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The Traveller

Little House on the Prairie

There can't be many people who've not heard of Laura Ingalls Wilder's book, Little House on the Prairie. Its fame may be due in part to the television series of the same name staring the chap who was in Bonanza... was it Michael Landon? Played Little Joe I fancy (gosh that ages me). I think I saw a few of those, but I'm pretty sure I never read the Little House series as a child, for what reason I don't know. They must have been in the library in Penzance but I probably had no idea how good they were. Librarians didn't tend to recommend books to children back in the 60s and my family wouldn't have known about them. So I missed out and it's a shame; as an adult I honestly don't think you experience the same kind of magic when reading as children do and I know for certain I would have adored this series of books as much as, say, C.S. Lewis's Narnia books which completely swept me away.




The story follows on from The Little House in the Big Woods, set around 1870. Pa decides there are too many people in the forests of Wisconsin.

Quite often Laura heard the ringing thud of an axe which was not Pa's axe, or the echo of a shot which did not come from his gun. The path that went by the little house had become a road. Almost every day Laura and Mary stopped their playing and stared in surprise at a wagon slowly creaking by on that road.

Animals kept away from the area and Pa liked a country where animals did not have to be afraid of humans. So they pack up and off they go - west. Pa has heard that the government is encouraging settlers onto the prairie and that the Indians who already live there will be pushed further west again. They travel for months in a covered wagon and come to a good spot at last, close to the Verdigris river, about forty miles from Independence, Kansas.

Of course, they have nothing and have to start from scratch. Pa has to build a house for them to live in, keep them fed by hunting, and Ma has to cook, look after the children and try to help Pa with the building.

Laura finds it a strange land, this place of endless grass and silence where the wind blows so hard they sometimes fear for their lives. And there are many frightening things. The possibility of illness, 'fever 'n' ague' as they call it, which they don't realise is caused by mosquitos along the river, the close proximity of the local Osage Indians, and wolves. They have brushes with all these things and more but find friendship and neighbourliness among the other settlers. Pa thinks it's a 'good place'.

I *think* it was Susan Hill in her book, Howards End is on the Landing, who said that if you want to know how to build a log cabin or your own bed look no further than Laura Ingalls Wilder. And she's spot on! All the details of how to do it are right here in these lovely little books. There are even illustrations (by Garth Williams) to guide you. Not only that there are minute details of exactly how they lived, what they ate, the utensils they had... cups were rare for instance so Laura and Mary had to share one mug.

But there's much more to these books than that kind of practicality. The prairie is a huge presence throughout the whole book. I've never seen it for myself but consider I now have a good idea of how the region looks and feels. And you can't help but admire the bravery and guts of these people who took off into the unknown like that, even though we now know they pushed the native population out. It's quite interesting looking at the rights and wrongs of that from the distance of so many years and hearing what the settlers actually tended to think. I didn't find myself judging but just reading the historical aspect with a lot of interest: somehow I find it easy to detach myself and I'm not sure how or why.

The book has some very intense scenes for a children's book. Laura wakes one night to the sound of a wolf howling in her ear. The house is surrounded by a pack of fifty wolves and all that stands between the family and the pack is a patchwork quilt slung up over the doorway. The decriptions and intensity of this scene are incredible. Likewise the day an Osage Indian turns up while Pa is away hunting, walks into the house and indicates he wants to be fed. The fear of Ma and the girls is tangible. And then there's a scene where the Indians move out and the family watch as hundreds of them pass the house on horseback. I read this with my mouth open!

I honestly did not expect to be quite as bowled over by this wonderful little book. My eldest daughter loved them as child and I can see why now. Every Christmas and birthday there would be a request for more and being the bookaholic I was I fed her appetite quite happily. These are her books and I should really pass them back to her for my grand-daughter - I did give her my copy of The Little House in the Big Woods but don't know if she's read it yet. If my daughter wants them I'll have to get my own, in fact I've had to send for the next book, On the Banks of Plum Creek, as we either never had that one or it got read so often it fell to pieces! I know I'll want to reread these at some stage and also I think I'll feel the need to read Laura Ingalls Wilder's diaries and letters.

So, a good start to my bookish travels around the United States and I've written it down in my little book (I'm such a nerd) under 'Kansas'. Hopefully the next book will come *soon*.

Comments

I didn't read any of the Little House books until I was adult, and they still bowled me over. (And you are right, Michael Landon from Bonanza played Pa).

You asked for suggestions on books that give a feel for the a particular area of the US. This may be totally off the wall, but when I was pregnant with my first child, I started reading Louis L'Amour Westerns. They do tend to be formulaic, but he is vivid and exciting. We went across the country one summer, and I could recognize land formations and plants from his descriptions. Many of the books are about one family, the Sacketts, from Elizabethan England to the late 1800's. Some of the books are in the Appalachian mountains (North Carolina and Tennessee), which was the frontier at one time. After the our Civil War, the books move west of the Mississippi.

The are not Great Literature, but they are great reads. I used to alternate L'Amour with Georgette Heyer for reading contrast, and I credit his books with keeping my sons interested in reading when they were 10 or 12 years old.
'Off the wall' is great. Believe it or not I had wondered about some westerns, including Louis L'Amour. I also have a boxed set of sundry westerns that I bought cheap from a book club, so those and Louis L'Amour will definitely be included. Thanks for the suggestion!
I just loved these books so much when I was little. I lived and breathed them, if I remember correctly. It was especially wonderful reading the later ones, where Laura meets her future husband.

I realised later that these stories are an idealised version of Laura's life, which was a bit of a shock. Obviously life was very grim for the early settlers, but Laura's version was magical, even when the wolves were howling, and the Indians visited.
Yes, I didn't really realise that they were based on her life either, until recently. Life was grim and she touches on it but doesn't dwell on it. Adults reading them can read between the lines *very* easily though and understand how hard life must have been for the adults. I'm definitely looking forward to the later ones which I know absolutely nothing about.
I love these books. In fact, my mum loves them, too.
I'm planning on reading all of them and can't wait. But am having to as book 3 is taking a while to arrive.

Two people on my other blog recced Letters of a Woman Homesteader to me, free here for Kindle etc:

http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/16623

Not sure if it's your kind of thing but just in case...
Wonderful review!

It's been so many years since I read any of these books, I think it might be time to revisit the Little House series. A lot of incidents you mentioned from the stories have receded from my memory.

Issues like the truly abominable treatment of indigenous people were not as widely open to debate when I was a child, and some truly embarrassing (in retrospect) attitudes pop up in older fiction and drama. Still, I expect I'll enjoy the Little House series of books no less than I did then. The Ingalls family may have been a little more open minded than some of their neighbors, if memory serves.
A couple of the neighbours in the book voiced the opinion that 'the only good Indian is a dead Indian'. Laura thinks on this for a while and decides that Pa does not agree. I sensed a more tolerant attitude from her family, although at first they are terrified. I'm wondering if this is explored a bit more in subsequent books. I hope so.