On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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?!

30 comments

  1. Hi Rachel,
    Thanks for your detailed and sensitive review. I loved your observations about Ma – her previous isolation and the new found pleasure in being near town. It helps keep in persepective my own occasional feelings of social isolation, as a stay at home Mamma. Also it sounds like this novel has an interesting 19thC commentary on bullying at school. Isn’t novel reading amazing – all the truths and insights you need to know about life seem to be there in the pages of a novel…

    1. Thank you Merenia! I’m glad you enjoyed my comments about Ma. It’s amazing what you can pick up from so called ‘children’s books’ and the story of the Ingalls family is far more universal than it first appears, as exemplified by your own ability to identify with Ma. I love these stories and can’t wait to read more!

  2. After reading about the grasshopper plague in OTBOPC, you might find it interesting to read Jeffrey Lockwood’s non-fiction book, Locust: The Devastating Rise And Mysterious Disappearance Of The Insect That Shaped The American Frontier. It’s a very detailed look at what happened to people all over the American west who, like the Ingalls family, were not prepared (who could be?) for the ravenous plauges of insects who would not only eat every shred of plant life but even fabric and (gulp!) human flesh!

    1. Thanks Deb – that book sounds fascinating and I shall see if I can find it at the library. I’d read bits about it in books before but reading about how they literally got everywhere and were crawling all over the place made my skin crawl and it hit home to me just how devastating it must have been…and also how sudden!

  3. Oh Rachel, those locusts provided no end of worry and nightmares for me as a child! My vivid imagination had them landing in gardens and parks near us on a regular basis. And once again, the character of Nellie Olsen reminds us that there always has to be one of those sort no matter where…or how far…you go.

    Lovely review and your patchwork quilt makes the perfect backdrop for your book.

    1. Oh poor you, Darlene! I bet you could hear them clicking! Oh yes…Nellie Olsen is quite the piece of work and it just goes to show that children haven’t changed!

      Thank you! It’s a lovely quilt isn’t it? I bought it from the Brooklyn Flea Market a few weeks ago for an absolute song! It’s 1930’s and I adore it.

  4. Like Darlene, those grasshoppers had me waking at night, sure a plague of them had descended upon me while I slept, munching and crunching their way. I still see in my mind that horde of grasshoppers approaching like a cloud and the devastation they wreaked on the prairie. Not only were that year’s crops decimated, but, with it, all the seeds for the following years.

    As an adult, rereading this book over again, several times, I marveled and still do at its relevancy today as nature continues to wreak havoc and how we can survive it.

    A wonderful review, Rachel. It was my favorite, too, then I read “By the Shores of Silver Lake”. Gosh, each one is my favorite. What happens next? Ah, you will soon find out, I am sure.

    1. I’m glad I didn’t read about the grasshoppers as a child as they would have absolutely terrified me! Yes – that was the most devastating aspect, that they laid their eggs and came back to haunt them the following year too. Those poor people, who worked so hard, just to have to stand back helplessly and watch everything they had toiled for go to waste.

      Thank you, Penny, I’m so pleased that you enjoyed it. I get the feeling I will be the same as I keep reading on – I’ll love them all and not be able to pick a favourite! I can’t wait to read more!

  5. Again, a lovely review! I recently reread this one. There is a subtle tension in these books between Pa’s desire to move on furhter and further west and Ma’s desire to settle. I’ve always appreciated how they negotiated so lovingly with each other. Ma’s complete trust in Pa and Pa’s adoration of Ma is just so touching.
    Pa’s exploits in this book are just amazing. Imagine having to walk so far in shoddy boots. And then he nearly died in the blizzard. You can die in a blizzard within feet of your door. But Pa treats it as just one more adventure and nothing to get alarmed about. He even apologizes for eating the crackers! Keep the blizzard scene in mind when you get to The Long Winter and marvel and Almanzo’s bravery (spoiler!)
    Oh, and as a young ‘un I was entranced with the idea of living in a soddy. So long as a cow didn’t fall through the roof.

    1. Thank you Nancy. I feel that tension too, and admire Ma and Pa for their ability to support and compromise for each other. It really is a beautifully portrayed relationship.
      I know! Pa is such an incredible adventurer. Poor Ma had to have had nerves of steel…and her trust and belief that he WILL get home was so moving as well.
      Ha! I think I would have HATED a soddy! So dark and dingy!

  6. You do such a good job reviewing these books. They are so different when read as an adult (identifying with Ma v. the girls). I remember reading this one to my kids thinking, “why didn’t the roof of the soddy fall in? Didn’t Ma worry about that?” Then we all nearly cried together when the locusts came in (gave whole new meaning to the Biblical references to “the years the locusts have eaten,” though). I would advise you to save The Long Winter for the heat of summer — when you are miserable from the heat — you can’t read it without getting cold!🙂
    Thanks for sharing with us.

    1. Oh, thank you Susan! Yes absolutely – I think when you read them as an adult, you automatically read it considering the experiences of Ma and Pa rather than the experiences of the children. It’s wonderful how these books can work for both children and adults, and leave both in tears! I will make sure I read The Long Winter during August – I can just imagine how awful it’s going to be!

      You are welcome! Thank you for reading!🙂

  7. This review really captures the book for me – as you described the plot I remembered reading those sections myself, and your response to the book makes me long to reread them all.

    My book group recently tried ‘reread a childhood favourite’ – it didn’t work that well for a good discussion, but I bet rereading a book that chimed deeply with you as a child would make for a great day, especially if you realise you’re getting echoes of the first time.

    1. Thank you, Rose! What a compliment! I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      That’s a shame about your book group – I would have thought it would have made a fascinating topic! But yes, often the experience of reading it means more – the memories it evokes, etc. Though sometimes I find myself very disappointed when I read childhood favourites – the magic seems to be lost in adulthood, which is a real shame. It takes a very special children’s book to stand the test of time!

  8. I’m with Susan from Texas – I love reading your reviews as you approach them from an adult perspective. I suspect I will always identify with Laura, because I read the series first as a child. And this was always my favorite book as a child (although it’s The Long Winter that pulls me now, mostly in fascinated fear and awe)…it was so good to see the family relax and build a home after all their traveling.

    Beautiful edition, too! (You having any luck finding the Molly Brown books?)

    1. Oh, thank you Kate! I’m so pleased you’re enjoying reading along with me. Yes – there is a palpable sense of relief and settlement about this book that I enjoyed. I was pleased to see Ma having the opportunity to be part of a community. I can’t wait to read The Long Winter – everyone keeps saying how good it is, so I have very high expectations!

      Thank you! No, not yet…but I will get around to snapping them up!

  9. This was the first book I really “loved” in the series — though, honestly, I loved all of them except Little House on the Prairie. Such a cozy series. I loved meeting Nellie!

    Have fun!🙂

    1. I loved meeting Nellie too! I felt like this one was much more action packed than the others. I’ve just had By the Shores of Silver Lake arrive in the post today so the adventures are about to continue! I wonder if that nasty Nellie crops up again?!😉

  10. I’m fascinated by your reviews of this series as you explain wider implications such as the woman’s role and talk about Ma’s point of view. Having read and reread the first ones when I was 9 or 10, I am so familiar with the story, and your fresh take helps me see them differently. Looking forward to your future readings.

    1. Thank you Susan! I’m glad you’re enjoying looking at them from the adult point of view. I find a lot of people dismiss children’s books as being simplistic and not worthy of notice as an adult, but actually, children’s books are written to work for adults and children, as who reads the books to the children? – and there is much to be gained from them at all ages and stages of life. I do wish I had read them as a child as well, though, because I’ll never now get to experience them with more innocent eyes.

  11. Thanks for a great review of this classic. I remember loving this book, especially the Christmases, which seem so humble, in comparison with our mercantile madness, and warm. And thanks for posting the illustrations from that old edition. The first one looks like a Japanese print–love it.

    1. You are very welcome, Linda! Oh the Christmases are my favourite parts of every one of these books – such a contrast to our gluttonous, commercialised occasions now. We never had mountains of food or presents as children – just a few things to play with and books and a tin of Roses chocolates to share -which if you’ve never tasted them, are Cadbury’s chocolates with different centres and very popular in England! Now they have grandkids though, my parents go crazy at Christmas – it’s so unnecessary I think! These books show that spending time together as a family and enjoying small pleasures is what is important. By buying tons of expensive toys, children become unable to gauge the true value of things.

      I love those illustrations. That’s why I will pay above and beyond for the original editions. I didn’t think of them as like Japanese prints before, but now you’ve mentioned it, I can see the resemblance!

  12. Yes! My total favorite of the series apart from These Happy Golden Years. I knew you would like it! I love the part where Laura and Mary go rolling down the haystack even though they know they’re not supposed to — in real life I wouldn’t like to have hay in my hair but Wilder makes it sound so irresistible.

    1. Oh that haystack bit was so funny! And how Pa had to go over to the door to stop Laura and Mary from seeing how he was laughing!!! Hilarious! I do love these books so much. I can’t wait to get to These Happy Golden Years!

  13. Just discovered your blog and I have to say, this review instantaneously took me back to childhood. I remember that I got the box set of the Little House books for Christmas when I was 10, but that my teacher read the first one to us aloud in class when I was 8. I have long loved Laura Ingalls Wilder, and this makes me want to re-read them all again! Given that they’re sitting on the bookshelf next to me, I better get to that🙂

    One of the other commenters mentioned the Christmases and over the years, when I’ve perhaps been a touch greedy or feeling sorry for myself for not getting whatever it was I wanted…I remember the joy the girls had to receive a PENNY and a peppermint stick. It really does put things in perspective!

    1. Hi Amanda! Lovely to hear from you. You must re-read! I am so pleased you got to enjoy these books as a child. I really wish I had too!

      Oh the Christmasses always make me feel like the most shallow, materialistic person ever! I wish I would have been so grateful with so little. I think I would have thrown a fit if I had found a penny in the bottom of my stocking. It would be lovely to go back to those days when Christmas wasn’t about the gifts, but about the time to be together.

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