With each new adventure that is the Little House series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, I think I like the book just read the best. Actually I love them all, but I did greatly enjoy On the Banks of Plum Creek and finished it with a contented sigh. It's not a stretch to call these books charming, delightful, cozy reads (hence the enduring love of them by so many readers), but I think you can definitely read between the lines, too. Living on the prairie, in the American Midwest in the late 1800s was hard work and it was at times dangerous too. Fortunes could be made and lost literally with the change of the weather. The books might seem like charming adventures, and they are, but reality surely lacked some of the rosy hue of the books.
The Ingalls family began their journey in Wisconsin, in the Big Woods, then (after a digression to meet Alonzo Wilder in New York) it was off to Kansas, or Indian territory. Before the US government could begin removing white settlers from Osage territory they decided to try their luck in Minnesota. It is on the banks of Plum Creek that they make their new home. Not only are they close to the river but they live a mere three miles from town. So close!
"At last Ma drew a long breath. 'It is all so tame and peaceful,' she said. 'There will be no wolves or Indians howling tonight. I haven't felt so safe and at rest since I don't know when'."
"Pa's slow voice answered, 'We're safe enough, all right. Nothing can happen here'."
"The peaceful colors went all around the rim of the sky. The willows breathed and the water talked to itself in the dusk. The land was dark gray. The sky was light gray and stars prickled through it."
Idyllic it sounds, doesn't it? As for 'nothing can happen here'? Famous last words. But it is a happy new adventure for the family in many ways. They trade their horses for the land and a sod house. Now the Ingalls family will live in a dugout until Pa can build their home. It all hinges on the crop of wheat he will grow and sell. A good crop will bring more money than they have ever had and Pa promises not just a house but a buggy with new horses, new dresses and anything else Ma and his three girls could want.
There is much to explore and learn and adventures to have. Laura is now seven and as impish as ever. She is fearless at times and finds herself in scrapes more often than not. She listens to Ma and Pa, but she stretches the rules and finds herself dangling above a rushing Plum Creek or sliding down a hay stack or battling small animals she had never before encountered. Usually Mary is the stalwart one who cannot be swayed--either following the rules too closely or simply afraid (and perhaps afraid when it is wise to be so), but on occasion even Mary is lured into doing something she really shouldn't.
Life seems to be going along happily and much as planned and expected. Pa builds a house using materials he bought on credit against the crop that has been growing so steadily (practically unheard of and something that he loathes doing--never wanting to be beholden to others). And it is not just any house. Their new home has windows and a proper door, a roof with sturdy shingles and even a shiny-black new cookstove. Living so close to town means Mary and Laura can finally begin school and the family is able to go to Sunday mass. It is a life of normality even if they 'live in the country'.
For Laura and Mary there had never been a thought towards any sort of distinction in the way they live. Of course they live in the country and they live simply and without many luxuries, but this is not a hardship. It's just the way life is and to not have shoes or to share a tin cup is not a strange thing in the least. Now it is just a hop skip and jump away from Walnut Grove with its school, stores and church. On their first day of school Laura and Mary realize they have short skirts (compared to the town girls) and that to learn they will need a slate and chalk. They are the only children who have to stay at school to eat their lunch as it is too far to walk home and back. And then there are all the other children. It is here that Laura first meets the girl who is to become her nemesis, Nellie Oleson!
"Nellie Oleson was very pretty. Her yellow hair hung in long curls, with two big blue ribbons on top. Her dress was thin white lawn, with little blue flowers scattered over it, and she wore shoes."
"She looked at Laura and she looked at Mary, and she wrinkled up her nose."
"'Hm!' she said. 'Country girls!'"
First impressions. Nellie doesn't improve much upon closer association. But she does get her comeuppance.
This new life for the Ingalls family is threatened by a new calamity--not Indians or wolves or even the influx of other settlers, but by grasshoppers. Like a fast moving storm on the horizon that can be seen from afar, one summer day when the wind was down and the grasses were still, they literally come down with a thud and eat their way through Pa's entire wheat crop, which had promised to bring in enough money to see them well through the winter, as well as the grass for the animals to graze on and the Ingalls's garden. It's, of course, devastating for the family. Once again their fortunes reverse and the family must once again rethink how (and likely where) they will live.
A children's book and not even an especially long one and I feel like I have barely touched the tip of the iceberg and shared the excitement of the story with you. It's all in the details, and Laura Ingalls Wilder manages to paint quite a picture of life on the Prairie. It's filled with happiness and danger and lots of adventure. It may be cozy on the surface but it's obvious, too, just how much of a struggle it is for the family to get by. But they are a happy family and that is what makes these books so very special.
On the next ultra hot day, I think I might just have to share an excerpt or two of the winter the family endured in this book. And sometime I should share the literary meals which I find kind of fascinating. Every book introduces something that I have never heard of before--like corn dodgers (corn bread that is fried, baked or boiled like a dumpling) or vanity cakes, which sound a little like donut holes (though vanity cakes aren't sweet). But I think I'll save those for another day. I mostly wanted to quickly write about On the Banks of Plum Creek so I can start reading the next book, By the Shores of Silver Lake!