The joy of the Little House on the Prairie series continues in this lovely book that chronicles the Ingalls’ moving from the Big Woods of Wisconsin, which have become too populated to allow Pa to make a good living, to the prairies of Kansas, in the middle of Indian Territory. To get from the Big Woods to the Prairie will involve several days of treacherous travel, in nothing but a covered wagon. The first adventure is crossing the big creek, which, thanks to Pa’s skill and Ma’s nerve, they manage to survive in one piece, though at first, very upsettingly, it seems a member of the family will have been left behind. They continue on, and enter the vast expanse of the prairie, with its singing wind and great, endless blue sky, and Pa decides on a spot where their new home will be. They pitch up a camp, and within a few days, with the help of the bachelor Mr Edwards, a neighbour who is also newly arrived in these parts, Pa puts up a handsome log house and barn. Soon there is furniture, too, and a chimney, and Ma’s housekeeping skills mean that everything is neat, tidy, warm and comfortable in no time.
However, while the prairie is beautiful, and fertile, and full of animals for Pa to hunt, there is the constantly imminent danger of Indians. The Ingalls are in Indian territory; the Indians have not yet been told to leave, and while Washington has said it is fine for White people to settle there, the Indians are understandably not happy with these pioneers taking over their land. Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie are frequently terrified by Indians arriving at the house while Pa is not there, silently pointing at food and objects that Ma has no choice but to give them. Their presence is all over this book; hovering on the edges, a silent menace, that means that life on the prairie is never truly safe.
There are other difficulties too; the family catch malaria (fever ‘n’ ague) from the mosquitoes down in the creek, and are lucky to make it through the days when none of them are able to leave their beds. Thankfully the pioneers in this neck of the woods are a tight community, and Mrs Scott, the wife of a neighbour, finds them just in time to nurse them back to health. A fire sweeps across the prairie one day, threatening to take the Ingalls’ house with it; thankfully Pa realises just in time, and he and Ma manage to protect their house by digging a ditch full of water and lighting their own small fires around it. The wind in the winter is freezing and whistles constantly around and through the house, making travel and keeping warm incredibly difficult. Far away from family and friends in Wisconsin, the Ingalls only have each other, and their year spent on the prairie is an eventful one, and a wonderful example of just how much pioneer families struggled to make a life for themselves.
What I love the most about these books is the little details that tell so much about life for these brave and independent people, who weren’t afraid to strike out into new territory to build a better life for their families. When the Ingalls arrive in Kansas, Ma says she would like to write to her relatives in Wisconsin; if they get the letter out quickly, they should get a reply by the Spring. To think that months could go by without hearing even a word of reassurance from their family members was shocking to me; when the Ingalls waved goodbye to their extended family in the Big Woods, they really were saying goodbye in a way that was far more final than any goodbye is today. To think of what a big, and brave decision it must have been to pitch up and try their luck in the great unknown, with the knowledge that they may never see their families again, is just amazing to me.
Pa and Ma’s knowledge of how to do the most practical and basic of activities that most of us would be clueless about now, is also awe inspiring. Pa splits the logs for a house in a day, and knows just how to build a chimney, a barn, a roof, and furniture for the house. Ma can make a dinner out of anything, and sew beautiful clothes for herself, children and husband to wear. She knows exactly when to plant her vegetables and fruits, and how to store the food to keep it fresh for as long as possible. Pa and Ma can provide for everything they and their children need through their own strength, skill, and use of the resources the natural world offers them. This couple are mutually supportive, endlessly positive, and wonderfully practical. Neither fall to pieces in times of difficulty, and neither seek to possess much for themselves except for the basic necessities. They are happy and content with each other, their children, and their lovely little house in a place where nature is abundant and friends are within striking distance. Their favourite phrases to meet any disappointment are ‘all’s well that ends well’ and ‘it could be worse’. Stoic, resourceful, and full of faith for the future, their love for each other is clear to see, and Pa’s delight in bringing back window glass from town to please Ma was wonderfully touching. Wouldn’t it be lovely if people appreciated such small things today, rather than constantly seeking lavish, flashy gifts of no real value?
The other aspect I found fascinating was the tension between the pioneers and the Indians. Many of the Ingalls’ pioneer neighbours are racist, and consider the only good Indian to be a dead Indian, but Ma and Pa are not of this belief, and urge their daughters to respect the Indians in the camps along the prairie. However, the fact that Indians frequently come into their home and effectively steal their belongings, and that this is allowed because of a presumed threat of violence if their demands are not met, exemplifies just how dangerous and changeable the very tense relationship between the settlers and the natives was. The final chapters detailing the terrifying sounding war chants and dancing, that kept the Ingalls up at night and could have been the harbinger of their deaths, sent chills down my spine. Living in such close proximity to an alien culture with no shared language or customs, and the constant danger of violent retaliation, must have been terrifying. At the same time, the notion that it was fine to encroach on Native American territory and take over strikes me as being absolutely awful and terribly unjust, and the pioneers’ belief that they have a right to be on that land, and to rise against the Indian population if necessary, did not sit right with me at all.
As innocent and lovely as these children’s books are, and as wonderful as these slices of the pioneer life are in showing the courage and strength of pioneers who effectively settled the majority of America for future generations, there is also a much deeper subtext that as an adult, you can’t help but pick up. Political uncertainty and colonisation of Native American territories; the advance of technology and the changing face of America as people moved ‘out West’ and employed new farming techniques; the rise of cities and the developing of communities along major rivers and rail routes; the importance of a strong marriage and the passing on of traditional skills to enhance the survival of families in often harsh and very testing conditions, are just a few of the much more adult themes I picked up between the simply written lines. There is plenty of charm to enjoy as an adult, too; Ma and Pa are a wonderful couple, whose trust, reliance and affection in, on, and for each other are a delight to read. The simplicity of their life, the pleasure they take in small things, the effort they go to to give happiness to each other, to their neighbours, and to their children, are beautiful, and show the essential goodness of the human spirit. Laura’s perceptive observations on life and the subtle rivalry between her and the always perfect Mary can never fail to bring a smile to my face. Plus, the importance of community and the generosity and support the pioneers give each other is lovely to read about; in times of need they are there for one another, and Mr Edwards’ wonderful dash back from Independence in the storm to bring the Ingalls girls Christmas presents, exemplifying this ‘we’re all in this together’ spirit brought a tear to my eye.
But, still, I cannot ignore the unsettling presence of the Indians, and the knowledge that the Ingalls knowingly built a house on land that wasn’t theirs to build upon. As much as I loved this book, I knew it couldn’t end well, and I did breathe a sigh of relief when they packed up their belongings, ready to move on again, at the close of the pages. After going to the American Museum of Natural History this weekend and visiting the Native American section purely to find out more about the prairie Indians I had read about in Little House on the Prairie, I was moved and shocked to read about the struggles they faced in the wake of European settlement and the way their culture and traditions were effectively wiped out by Westernisation. This did sour the book a little for me, and I am looking forward to leaving this sad undertone behind and moving on to sunnier climes. I have Farmer Boy ready and waiting; set in upstate New York, and I am excited to read about life there in the 19th century. I am also excited about my adventures online to track down the early, Helen Sewell illustrated editions of the series; so far I have amassed three and have nearly closed in on the fourth in the series, On the Banks of Plum Creek. Not having anywhere near the budget of a serious collector (think $10 more than $100!), I am finding it enjoyably difficult, yet not impossible, to source the editions I want. Take heart if you too want to build a collection of these beautifully illustrated hardbacks; they are available for a song if you know where to look. I was shocked to see a copy of Farmer Boy; an older edition, and much grubbier than mine; go for nearly $100 on ebay a couple of days ago. I paid $7 for my lovely 1944 hardback. It just goes to show. Keep your eyes open and you never know what treasures you might find!
Finally, I have a little question; all of my reading about prairies and pioneers lately has made me develop a real interest in pioneer life, the history of pioneer settlements, and the lives of women pioneers. Willa Cather’s novels as well as Laura Ingalls Wilder have sparked this flame for me, and I am finding my thirst for knowledge about this period of American history to be insatiable! Can anyone recommend any good books, non fiction or fiction, for me to read to further my knowledge? I’d be so grateful!