I have thought more than once in my lifetime, and certainly several times in the past few months, about the real woman and real history behind the Little House books, and about seeking out some measure of it somewhere out there in De Smet or one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s other childhood homes. I have not made it to the point of Wendy McClure, who over the past few years visited every homesite and then wrote a book about it, but in other respects we are remarkably alike. We both live in Chicago. We both read and loved the series as children and then re-read them recently—her starting with a copy retrieved from her childhood home, shortly after the death of her mother, and I with the whole series retrieved from my parents’ basement, shortly after the death of my grandfather. Add in a shared sense of humor and I make an excellent audience for McClure’s memoir, The Wilder Life.
At its most basic, the book is the story of a curious woman exploring her own past and Wilder’s, and to some extent the country’s, all at the same time. Re-reading Wilder’s books sparks an obsession that leads to churning butter and making seed wheat sourdough bread in a Chicago apartment, a jaunt to Pepin, WI (site of Little House in the Big Woods), lessons from quasi-survivalist homesteaders, and a full-blown journey across the upper Midwest with stops from Iowa to South Dakota. McClure reads up on the reality of Wilder’s life, gets pretty impressively educated about her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who always sort of bored me, drags her extremely game boyfriend through a series of extremely dorky museums and buys a lot of sunbonnets. The wild ride finally ends when McClure begins to get to the bottom of what’s been driving her through it all along; this is of course required for this kind of book, which annoys me, but it’s the path we take to get there that matters, no?
The most interesting part of that path, for me, was actually the one I’ve trod myself so recently—McClure’s discussion of the books. It’s fun to make jokes about the television series, and I’m glad to have learned about more of the factual side of the Ingallses’ story, but when she talks about what struck her from the stories and their telling McClure reveals how alike at least two (or three) readers of the Little House books are.
She’s intrigued by the way Wilder describes the details that make up a room or a scene, and as a child plays make-believe by outlining the objects in her room in the style of the books: “a green-and-white-checked quilt (I might have even called it a “coverlet”) lay on the bed; on the white dresser sat a little wooden jewelry box. For a few moments my room felt enchanted, just from the power of observation I’d borrowed from Laura.” She contemplates Wilder’s narrative style, noting that “[t]he story of the Little House books was always a story of looking.”
She’s fascinated, like Amateur Reader, by the scene toward the end of Little House on the Prairie where Laura “has an odd, inarticulate tantrum when she makes eye contact with an Indian infant.” The scene is “primal and weird,” and McClure is always on the hunt for new ways to interpret it: “After a while, I began to believe everything and nothing at the same time.” (I hope she makes her way to AR’s blog!)
She examines the family’s actions in light of the illegality of their settlement in Kansas and the various levels of racism in characters across the series. And she also notices all the detailed instructions in the novels, which she sometimes finds confusing, until she can finally visualize the simplicity of the door Pa made at a replica cabin on the prairie:
I’d read it had been built following Laura’s descriptions as closely as possible; certainly the door looked like it had been made per the directions in the book, with its elaborate latch descriptions that to this day I can never figure out: “First he hewed a short, thik piece of oak,” the book says. “From one side of this, in the middle, he cut a wide, deep notch. He pegged this stick to the inside of the door, up and down and near the edge. He put the notched side against the door, so that the notch made a little slot.” Somehow it’s so specific it’s disorienting: One side, in the middle? Up and down and near the edge? Every time I read this passage I follow along as best as I can and then get completely lost. But to look at the door, or its fascimile thereof, you’d never guess it could sound so complicated. I felt both stupid and relieved to see how it works: you pull this little rope, and then this thing goes up.
For the Little House reader, McClure’s experiences fall into two buckets: those we’ve shared and those I’m glad she’s sharing with me. For others, it’s hard to say whether the story of a Wilder disciple would hold the same interest. The book suffers from the sort of lack of tough editing many readers have come to expect from major publishing houses, but McClure’s voice is casual and funny without veering into twee.
The US Federal Trade Commission compels me to inform you that I received a review copy of this book from the publisher, Riverhead.
Anyone who read the Little House books as a child and made it all the way through probably has a similar memory of things starting to get a little bit weird in The First Four Years, and then of kind of losing interest in the journals that come after. I never read the journals, I didn’t have it in me (though I think someday I’d like to). I did read The First Four Years and remember finding it just a little off. The introduction to my childhood Scholastic edition explains that the manuscript was discovered among Wilder’s papers when she died. I’ve read elsewhere that it may have been intended for a more adult audience than the other books. In any case, there’s a definite jog between These Happy Golden Years and here.
There are superficial discontinuities. Almanzo is called Manly here, which is what Wilder called him in real life, but it comes out of the blue to an uninitiated reader. It also repeats parts of the previous book in a way that’s not done in the rest of the series at all. Here, we begin with Laura preparing for her wedding (These Happy Golden Years ends with her and Almanzo moving into their new home). Manly urges her to rush things along, just like in the other book, but here, it goes beyond the superficial—Laura’s not quite the same.
Laura twisted the bright gold ring with its pearl-and-garnet setting around and around on the forefinger of her left hand. It was a pretty ring and she liked having it, but…“I’ve been thinking,” she said. “I don’t want to marry a farmer. I have always said I never would. I do wish you would do something else. There are chances in town now while it is so new and growing.”
Who on earth is this Laura? Maybe she seems familiar to other readers of the series, but her outlook is so different in The First Four Years that I’m inclined to feel we should take it completely on its own terms.
Again there was a little silence; then Manly asked, “Why don’t you want to marry a farmer?” And Laura replied, Because a farm is such a hard place for a woman. There are so many chores for her to do, and harvest help and threshers to cook for. Besides a farmer never has any money. He can never make any because the people in towns tell him what they will pay for what he has to sell and then they charge him what they please for what he has to buy. It is not fair.”
How interesting that Laura’s outlook on the economic relations between town folk and farmers is exactly the opposite of Almanzo’s father’s in Farmer Boy; she did not have the prosperous lifestyle the Wilders did growing up. Also, notably, she did not grow up doing real full-on farm chores the way the Wilders did, so her perspective on the work involved for farm wives may not be as surprising as it seems. Her first morning as Mrs. Wilder is threshing day, and she must feed all the men from neighboring farms who’ve come to help. “Now Laura had always been a pioneer girl rather than a farmer’s daughter, always moving on to new places before the fields grew large, so a gang of men as large as a threshing crew to feed by herself was rather dismaying,” the narrator explains. “But if she was going to be a farmer’s wife that was all in the day’s work.”
And she has agreed to be a farmer’s wife—for four years. She and Almanzo make a deal that if, after that period, she’s still not happy as a farmer’s wife, they’ll do something else.
The first four years are disastrous. Way beyond anything so far, plagues of locusts, long winters, wolves, Indians, empty doughnut jars. Even for an adult audience it is pretty bleak. The crops fail every single year, almost inevitably within days of being harvested. They get diphtheria, with lasting consequences. An infant dies. They mortgage everything and can barely afford fuel and food. The house burns down. For all the cute courtship we witnessed in These Happy Golden Years, the Wilders seem to have something of a cursed marriage.
Then again, may it’s just amazingly apt. The Little House books have real character development, in a deep way. Laura gets older, the rest of the Ingallses get older, and the books get older with them. Her concerns and interests change, and now she’s really an adult, really in charge, and the show Ma ran back home was a job. Laura was aware of trouble as a child, thoughtful about it, and did her best to help, but now she is a fully responsible party along with Manly. Being a grown-up may have its pleasures, but it’s much more about hardship.
In These Happy Golden Years, things take rather a romantic turn. In the opening scene, Pa is driving Laura to the small town of Brewster to begin her first term teaching school. It’s come up so quickly that Laura hasn’t had a chance to take Almanzo up on his offer, at the end of Little Town on the Prairie, to go sleigh riding. Sigh.
But Almanzo surprises her on her first Friday afternoon in Brewster—and what a week it’s been. She’s terrified of teaching school and even more terrified of the family she’s boarding with. But Almanzo carries her home in his sleigh every Friday and back every Sunday, for the whole term. Finally, after months of sleighing and buggy rides, Laura gets a ring and Almanzo says he will build her a little house by his tree claim next summer. In the meantime, she has one more term of school to teach, and as he brings her to her new village, she sings:
The stars are rolling in the sky,
The earth rolls on below,
And we can feel the rattling wheel
Revolving as we go;
Then tread away my gallant boys,
And make the axle fly!
Why should not wheels go round-about,
Like planets in the sky?
Almanzo laughed aloud. “Your songs are like your father’s! They always fit.”
Except for one thing, of course—his wheels would never rattle.
Does it really take until practically the end of the series for someone to make a comment about the fittingness of Pa’s singing? I think so, explicitly at least.
The songs, which anyone who has read these books must remember, as they are everywhere, have undergone some changes since the early years. In The Long Winter, the unthinkable happened:
[E]very note from the fidle was a very little wrong. Pa’s fingers were clumsy. The music dragged and a fiddle string snapped.
“My fingers are too stiff and thick from being out in the cold so much, I can’t play,” Pa spoke as if he were ashamed. He laid the fiddle in its box. “Put it away, Laura, until some other time.”
Laura listened to the winds while she stared at the blank window without seeing it. The worst thing that had happened was that Pa could not play the fiddle. If she had not asked him to play it, he might not have known that he could not do it.
But his abilities came back, and he continues putting them to good use. He’s been teaching them how to dance since they’ve been at Silver Lake, and the first song he sings at home in These Happy Golden Years, which gives the book its name, is bittersweet:
Golden years are passing by,
Happy, happy golden years,
Passing on the wings of time,
These happy golden years.
Call them back as they go by,
Sweet their memories are,
Oh, improve them as they fly,
These happy golden years.
Laura’s heart ached as the music floated away and was gone in the spring night under the stars.
Pa’s songs have always fit, but now that Laura is getting older and her own conception of her family is becoming bittersweet—she’s about to leave them, and everything is changing—she appreciates more of the emotion behind them.
Here’s one Pa sings to Ma when no one is around, just before Laura walks in to announce her engagement:
A beautiful castle I’ve built for thee
In dreamland far away,
And there, gentle darling, come dwell with me,
Where love alone has sway.
Oh, sweet will be our blisses,
Oh, rare will be our blisses!
We’ll tell our time by the lovers’ chime
That strikes the hour with kisses.
Now this must be too fitting. This is what happens when I read now, suspicious of the machinery of literature. Can Pa really have been singing this just as Laura and Almanzo are having their first kiss? Laura is making the songs fit even better. One of her great inheritances.
During The Long Winter, the Ingalls family stays at Pa’s building in town for the season rather than at the claim shanty, which is isolated and less sturdy. The town has sprung up out of the prairie pretty quickly. One day, Laura and her family are the only humans within 40 miles; six months later, Main Street is lined with storefronts.
Country girl that she is, Laura does not enjoy the bustle of the town. The year before, in By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura puts it most clearly: “in all the hustle, bustle and busyness of the town there was no one that Laura knew. She did not feel all alone and happy on the prairie now; she felt lonely and scared.” Alone and happy, lonely and scared. Her anxiety persists into the next volume. In The Long Winter, “[s]he dreaded going to town because so many people were there. She was not exactly afraid, but strange eyes looking at her made her uncomfortable.” You can’t really trust the town, “where the false fronts of the buildings stood up square-topped to pretend that the stores behind them were bigger than they were,” but on the prairie again she can feel “free and independent and comfortable.”
After that hard winter proves how important it is to spend the season in town, the Ingalls family does it again. But in Little Town on the Prairie, the winter is mild. The town is even bigger now, and school can stay in session throughout the winter. And then the “whirl of gaiety” begins—a sociable, literaries, a birthday party, a New England–style Thanksgiving dinner. All of a sudden the Ingalls family is living in a real and vibrant community, and Laura realizes she’s begun to love the town.
The economy is vibrant too. Pa is able to work for wages as a carpenter every summer, helping newcomers to keep building the town. Laura gets work for wages too, helping sew shirts for the bachelors who came out West on their own. The shirt-making service is a side business of the dry goods storekeeper and is lucrative enough for him to have brought the first sewing machine even Pa has ever seen to tiny De Smet, in the middle of Dakota Territory. The Ingalls family is doing so well that Mary can attend a college for the blind back East in Iowa and Laura can have such faddish treats as name cards.
Every year it gets easier for the families in and around town to support themselves. As more sod is broken, as more pests are driven away, as more people are farming the land, there is more food to eat, and more kinds of food. But it takes time to reach self-sufficiency. Farmers struggle to play by the rules and still feed their families: by law, they must spend half the year on their claim, but the claims don’t raise enough yet to care for a family. The men must stay in town, working for cash, while their families hold down the claim, hopefully with a son old enough to break the sod. One young mother who doesn’t share Laura’s feelings about being alone on the prairie actually pays Laura to stay with her at her claim while her husband is away.
And it’s easy to imagine that another winter like the long winter would leave the town just as desperate for food and other items. Cut off entirely from train service for months, supplies like meat would quickly run low. Before, the settlement held just a few families, saved by only two men who were willing to risk their lives for a community they knew well, and a storekeeper who knew in such a small place he could not do without the goodwill of the first residents. Now, there are people in town Laura does not even know. If the long winter happened three years later, would some other Almanzo have rescued them—or even been able to?
It’s hard not to mull these kinds of questions thinking about a life built so much on risk, but, as you know, all’s well that ends well.
I didn’t really expect to write much about the politics or ideology of the Little House books, as I normally avoid these things, but it’s turned out to interest me more than I’d expected. Ideas about liberty, independence, and responsbility are not only deeply embedded in the stories and lives of the characters; they are also made explicit to some extent as they are passed down from parents to children. Wilder doubly passes them on to us.
That’s what got me so interested in the final scenes of Farmer Boy. A similar episode from the Ingalls family occurs at the beginning of The Long Winter, one I think is worth unpacking on the record if only so I remember it myself.
At the end of the summer before the long winter, Laura is helping Pa make hay. It’s her first time helping on the farm, and while they’re mowing Laura and Pa find what will be the first in a series of harbingers of a hard winter: a muskrat house with especially thick walls. Pa explains to Laura that the thickness of the walls indicates the harshness of the winter to come, and she asks how muskrats can know what the weather will bring.
“I don’t know how they know,” Pa said. “But they do. God tells them, somehow, I suppose.”
“Then why doesn’t God tell us?” Laura wanted to know.
“Because,” said Pa, “we’re not animals. We’re humans, and, like it says in the Declaration of Independence, God created us free. That means we got to take care of ourselves.”
First, how interesting is it that Pa basically uses the Declaration of Independence as a religious document? And I don’t mean that in the glib way often used to talk about certain segments of the contemporary American polity. Pa isn’t using the religious elements of the Declaration to support its political validity, nor is he talking about the Declaration as a sacret political text. He is actually using the language of the Declaration, rather than a Christian religious text, to explain to Laura part of the relationship between man and God. And he immediately equates freedom with personal responsibility.
He expands on that idea when Laura asks if God doesn’t also take care of us humans.
“He does,” Pa said, “so far as we do what’s right. And He gives us a conscience and brains to know what’s right. But He leaves it to us to do as we please. That’s the difference between us and everything else in creation.”
“Can’t muskrats do what they please?” Laura asked, amazed.
“No,” said Pa. “I don’t know why they can’t but you can see they can’t. Look at that muskrat house. Muskrats have to build that kind of house. They always have and they always will. It’s plain they can’t build any other kind. But folks build all kinds of houses. A man can build any kind of house he can think of. So if his house don’t keep out the weather, that’s his look-out; he’s free and independent.”
Free will means freedom to fail; if we want the choice of living in a log cabin in the woods, a sod hut on the prairie, or a claim shanty on a homestead, we have to face the possibility that come winter our shanty might let in too much cold and snow. Only beings without the ability to direct their own lives can be protected.
Meanwhile, Almanzo has refused to be such a being himself. He is only nineteen but has lied about his age in order to take a homestead of his own. Pa describes homesteading as a bet: the government bets a man 160 acres that he can’t stay on a piece of land and make it productive for a certain number of years. It’s a dangerous bet for the homesteaders. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you may lose everything you own, and even your life. Anyone who’s read this far knows how risky life was for settlers in the West, and anyone who goes on to finish The Long Winter will end up with an even bleaker picture. The government creates rules for homesteading that are meant to minimize that risk, including an age requirement. But Almanzo doesn’t feel the least bit bad for violating it:
None of the rules worked as they were intended to. Amanzo knew that men were making good wages by filing claims that fitted all the legal rules and then handing over the land to the rich men who paid their wages. Everywhere, men were stealing the land and doing it according to all the rules. But of all the homestead laws Almanzo thought that the most foolish was the law about a settler’s age.
Anybody knew that no two men were alike. You could measure cloth with a yardstick, or distance by miles, but you could not lump men together and measure them by any rule. Brains and character did not depend on anything but the man himself. Some men did not have the sense at sixty that some had at sixteen. And Almanzo considered that he was as good, any day, as any man twenty-one years old.
The same ingenuity that lets folks build different kinds of houses allows them to bend the rules and go against the spirit of the homesteading law to funnel land to wealthy investors. And because Almanzo has a human mind that can reason and possesses free will, he refuses to be stuffed into a one-size-fits-all muskrat house, even if that puts him in danger. And it puts him in more danger than most; he faces the additional risk of getting caught facing the risks everyone else does.
After they’re all but forced out of Indian Territory, the Ingalls family moves to Minnesota, almost retracing their steps back home to Wisconsin. They trade their team for some land and a sod hut, and so On the Banks of Plum Creek begins. The weather and natural events are not kind to them here, and Pa has great difficulty making a go of it. Worse, by the beginning of By the Shores of Silver Lake, scarlet fever has ravaged the family and left Laura’s older sister blind.
“On that dreadful morning when Mary could not see even sunshine full in her eyes, Pa had said that Laura must see for her,” and see she did. The family begins to go on new adventures; Pa goes west to Dakota by himself to work on the railroad, and Ma and the girls follow by train—a terrifying new experience. Laura must see the train for Mary: “‘Both sides of the car are windows, close together.’ Laura said now. ‘Every window is one big sheet of glass, and even the strips of wood between the windows shine like glass, they are so polished.'” She describes the red velvet seats and the people, where the sunshine falls and what the countryside looks like going by so fast.
This is how Laura learns to explain so patiently and clearly every shape, object, and movement that makes up the natural and man-made world—how she can tell us just what it’s like when Pa uses a hollow log to smoke venison, or how he builds a log cabin. After the family arrives at Silver Lake, Laura describes one of the most impressive things of all: how a railroad grade is built. Pa, who works in the company store, takes her for a walk one day to see where the men are really working. Laura is amazed at the clockwork-like movements of dozens of men and teams going in circles, digging and depositing dirt, minding the foreman, over and over across the whole West.
It comes naturally to Laura to see out loud for Mary, but so do some fancy, more literary tricks that her sister is not quite ready for. On their way from an older settlement to a brand-new one, Laura describes the landscape as their wagon heads toward new territory.
Beyond the low river the grassy land was low curve behind curve and the road looked like a short hook.
“The road pushes against the grassy land and breaks off short. And that’s the end of it,” said Laura.
“It can’t be,” Mary objected. “The road goes all the way to Silver Lake.”
“It know it does,” Laura answered.
“Well, then I don’t think you ought to say things like that,” Mary told her gently. “We should always be careful to say exactly what we mean.”
“I was saying what I meant,” Laura protested. But she could not explain. There were so many ways of seeing things and so many ways of saying them.
There is true and there is true; the road ends and the road goes on to Silver Lake. Laura is learning valuable lessons here, and passing them on to us just as she passed on the lessons on how to make head cheese and milk a cow. These writerly lessons are ones I entirely missed as a child but they continue throughout By the Shores of Silver Lake and beyond, until Mary leaves home.
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.
So how does little Almanzo Wilder get his precious colts, you ask? It may just be the most interesting thing in the book.
The last two chapters see Almanzo going to town with his father, just the two of them, to sell some hay. On the way there Almanzo notices something in the snow, which turns out to be a wallet with a ton of cash in it. Father is smart: he susses out whose it is and sends Almanzo to find the man, Mr. Thompson, while Father is waiting to trade with Mr. Case, the storekeeper. When Almanzo returns the wallet, Mr. Thompson is rude to him. A friend of the family comes to the boy’s defense and ends up bullying Mr. Thompson into giving Almanzo $200 as a reward—an amount so exorbitant I can only assume this bit is made up, but who knows. This friend, Mr. Paddock, is the wheelwright, and while explaining the situation to Father he makes an offer. Mr. Paddock wants to take Almanzo on as an apprentice.
Father is thoughtful, and when they return to the farm he tells Mother what has happened:
“Well!” Mother snapped. She was all ruffled, like an angry hen. “A pretty pass the word’s coming to, if any man thinks it’s a step up in the world to leave a good farm and go to town! How does Mr. Paddock make his money, if it isn’t catering to us? I guess if he didn’t make wagons to suit farmers, he wouldn’t last long!”
“That’s true enough,” said father. “But—.”
“There’s no ‘but’ about it!” Mother said. “Oh, it’s bad enough to see Royal come down to being nothing but a storekeeper! Maybe he’ll make money, but he’ll never be the man you are. Truckling to other people for his living, all his days— He’ll never be able to call his soul his own.”
For a minute Almanzo wondered if Mother was going to cry.
This is serious business; Mother does not cry for no reason. Father wants to leave the decision up to Almanzo, who
could not speak till he was spoken to, but he thought to himself that he was old enough to know he’d rather be like Father than like anybody else. He did not want to be like Mr. Paddock, even. Mr. Paddock had to please a mean man like Mr. Thompson, or lose the sale of a wagon. Father was free and independent; if he went out of his way to please anybody, it was because he wanted to.
Father wants to give Almanzo the truth, as he sees it of course, but it’s a pretty fair truth. He explains that with Mr. Paddock Almanzo will have it easy in many ways: no rising at dawn, no spending cold winter nights outdoors forcing the cattle to move about rather than freeze, no working in bad weather. But:
“You’d have to depend on other folks, son, in town. Everything you got, you’d get from other folks.
“A farmer depends on himself, and the land and the weather. If you’re a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear, and you keep warm with wood out of your own timber. You work hard, but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come. You’ll be free and independent, son, on a farm.”
The push for almost total self-sufficiency is interesting. The Wilders really are nearly independent: they raise their own food and clothes and heating and cooling materials. Shoes are just about the only thing that must be bought, and they also buy some cloth but only for special occasions; unlike Mrs. Ingalls, Mrs. Wilder does a lot of weaving, and the family raises sheep. Father does sell his hay, and potatoes, and colts, but it’s questionable how “dependent” he really is on the buyers. The sales lead to money in the bank, but to all appearances he would be fine without that money as well.
But self-sufficiency does not lead to (material) prosperity. I suppose you could say that Father and Mother reject gains from trade in favor of increased independence; they are not willing to trade off power over their own going and coming for greater wealth. But they are wealthy, much wealthier than the Ingalls family at least, and have the best farm for miles around. How did they get this way?
One thing I know, because I’ve been down this whole path before, is that Almanzo and Laura do not end up the same. Almanzo decides to become a farmer man, and he gets his colts by making that decision, but he never enjoys the prosperity of his father, and his going and coming will be hindered later on by mortgages and debt. Debt, the ultimate dependency, is something that Father never even addresses. We’re better off looking to Pa, who hates to be beholden to anyone for anything (including to his friend for a few nails), does get into debt, and while it’s not ruinous it’s not wonderful either. And his dependence on the weather and the land proves in some cases more precarious than his dependence on other people.
After reading Little House in the Big Woods, instead of continuing in the usual order with Little House on the Prairie I turned to Farmer Boy, which was actually written second though it’s usually read third. It takes us from Laura’s family in the big woods to the family of her future husband, Almanzo Wilder, who own a large farm in upstate New York.
Like Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy describes the annual arc of life for the family, beginning in the winter during Almanzo’s first season at school, through spring planting, summer heat and the fall harvest back to winter again. Also like in the previous novel, Farmer Boy consists for the most part of a series of scenes of farm life, with the same kind of description. We watch Almanzo’s mother bake and weave and make butter and fry doughnuts; Almanzo’s father teaches him to cut and store ice, thresh grain, braid a whip, make shingles, drive a team of oxen. But in Farmer Boy there is a single goal knitting together everything that Almanzo does in a way that doesn’t happen with Laura: Almanzo does it all so he can prove he is old enough to have a colt.
He has plenty of contact with animals. He has his own team of calves, Star and Bright; he’s allowed to feed the gentler, older horses; and he milks the cows. But “[a] boy who didn’t know any better might scare a young horse, or tease it, or even strike it, and that would ruin it.” Almanzo knows that he does know better, but nothing seems to get his father to believe that, at least not yet. He rises every morning at dawn, eagerly takes on as much farm work as his parents will allow (trying to get out of school to stay home and work on every occasion), and perseveres to make do without his father’s help on almost every occasion, but those handsome colts remain frustratingly out of reach.
The constant presence of the colts in Almanzo’s mind give the book a more novelistic feel, and my theory is that Wilder really does use them as a tool. I don’t know how planned-out the series was, whether Wilder knew she would write so many books about her own family, but she writes only one about Almanzo’s and it aims to mythologize the whole of his growing-up in a single year in a way that Big Woods does not attempt at all. Laura’s character develops in that book, but to nowhere near the extent it will develop over the course of the next few volumes. But for Almanzo, this one year of aging encapsulates much more and ends, in a somewhat stylized way, with his dream coming true and him symbolically becoming an adult.
Wilder will give Laura a goal of her own in Little House on the Prairie, seeing a papoose, which will also be fulfilled at the end of the novel. The realization of this goal is a bit different; rather than literarily wrapping up the whole of Laura’s life, it leads her to a more particular realization about herself. The technique is a bit more subtle there, I think.
When Amateur Reader re-read Laura Ingalls Wilder back in November, he paid special attention to issues of time. Time struck me in the book as well, and again in Farmer Boy, though not quite in the same way. No, what I noticed was much more obvious and silly: Wilder’s method of storytelling really emphasizes how much the families live according to the seasons.
So this is obvious because of course they do; they are farmers, or at least living off the land. On the one hand, it doesn’t seem too different from my life after all: I do different things in different seasons too. On the other, I realize they simply must do this to a much greater extent.
The reading experience seemed bizarrely like a nature documentary, though. (In case you don’t know, I’m a huge fangirl of things like Planet Earth, and in case you don’t know, these documentaries are very often told according to the seasons.) It’s not just that Laura and Mary and Ma and Pa have to wear warmer clothes in winter, or spend more time then as a family sitting by the fire, or that Pa doesn’t go hunting in the spring when baby animals need their mothers. Because of their living off the land, they must be actively represented in just the same way as animals in these documentaries: doing all they can to stock up on more food than they need during the warmer part of the year so it will last them all through the winter. Like squirrels stocking up on acorns, they fill the attic with onions and peppers and pumpkins and squash.
One of the most impressive things about it all is the amount of planning involved. When they butcher a pig, that’s the only time they will do it all year. They must find ways of preserving all that pork not just because it would go off without artificial refrigeration, but also because otherwise they wouldn’t have any pork to eat until the next year. A year is a lot of planning, a lot of acorns.
The food scenes, and I count among them things like the hog-butchering scene, are my favorite thing aside from the more general category of parents-knowing-everything (because of course, cooking is a subcategory of that). Some of the ones in Farmer Boy are particularly amazing. Almanzo lives amid more plenty than Laura, and I would kill to have his mother cook for me. On his birthday, toward the beginning of the book, he gets a new sled to play with on the cold winter day.
So everything was snug and comfortable in the house, and Almanzo went downstairs and took two more doughnuts from the doughnut-jar, and then he played outdoors again with his sled.
He’s got a doughnut-jar, people, and you know what that means: later on, you’re going to learn how to make doughnuts.