Archive for the ‘BOOKS BY OTHER AUTHORS’ Category

Bringing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Stories to Life in Quilts – Part 2

February 21, 2017

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWebI’m proud to have talented quilt teacher, designer, and historian Linda Halpin visit Sites and Stories. Last time, Linda wrote about how she came to study the quilts referenced in the famous Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

She also helped me out when I decided that a quilt would be at the center of Death on the Prairie, the 6th Chloe Ellefson mystery.

 Here’s Linda’s story.

* * *

It turns out my connection to Laura wasn’t done. Many years after Quilting With Laura was published, I met Kathleen Ernst in one of my classes. Kathleen had written several books for the American Girl company. My daughter was a big fan of American Girl. It was a line of book characters and dolls that taught history through different eras. Their stories were rounded out by books on cooking, period clothing, and current events. The dolls encouraged imagination as they taught history.

Fast forward several years after that first encounter to when Kathleen contacted me about a new project she was working on. She had expanded her writing to include books for adults with a line of mystery books based on a woman named Chloe Ellefson. Chloe worked at a living history museum, and like the American Girl characters, she brought artifacts to life by studying what life was like when the artifacts were used, who used them, how they were used, what life was like at the time.  It was all the things I loved about Little House and American Girl, but this time geared towards adults.

Chloe Ellefson mysteries

I love Kathleen’s story telling style. She interweaves story lines back and forth from historical to present day as Chloe investigates her artifacts. Kathleen’s new project was a story in which Chloe is given a quilt said to have been made by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and she sets out to investigate if this could really be true. What Kathleen wanted from me was a quilt that could help tell Chloe’s story, one that incorporated the blocks Laura talked about in her books.

My prior investigation told me that there were only three patterns Laura mentions by name:  Nine Patch, Bear’s Track, and Doves in the Window. My quilt research taught me that at the time Laura was learning to quilt, patterns didn’t have specific names the way they do today. They were simply called ‘patchwork.’ It wasn’t until 1889 that patterns began to be identified by different names, mostly as a marketing tool for Ladies Art Company, a mail order catalog where people could order patterns.

Prior to that, patterns were spread person to person, or blocks were printed in women’ magazine of the day, such as Godey’s Ladies Magazine. Interestingly enough, sewing was so much a part of every day life that only an ink drawing of the blocks were given. No templates, no directions. Women were able to draft their own patterns and figure out the construction on their own just by looking at the pictures.

Goody's Lady's Book, 1840 (Wikimedia Commons)

Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1840 (Wikimedia Commons)

When Laura was learning to quilt in the 1860s and ’70s, patterns weren’t identified by specific names. By the time she sat down to write her stories in the 1930s and on, pattern names were widely used. What she called Doves in the Window in her stories could have been one of several different designs, as several different patterns share that name. When writing Quilting With Laura, the intrigue for me happened when I tried to determine just which Doves in the Window pattern Laura had used for her wedding quilt. There was no real quilt to look at. Very early on in their marriage, a house fire destroyed most of Laura and Almanzo’s belongings, including her wedding quilt.

At the time my book was published, I found what I thought for sure was the correct Doves in the Window pattern. It was one that, like Bear’s Track, had lots of bias edges. It’s the one I could see Caroline making Laura take out over and over again until she had it right. And it looks like doves. Surely that must be the pattern she was talking about.

Doves In The Window

Doves In The Window

Or, could it have been this one, also called Doves in the Window, but that was very similar to Bear’s Track?

Doves in the Window block.

Doves in the Window block.

 

Bear's Paw block.

Bear’s Track block.

That would certainly explain why she called it Bear’s Track in On The Banks of Plum Creek, but Doves in the Window in These Happy Golden Years.

But wait! Could it have been this one –

quilt block by Linda Halpin

– very similar to a block made by Laura on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum in Burr Oak, IA?

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Quilt block on display in the Master Hotel, Laura Ingalls Wilder Park & Museum, Burr Oak, IA.

In making Chloe’s Quilt for Kathleen, I had the opportunity to create a little mystery of my own. For the front of the quilt, I combined Nine Patch, the pattern both Laura and Mary made (and the pattern Mary continued to make even after she lost her eyesight), Bear’s Track, and the Doves in the Window that resembles the Bear’s Track.

I used reproduction fabrics that mimicked the fabrics Laura would have used as a child. I even used the construction technique seen so often in antique scrap quilts of piecing together tiny fragments of cloth until they were large enough to cut out the small pieces needed to make the block.

When I was done, I had created this quilt for Kathleen.

Linda (on the right) and I took the gorgeous quilt she made for me to the Ingalls family's dugout site on Plum Creek (small sign in the background marks actual spot). Just because.

Isn’t it beautiful?  Linda (on the right) and I took Chloe’s Quilt to the Ingalls family’s dugout site on Plum Creek. Just because.

But for my mystery, I couldn’t resist also including the Burr Oak Doves in the Window variation, as I felt it told a story of its own. The back of Kathleen’s quilt shows a variation of the Burr Oak block (lower left in photo below), as well as another Doves in the Window design. The Burr Oak block is very similar to a pattern I discovered in an old quilting book from 1929, where author Ruth Finley collected patterns and stories and recorded them in one of the first books written on quilting. In the Finley book, Doves in the Window appears as the block shown top right below.

Doves in the Window

Is it possible that this was the pattern Laura made? Was she trying to recreate it from memory, thereby making one so similar to the Finley block by making the Burr Oak block? We may never know, but it sure is fun to speculate!

Linda Halpin

* * *

Linda Halpin has been teaching quiltmaking across the United States and Canada for over 40 years. She is one of a handful of teachers certified by the Embroiderer’s Guild of America as a Quiltmaking Instructor. In addition to Quilting with Laura, which focuses on hand piecing, the way Laura would have done, she has also written several other quiltmaking books as well as The Little House Sampler pattern, which is geared toward today’s machine piecing techniques. She was invited both in 2015 and 2016 by Andover Fabrics of New York to make quilts for them using their Little House on the Prairie inspired lines of fabrics, available in quilt shops nationwide. To see more of Linda’s work, or to learn about the classes and lectures she offers, visit her website at www.lindahalpin.com.

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWeb

 

Learn more about Death on the Prairie, and all of the Chloe Ellefson Mysteries, on my website.

Bringing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Stories to Life in Quilts – Part 1

February 14, 2017

I’m delighted to welcome my talented friend Linda Halpin to the blog! Linda is a quilt instructor and historian—and a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan.

* * *

Linda Halpin Pepin

Linda Halpin with one of her beautiful quilts at the replica Ingalls cabin in Pepin, WI.

Like many, my adventure with Laura started in grade school when I was captivated by her stories. This was long before television brought her to life. She lived in my head, made real by her story telling. As a child, I too began sewing at an early age, so whenever Laura mentioned sewing, it struck a chord. I remember her telling of how Ma expected her to do her job over until it was done well.

That pesky Bear’s Track quilt block she was making in On The Banks of Plum Creek, with so many bias edges that had to be done over and over until it was right.

The Doves in the Window quilt she made as a little girl that she packed into her trunk in These Happy Golden Years as she gathered belongings for her new life as Almanzo’s wife.

And it all started with the Nine Patch blocks she and Mary learned their sewing skills on.  What were these patterns?  What did they look like?

Nine patch quilt (National Museum of American History, 321804.)

Nine patch quilt, c. 1890-1900, maker unknown.  (National Museum of American History, 321804.)

Fast forward many years:  I had become a quilt teacher, leading classes for quilt shops and guilds across the country.  One day, a young mom came into a shop where I was teaching.  She was looking for a book that had patterns that tied in with the Little House stories.  They were her daughter’s favorite books, and she wanted to teach her daughter how to quilt.  What better way than to do it through quilt blocks that told Laura’s story?

Why hadn’t I thought of it before?  It was the perfect project for me to undertake.  I began with re-reading the entire Little House series of books, this time making note of all the times Laura mentioned quilts and fabric and sewing.  Imagine my surprise to find over 70 references!  Stitching truly was a part of her every day life.

As I made note of the patterns Laura mentioned, her adventures also brought to mind several quilt blocks that would be perfect to help tell her story:  Log Cabin, Schoolhouse, Trail of the Covered Wagon.

Log cabin quilt,1850-1875, maker unknown. (National Museum of American History, 234821)

Log cabin quilt,c. 1850-1875, maker unknown. (National Museum of American History, 234821)

By the time I was done, I had gathered 14 patterns that I thought would be perfect as a teaching tool that linked quilting and Little House.  Quilting with Laura:  Patterns Inspired by the “Little House On The Prairie” Series was published in 1991, with revisions and reprinting in 2015.

quilting with Laura

It has been the perfect way to tell Laura’s story in fabrics, picking and choosing the block designs most appealing to the maker.

* * *

Here are some of the quilts Linda has made to show how the individual block patterns in her book can be put together in different ways.

Andover Fabrics has twice invited Linda to make a display quilt using their Little House on the Prairie-inspired line. The 2015 quilt is shown at the top of the page; this one was created in 2016.

Andover Fabrics has twice invited Linda to make a display quilt using their Little House on the Prairie-inspired line. The 2015 quilt is shown at the top of the page; this one was created in 2016.

 

prairie_sampler_lrg

This one uses 9 of the block patterns available in Linda’s book, Quilting With Laura.

 

lrg_samplerl2

A sampler using some of the blue and red tones that would have been available for Laura’s use.

 

millhouseshophop2015_lrg

Linda designed this Wisconsin-themed quilt for Millhouse Quilts in Waunakee, WI.

* * *

Linda Halpin has been teaching quiltmaking across the United States and Canada for over 40 year. She is one of a handful of teachers certified by the Embroiderer’s Guild of America as a Quiltmaking Instructor. In addition to Quilting with Laura, which focuses on hand piecing, the way Laura would have done, she has also written several other quiltmaking books as well as The Little House Sampler pattern, which is geared toward today’s machine piecing techniques. She was invited both in 2015 and 2016 by Andover Fabrics of New York to make quilts for them using their Little House on the Prairie inspired lines of fabrics, available in quilt shops nationwide. To see more of Linda’s work, or to learn about the classes and lectures she offers, visit her website at www.lindahalpin.com

* * *

Next time, Linda will share how she came to create a quilt for my Chloe Ellefson mystery, Death on the Prairie!

Gratitude Giveaway!

February 7, 2017

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Laura Ingalls Wilder was born on this date in a log cabin in the ‘big woods’ near Pepin, WI. Laura’s beloved Little House books were some of the earliest I read as a child, and certainly influenced my career.

In gratitude, I’m giving away 15 personalized copies of my Laura-related Chloe Ellefson mystery, Death on the Prairie.

To enter the giveaway, leave a comment below before midnight on Wednesday, 2/8/17. Winners will be chosen from entries here and on my Facebook page, and announced on Thursday.

Chloe’s Book Club Returns

February 6, 2017

I enjoyed discussing the Little House books with readers last year after Death on the Prairie:  A Chloe Ellefson Mystery was published. I’ve had some requests to pick up where we left off.  What better time to start than Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 150th birthday month?

Dust off your copy of Little Town on the Prairie, and in a few weeks we’ll chat. I hope you’ll join the conversation!

Little Town on the Prairie

Chloe’s Book Club: The Long Winter

August 9, 2016

The Long Winter has always been one of my favorite books in the Little House series. A number of readers have mentioned that they loved it too.

LngWtr

Weather dominates the book from the first chapter, when—on a hot day—Pa predicts a hard winter, based on the thickness of muskrat houses. The author made additional use of foreshadowing when she describes a wonderful October dinner in their claim shanty:

That was such a happy supper that Laura wanted it never to end. When she was in bed with Mary and Carrie, she stayed awake to keep on being happy. She was so sleepily comfortable and cosy.

They wake to a blizzard. The shanty isn’t an ideal place to wait out a storm, but the family has food and fuel–and Pa keeps everyone’s spirits up by playing the fiddle. No problem.

Uneasy about the weather, Pa moves the family into town for the winter. The blizzards keep coming, and the supply train can’t get through. Valiant and increasingly desperate attempts are made to clear the tracks—all without success.

Train_stuck_in_snow

A train stuck in snow in southern Minnesota, March 29, 1881. Photograph by Elmer and Tenney. (Wikipedia; Minnesota HS)

As always, the descriptions are vivid:

All day and all night, the house trembled, the winds roared and screamed, the snow scoured against the walls and over the roof where the frosty nails came through.  

Some of the Little House books are episodic. You could pluck a single chapter out of a volume and the book would still read just fine. I think one of the reasons The Long Winter is so gripping is that the tension and dread build from Chapter 1.

Later, we also learn of the psychological toll of enduring endless blizzards:

Even after Laura was warm she lay awake listening to the wind’s wild tune and thinking of each little house, in town, alone in the whirling snow…  And the little town was alone on the wide prairie. Town and prairie were lost in the wild storm which was neither earth nor sky, nothing but fierce winds and a blank whiteness.  …No light and no cry could reach through a storm that had wild voices and an unnatural light of its own.

The blankets were warm and Laura was no longer cold but she shivered.

Another reason the book is so compelling is that the outcome the Ingalls family and their neighbors are trying to avoid is intense:  death by starvation. We watch food and coal supplies dwindle. Surely a train must come before the last bread was gone, Laura thinks, but over and over hopes are dashed.

When the coal runs out, Pa and Laura twist hay into sticks, which burn as quickly as kindling. It was difficult work:  Their hands were red and swollen, the skin was cold, and covered with cuts made by the sharp slough hay.

DSCF9494

A hay twist on display in a restaurant in De Smet.

When Laura asks Pa to play the fiddle, he tries…and he can’t.

“My fingers are too stiff and thick from being out in the cold so much, I can’t play,” Pa spoke as if he were ashamed.  He laid the fiddle in its box.

Pa’s fiddle has seen the family through many difficult moments. The scene is one of the low points in the entire series.

TheLongWinter

In this early cover, Pa plays the fiddle as the family huddles around the stove.

The Long Winter is not without its high moments. Throughout, the author balanced hardship and despair with family togetherness and perseverance. Another day, knowing Pa can’t play, Laura sings to cheer him up. The Christmas chapter is (as always) uplifting, even though the train hasn’t come.

And when rumors pass of a farmer who might have wheat to sell, Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland risk their lives to go get it. They almost get caught in a blizzard on the open prairie…but they make it back to town: “Cap and I figure we’ll do what we set out to do,” Almanzo said. This book provides our first look at Almanzo the man. He’s a heroic, capable hero, and it’s rewarding to see that the boy in Farmer Boy turned out so well.

By spring the family has nothing to eat but coarse bread, made by grinding wheat in the coffee mill. The family is suffering from malnutrition, cold, and probably depression:  (Laura) did not ever feel awake. She felt beaten by the cold and the storms. She knew she was dull and stupid but she could not wake up. Both Ma and Pa, uncharacteristically, have moments of despair.

The cover art for this recent edition is one of the few that depicts challenge instead of something more fun or cozy.

The cover art for this recent edition is one of the few that depicts challenge instead of something more fun or cozy.

When the train finally comes, the relief for readers is all the greater because the situation had been so dire. The book ends on a joyous note.

Is The Long Winter one of your favorites too?  What did you like, or not?

***

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.

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWeb

I had hoped to discuss each book in the series, but I need to move on to other topics, and so am out of time (at least for now). Many thanks to everyone who read along and shared their thoughts.  It’s been thought-provoking–and fun.

Chloe’s Book Club: By The Shores Of Silver Lake

July 22, 2016

A reader last time mentioned that she felt On The Banks Of Plum Creek was the last “childhood” book. To build on that idea, I think of By The Shores Of Silver Lake as a transitional, coming-of-age book.

By The Shores Of Silver Lake

The book opens with a bit of backstory, explaining that everyone in the family except Laura and Pa had been stricken with scarlet fever. The neighbors had been sick too, so there had been no one to help. Mary has gone blind. Bills are mounting. After this experience, Laura is certainly no longer a child.

Then Aunt Docia arrives and offers Pa a job in a railroad camp in Dakota Territory. Before the family leaves—in a scene I can’t read without getting a lump in my throat—Laura’s beloved dog Jack dies.

In the camp Laura meets her cousin Lena, who has an appealing wild streak. Lena represents the last of Laura’s childhood.

LenaLaura

Garth Williams illustration.

The girls set out in a buggy to deliver laundry:

The trotting ponies touched noses, gave a little squeal and ran.  …The ponies were stretched out low, running with all their might.

They’re running away!” Laura cried out.

“Let ’em run!” Lena shouted, slapping them with the lines.

And when the girls hear about a thirteen-year-old getting married: “May I drive now?” Laura asked. She wanted to forget about growing up.

When Lena takes Laura riding on the ponies, Laura confesses that she’s never ridden before. That leads to one of my favorite lines: (The pony) was big and strong enough to kill Laura if it wanted to, and so high that to fall off it would break her bones. She was so scared she had to try.

Later, when Ma admonishes Laura against spending time with Lena, we realize that Laura’s exuberant fun is behind her.

 

When the family spends the winter alone in a surveyors’ house beside Silver Lake, we see more of Laura’s spirit.

The Surveyors' House

 

No matter how cold the weather, she loves to go outside and slide on the ice:  Those were glorious days when they were out in the glitter of sharp cold. One moonlit night, when Laura is too restless to settle, she talks Ma into letting her and little sister Carrie go outside to run on the ice. The girls cross the frozen lake, see a wolf, and run home. Pa announces that he’ll hunt the wolf.

“I hope you don’t find the wolf, Pa,” Laura said.

“Whyever  not?” Ma wondered.

“Because he didn’t chase us,” Laura told her.

I didn’t have strong feelings about this book one way or another as a child. Now, I find myself lamenting Laura’s inevitable slide toward adolescence, duty, and domesticity. Ma wants her girls to behave properly, with decorum. She wants them to have gentle manners and always be ladies.

For example, one of my favorite passages comes toward the end of the book:

Laura spread her arms wide to the wind and ran against it. She flung herself on the flowery grass and rolled like a colt. She lay in the soft, sweet grasses and looked at the great blueness above her and the high, pearly clouds sailing in it. She was so happy that tears came into her eyes.

But we don’t get to enjoy Laura’s joy for long:

Suddenly she thought, “Have I got a grass stain on my dress?” She stood up and anxiously looked, and there was a green stain on the calico. Soberly she knew that she should be helping Ma, and she hurried to the little dark tar-paper shanty.

Although I find some of the themes sad, I also admire the author’s ability to beautifully convey fictional Laura’s complexities. Re-reading, I found lovely symbolism and language I’d missed earlier.

How did you react to reading By The Shores Of Silver Lake? Is it one of your favorites, or not so much?

***

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.

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWeb

Next up for discussion:  The Long Winter.

Chloe’s Book Club: On The Banks Of Plum Creek

June 22, 2016

Plum Creek is one of my favorites. As a child, I loved the notion of living in a sod house, loved vicariously playing in the creek, loved the image of Laura frolicking on the roof among prairie flowers while Ma irons below. And yes, while I’ve had some quibbles with Ma, I do give her full credit for moving in with grace after being informed the deal is done.

mmm

Laura’s descriptions of the new home are enchanting:

The creek was singing to itself down among the willows, and the soft wind bent the grasses over the top of the bank.

Red and blue and purple and rose-pink and white and striped flowers all had their throats wide open as if they were singing glory to the morning.

The book is full of childhood adventures (and misadventures). And, this is the book that gives us Laura’s nemesis, Nellie Olson.

But not all of the challenges are child-sized. Laura made poignant use of foreshadowing to set readers up for the crop tragedy.

Grasshopper Notice

Display at Laura Ingalls Wilder Park & Museum, Burr Oak, IA.

Early on, when Laura laments having cattle instead of horses, Pa promises that they will have horses again one day.

“When, Pa?” she asked him, and he said, “When we raise our first crop of wheat.”

When Ma says living in the dugout makes her feel like a penned animal:

Never mind, Caroline,” Pa said. “We’ll have a good house next year.  …And good horses, and a buggy to  boot! I’ll take you riding, dressed up in silks! Think, Caroline—this level rich land, not a stone or stump to contended with, and only three miles from a railroad! We can sell every grain of wheat we raise!”

Then Pa buys lumber for a new house (and windows, and a stove)  on credit, with a promise to pay when he sells his wheat crop. It’s difficult for repeat readers not to shout, “Don’t do it, Pa!  The grasshoppers are coming!”

IMG_3739

Garth Williams’ illustration.

The enormity of the multi-year disaster the Ingalls family faced when their crop was devoured is hard to absorb.

But as always, faith, hard work, and a determination to make the best of things lead to a happy ending. Ma and Pa demonstrate perseverance to their daughters. It’s one of Wilder’s favorite themes, but understandably so; somehow, crisis after crisis, the Ingalls family did survive.

DOP-PlumCreekDugoutSite-Color300dpi

Today Wilder fans can visit the dugout site on the banks of Plum Creek.

Is Plum Creek one of your favorites too? What did you like, or dislike? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

***

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.

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWeb

Next up for discussion:  By The Shores Of Silver Lake.

Chloe’s Book Club: Little House On The Prairie

May 19, 2016

Little House On The Prairie in some ways epitomizes the view of pioneer life many readers of my generation grew up with. What could be more iconic than a family packing their belongings in a covered wagon and heading west? Garth William’s cover, showing Mary and Laura watching from the back of the wagon, is classic.

Little House on the Prairie

As always, the descriptions are remarkable.  Here’s one of my favorites:

Kansas was an endless flat land covered with tall grass blowing in the wind. Day after day they traveled in Kansas, and saw nothing but the rippling grass and the enormous sky. In a perfect circle the sky curved down to the level land, and the wagon was in the circle’s exact middle.

Prairie landscape, Little House On The Prairie Museum, Kansas

Prairie landscape, Little House On The Prairie Museum, Kansas

Also as always, Laura emerges a real, complex, and thoroughly likable character. When Ma chastises her for complaining:

So she did not complain any more out loud, but she was still naughty, inside. She sat and thought complaints to herself.

And when Mary primly offers to give some beautiful beads she and Laura collected at an abandoned Indian campsite to baby Carrie, Laura—with some silent prompting from Ma—feels compelled to do the same: Perhaps Mary felt sweet and good inside, but Laura didn’t. When she looked at Mary she wanted to slap her. So she dared not look at Mary again.

This book brings out all of my conflicted feelings about Ma. I empathize with her challenges.  Pa takes her to Indian territory—knowing full well that Indian people terrify her! They crossed the ice-covered Mississippi River at its widest point—only to hear the ice breaking up that night; when Pa says they were lucky the ice didn’t break while they crossed she responds: I thought about that yesterday, Charles. The poor woman took the reins during a difficult river crossing when Pa plunged from the wagon to help the struggling horses.

Nonetheless, her fussiness can be annoying. During that dangerous river crossing, the beloved family dog Jack disappears, presumably drowned. When the exhausted dog finally catches up to the family, Ma complains that the happy reunion woke baby Carrie. Really, Ma?

(Wikipedia)

Caroline and Charles Ingalls (Wikipedia)

That said, there is much to admire in Ma. Readers understand that she craves a more genteel life. As an adult, I know what I think I missed as a child:  Ma must have been afraid a lot. On more than one occasion Pa’s life literally is in her hands.  One of the most poignant moments comes when Charles goes down the well to help a neighbor overcome by fumes, and Ma must find the strength to pull him to safety. After everyone is safe: She covered her face with her apron and burst out crying.

She must have feared for her children’s safety too. Still, she always does what needs doing.

This book makes many modern readers uncomfortable due to its portrayal of Native Americans. Wilder signaled something important on page one:  They were going to Indian country. And on page six, she foreshadowed a key scene to come:  Pa promised that when they came to the West, Laura should see a papoose.

While certain scenes and bits of dialogue do make me cringe, it’s important to consider the plot within the context of the time it depicts. Ma hates all Indian people—as she was surely taught to do, growing up when and where she did. Laura is both afraid of and fascinated by Indian people. I see her feelings as a reflection of the personality divide within the family. Ma and Mary are homebodies. Laura and Pa are more intrigued by the outside world.

Little House In The Big Woods ends on such a satisfactory note that at first, it can be hard to understand why the family left Wisconsin at all. Pa’s feelings are explained well, though, and first-time readers take pleasure as they create a new home on the vast Kansas prairie:

We’re going to do well here, Caroline, Pa said. This is a great country. I’ll be contended to stay in the the rest of my life.  …No matter how thick and close the neighbors get, this country’ll never feel crowded.  Look at that sky!

Since I know the story, this type of foreshadowing is all the more poignant. In the end, of course (Spoiler alert!) Charles/Pa discovers that he built his cabin on land that was not, yet, available for settlement.

Replica cabin at the site of the Ingalls home. Little House on the Prairie Museum, KS. (Photo by Barbara Ernst)

Replica cabin at the site of the Ingalls home. Little House on the Prairie Museum, KS. (Photo by Barbara Ernst)

Was it an honest mistake? Did he know all along, and simply presume he could bide his time until the Federal government declared the land officially available to pioneers? Laura scholars are still debating.

In any case, even as a young reader I understood how heartbreaking it was for the family to have labored so hard to create a new home—only to have to pack up and leave it all behind.

How do you feel about Little House On The Prairie? Do you have a favorite, or least favorite, chapter?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

***

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.

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWeb

Next up for discussion:  On The Banks Of Plum Creek.

Chloe’s Book Club: Farmer Boy

April 10, 2016

I’ll start with a confession: as a child, I didn’t particularly like Farmer Boy.

Farmer Boy

Perhaps it was because I’d already bonded with Laura. Perhaps the description of classroom bullies was a bit too scary. Perhaps Father’s brand of child-rearing was intimidating. In any case, after a single reading I didn’t return to the book until I was an adult.

By then I was working in the living history world, and everything clicked. I loved the insights Farmer Boy provided into period activities. Mother was expert at weaving and cooking and everything else I wanted to learn.

Almanzo's childhood home has been beautifully preserved in Malone, NY.

Almanzo’s childhood home has been beautifully preserved in Malone, NY.

Almanzo is a very real boy. He resents his father’s belief that he isn’t responsible enough yet to help train the beautiful colts. He  hates being youngest, and therefore the last served at meals.  In the Birthday chapter, he gobbles his breakfast so he can see what gift is waiting—and is chastised by Mother.

Mothers always fuss about the way you eat. You can hardly eat any way that pleases them.

As always, descriptions of both the natural world and farming are vivid and sensory, such as these passages from Threshing:

The wind howled and the snow whirled and a mournful sound came from the cedars.  The skeleton apple trees rattled their branches together like bones.  All outdoors was dark and wild and noisy.

…The fans whirred inside the mill, a cloud of chaff blew out its front, and the kernels of clean wheat poured out of its side and went sliding down the rising heap on the floor.  Almanzo put a handful into his mouth; they were sweet to chew, and lasted a long time. 

Fanning Mill

Fanning mill.

One of my favorite scenes comes from Keeping House, when Father and Mother leave the children on their own for a week. In very kid-like fashion they bicker and do all the things they shouldn’t, such as eating all the sugar and sneaking into the colt pasture.

The barns at the Wilder Homestead are not original, but have been faithfully reproduced.

The barns at the Wilder Homestead are not original, but have been faithfully reproduced.

I am especially intrigued by Laura’s inclusion of the terrible moment when Almanzo throws the stove-blacking brush at his bossy sister Eliza Jane, leaving a terrible stain on Mother’s prized parlor wallpaper. Miraculously, Eliza Jane manages to patch the wallpaper so carefully that Mother never discovers what happened, saving Almanzo from the whipping of his life.  “I guess I was aggravating,” she tells him. Eliza Jane emerges as such an unlikeable character in later books that I love this glimpse of a softer side.

My favorite aspect of Farmer Boy is simply seeing the boy who became the adult Almanzo I know from later books. At times I’m taken aback by Father’s parenting style (particularly in the Wood-Hauling chapter, when Almanzo is hurt but doesn’t dare say so). But emerging from these episodes is a boy who is learning to figure problems through on his own.

I love the photo on the cover of this DVD, Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura. (Available from Legacy Documentaries)

I love the photo on the cover of this DVD, Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura. (Available from Legacy Documentaries)

Almanzo chooses to buy a piglet rather than spend a precious half-dollar on lemonade. Almanzo manages to get the last laugh during sheep shearing season, when the older workers don’t give him enough credit. In Breaking the Calves, Almanzo takes a chance that leads to a runaway situation:

That night Father asked him:  “You have some trouble this afternoon, son?”

“No,” Almanzo said. “I just found out that I have to break Star and Bright to drive when I ride.”

Most of all, Almanzo dreams of being a successful farmer, and of training horses. We’re not surprised when, in the final chapter, he turns down the offer of a softer life in town.

And then, suddenly, the whole world was a great, shining, expanding glow of warm light. For Father when on:

“If it’s a colt you want, I’ll give you Starlight.”

It’s the perfect ending.

Original cover. (Wikipedia)

Original cover. (Wikipedia)

How about you? Was Farmer Boy always a favorite?  Any favorite scenes? Please share!

***

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.

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWeb

Next up for discussion:  Little House On The Prairie.

Chloe’s Book Club: Little House in the Big Woods

March 16, 2016

This is the book that hooked me, as a child, on Laura Ingalls Wilder. I wanted to be a pioneer girl like Laura. I wanted to experience sugar snow, and a country dance, and the sense of security that came from being inside a snug cabin on a Wisconsin winter night.

KAE cabin

I’ve reread the book many times for pleasure. I’ve also studied it as a novelist. Why does this book continue to captivate readers around the world?

(Wikipedia)

Original edition. (Wikipedia)

There are many elements to admire, but for me, Laura’s gift for characterization comes first. Young Laura is captured on the page as a real, complex, endearing child.  Most of the time she is obedient and happy, but she also struggles in ways that are wholly believable and spot-on for a child her age.

scan

One of my favorite scenes.

Here’s an example from the “Sunday” chapter:

“Did Adam have good clothes to wear on Sundays?” Laura asked Ma.

“No, Ma said. “Poor Adam, all he had to wear was skins.”

Laura did not pity Adam. She wished she had nothing to wear but skins.

Her frustration erupts with a declaration:  “I hate Sunday!”

I also sympathized when, later in the book, Laura slaps her sister Mary. Mary is often portrayed as perfect. But in “Summertime,” Mary knows just how to upset Laura—by saying her own golden curls are prettier than Laura’s.

There is much to admire in Ma, but her role in the hair color debate has always annoyed me. When Aunt Lotty comes to visit:

“Which do you like best, Aunty Lotty,” Mary asked, “brown curls or golden curls?” Ma had told them to ask that, and Mary was a very good little girl who always did exactly as she was told.

However, we see another side of Ma in “Two Big Bears.” When she slaps a bear after mistaking it for the cow in lantern light, she tells Laura to walk back to the house. Half-way there Ma snatches up Laura and runs the rest of the way. Pa isn’t home, and although Ma doesn’t speak of her fear, she reveals it by pulling in the latch string. Then she takes the sleeping baby (Carrie) from bed and sits in the rocking chair.

I missed the nuances as a child, but now, I understand why Ma wanted to hold the warm, drowsy child in her lap. While Ma and Mary are not my favorite characters, author-Laura drew them well.

(Wikipedia)

Caroline/Ma and Charles/Pa (Wikipedia)

Laura’s close relationship with her father emerges very early in the book. When she is frightened by the wolves howling outside, Pa reassures her—but he also carries her to the window to see the wolves. This scene establishes Pa as protector, and also as a parent who wants to help Laura face her fears.

Pa plays games with Laura and Mary, and plays his fiddle at night so they can fall asleep. His character also emerges as complex and, overall, appealing.

His voice is also the last we hear in the book:

When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”

“They are the days of long ago, Laura,” Pa said.  “Go to sleep now.”

…(Laura) thought to herself, “This is now.”  She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now.  They could never be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.

I’ve returned to this passage again and again. Why did so many of us, as children, wish we could have lived in Laura’s time? Is it the depiction of a lifestyle that appears, at least, to be simpler?

Reconstruction, Little House in the Big Woods, Pepin, WI.

Reconstruction, Little House in the Big Woods, Pepin, WI.

I now know that it was not. Still, it’s fun to revisit not only the books, but the pleasure they gave me as a child. In my book Death on the Prairie: A Chloe Ellefson Mystery, Chloe does the same thing:

Only another true Little House-lover could understand what the books had meant to her as a child. It wasn’t just that she and Kari had “played Laura and Mary.” Or that Chloe had turned a back yard bower into a private playhouse she called Laura Land—soft grass and green leaves magically transformed into a log cabin. Laura’s adventures had captivated. Laura’s struggles had inspired. Laura had been a faithful friend when no one else understood.

How about you? What was your reaction to reading Little House in the Big Woods? Have your feelings changed over time? Any favorite scenes? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

***

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.

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWeb