Chloe’s Book Club: The First Four Years

The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder is a book I sort of wish I’d never read.

This book was not originally published as part of the Little House series. The manuscript, in penciled draft, was discovered after Laura’s death in 1957. Roger MacBride, a Laura scholar and close friend of Rose Wilder Lane, wrote:  “My own guess is that she wrote this in the late 1940s and that after Almanzo died, she lost interest in revising and completing it for publication.”

The cover art suggests a happy tale. The first paragraphs of the prologue are truly lovely:

The stars hung luminous and low over the prairie. Their light showed plainly the crests of the rises in the gently rolling land, but left the lower draw and hollows in deeper shadows. A light buggy drawn by a team of quick-stepping dark horses passed swiftly over the road which was only a dim trace across the grasslands.  …The night was sweet with the strong, dewey fragrance of the wild prairie roses that grew in masses beside the way. 

Laura and Almanzo are courting, and all is right with the world.

But in Chapter 1 we learn that Laura doesn’t want to marry a farmer:  A farm is such a hard place for a woman. There are so many chores for her to do, and harvest help and threshers to cook for. Besides a farmer never has any money.

Almanzo convinces Laura to give farming a try for three years.

This is how I wanted Laura and Almanzo’s story to end!

The three years (plus an extra) overflow with heartaches and disappointments. Hail storms ruin crops and debts rise. Rose is born, but in an unsettling scene, Mr. Boast (a wonderful character introduced in earlier books) asks the Wilders to give her up in exchange for a horse because the Boasts can’t have children.

Laura and Almanzo contract diphtheria, and when Almanzo disregards the doctor’s advice and gets up too soon (isn’t that just like hard-working Almanzo?), he suffers a setback and never fully recovers. Laura delivers a baby boy who dies before he receives a name.

And the family’s house burns down, with almost everything in it. In the end Laura agrees to continue farming not because it’s been successful, but largely because she sees no other option.

Laura does try to end the story on an optimistic note. It would be a fight to win out in this business of farming, but strangely she felt her spirit rising for the struggle. Still, this was not what I wanted for the young couple.

This dissonance between happy-ever-after and sober reality reflects a major conundrum most Laura fans confront, sooner or later. How much do you really want to know about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life?

In Death on the Prairie, the 6th Chloe Ellefson mystery, I let Chloe experience some of my own ambivalence. Towards the beginning someone asks Chloe if she’s a book person, a TV person, or a truther; and explains:

“Some people don’t want to hear about anything Laura didn’t include in the books.  Some people love the Little House TV series, and don’t want to hear about anything that Michael Landon didn’t include in a show.  And a few people want to know what Laura’s life was truly like.”

“That would be me,” Chloe said. “I’m a truther.” She was a curator, after all. A history professional.

However, Chloe learns a bit too much for her liking, and at the end of the book she’s come to a different conclusion: The scholarship was important, but Chloe wanted to keep Laura as the trusted childhood friend she remembered.

Obviously, a lot of Laura fans don’t agree.  The Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association holds a wonderful conference every two years. And interest in the Pioneer Girl project, including the annotated autobiography edited by Pamela Smith Hill and other scholarly publications, has been phenomenal.

I spent a year digging into Laura’s life while writing Death on the Prairie.  I loved it, but I also learned a few things I wish I’d never learned.

If, like me, you don’t want your foray into Laura Land to end on a distressing note, I recommend Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist: Writings From the Ozarks, edited by Stephen W. Hines. After a great deal of struggle, Laura and Almanzo did create a true home and productive farm in Missouri, Rocky Ridge Farm. It’s a great place to visit.

How about you? Do you want to hold on to the stories as portrayed in the books (or TV shows), or did you devour the autobiography?  Did The First Four Years leave you sad, or simply ready to learn more?


Note: I am a former curator and love research, but I am not a Laura Ingalls Wilder scholar. For more academic information, see titles by William Anderson, Pamela Smith Hill, John E. Miller, and others. To learn more about the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries, please visit my website.

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6 Responses to “Chloe’s Book Club: The First Four Years”

  1. JoAnne McPherson Says:

    As an interesting companion to the series, interested people should read “Free Land” by Rose. It includes many of the same stories she must have heard from her parents, but with a much more gritty tone than her mother’s books. The irony is in the title, as that free land cost so much. My ancestors homesteader in NE South Dakota and it sure wasn’t easy.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi JoAnne – Excellent suggestion. I haven’t read that in many years, and I’d bring a fresh understanding to it now. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Melanie Says:

    FFY is one of the reasons I kept pursuing my study of LIW as an adult; I learned to read with Laura’s books, and as an elementary schooler I had tons of questions about the context. I began researching in jr high, reading primary source accounts of the era, especially about homesteading and Overland Migration. When my attention was drawn elsewhere, I sometimes questioned how much validity there was to Laura’s narrative…and the conflation of history, literature, biography, and outright fictional representation on television was everywhere!

    Ultimately, the fact is that the truth is ugly. Uglier, faaaaar uglier, than Laura (the character) or LIW (the author), and many (but not all) LIW scholars will admit. That’s what fascinates me. Never was much for fairy tales, so seeing where the lines are between truth, half-truth, literary technique, and the historical evidence she *couldn’t* know during her lifetime keeps me busy in my own LIW-centric work, as well as my more generalized historical study. But not everyone–indeed, most people–don’t want to know more than a few gritty details, and that’s fine, too.

    Thanks for the shoutout to LIWLRA! Our 4th LauraPalooza conference is 11-14 July 2017 in Springfield, MO. Hope you’ll join us!

  3. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Hi Melanie – Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I’m also generally fascinated by the intersection of primary sources, memory, and literature. I find my own reaction interesting. Usually I don’t shy away from historical reality, no matter how gritty. In fact, that’s often what inspires my stories. But I find myself gravitating back to the early LIW books. I guess my initial joy in the series overrides my adult historian brain.

    That said, I am a big fan of LauraPalooza. I had a great time at the last one, learned a lot, and really enjoyed spending the weekend immersed in Laura’s world. Since I’ve crossed the metaphorical Rubicon regarding LIW–meaning I can’t unlearn what I’ve learned–I do wish I could attend this year again. Unfortunately I can’t, but I wish everyone the best!

  4. Jill Nisbet Says:

    I found it a little jarring that there was such a contrast between the writing style of this book and all the others. But at least it satisfied my hunger to know what came next.

    I did not find it depressing. Like Laura I was an optimist and just knew success was right around the corner! I did feel the loss of that little house with the wonderful cupboards keenly though!

    I am a truther. I think the TV show renewed interest in Laura but it strayed way to far from the truth and that was a huge turn off for me. I loved the books but even more I loved Laura so the truth was fascinating even if some illusions were shattered! Things like Jack being sold with the horses,Mr Edwards’s possibly not being real,Nellie Olson being a composite character to name a few.

    I was so happy when I was finally able to read pioneer girl and find out what was real. More of it than one would think. Things were just moved around, consolidated, and maybe embellished some.

    Rose definitely had a huge role. I think she was the making of it to see that it even happened, but Laura supplied the warmth and heart. Which is why we all love Laura but Rose deserves a little of that love too.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi Jill – thanks for sharing your thoughts! You mentioned Jack–that detail was one that I felt really betrayed by, and I still wish I didn’t know what really happened. The scene in the novel where Jack dies is one of the most powerful in the series, for me. I still get choked up when I read it. I also didn’t like what I learned about Rose and Laura’s relationship.

      Pioneer Girl was an amazing accomplishment, and I have enormous respect for Pamela Smith Hill. If I had come to Laura’s life through that, I would have been fascinated. My reluctance, I think, goes back to the enormous pleasure I got from reading the series as a child.

      In any case, one of the reasons why LIW still fascinates so many, I think, is that there are so many different ways to approach her experience. That’s a good thing, I think! We can all enjoy the work in the way that makes sense for us.

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