My daughter Mary and I are reading the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder these days. I don’t know how many times I’ve read them since I started “Little House in the Big Woods” in the first grade at Thompson (now Amity Creek) School, but I enjoy them as much today as I did more than 60 years ago.
This reading has been especially meaningful because I’m also still working my way through “Prairie Fires: The American Dream of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” by Caroline Fraser, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography this spring.
The differences between the two are akin to seeing oneself in a fun-house mirror. All the right parts are there, but shapes have shifted, grown or shrunk and otherwise been altered. I suppose I should have known, for example, that while Wilder’s recounting of her childhood is accurate in its own way, it doesn’t go into any depth.
Grasshoppers, really Rocky Mountain locusts, had decimated some crops in that part of Minnesota the year before, in 1873. They were back in 1874, and the 1875 swarm was the largest in human history, covering some 198,000 square miles. It destroyed crops valued at $116 billion in today’s dollars before it was done. A few years later, the locust was extinct for reasons that weren’t clear for years.
I don’t know if my parents recognized it, and I certainly didn’t, but the Ingalls family was poor and stayed poor. There were clear hints of that in the Little House books, of course. Laura devotes a surprising amount of ink to the gathering, preserving and storing of food, and when I first reread the books as an adult, it seemed clear that having enough to eat was an ongoing struggle.
Add to that descriptions of the family’s diet, and you start to realize how spoiled we are today. Winters meant fresh meat if Charles Ingalls killed it. Otherwise, meat was smoked and dried or salted and stored in winter months. There may have been fresh milk if the family had a lactating cow. Otherwise, probably not.
As for fresh fruits and vegetables, in an area and era before rural grocery stores were widespread, produce came from one’s own garden, fresh in the summer, and turned into jam, pickled, canned or otherwise preserved for winter months. It was local, to be sure, but being local also meant rural northern families didn’t have access to oranges or okra or any crop that needed a long season of warm days and nights to mature. Laura is served an orange as a party favor in “Little Town on the Prairie” when she’s 15 — it’s the second time in her life she’s tasted the fruit.
While it was clear, even when I first read the Little House books, that Laura and her family moved a lot, it was less clear how unsettled their lives really were. Well before Laura was a teenager, the family had moved at least seven times, from Wisconsin to Missouri, then Kansas, back to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa … in the end, the Ingallses settled in what is now South Dakota. Most moves were prompted by financial need, as Charles bought and sold land, worked as a carpenter, ran a hotel and did what needed to be done to feed a family that, by the time Laura married at 17, included four children.
This week Mary and I read the first of at least three Christmases Wilder describes in her books. Laura herself was young; the family was relatively isolated, and the holiday bore little resemblance to today’s holiday. Mrs. Ingalls watched her husband make her Christmas present; the children’s gifts were generally limited to candy, and, in Laura’s case, her first doll. Stockings — ones the family actually wore — were hung by the chimney, to be sure, and in a later tale, each child was awed by the “bright, shiny, new penny” in the toe.
I don’t think I’ll ever outgrow rereading the Little House books, though now I read them with far more understanding than I used to have. Life was tough out there on the prairie, far tougher than Laura let her audience, mostly children, know.
— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821, email@example.com