My pioneering adventures continue in this, the fourth installment of the Little House in the Prairie series. After a brief hiatus in Upstate New York, learning about the life of Laura’s future husband Almanzo Wilder in Farmer Boy, On the Banks of Plum Creek takes us to the fertile grounds of the Minnesota prairie, where the Ingalls family have made a new home for themselves after escaping Indian country. As they had to leave all their possessions behind and have yet to raise a crop, they have no resources with which to build themselves a comfortable log home, as before. Until Pa can grow and harvest a wheat crop, the Ingalls must live in a dug out, or ‘soddy’; a home made of earth. While this is not ideal, as usual, the Ingalls rise to the occassion, and the indomitable Ma makes it a comfortable and cheery home in no time, and the girls grow to love their little home under the grass of the lush meadowland.
Safe and quiet, the land around the scenic and bountiful Plum Creek is a world away from the bleak and often danger filled prairie. Flowers and fruit are abundant, and Mary and Laura take much pleasure in splashing around in the creek, picking plums and flowers, swimming, watching the cattle droves, and sunning themselves. It is a carefree, outdoor life, and gradually, as Pa finds work and raises crops, they replace the animals they had to leave behind and Pa can build them a new log house, bigger and more beautiful than any they have ever had before. Both Pa and Ma believe that Plum Creek is going to provide them with the stability and prosperity they have been searching for, and Laura and Mary love their big, warm, sunny house, their swimming hole, and their responsibilities for the animals and land. It is, indeed, a charmed life.
One of the greatest benefits of their new location is their proximity to town. They are now walking distance from the nearest town, where there is a church, school and shops. Mary and Laura are able to go to school for the first time, and Ma and Pa are thrilled by the fact that they can go to church regularly, entertain friends and be a part of a community. Mary and Laura’s experience of school is both lovely and heartbreaking. For the first time they are in a position to make friends their own age, but they must also struggle with bullying and prejudice. Nellie Olsen is the daughter of the town’s shopkeeper, and wears fancy clothes and has her hair in curls. The Ingalls girls have short dresses and no shoes; Nellie Olsen instantly mocks them for being ‘country’ girls and is rude and nasty, attempting to turn the other little girls against Laura in particular. Laura must learn, for the first time, how to navigate the tricky path of social interactions, manage her feelings of envy towards other girls, and discern who she is able to trust. There are wonderful scenes of a party at Nellie’s and also at Laura’s, and I couldn’t help but laugh at Laura’s method of exacting revenge on Nellie; leeches are certainly a good punishment for that nasty little girl, I think!!
Life is not all sweet and rosy in Minnesota, however. Pa has bought cattle and the lumber for his house against the projected income he will get from his wheat fields, which have flourished in the temperate climate. Pa anticipates riches when he has harvested these luscious fields of gold, and he delights in regaling Ma with stories of all the fine things she shall have when harvest time comes. However, just before the crop is due to be harvested, a strange phenomenon appears in the sky. What initially appears to be a rain cloud is actually a huge swarm of grasshoppers. This never ending plague lands on the prairies and decimates everything in sight. Overnight, the entire area has been depleted of anything living, the air is filled with the sounds of grasshoppers clicking, and the Ingalls’ income has gone. Owing money, and with nothing to feed his wife and children, Pa has no choice but to walk two hundred miles to an area unaffected by grasshoppers to work the fields. I nearly sobbed when I read that he had to do this walk in patched, uncomfortable boots, because he ended up giving the the money he had saved for them to the church when he heard they needed $2 to complete a fund to buy a new bell. Oh, Pa!
Pa is gone for a long time, and life is hard for Ma and the girls, but he is back for their first Christmas in Minnesota. This Christmas is delightfully portrayed, with the preacher having arranged donations from a neighbouring, rich parish, for all of the people living on the prairies. Laura gets the most beautiful gifts she has ever received, and the scenes of the happy, rosy cheeked prairie dwellers thronging in the church, rejoicing at the gifts kindly donated by others longing to spread joy to their poorer neighbours, all badly affected by the grasshopper plague, was magical. However, there are two Christmases described in On the Banks of Plum Creek, and the second, simpler Christmas was my favourite; I was so afraid that Pa wouldn’t make it home through the storm, and I had tears in my eyes as the family were reunited around the fire, with the fiddle playing and the flames flickering, and everyone cosy and warm and enjoying each others’ company. Simply divine!
What I found most interesting about this installment of the series was Ma and Pa’s reaction to being near town. Ma’s delight in being able to attend church once a week demonstrates just how isolating prairie life could be, especially for women. Pa is free to work with other men during the day and can travel to town to trade, but Ma is always the one left at home to take care of the girls and the house. In the previous books, she has little contact with other women and her only real company during the day are her young daughters. We never get a hint of Ma complaining about this, but her joy at being close to town, the effort she takes to dress up for church, and her keenness to have Laura and Mary bring their friends home for parties shows just how starved for company she has been. Despite the hard work the men had to put in to raise crops and take care of animals and build homes, the isolation and lack of support the women had to cope with seems a harsher lot to me. Someone as intelligent and vibrant as Ma having no one to talk to and just one book in her possession must have found prairie life very difficult indeed. Once a schoolteacher, brought up in a large town, and used to living within a stone’s throw of family and friends, her marriage to the adventurous Charles led her into a style of life she must never have wanted. Her enthusiasm, tenacity and constant good humour are an inspiration. While I’m sure she had her moments, Laura’s portrayal of her as a pillar of strength and comfort makes me full of awe, and knowing all I do now about pioneer life, I am thrilled that during this period of the family’s life, she had the opportunity to mix with other women and live in a more urban community.
This has been my favourite book so far, I think. As much as I loved Farmer Boy, On the Banks of Plum Creek has a richness to it that I adored. Reading about the devastating affects of the grasshopper plague, the bravery of Pa, the strength of Ma, and the struggles of Laura and Mary to adapt to town life were absolutely fascinating, as well as heartwarming. I can’t wait to read By the Shores of Silver Lake now; what could possibly happen next?!