The Little House books

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.

18 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction, Reading

18 responses to “The Little House books

  1. Jillian ♣

    Oh, I just love these books. I absolutely must reread. Farmer Boy was my favorite when I first read the series (2010.)

    On not remembering where you were the first time you read: that’s what makes blogging excellent, isn’t it? Now you have a record. :-)

  2. I haven’t revisited these in ages, but I used to reread them frequently. These Happy Golden Years in particular was vital comfort reader until I was well into my 20s. It was all those details that I enjoyed. It felt like entering a fantasy world.

    And wow, 40 miles from town. For me today, that would be an annoyingly long distance. Then, when trips took so much longer, I can hardly imagine.

  3. What a fun way to wrap up your summer! And the food description… that’s the kind of writing that makes the book appeal to adults also. If only we can have those wholesome diet and the amount of exercise they do on the homestead. I admit I missed these books as a child since I did not grow up here in N. America, but I’ve enjoyed your sharing of your enthusiasm in all your Little House posts, and goodreads updates. :)

  4. I love your description! It makes me want to read them again.

    You can visit the Big Woods home area near Pepin, WI, if you’d like. I think they were like 7 miles outside of the town then; something like that.

    If you do, you have a place to stay in the area. Yep :) (Only not this fall)

  5. I confess I have never read these books, although they sound very comforting. I’m intrigued by the isolation of the family, which isn’t what you find in Cather, say, who is also focusing on farming families in Nebraska. I wonder what the effect is of that? whether it’s purely a narrative issue to keep the story tidy, or whether there are social and cultural factors at play?

  6. Jenny

    I have often thought that if I had to choose books to be stranded with, it would be these; they are often so practical, about how to build shelter, make a door-latch, make shingles, doughnuts, etc… ! I love them, and I find they do stand up to an adult read, though the questions they prompt are different from the ones I had as a child. So interesting and fun.

  7. I’ve never read them but feel I know them from the TV series. As a huge fan of Willa Cather’s books about the early American settlers I would like to read them.

  8. Jillian — oh, yes, having the record is wonderful! I like being able to refer people to older reviews as well, as I had the chance to do earlier today :) I do hope you get to reread the Wilder books at some point.

    Teresa — I know, 40 miles! It took Pa two days to get there and two days back. I really loved These Happy Golden Years as well. It’s interesting that you call it a fantasy world; I agree with you, but reading Laura Miller on the Narnia Chronicles would make it seem like they are disappointingly realistic. But for me, they were escapist in a good way.

    Arti — thank you! The food descriptions are amazing, and it does make you think about how different it would be to struggle to get enough calories to support the work you have to do. Of course, Almanzo is a growing boy and needs all kinds of food, but the adults seem to need to eat a lot as well.

    Bardiac — thank you so much! I’d love to take you up on your kind offer! Don’t be surprised to see me in the big woods at some point in the future :)

    Litlove — the isolation is most pronounced in the Little House book; in the others there is more society, although Pa and Laura long to be on their own again. I think it has very important cultural significance; the family desperately wants to be self-sufficient and independent and to take advantage of the incredible new opportunities to get land cheaply or for free (at the expense of the Indians, of course). It’s all about the American impulse to move west, start over from scratch, and do it all on your own.

    Jenny — you’re right about their practicality, although I’m not sure I could actually follow any of the instructions myself! I agree that the questions they evoke are different but still very compelling. They have so much to say about American culture at the time.

    Nicola — if you like to read about settlers, you would definitely like these books. I should warn you, though, that they are quite different from the TV series. There is not nearly as much action in the books; they are quite tame compared to the show!

  9. Pretty sure I read most or all of these when I was young, but right now my only strong memories are from Farmer Boy. I really loved the descriptions, especially of overcoming hardships. Pork melting in one’s mouth gets my attention now but, as a child, I think my focus was elsewhere.

    I just finished reading The Great Gatsby for the first time, which isn’t exactly a children’s book, but it seemed that everyone I know read it in HS or junior high. Still not sure why I didn’t have to read it.

  10. I did love them as a kid, but not as much as L.M. Montgomery’s and Louisa May Alcott’s, which I re-read over and over.

  11. How fun to hear your adult thoughts on the books! I am completely with you on grown up self wanting to be around people and child self thinking it so exciting to strike out into the unknown. It used to be so easy to just pick up and move and not worry about. I mean I moved to MN without ever having visited here and moved into an apartment sight unseen with the greatest faith that all would be fine. I look back in wonder at that younger self!

  12. Bikkuri — the food is definitely memorable! Farmer Boy wasn’t the one that stuck with me most; I think that was Little Town on the Prairie. I suppose because Farmer Boy is kind of a stand-alone book, I never focused on it as much as a kid. But it was quite good!

    Lilian — I reread those too. I wish I could remember if I read the Little House books at an earlier age and then moved on to the other series, or if it happened in some other way. But that might be a logical progression, in terms of length and difficulty of reading.

    Stefanie — yes, I did something similar when I moved to the Bronx at age 22 — it wasn’t moving in sight unseen, exactly, but I hardly knew what I was getting into to. I had complete faith that it would be fine, though! I admired Pa’s and Laura’s spirit of adventure and wanting to move on; these days I’m a tiny bit more sympathetic with Ma, who wanted to stay back in “civilization.”

  13. I read these books years and years ago and think I wouldn’t remember much upon rereading them–probably they would be like new stories. Someone just recommended the McClure book to me and it would be fun to read it and the books together. It’s interesting to read what you think of them now since you had a good sense of your reaction to them as a child. And I can’t imagine living so far from town–they must have been terribly isolated! Reading your post makes me want to read the books again now.

  14. 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.

    This has made me very thoughtful! And I think I agree.

    My child self would probably also be surprised at how much I now enjoy all the descriptions of food! I was a horribly picky eater as a kid.

  15. When I was born, my family had just moved from farm to a prairie-surrounded small town — then later, when I was eight, we moved to the city. Ever since, I have been increasingly urbanized! Only my one sister still lives on a farm… very remote. I myself can’t imagine being isolated, and distant from city life.
    I love re-reading the books of childhood, and it so refreshing to see that you do, too. The Narnias — so many times I have re-visited them, they are wonderful. And, to quote their author:
    “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”

  16. This is so true:
    “There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.”
    — Philip Pullman –

  17. How interesting to think of Farmer Boy as a companion to LHITBW. If I’d thought of it that way, I might have enjoyed FB more (it was my least favourite, with THGY AND TF4Y)! I’ve really enjoyed your updates on this: I have a thing with re-reading, and it’s nice to know that’s shared.

  18. Pingback: Revisiting the Little House in the Prairie « Smithereens

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