Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Little House on the Prairie: A Reread

When I look at my books in my home, most of them are relatively new. I'd say that most were purchased within the last 10-15 years of my life. Any books that I had from my childhood are still in my childhood home or have been boxed up and donated somewhere else.

All of my childhood books except one series: Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series. After getting the box set way back before high school from the Scholastic Book Orders, I took them with me wherever I moved.

But while I owned all the books, I actually haven't read them. They have simply taken up space on the shelf, and I look at them and remember reading through the series very early on in my life, and then rereading them several times after that.

This spring my 3rd and 4th graders read Little House in the Big Woods for Reading class, and it was fun to dive into that book again. As I continued to read, I read new things that I had skimmed over as a child, and learned to enjoy sections that I had previously thought were boring. Of course, I also got really excited at my favorite sections - they were still my favorites even now!

When we finished, I knew I couldn't stop. So I came home, looked on the bookshelf, and got out Little House on the Prairie. It's been just over a week and I'm all finished with the whole series!

As I read, I noticed so much that I understood better now than I had when I read the books as a kid. So I decided to share them with you!

Little House in the Big Woods

This was not actually the first book in Wilder's series that I read; that honor actually goes to the second (and way more popular) book in the series. However, there are plenty of vignettes in this book to understand the Ingalls family and the setting of the series.

Something that stuck out to me in my reading this past week was Laura's doll. Before she received Charlotte for Christmas, the doll she had was a corn husk wrapped in a blanket. And that's what she played with! Envisioning that now was a shock to the system. I hope that my students realized what a privilege it is to have so many wonderful possessions thanks to this book.

Uncle George was an interesting person to read about. I used to see him from Laura's eyes: a crazy uncle that eventually grows on you. (I could understand this fear and fascination from personal experience.) Now, as I read about him and his "wild" tendencies, I could understand him better. He had skipped town at 14 to join the army and had witnessed who-knows-what in the Civil War. He probably had some extreme PTSD to contend with.

Every book wraps up nicely, and this one is always hard to finish, because Wilder says how everything in the Big Woods of Wisconsin was wonderful and pleasant and there was nothing wrong. But right away in the second book...

Little House on the Prairie

...it is clear that everything was not okay. Overcrowding in Wisconsin led Charles Ingalls to pack up his family and move them halfway across the country, to Kansas' Indian Territory. When you know the trials that are to come, it makes finishing book 1 a little difficult

It is amazing how many struggles they had as they settled in this strange territory. Charles ended up messing up his claim by not claiming it immediately, and it was the U.S. government that kicked him out! Throughout the book, one is convinced that it's the Native Americans are going to be the cause of the Ingalls' departure from Kansas, but it wasn't that way at all.

I am a bit surprised at how warmly the family welcomed Mr. Edwards. He also seemed pretty wild, but ended up becoming an important asset to the family in this book and others. But how were they supposed to know that?

Farmer Boy

This book will live in infamy in my house as the Library Book That Was Lost. I had checked it out, and for many, many months we couldn't find the thing anywhere! I believe we actually had to pay for the library to find a new book, only to find that it had dropped between the couch and the wall.

Anyway, I enjoyed this look into Almanzo's boyhood in New York. After reading about the Ingalls' struggles of starting a new farm in Kansas, reading about an established, large farm in New York was quite the change of pace!

Wilder managed to take separate stories and weave them together here. It was clear from the first few chapters that Almanzo loved horses, and even though his father didn't understand how committed he was to horses at an early age, he eventually gains his trust on the matter.

On the Banks of Plum Creek

Talk about a downer of a book! I didn't realize how depressing this book was till I started reading it. The Ingalls family moves up to Minnesota, buys a piece of land from a Norwegian who had built a sod house by the creek, and starts to farm the rich piece of land.

Immediately Wilder makes it clear that her father Charles makes all the wrong choices. First of all, he buys a large chunk of lumber to make a 2-story house, even though he doesn't have the money to do so. And how will he pay it off? "We'll use the money we get from the wheat crop, because of course it's going to be a fantastic crop!"

Well, no, it's not a fantastic wheat crop. It starts out amazing, but then the grasshoppers come. The family is left with nothing, and Charles is forced to travel all over the place to make money to get himself out of the hole that he created for his family.

We also get our first glimpse of the evil Nellie Oleson, and when she's only in a couple of chapters we're relieved that the brat is out of our hair. (But just you wait!)

By the Shores of Silver Lake

Wilder decides to skip a few years, and now Laura is thirteen. Her family has just survived scarlet fever, which takes the eyesight of Mary. For the first three books, Mary is seen as a perfect goody-two-shoes who does everything right while Laura is always messing up. However, Mary's blindness brings amazing character development, and now Mary is seen as someone who looks at her disability with optimism instead of a crutch.

Charles decides to move his family one more time, to the chagrin of his wife, Caroline, who has spent five year on Plum Creek refusing any more moves. (And when you think about their troubles in Kansas and Minnesota, it's no wonder why she would be so stubborn about it!)

Charles works for the railroad company while Caroline and the girls (and new addition, Grace) tag along. They eventually decide to settle in South Dakota and become the first settlers of De Smet. They spend time in a surveyor's home after the railroad company continues onward, and end up boarding many of the men who come to help set up the town.

I didn't realize back when I was a kid how much Caroline suffered at this time - especially in the times when Charles had to go and stake his claim. She had a bunch of men staying in her house with four young daughters. It's no wonder that, at one point in the book, she demands that the girls "pull in the latch" and "don't open the door for anyone." Stuff like that goes over a kid's head.

We also get our first glimpse of Almanzo as a young man, after he and his brother Royal also settle in De Smet. I have to admit, when Laura notices the beautiful horses, I got really excited, because I knew exactly who she was seeing for the first time. (Actually, whenever Almanzo shows up I get really excited now, and I don't think I got this excited when I read these books as a kid. It's fun to see the courtship grow!)

The Long Winter

I used to hate this book because it was the biggest and had the slowest pacing. But it just reflects how the storms really brought the town to a standstill.

When I look back on the book I think of how brave Almanzo was to ride out and get that wheat to prevent the town from starving. But as I read the book a few days ago, I realized that he was pretty selfish here. Did he have to take his horse out 20 miles to buy wheat from a stranger and risk his life and the life of Cap Garland? Nope! He had his own wheat hidden behind a false wall! And still he wasn't willing to part with it. All the arguments he and Cap made to the man with the wheat could have been easily been used on Almanzo, but he was so stubborn he went and bought other wheat. He wasn't as much of a hero as I thought.

Little Town on the Prairie

This is my favorite book of the series because so much happens and the time period is really set up well in this book. I read it yesterday and I was still convinced that this is the best book.

We hear more about the people of the town instead of procedures of farming and building. Laura makes friends in the school, and a few enemies, too. We hear about autograph books, name cards, hoop skirts coming back into fashion, sociables, literary societies, and school exhibitions. All of these wonderful chapters flesh out the book and make it a window into history.

This isn't the first time in the series, but Wilder also mentions "darkies" and madcap games with men dressed up in blackface. I was confused by this stuff back when I read it as a child, but now I understood it fully. They just let it slide as something that was just accepted. It's mentioned in the first book, as well, so I had to make sure I explained to the kids how different things were back then and that those kinds of songs and dances would not be acceptable now.

And finally, we get our meet-cute with Laura and Almanzo! After hearing for several chapters how much Nellie Oleson (remember her?) wants to ride behind Almanzo's beautiful horses in the fancy buggy, it's Laura that gets the first ride. And it's not coincidence, because Almanzo gets down and puts his cap in his hands before asking her for a ride. He clearly sees something in her, and it's all so adorable. I read that section three times with a big smile on my face.

Not only that, but he also asks to walk her home after the revival meetings and the school exhibition. It's hilarious to witness Charles' amusement at the whole thing, in contrast to Caroline's absolute horror at the thought of her daughter being approached by a man!

These Happy Golden Years

I never really had a fondness for this book until I read it recently. It has a title that is reflected in the book itself, or else you could have called it The Courtship of Laura Ingalls.

I enjoyed the growth of Laura and Almanzo's courtship over the three years that are covered. It is very clear in the book that Almanzo took a liking to Laura almost immediately, but Laura didn't realize her affection for Almanzo until later. I just shook my head when Almanzo kept picking her up from Brewsters' school for weekends at home, and Laura didn't understand why he kept coming to pick her up.

It's fantastic how Almanzo's feelings toward Laura grow the more she displays her love of horses - even horses that needed training. He has always had that love ever since he was a little boy, and Laura, unlike most women, shared that love of racing around with unbroken colts like Barnum and Skip.

This book covers more time, so some things go by very quickly. Still, I really enjoyed this book - far more than I ever had before. Laura and Almanzo's dating, engagement, and marriage were so simple and matter-of-fact, which is something that we are not used to at all. I liked its simplicity very much! Wilder keeps every part of the relationship understated, instead of making it blatant like in so many other books. Here's one of my favorite sections that illustrates my point:

Pa laid down his fiddle when Laura came in. He looked at her hand where the ring sparkled in the lamplight.
"I see it is settled," he said. "Almanzo was talking to me yesterday and I guess it's all right."
"If only you are sure, Laura," Ma said gently. "Sometimes I think it is the horses you care for, more than their master."
"I couldn't have one without the other," Laura answered shakily.
Then Ma smiled at her, Pa cleared his throat gruffly, and Laura knew they understood what she was too shy to say.

Adorable, right?

The First Four Years

Well, I was going to stop at These Happy Golden Years because I remember the final book in the series being a bit of a downer, but since I'm on a roll, I'm probably going to continue with the Rose Wilder books after I'm done with Laura.

The book was a downer, since it chronicles Laura and Almanzo's failed attempts at raising crops, only to be discouraged by hail and dry winds. At one point Laura calculates that their wheat crop could net them three thousand dollars, and right when she starts thinking about all the things they would be able to buy, I immediately thought, "Well that wheat is going to fail." And it did.

One phrase is repeated a lot in this book, from beginning to end. When Laura and Almanzo are contemplating the hardships of the farmer, they say the Irishman's quote, "The rich man gets his ice in the summer, and the poor man gets his in the winter." I didn't realize how important that quote was for the book, but it does match the overall theme very well.

This book was published much later than the rest of Wilder's books - apparently she had it outlined in the early 1940s, but gave up after Almanzo died. How sad.



My reread of these childhood favorites was a worthwhile endeavor. I am looking forward to reading even more of my childhood favorites in a brand new light!


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