Friday, December 28, 2012

Book Review: The Library of America's edition of the "Little House" Books

In September this year, I read this article in The Wall Street Journal and told my husband: here's a birthday present idea for you: The Library of America boxed edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Little House on the Prairie books!

Laura Ingalls Wilder is one of our best-known children's authors, her "Little House" books about pioneer life having been read and reread by four generations of Americans. Yet precisely because she is beloved as a storyteller for the young, her work's artistry and seriousness of purpose are underappreciated. The new Library of America edition, which packages her nine books of fiction into two volumes with helpful supplemental texts, is thus doubly welcome, both for its timeliness and for presenting her stories as literature worthy of adult readers.

Wilder wrote the series, as she noted in 1937, to show children who had grown up in a post-frontier age "what it is that made America as they know it." Her books are a magnificent historical chronicle, offering both a detailed record of how the pioneers lived and a testament to the values that built America. As Wilder saw it, in her own life she "represented a whole period of American history"—and it was through the details of her own life that she wanted to tell the story of the frontier experience.

Laura Ingalls was born in Wisconsin in 1867. Her father had what she called in her books a "wandering foot": In late 1869 or early 1870, Charles and Caroline Ingalls moved the family to the Osage Diminished Reserve in Kansas by covered wagon, only to return to Wisconsin in May 1871. In 1874, the family crossed the frozen Mississippi River into Minnesota to try farming, only to fail after a plague of locusts—which consumed half the nation's agricultural output—destroyed their crops. Next it was Iowa, and by 1880 the Ingallses were working to "prove up" on a homestead in De Smet, S.D. There Laura would become a teacher and meet and marry her husband, Almanzo Wilder.

It was around these major life events that Wilder structured the "Little House" series. "Little House in the Big Woods" (1932), about her Wisconsin childhood, follows a calendar year of frontier life in the upper Midwest. "Farmer Boy" (1933), about Almanzo's childhood in upstate New York, emphasizes the freedom and independence of the agrarian life. In "Little House on the Prairie" (1935), the Ingallses brave flooded rivers, malaria and tensions with Indians to set up a home in Kansas. "On the Banks of Plum Creek" (1937) covers the family's efforts to build a farm in Minnesota and is the first time the Ingalls girls experience town life and school. "By the Shores of Silver Lake" (1939) chronicles the family's move to Dakota Territory by train and their claiming of a homestead, and "The Long Winter" (1940) tells the story of their survival there amid the epic blizzards of 1880-81. In "Little Town on the Prairie" (1941) and "These Happy Golden Years" (1943), Laura blossoms into a young woman—working for pay to help her parents, developing mature friendships and being courted. (A ninth book, the novella "The First Four Years," was posthumously published in 1971 and covers the beginning of her married life.)

According to The Library of America website:

In the Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder created both a much-loved masterwork of children’s literature and a vivid firsthand narrative of an epoch in the settling of America. Now The Library of America and editor Caroline Fraser present all nine of these autobiographical novels in a deluxe two-volume boxed set that celebrates Wilder as a distinctive and vital voice in the canon of American literature.

Originally published from 1932 to 1943, the eight Little House novels—Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years—are brilliant narratives of the early life of Laura Ingalls and her family as they grow up with the country in the woods and on the plains of the advancing American frontier. They are joined here by the posthumous novella The First Four Years, which recounts the early years of the author’s marriage to Almanzo Wilder and, as a special feature, four rare autobiographical pieces that address the need for historical accuracy in children’s literature, reveal real-life events not included in the novels, and answer the inevitable question: what happened next?

The Little House Books are presented by The Library of America without the illustrations and typographical trappings of editions for young readers. Here Wilder’s prose for the first time stands alone and can be seen for exactly what it is—a triumph of the American plain style.

When I was growing up I read these books over and over again; my paperback copies with the Garth Williams illustrations fell apart. I did not know that I was absorbing some of Wilder's way of thinking about the individual and the government, according to Meghan Clyne:

The "Little House" books are virtual manuals of self-provision, with exhaustive descriptions of how the Ingalls and Wilder families secured their own food, shelter, clothing, education and entertainment through the work of their own hands. In "Little Town on the Prairie," for instance, a flock of blackbirds destroys the crops that the family is relying on to make ends meet, but the setback is no match for Ingalls ingenuity. Pa kills the blackbirds and Ma uses them to feed the family, even turning them into a pot pie. "The underside was steamed and fluffy," Wilder wrote. "Over it [Pa] poured spoonfuls of thin brown gravy, and beside it he laid half a blackbird, browned, and so tender that the meat was slipping from the bones." " 'It takes you to think up a chicken pie, a year before there's chickens to make it with,' Pa said."

If Wilder's pioneer families are resourceful, government is depicted as meddling and incompetent—a contrast that emphasizes the importance of providing for oneself. Indeed, Washington's bungling is blamed for the Ingallses' forced departure from Indian Territory in "Little House on the Prairie," and in "The Long Winter" a family friend denounces politicians who "tax the lining out'n a man's pockets" and "take pleasure a-prying into a man's affairs." Fear of debt hangs over these stories like a dark cloud; to be "beholden" to anyone is a mark of shame. The only respectable path to subsistence—let alone comfort—is hard work. "Neither [my parents] nor their neighbors begged for help," Wilder explained in a 1937 speech. "No other person, nor the government, owed them a living."

Rereading the books now in this format does emphasize to me what Laura Ingalls Wilder called the stoicism of the Ingalls and Wilder families. At the beginning of By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura's sister Mary is blind and her best companion Jack, the old dog, dies. But Laura does not mourn Jack long--she realizes she is growing up when the friend of her childhood dies, and she starts to adjust to the fact that the family's ambitions for Mary to become a teacher will now fall upon her. Her Pa sings a happy song whenever he is cold and miserable, and the family endures every setback with little emotion but constant effort and hard work. They keep going on and they rely on themselves alone--even God seems a little distant in these books; each Christmas celebration in these books is more a family event than a religious observance of the birth of the Savior of the World. Pioneers are really on their own.

I can't remember who said this but I think I've read that the best children's books can and should be read again in adulthood. Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is such a classic, and the adult reading the book recognizes truths behind the story she didn't perceive as a young girl reading it. I think the same is true of this Little House books; what I read as a child as just fun stories of growing up in pioneer times, now--especially because of The Library of America edition--appear as lessons in persistence and perseverance. And now I also see what they lack: the Catholic sense of Sacramentalism and devotion to the Person, Jesus Christ, and the depth of community in the Church.

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