Little House on the Prairie is certainly the most iconic title in the series of Wilder’s books, and it includes many scenes that are still with me from childhood. But on this reading I began to think of it as being about a year in the life of the Ingalls family that didn’t really exist.
The family takes an unusual path in their travels. Starting out in Wisconsin in the Big Woods, they sell up and head south, to Indian Territory. They stop and set up shop about 40 miles from Independence, Missouri—the traditional jumping-off point for travelers on trails to the West. They aren’t really allowed to be there, but Pa is confident that the federal government will continue its policy of pushing the Indians west, and allowing settlers to remain on their land, however illegally acquired.
This doesn’t work out, though. The end of the book finds soldiers from a nearby fort allegedly ready to boot the settlers out, and Pa is going to leave before they have a chance. He packs up the family and goes; in the next volume they will reappear in Minnesota, practically where they started. It’s the year that never happened.
It should be devastating for a family, especially a poor one. They uproot their lives, must leave behind anything that can’t be carried in a wagon, and then do it all over again, negating the work the family has done to claim that little bit of prairie for their own. Because they only remain for a year, Pa doesn’t have time even to harvest a single crop; the family lives only on store-bought supplies, hunted meat, and caught fish. On the one hand, this means they lose less by leaving—they haven’t built up the farm enough to lose as much as they did back in Wisconsin. On the other, it contributes even more to the idea of a year that never was.
What kind of people can do all this, with a family to worry about? Ma and Pa and their knowledge and abilities come into a somewhat different light here than in the Big Woods. We see for the first time Pa building a house. Ma somehow knows how to fight a prairie fire. They are putting the first marks of agrarian civilization on the land:
There began to be a road where [Pa] drove back and forth to the creek bottoms. And at night on their picket-lines Pet and Patty ate the grass, till it was short and stubby all around the log-piles.
And the continual refrain among the two parents, “All’s well that ends well,” starts to seem almost scary. This used to be the ultimate in reassurance: the father you are in awe of telling you everything’s just fine. But in what is apparently my stodgy old age I find I just can’t believe the risks he took, and his willingness to brush them aside so lightly. The prairie is genuinely dangerous. As is picking up and moving your family all around the country, over and over. And it may be true—all’s well that ends well—but my taste for adventures of my own, at least along these lines, has lessened.