I mentioned earlier that Hobgoblin bought me a set of the Little House on the Prairie books, and I have now read through the first four of the nine novels. It’s been fun to reread the books (who knows how many times I’ve read each one — it’s many), and especially to do it shortly after I read Wendy McClure’s book on rereading the series as an adult, and also at the same time that I’m reading Laura Miller’s book on C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. All this thinking about children’s books and what it’s like to reread them! I’m also sort of in the middle of rereading the Anne of Green Gables books, although it’s been a while since I picked one of those up.
A friend asked me if rereading the Little House books reminds me of what I felt about them as a child, which it has, and also whether it reminded me of where I was when I first read them, which it hasn’t. I read the books too many times to remember where I was when I first read them; all the subsequent rereadings have erased my first memories. But I do remember how much I loved reading all the details of the characters’ lives, although right now I’m feeling surprised and a little overwhelmed by exactly how much detail there is, especially in Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy, which, I learned from Wendy McClure, were the first two books written and were meant as companion books — Laura as a child and then her husband Almanzo as a child.
Not much actually happens in these volumes except everyday life. We learn about what Laura and Mary did on Sundays, what they played with during the week, how they helped their mother, how they waited for their father to return from hunting trips and journeys into town. Farmer Boy is even more detail-laden; it takes the reader through a year on the farm and describes all their tasks: plowing, planting, weeding, and harvesting; breaking in colts and calves; repairing the house and barns; fishing and berrying; chopping ice into blocks and packing it in sawdust; and most of all, cooking and eating. The book is overflowing with food and descriptions of eating. There are many passages like this one:
Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham. He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.
As McClure points out, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote this book during the depression when food was scarce and after having gone through years of poverty and deprivation. It’s no wonder she focuses on the food so much.
Almanzo loves working on the farm with his father and longs for the day when he can have a colt of his very own to train. Wilder describes his joy in the farm animals and farm work so infectiously that it makes me want to live on a farm, even though I most definitely know better. I would not like all that hard work and uncertainty one bit. But Almanzo thrives on it, and Wilder makes the abundance of the farm and the reliable rhythms of yearly agricultural cycles so appealing. I knew as a child that living on a farm is not quite like it’s described in Farmer Boy, but I found the fantasy version of farm life comforting then and I do now as well.
Little House on the Prairie and On the Banks of Plum Creek have slightly more going on in terms of plot, although they, too, have lots of descriptions of how things get done, especially how houses and barns get built. These two novels tell the stories of how the Ingalls family packed up and headed into new territory, first the Indian territory in Kansas, and second to farm land in Minnesota. The plot, such as it is, centers around the struggle to settle themselves in a new place and the question of whether they will make it there. In Kansas there are the Indians (whose land they have taken), prairie fires, and blizzards, while in Minnesota there are blizzards and grasshoppers swarms. In Minnesota there is also school and Nellie Oleson to deal with. On the Banks of Plum Creek was the most engaging, partly because there is more story involved and also because Laura is getting older and her challenges are more interesting (to me): she is now having to find her way through the social world and make more decisions for herself.
What I don’t remember caring about much as a child but what I thought a lot about this time around was the isolation the family lived in, especially in Little House on the Prairie. As a child I took it as natural, I guess, to want to head off into unknown territory and settle it, and as my life was spent mostly with my family, I didn’t question their reliance on no one but themselves. But now I’m amazed at their willingness to live almost entirely without neighbors and extended family. In Kansas they have a few people they see occasionally and who play crucial roles in keeping them alive and well, but for the vast majority of the time, they are completely alone. Town is 40 miles away. They have only themselves to talk to and get entertainment from (Pa’s fiddle helps a lot with this). Unless I’m forgetting something, there are no references to books until we get to On the Banks of Plum Creek, and then there’s only one novel and a newspaper mentioned. I understand the desire for independence and the longing to create their own life on their own land, but would that life really be satisfactory and fulfilling with only themselves in it? I think my child-self would be surprised at how important being surrounded by lots of people has become to me, but that’s a significant way I’ve changed as I’ve gotten older.