If you are a Little House fan and perhaps watched the TV adaptation, and wondered about Laura Ingalls's "ever after" you can get a glimpse of her life in The First Four Years. It is a slender book and picks up directly where These Happy Golden Years leave off. The novel has an interesting history and a different feel to it than the other eight books. It came with my boxed set, but for myself I think I will always consider the Little House books as beginning with Little House in the Big Woods and ending with These Happy Golden Years. Those stories are told very much in the same spirit. According to the introduction Laura Ingalls Wilder had penciled the story in three orange-covered school tablets like the other books. She may have written this last Little House book in the 1940s but when her husband Almanzo died it's possible she "lost interest in revising and completing it for publication." It was not published until the early 1970s after her death. There is definitely a very different feel and tone to the storytelling this time out.
I thought it very interesting that in the story Laura distinguishes between being a pioneer girl and a farmer's daughter. She is the former and has her doubts about the life of a farmer's wife. Just before their marriage Almanzo built their little home for which she has much pride. It's nicely proportioned and "cannily" furnished meeting all their needs. She is especially delighted with the long narrow pantry, which is Almanzo's pride and labor of love for his new young wife.
"The pine floors of the front room and pantry were painted bright clean yellow. The walls of all the house were white plaster, and the pine woodwork was satin-smooth and oiled and varnished in its natural color."
"It was a bright and shining little house and it was really all theirs, Laura thought. It belonged to just Manly and her."
Almanzo's first appearance in the stories came all the way back in Farmer Boy when he was living with his family in New York. But it is in the Dakota Territories where he has come to take advantage of settling the land with his brother that he meets the Ingalls family and eventually begins courting Laura. In every situation he shows himself immensely capable and now he is hoping to make a go of farming the land and raising the trees that will hopefully enable him to keep their property. Of course we all know how precarious it is to live the life of a farmer. They are reliant on cooperative weather and just how often does all go as hoped and planned. And Laura is hesitant about this lifestyle. She knows how fortunes can be reversed or lost all in the drop of a hat. She shares her reservations with Manly, but ever the hopeful optimist he convinces her to give it three years and if they do not succeed he'll do whatever else she likes. So what follows are the first four years of their marriage.
The story is filled with adventures but now of a very different sort. Laura is a fine housekeeper, but all the things Ma did seemed so very easy. Now it is nerve racking to have to cook for the threashers who come to the farm to help. How mortifying to serve beans not quite cooked through or a pieplant pie without a spoonful of sugar added in under the crust. And then there is the day a group of Indians come to her doors while she is alone and eye her horses in their stalls. One even makes overtures and receives a hearty slap in return.
A new mowing machine makes life so much easier for Almanzo. Even though it is not paid for outright a good crop will make the payment easy enough. Except for a horrible hailstorm that flattens their wheat in a matter of moments. Most worrisome for Laura is that the house is mortgaged. She had no idea how much money was owed from the cost of building it. But the arrival of their daughter Rose brings both happiness and maybe a little parental fear. The familiar refrain becomes "the rich have their ice in the summer but the poor get theirs in the winter."If the planting, and the growing and the harvesting go well they can make a success of their lifestyle.
So the question is what is success. Those first four years are filled with happiness but equally with hardships. Lots of hardships. Laura always remains the optimistic pioneer girl who can understand Manly's love of the land and its appeal.
It's truly been quite a journey through these nine books of the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family. From the little house in the big woods of Wisconsin all the way, albeit somewhat roundabout at times, to the Dakota Territories. These stories are a real delight. I will say that this last book is tinged with a feeling of melancholy. To me it was palpable between the last book and this one. The last book ends on such a happy optimistic note. While this one does as well, there is a little something more that hovers just in the background.
Somewhere in those intervening years between the publication of the last book and this one a more mature and worldly tone takes hold. It is a woman of experience, and perhaps not all easy or happy, who has penned this last story. I was just a little anxious after reading the first dozen pages or so as a cloud seemed to float above this little house in a way I hadn't seen before. But it all ends well despite the hardships. I will revisit the Ingalls and Wilder families again someday happy to relive their adventures. Now I will take a break from the Prairie, though I did indulge in a YA book about the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder as well as two books of her letters home on travels that took place after her marriage. I need a little time and distance before seeing her again as wife and mother rather than little Half-Pint.