Posts Tagged ‘The First Four Years’

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.