anything else. But there’s a lot thrown in there that shows us Laura’s character better than any of the other books. And maybe Almanzo’s dad was right to work hard and save, as Laura and Almanzo accumulate more and more debt, usually because of lack of impulse control.
As I said above, the Little House books are as good now as when I read them 20+ years ago. I’m getting things out of them now – themes and character development – that I didn’t notice then, but that just makes me look forward to reading them again in another 20 years and seeing what I find then.