And so the adventure continues. I'm finding the Little House books to be thoroughly 'gulpable', and if I don't make myself ration them out I think I could easily read my way through the rest of the set without so much as a pause. The story, of course, begins with Little House in the Big Woods--the big woods being in Wisconsin. Farmer Boy is something of a divergence, but a good one, and a story I never bothered with when I was a child. Almanzo's story takes place in New York state at about roughly the same time.
When we last were with Laura and her family she was Pa's little Half Pint, a mere six or seven years old, trying to be good but struggling with naughty moments, wholly aware of her plainness measured against elder sister Mary's goodness and golden ringletted prettiness. Laura is such a wonderful, sympathetic character. Her love of her family, Pa especially, makes you feel all warm and happy inside yet the storytelling is tempered by her shortcomings. Reading the books brings a lovely nostalgic feeling yet the hardships the Ingalls family endures is a reminder, too, that though these are children's books, life was not easy on the Prairie in the late 1800s.
The tone of the story and the way it's told is much the same as the previous two books, but life for the Ingalls's has changed drastically. They have left everything and everyone they know behind in search of vast open spaces where families are not crowded up against each other and where land and its bounty is more plentiful. After an anxious crossing of a rather furious creek, they travel to and settle in Indian Country--Kansas.
"No road, not even the faintest trace of wheels or of a rider's passing, could br seen anywhere. That prairie looked as if no human eye had ever seen it before. Only the tall wildgrass covered the endless empty landand a great empty sky arched over it. Far away the sun's edge touched the rim of the earth. The sun was enormous and it was throbbing and pulsing with light. All around the sky's edge ran a pale pink glow, and above the blue the sky was no color at all. Purple shadows were gathering over the land, and the wind was mourning."
Laura and her family must now start from scratch. They travel in covered wagon for weeks until they find a plot of land to build their new home--one so very, very far from any other settlers where they can live off of and make a new and hopefully prosperous life. While the stories so far followed the rhythm of the seasons in already established communities, now they are living all sorts of new and mostly exciting, occasionally a little terrifying, adventures. The covered wagon, their home on wheels for so long, folds down and is collapsed into smaller parts, and Pa with the help of Ma, begins to build their log cabin home and barn.
They discover that they are not quite as alone on the prairie as they had first believed, though their neighbors are many miles away. Trading work (the work ethic and independence of families--not being beholden for so much as a single nail--is a strong theme in the books) means their home becomes quite warm and cozy and they slowly become 'comfortably' self-sufficient. What to modern sensibilities would be a frugal, very simple and pared down existence was just enough for the Ingalls family. It's such a reminder that 'stuff' does not bring happiness.
The world was such a very different place, and even a children's story told through the eyes of a young girl is a reminder of just how different. Neighbors were not just other families or bachelors making their way west, but being Indian Country, Native American tribes were in abundance. Little House on the Prairie was published in 1935 and set some time in the latter years of the 1800s. Indians were a palpable presence and at times a fearsome one at that. The views and attitudes of the white settlers were not always the most enlightened ones--these settlers would have been trying to (perhaps not always successfully) coexist with them. Ultimately it is the question of who gets to settle where that will push on the Ingalls family to their next adventure at the end of the book.
I think this is my favorite book of the set so far (I seem to like each new read just a tiny bit more than the last), though there is so much to love about all these stories. They are simply told, but beautifully told as well. It's all the little details that make them so interesting, the family dynamics and general enthusiasm of Laura that turn the books into page-turners. I've had to look a few things up, by the way. I remembered well the sugar snow (made from the sap from the Maple trees) in the first book, but there are some new dishes to contemplate now.
"Breakfast was ready. When Pa came from the creek they all sat by the fire and ate fried mush and prairie-chicken hash."
Fried mush is fried cornmeal mush, or hasty pudding. It would have been chilled, sliced and fried in fat--I would have opted to eat it with maple syrup! Food seems to play a prominent role in these stories, though less so this time around. I would have enjoyed the little pickles and the sweet potatoes cooked in the ashes of a fire, I think. Remind me, however, not to complain about slow mail. Living on the prairie, two days ride from the nearest town of Independence, you don't get mail or even any supplies unless a special trip is planned.
" . . . Charles, I'd like to write to the folks in Wisconsin. If you mail a letter now, they can write this winter, and then we can hear from them next spring."
Now that is patience. It's a mostly happy existence for the Ingalls family, and certainly their year in Kansas is an exciting one, but the book's cover illustration is apt since it fits both the beginning of the story as well as the end (witout giving too much away). Next up is On the Banks of Plum Creek--I'm not sure how Laura is going to be (ten or eleven perhaps?), but I am ready for her new adventures. Bookmark is already at the first chapter and it sits ready on my night stand!