Posts Tagged ‘Death on the Prairie’

Chloe’s Book Club: The First Four Years

May 15, 2017

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.

Chloe’s Book Club: These Happy Golden Years

April 10, 2017

The cover of Happy Golden Years reveals the ending, but the book doesn’t begin happily.  Instead, Pa is driving Laura across the prairie on a bitterly cold day.

Only yesterday she was a school girl; now she was a school teacher. This had happened so suddenly. I remember reading this book as a child and being astonished that a fifteen-year-old could become a school teacher.

The challenges of teaching are dwarfed by the challenge of boarding with a bitterly unhappy couple, the Brewsters. This episode reaches a frightening climax with one of the most memorable scenes in the series—Mrs. Brewster threatening her husband with a butcher knife. Can you imagine being trapped in an isolated shanty while this was going on?

Garth Williams illustration.

The wife was so disturbed that when writing the book, Laura used “Brewster” as a pseudonym for “Bouchie.” This scene is a prime example of why re-reading the Little House books as an adult provides new insights. Chloe’s reaction to this scene in Death on the Prairie mirrors my own:

That particular scene had horrified Chloe as a child. Now, she felt sorry for Mrs. Brewster. Maybe she had post-partum depression. Maybe she had too many children and not enough food. Maybe the lonely frozen prairie was simply too much.

I wonder how many settlers virtually alone on the endless prairie, with nothing to do and nowhere to go and relentless snow and cold, succumbed to despair. This was edgy material in the early 1940s, when the book was published.

However, the depth of misery Laura experiences at the Brewster home makes it all the more rewarding when Laura is rescued…by Almanzo! The author skillfully tantalizes readers with a liesurely description of his arrival:

The (school) shanty trembled in the wind that every moment howled louder around it. Then, …It seemed to (Laura) that the wind had a strangely silvery sound. …She did not know what to make of it. The sky was not changed; gray, low clouds were moving fast about the prairie covered with blowing snow. The strange sound grew clearer, almost like mice. Suddenly the whole air filled with a chiming of little bells. Sleigh bells!

Almanzo and his beautiful horses take Laura away for visits with her family on weekends, each time saving her from spending two wretched and endless days at the Brewster shanty. The weather is often brutal—minus forty degrees, on one trip. Almanzo’s willingness to come reveal his feelings for Laura, and his fortitude and skills suggest that he’d be a fine life partner.

Of course, all does not proceed smoothly between the two. Laura initially sees Almanzo only as a friend of Pa’s. Unsure of his intentions, she gets the courtship off to an awkward start by making it clear that she does not consider him a beau.

Garth Williams illustration.

When she’s back in town with her family after the school term ends, she watches as many of her friends go for sleigh rides up and down the main street. Almanzo waits a while before showing up—cleverly, I think, choosing to give her time alone to think about whether or not she wants a beau.

She tried not to mind being forgotten and left out. She tried not to hear the sleigh bells and the laughter, but more and more she felt that she could not bear it. Her wistfulness as she watches her friends flash by once again makes his arrival that much sweeter.

Sleigh rides give way to buggy rides, and slowly, the two get to know one another. “You’re independent, aren’t you?” Almanzo asks at one point.  “Yes,” said Laura.

Garth Williams illustration.

I love the image of two shy people getting to know each other on long drives through the country. Laura didn’t provide much detail about their conversations, which is just fine.

On one of my visits to De Smet, a guide gave me directions to an area where Laura and Almanzo went for some of their long drives.

This book, originally intended to be the final book in the Little House series, begins to show us Laura the woman instead of Laura the girl.

Garth Williams illustration.

I have mixed feelings about the wedding scene. Part of me is delighted that Laura and Almanzo have reached the point of commitment. Part of me is sad because the child I had known through the first books is gone.

How about you? What did you like best (or least) about the book?

***

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.

Next up for discussion:  The First Four Years.

Chloe’s Book Club: Little Town on the Prairie

February 28, 2017

Welcome back! I’m glad to be picking up the book club where we left off.

By chance, I attended a book signing at my local indie bookstore last week, and spotted this on the “Staff Picks” table:

img_4419

How about you? I hope you’ll share your reaction to the book in the comments section below.

As a child, this was not one of my favorites—probably because Laura was growing up faster than I was. I’ve found the book much more satisfying as an adult.

One of the most poignant moments for me comes on page two. When Pa introduces the idea of Laura getting a job in town, Ma reacts: “No, Charles, I won’t have Laura working out in a hotel among all kinds of strangers.”  Pa responds, “Who said such a thing? …No girl of ours’ll do that, not while I’m alive and kicking.”

I know now that Laura did work in a hotel, and at a much younger age, when the family went through hard times and ended up at the Masters Hotel in Iowa. It’s telling, I think, that Laura presented that topic as she did in this book.

That moment is followed in the next chapter by one of my favorite scenes in the entire series. While walking with her sister Mary, Laura reflects on their improved relationship. Mary had always been good. Sometimes she had been so good that Laura could hardly bear it. But now she seemed different.

Little House in the Big Woods Garth Williams

Our first glimpse of the girls in Little House in the Big Woods. (Garth Williams illustration.)

Laura has recently shared how annoying she used to find Mary’s behavior. Here’s Mary’s confession:

“I’m not really (good). …If you could see how rebellious and mean I feel sometimes, if you could see what I really am, inside, you wouldn’t want to be like me.  …I wasn’t really wanting to be good. I was showing off to myself, what a good little girl I was, and being vain and proud, and I deserved to be slapped for it.”

Laura is shocked by this confession, and so was I! Suddenly Mary, who’d been pretty one-dimensional in earlier books, jumps off the page as a complex and, to me, a more sympathetic character. To further the theme, later in the book Laura confronts the reality of Mary going off to college, and realizes how much she’ll miss her older sister.

A different “sisters moment” provides another of my absolute favorite scenes in the chapter titled “Sent Home From School.” When the vindictive teacher Miss Wilder orders young Carrie to rock her seat, which has come a little loose from the floor, Carrie is soon exhausted. Laura is so angry she takes over and soon is loudly thumping the seat back and forth.

school

Garth Williams captured the moment beautifully.

The girls were ultimately sent home from school, a punishment worse than whipping with a whip. Shocking! I think Ma and Pa handled it well.

Again, a little behind-the-scenes knowledge adds layers of complexity to this chapter.  Eliza Jane Wilder was destined to become Laura’s sister-in-law; Laura’s daughter Rose spent extended time with her. Still, Laura painted Eliza Jane as a petty tyrant who seems to torment Carrie in an effort to provoke Laura. That must have led to some interesting family conversations.

As in all the Little House books, the landscape is evoked in vivid detail, and becomes a complex character itself.  “The prairie looks so beautiful and gentle,” (Laura) said. “But I wonder what it will do next. Seems like we have to fight it all the time.”

Laura is just as skilled at describing the town itself, and her reaction reveals much about her:  The town was a sore on the beautiful, wild prairie. Old haystacks and manure piles were rotting around the stables, the backs of the stores’ false fronts were rough and ugly.  …The town smelled of staleness and dust and smoke and a fatty odor of cooking. A dank smell came from the saloons and a musty sourness from the ground by back doors where the dishwater was thrown out.

We’re getting toward the end of the series, and this is a transitional book.  Laura gets her first glimpse of Almanzo’s beautiful horses, her first job, her teaching certificate. She’s in her mid-teens, and her girlhood is fast slipping away.

Little Town on the Prairie

PS – I stayed at a B&B in De Smet while working on Death on the Prairie,  and the proprietor told me that bluish-gray cats are not uncommon in town today. Perhaps they’re descendants of the kitten Pa brought home?

# # #

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:  These Happy Golden Years.

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?

dscf3297

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

liw150thbdaygiveawayfb1200x900w

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: 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.