Thursday, December 9, 2010

Review: The Laura Years Books 1-5 by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

The Little House series was as big a part of my childhood as any of the other books I have been featuring this week. In fact, they are probably the series of books that I can remember reading far earlier than anything else.

My introduction to the series was due to my grandmother. We would often spend the night at their house and on one occasion, I finished the books I brought with me and had nothing to read. She sent me down to the basement to look at the bookshelves and I came back up with all of the Ingalls books I could find. She told me the order and said that as long as I was nice to the books (they were old editions and belonged to my aunts when they were children), I could go ahead and read them.

It was love for me in that moment and I reread the stories about Laura, Mary, Ma, Pa, Carrie and Grace more times than I can count. I even read the first couple of books about Laura's daughter Rose. I loved them. A part of me wanted to go live on the prairie with them.

When I originally put these on my list, I was hoping that I would eventually get to them, but as the month of November went by, I was debating not reading them at all to save time and get back to my classics. But Jill at A Room of One's Own was reviewing them and said something about the last book in the series that made me want to jump in, so I did. (If you want more thorough reviews than what I give here, I highly recommend reading hers). Oh, and you'll have to wait until tomorrow to see why I wanted to read them so badly.

The first book in the series, Little House in the Big Woods, sets up the beginning of the stories, with the whole family living in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.

As a child, this was always a favorite of mine. Laura, Mary, Carrie, Ma and Pa always seemed so much happier living in the Big Woods with their family nearby than they do in later books. I never understood why they left their home to go so many other places across the country. I do now, but as a little girl, its hard to imagine leaving home (we have always lived in the same area as my extended family members, so moving away was never something I could relate to).

I also love some of the scenes in this novel that paint a vivid portrait of life in the wild. The stories Pa tells the girls of panthers and bears are always exciting. I also love the time the family spends with their grandparents making maple sugar. The part where they pour strands of hot maple sugar into snow to make candy is something I have always remembered and always wanted to try as a little girl.

But I what I loved the most this time was the sense of family among the five members of the Ingalls clan. Everyone had a role to fulfill and a job to do. This is something that carries throughout all of the novels, and here is the firm base where it begins.

The second novel in the series (in my collection anyway-sometimes books 2 and 3 are switches around) is The Little House on the Prairie.

The second novel is full of firsts for the girls. They move out of Wisconsin and the Big Woods and go to town for the first time. Then they leave and begin the long journey by wagon to a new homestead in the wilds of Kansas. Pa heard that the Indians will be moved and the areas open to settlement, so he wants to head West and grab a tract of land early.

Again, as a child I never understood why the family would leave their established and cozy home in the Big Woods to move away, but now I can understand the need to get away and start anew.

This novel tells of their short time in Kansas. They built a log house and stable and began to harvest crops on their land before learning that the area where they settled was not going to be open for settlement. This forces them to move once more at the end of the novel.

This one I remembered clearly from my childhood. The scene with Laura and Mary collecting beads around an old Native American campsite always enthralled me and I always hoped to stumble across beads in the wild as a girl. Right after that scene they make a necklace of their beads for Carrie, which goes to show you how completely unselfish the two girls can be when they want to be. I highly doubt that some kids I know would be willing to give their items to their younger sibling.

However, I always feel a little....ehhh...about the portrayal of the Native Americans in the novel. On one hand, you can see that Ingalls is trying to show them in as positive and noble a light as possible. The imagery of the long line of them leaving on the trail by the Wilder's house is another vivid image in my mind, but they are often seen so savagely. I suppose it comes back to saying, "If they knew then what we know now" things would have been incredibly different.

In all, I enjoyed this second novel on this reread, and was reminded of how absorbed I was in these novels as a girl. I would have loved to go hunting for beads, or down to the creek to wade right with Laura.

The third novel, Farmer Boy, takes us away from the Ingalls clan to the home of Laura's future husband, Almanzo. As a kid, I HATED this third novel and would often skip over it to go on to the next Laura novel. I mean, who would want to read about a stinky boy?

Obviously, I have matured since then and I can appreciate why Laura added this novel to her own story. You know from the beginning that she'll eventually marry Almanzo, so getting a sense of his background helps us appreciate the man he'll become.

We are introduced to Almanzo's family in New York and I was immediately struck by how different his upbringing was than Laura's. His father ran a large farm, with multiple horses and oxen. Their house was large, with a fancy parlor for entertaining guests, and a huge storeroom for their food. It seemed as if there was always a surplus for the Wilders and Almanzo was truly fortunate in his childhood.

We get to see Almanzo take on responsibility in this novel. He trains his own pair of oxen, grows his own pumpkin for the fair, and admires the beautiful colts his father raises. He learns lessons about the value of money and what to do with it once he has it.

But what I love about this novel is how it shows Almanzo's love for animals and the land. Even after being offered an opportunity to learn a trade in town, Almanzo determines to stay and become a farmer like his father. His love for the land is so clear and apparent and truly makes the reader appreciate why he is the man he is when Laura meets him years later.

The fourth novel, On the Banks of Plum Creek, takes us back to the Ingalls clan as they had to Minnesota to try their fortunes there. After the heartache of leaving their beautiful home in the heart of Indian country, none of the women seem too excited to see their new home is a sod house built into a hill.

However, their new home near Plum Creek offers new opportunities for the girls and Ma. For the first time the girls get to attend school, a condition that Ma had when she married Pa. Mary and Laura are deemed "country girls" by a few girls who live in town, but that doesn't stop them from socializing and playing anyway. The two little parties (one in town and one in the country) really made me smile for their differences. Me made every effort she could for her daughters to feel included and as special as the town girls.

The other new experience was the ability to attend Church on Sundays. These new connections with the people of the Church helped the entire family (and does in the future). They make lasting friendships with those they meet. The Christmas scene with the handing out of gifts on the tree was beautiful and warmed my heart.

I also loved that Pa tried to do more for the family after the heartache of what happened in Kansas. He taught the girls to swim and built Ma a beautiful house as soon as he could to get her out of the sod house. They had horses and oxen and even bought glass windows.

Of course, the saddest thing about this novel is the heartache that inevitably happens. A swarm of grasshoppers come and eat all the crops. Then they lay their eggs so there are grasshoppers the next year as well. I couldn't imagine the feeling of having grasshoppers crawling all over everything non-stop like Laura describes, and for a couple years in a row! And I can only imagine how heartbreaking it was for both Ma and Pa to realize that once again they were in debt and there was nothing to do about it. Perhaps they were thinking at that point that it might have been better to stay in the Big Woods of Wisconsin after all!

Book 5, By the Shores of Silver Lake, continues the story of the Ingalls clan from the point where they leave Plum Creek. From the point where the story picks up, the family has lived and suffered in Plum Creek for a few years. And just before the story begins, the entire family is struck with illness. Laura's older sister Mary is blind as a result of being sick and Laura begins to step up into a new role as caregiver. Pa also entrusts her with the task of showing Mary what it going on around her, a task that Laura does well.

The family is met by a family member, and they all set out to the new town of De Smet, South Dakota. When they arrive they settle down as Pa works for the railroad as a shopkeeper. However, when winter comes, they realize they must go East to stay, since none of the people building the railroad are staying. Instead, the surveyors offer their home to the Ingalls, in return for them watching the railroad equipment for the winter.

With all of this, the Ingalls family settles in for the winter by themselves. They are eventually joined by two friends (the Boasts). There, they wait out the winter until pa can get away to file for a homestead claim. As the snow begins to thaw, an influx of settlers start pouring in. Since the surveyors' house is the only house in the area, they stop in for a place to sleep and a meal. Ma begins to charge them and Laura is soon working hard washing dishes and cleaning up over the dozens of men who pour in.

Pa eventually leaves to get his homestead and once the paperwork is done (and before the surveyors come back), he uses extra railroad wood to build a house in downtown De Smet. The family moves in until their claim shanty can be built and before Pa rents the house for extra income. The house in town will serve as a place for the family to stay during the cold winters while their shanty is still just a shanty.

On this reread, I didn't connect to this novel. Perhaps its the uncertainty of the situation the Ingalls are in, but it merely felt as a book to transition their lives. Mary can no longer work as she used to so Laura must become what she never wanted to be. Pa and Ma are trying to survive and function in a new place once more. Grace, the baby of the family, is introduced, but I never felt she was developed as much as the others.

There were scenes, like in all of the books, that were memorable. Laura riding her first horse was something that made me smile, as well as her sliding across the frozen lake.

More than anything, when I closed this book I was excited to get to the next one, to the part where Laura meets Almanzo and her adult life seems to take off.

But the next 4 books will wait for tomorrow, along with my final thoughts on the whole series. I hope I'll see you then. :)


  1. I never read these as a child. Maybe if I'm in a reading slump, I'll have to pick them up. I would love for my daughter to read them when she's old enough. She's just starting preschool, so not quite yet. :)

  2. This was my favourite series when I was little...ok one of them. Then I started reading the Rose Wilder stories...then all the other spin-offs haha I still have them all! :)

  3. So fun to read this review -- when I just finished the series. I still have to say, looking back, that "Farmer Boy" was one of my favorites. I can't wait to read tomorrow's post! :-)

    (Thanks for the mention!)

  4. I always loved Farmer Boy and still do. I know he's a stinky boy, but I love hearing about his life on the big farm and all the scrapes he gets into. Plus there are lots of amazing descriptions of food. My favorite part is when he's at the fair and then "he takes a deep breath, and ate pie." It goes on to describe all the different pies he eats. I love that.

  5. Thanks for this trip down memory lane!

  6. What a lovely post, Allie! My favorite is still The Long Winter, which my family read aloud during the massive snow last year in DC.

  7. Ahh.. so much nostalgia. I just devoured these books when I was in Elementary School. It's so fun to read your thoughts on them and slowly remember the little details!

  8. I adore these books. My parents started reading them to us when my sister and I were 5 and 3. Our Mom was pregnant, and we decided our new little sister needed to be named Laura. And we won!

    I have never reread Farmer Boy since I was a kid, and I really, really need to. Maybe I'll make that a challenge/resolution for next year.

    I just learned a fascinating thing in At Home by Bill Bryson. The grasshoppers were really unprecedented and killed most of the crops across all of American's heartland. The worry was they would just get worse and worse from year to year and we didn't know what to do about them. But then they just disappeared. No one knew for a long time what happened to them, but later it was figured out that the pioneers heading West had plowed up the land where the grasshopper eggs were laid, killing them all. Thankfully! Or else Mary would have ever been able to go to the blind colege!

  9. I am about to post my thoughts on books 2-7, but I'm still debating how to go about it. I like your post! For me, as the series progresses, I'm becoming more and more interested in it.

  10. Oh, the memories! :) I loved these books as a child & read each one of them multiple times. Your post made me want to revisit them.


  11. Just seeing these covers brings back fond memories of reading the Little House books as a child! I wanted to be a pioneer just like the series's characters. I've not read them in years.