“ONCE a upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little grey house made of logs.”
And so the story begins. The saga of the pioneering Wilder family seeking to set up their home in new America in the late 1800s began in a log cabin located just outside of Pepin, Wisconsin.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, born on Feb 7, 1867 to Charles and Caroline Ingalls, wrote a series of children’s books loosely based on her own life with the help of her daughter Rose.
Following the wagon trail of Wilder’s beloved little house series, the universal appeal of her books springs from an intriguing life lived on the vast forested and prairie landscapes as her family travelled in search of a permanent homestead.
As one of those who grew up devoted to Wilder’s Little House series of American pioneer life, I remember being deeply attached to the brave heroine, the girl Laura, whose journey with her family takes her from the Big Woods of Wisconsin to Indian territory (Kansas), onto Minnesota and finally, Dakota Territory in the years spanning from 1869 to 1883.
My sisters and I frequently re-enacted scenes from her books (we fought constantly to play ‘Laura’), pretending our bed was a covered wagon, and favouring country-styled dresses with floral motifs — because we imagined those were what Laura and her sisters Mary, Carrie and Grace would wear. And then came the 1970s television show Little House On The Prairie starring Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls that further opened the protagonist’s enchanting world to our wide-eyed imagination.
Wilder’s series of nine books, beginning from her early childhood right up to the early years of her marriage to Almanzo, chronicles the life of the pioneer girl who survived wildfires, tornadoes, malaria, blizzards and near-starvation on the Great Plains in the late 1800s.
What makes her books so enduringly popular are her cast of unforgettable characters — Laura, her twinkly blue-eyed fiddler-playing Pa, her loving and resourceful Ma, her brave but blind eldest sister Mary, along with her sweet younger sisters and her experience of a happy and safe home life despite the hardship, isolation, wolves, bears and other travails that assailed this family of homesteading pioneers.
In the tradition of Jo March of Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott and Dorothy of The Wizard Of Oz, Wilder successfully created a brave child heroine who became a beloved ideal of children all over the world. And now, 34 years later as I re-read Wilder’s books (to my deepest regret I can’t remember what happened to the books of my childhood), I’m once again brought back to my own childhood and my deep fascination with Laura’s world.
More than a century has passed since the “brown-haired girl with her corn-cob doll named Susan” was born. But as you begin to open the covers, you’ll find out just like I did,
that Laura’s world is as fascinating and beautiful just as she had experienced it 150 years ago.
Little House On The Big Woods
WILDER’S first book introduces us to the protagonist, 4-year-old Laura who lives in a log cabin on the edge of the Big Woods outside of Pepin, Wisconsin.
She shares the cabin with her Pa, Ma, her sisters Mary and Carrie, and their faithful dog, Jack. We get a peek into Laura’s world of butter-making, tree-sapping, deer-slayings and fiddle dances, but pioneer life, as we soon discover, isn’t easy for the early settlers.
They have to catch, hunt and grow their own food to survive, not to mention prepare for winter’s often inclement weather by ensuring there’s sufficient food to last the entire season. Yet the small everyday dramas of Laura’s early childhood, most of which occur in the company of her family, make it a compelling read.
Little House On The Prairie
The story begins where Laura’s first book left off. Pa says there are too many people in the Big Woods now and decides to uproot his family from the little log cabin to set out for Indian territory near Kansas.
They travel for many days in their covered wagon until they find the best spot to build their little house on the prairie. Soon they’re planting, ploughing, hunting wild ducks and turkeys, and gathering grass for their cows.
At their new home, the family meets difficulty and danger — from hostile Indians, malaria and a devastating prairie fire.
At the end of the book, the family is told that that the land must be vacated by settlers as it’s not legally opened to settlement so Pa elects to leave with the family before he’s forced to abandon the land by the Army.
On the Banks of Plum Creek
The adventures of Laura Ingalls and her family continue as they leave their little house on the prairie near Kansas and travel in their covered wagon to Minnesota.
There, they settle in a little house made of sod beside the banks of beautiful Plum Creek. Laura and her sister Mary go to school, help with the chores, and fish in the creek.
It’s here that Laura meets with her arch enemy, the snobbish Nellie Oleson. Misfortunes come in the form of a grasshopper plague and a terrible blizzard, but the pioneer family works hard together to overcome these troubles.
By the Shores Of Silver Lake
The story begins with a terrible fate — a bout of scarlet fever strikes the Ingalls family leaving Mary, the eldest daughter blind.
Pa decides to move the family out of Plum Creek into the wilderness of the unsettled Dakota Territory where he’ll work on the new railroad as a storekeeper, bookkeeper and timekeeper.
Laura takes her first train ride as she, her sisters, and their mother come out to live with Pa on the shores of Silver Lake.
After a lonely winter in the surveyors’ house, Pa puts up the first building in what will soon be a brand new town on the beautiful shores of Silver Lake. The Ingalls’ covered-wagon travels are finally over.
The Long Winter
The adventures of Laura Ingalls and her family continue as Pa, Ma, Laura, Mary, Carrie, and little Grace bravely face the hard winter of 1880-81 in their little house in the Dakota Territory. Food and fuel become scarce and expensive as the town depends on the railroad to bring supplies.
When blizzards hit the little town, supplies are cut off from the outside. The railroad company suspends all efforts to dig out the trains that are snowed in, stranding the entire town until spring.
With no more coal or wood, the Ingalls learn to use twisted hay for fuel in a desperate bid to keep warm. For weeks they almost starve, subsisting on just a little bit of food.
When there’s almost no food left, young Almanzo Wilder and a friend make a dangerous trip across the prairie to find some wheat. Finally, the spring thaw comes and the Ingalls enjoy their long-delayed Christmas celebration in May.
Little Town On the Prairie
The little settlement that weathered the long, hard winter of 1880-81 is now a growing town. In the fall, the Ingalls move to town for the winter; they believe the coming winter will not be as hard as the previous one, but as the claim shanty is not weatherproofed, Pa thinks that it’s best not to risk staying in it.
In town, Laura and Carrie attend school again, and Laura is reunited with her friends, along with arch enemy Nellie Oleson. Mary is at last able to go to a college for the blind. Laura, now 15, soon receives her certificate to teach at school.
These Happy Golden Years
Fifteen-year-old Laura lives apart from her family for the first time, teaching school in a claim shanty, 19km from home. She’s very homesick, but keeps at it so that she can help pay for her sister Mary’s tuition at the college for the blind.
Much to her surprise and relief, Almanzo begins driving the long 38km trek to and from the school so that she can return home on weekends. Friendship soon turns to love for Laura and Almanzo and they get married in a small ceremony in the romantic conclusion of this Little House book.
The First Four Years
The novel gets its title from a promise Laura made to Almanzo when they became engaged. She doesn’t want to be a farmer’s wife, but decides to try farming for three years.
Just like Ma, Laura becomes a young pioneer wife and must work hard with her husband to farm the land around their home on the South Dakota prairie. Their baby daughter, Rose, is born and the young family faces hardships and triumphs encountered by so many American pioneers.
With mounting debts, crop failure and the death of their unnamed son, the novel ends at the close of the fourth year on an optimistic note, with Laura feeling hopeful that their luck will turn.
“Oh well,” she repeats her Ma’s saying at the end of the novel, “we’ll always be farmers, for what is bred in the bone, will come out in the flesh.”
IN this novel, Laura Ingalls Wilder recounts the boyhood adventures of Almanzo Wilder who later in life became her husband.
It’s the 1800’s and Almanzo and his family are living on a prosperous farm in Malone, New York. It is winter time and the New York winters are notoriously cold.
The 9 year-old Almanzo must endure the long, frigid 2.5km walk to the schoolhouse with his older brother Royal and his two older sisters, Eliza Jane and Alice. Although Almanzo isn’t fond of school, he realises that getting his education is a necessary tool in life.