Sunday, 6 November 2011

Little House on the Prairie

There can't be many people who've not heard of Laura Ingalls Wilder's book, Little House on the Prairie. Its fame may be due in part to the television series of the same name staring the chap who was in Bonanza... was it Michael Landon? Played Little Joe I fancy (gosh that ages me). I think I saw a few of those, but I'm pretty sure I never read the Little House series as a child, for what reason I don't know. They must have been in the library in Penzance but I probably had no idea how good they were. Librarians didn't tend to recommend books to children back in the 60s and my family wouldn't have known about them. So I missed out and it's a shame; as an adult I honestly don't think you experience the same kind of magic when reading as children do and I know for certain I would have adored this series of books as much as, say, C.S. Lewis's Narnia books which completely swept me away.

The story follows on from The Little House in the Big Woods, set around 1870. Pa decides there are too many people in the forests of Wisconsin.

Quite often Laura heard the ringing thud of an axe which was not Pa's axe, or the echo of a shot which did not come from his gun. The path that went by the little house had become a road. Almost every day Laura and Mary stopped their playing and stared in surprise at a wagon slowly creaking by on that road.

Animals kept away from the area and Pa liked a country where animals did not have to be afraid of humans. So they pack up and off they go - west. Pa has heard that the government is encouraging settlers onto the prairie and that the Indians who already live there will be pushed further west again. They travel for months in a covered wagon and come to a good spot at last, close to the Verdigris river, about forty miles from Independence, Kansas.

Of course, they have nothing and have to start from scratch. Pa has to build a house for them to live in, keep them fed by hunting, and Ma has to cook, look after the children and try to help Pa with the building.

Laura finds it a strange land, this place of endless grass and silence where the wind blows so hard they sometimes fear for their lives. And there are many frightening things. The possibility of illness, 'fever 'n' ague' as they call it, which they don't realise is caused by mosquitos along the river, the close proximity of the local Osage Indians, and wolves. They have brushes with all these things and more but find friendship and neighbourliness among the other settlers. Pa thinks it's a 'good place'.

I *think* it was Susan Hill in her book, Howards End is on the Landing, who said that if you want to know how to build a log cabin or your own bed look no further than Laura Ingalls Wilder. And she's spot on! All the details of how to do it are right here in these lovely little books. There are even illustrations (by Garth Williams) to guide you. Not only that there are minute details of exactly how they lived, what they ate, the utensils they had... cups were rare for instance so Laura and Mary had to share one mug.

But there's much more to these books than that kind of practicality. The prairie is a huge presence throughout the whole book. I've never seen it for myself but consider I now have a good idea of how the region looks and feels. And you can't help but admire the bravery and guts of these people who took off into the unknown like that, even though we now know they pushed the native population out. It's quite interesting looking at the rights and wrongs of that from the distance of so many years and hearing what the settlers actually tended to think. I didn't find myself judging but just reading the historical aspect with a lot of interest: somehow I find it easy to detach myself and I'm not sure how or why.

The book has some very intense scenes for a children's book. Laura wakes one night to the sound of a wolf howling in her ear. The house is surrounded by a pack of fifty wolves and all that stands between the family and the pack is a patchwork quilt slung up over the doorway. The decriptions and intensity of this scene are incredible. Likewise the day an Osage Indian turns up while Pa is away hunting, walks into the house and indicates he wants to be fed. The fear of Ma and the girls is tangible. And then there's a scene where the Indians move out and the family watch as hundreds of them pass the house on horseback. I read this with my mouth open!

I honestly did not expect to be quite as bowled over by this wonderful little book. My eldest daughter loved them as child and I can see why now. Every Christmas and birthday there would be a request for more and being the bookaholic I was I fed her appetite quite happily. These are her books and I should really pass them back to her for my grand-daughter - I did give her my copy of The Little House in the Big Woods but don't know if she's read it yet. If my daughter wants them I'll have to get my own, in fact I've had to send for the next book, On the Banks of Plum Creek, as we either never had that one or it got read so often it fell to pieces! I know I'll want to reread these at some stage and also I think I'll feel the need to read Laura Ingalls Wilder's diaries and letters.

So, a good start to my bookish travels around the United States and I've written it down in my little book (I'm such a nerd) under 'Kansas'. Hopefully the next book will come *soon*.


DesLily said...

awww my sister the nerd! lol.. well I can't say I read the little house on the prairie books but I sure watch the tv show! Saw all the kids grow up before my eyes! and Michael Landon grew handsomer as he grew older! heck, I woulda gone and lived in a log cabin with him any time! lol...

I am glad you enjoyed the book.. I guess this means you have begun yet another series! hmmm, after starting ME on one I'm glad you have yet another lol lol..

Vintage Reading said...

Like you, I missed out on these books as a child and I loved your review. I now want to read LHOTP. May I recommend Willa Cather's My Antonia for your mid-west part of America. She came from Red Cloud, Nebraska and writes wonderfully about the prairie. I will be avidly following this project Cath as I have a passion for American writing.

Jeane said...

My seven-year-old is reading these books right now so I am revisiting them with her. I was amazed at all the things Pa and Ma were capable of doing- building a chimney, making hats out of straw, making butter, clothing, etc etc. So many skills I can't imagine knowing how to do all those things.

Cath said...

Pat: Yeah, I would've gone to live in a log cabin with ML too. Although I preferred the eldest brother in Bonanza - Pernell Roberts I think was the actor's name. First choice though would definitely have been Robert Fuller (Jess Harper) from Laramie! LOL.

Yep, *another* series. Luckily they're not $139 to buy...

Nicola: You should definitely read these Laura Ingalls Wilder books. They are so charming and very much of their time and place.

A couple of people have suggested Willa Cather so I'll definitely be adding her to the list of suggestions I plan to make. Thank you for the rec.

Jeane: I know, it's incredible what they were all capable of back then. I suppose if you were heading off into the unknown where there were no shops you had to be able to do everything for yourself. But it's quite impressive, I agree!

Yvonne@fiction-books said...

Hi Cath,

I can't recall reading the books as a child and I was just a little before the television adaptation, although I can certainly remember Michael Landon in 'Bonanza', that was compulsory viewing in our house.

I had no idea that Michael had died at such an early age (54) and is buried only a few yards away from his on-screen father in 'Bonanza', Lorne Greene.

If I were to undertake a challenge as big as the one you have set for yourself, I too would have a list of all the states and be marking them off when I had a read a book which relates to the state.

Guess it must be an age thing, or an English thing, or perhaps we are both just 'nerds'!!!

Anonymous said...

Well, Cath, as you may already know about me, I love the Little House books and have read them over and over again, gleaning something different each time, depending on the decade. I'm so glad you enjoyed this one.

I watched and re-watch the series, though Michael Landon took a lot of liberties with the story line, I still think it is good family viewing. I did catch the original episodes about the house in Wisconsin and then Little House on the Prairie and, actually, it captured the journey, the wolves, the fear, the Indians coming to the house better than I thought.

At any rate, enjoy your reads.

Oh, Pernell Roberts was my favorite too.

Cath said...

Yvonne: Bonanza was compulsory viewing in our house too, as were all the American western shows. There seemed to be one every night, Laramie, Wagon Train, Lawman, Bonanza, a couple I can't quite remember the names of - Tenderfoot or something like that? And one with a really big chap called, I think, Clint Walker. I loved them all! Not to mention movies like High Noon, and anything with John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster and so on. Memories...

I'd forgotten that Michael Landon died fairly young too, but now that you mention it it's jogged my memory. Very sad.

LOL. Well, I'm glad I'm not the only one inclined towards lists.

lifeonthecutoff: I remember being quite disappointed if Pernell Roberts failed to turn up in an episode of Bonanza. And with a main cast of four the chances were high for him not to be there, or just for a couple of minutes. 'Hoss' was wonderful too.

I really think I'm going to adore the Little House books, and must make sure that I have all of them. I didn't know that the series had ever touched on the Wisconsin period, I thought it was Prairie only. That's interesting to know.

Val said...

Try this one Cath

Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart

it's available free here

it's a goodie honest :0)

Kailana said...

I read the Little House books when I was younger and still own them. I should reread them one day!

DesLily said...

ohhh no no.. Michael didn't get "good looking" until he was older! lol he was in diapers on Bonanza! LOL LOL ..oh Robert Fuller eh? yeah he was handsome alright!

Anonymous said...

I will second Letters of a Woman Homesteader. It is a wonderful read about the homesteaders and the west.

Cath said...

Val and Lifeonthecutoff: I've just downloaded Letters of a Woman Homesteader to my Kindle. Many thanks for the rec!

Kelly: I think you'll find they're well worth a reread.

Pat: I think of all the cowboy actors, Robert Fuller was my favourite. Was also rather keen on the actor from Wagon train though... now what was his name? Robert Horton? Something like that. And Ty Hardin from Bronco. I was very immersed in TV westerns. LOL.