The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder (guest review)

My RSI has come back so my one-handed typing is being restricted as much as possible – perfect timing for my housemate Melissa to write a review I can use over here – this time of a much-loved classic. As always, do make her welcome! Over to you, Melissa…

thefirstfouryearsIn my family home, the Little House on the Prairie books are a massive deal. They’re legendary. They’re practically Scripture. (Not actually Scripture though. In my family we take actual Scripture very seriously indeed, and it most definitely does not get confused with other stuff.) From the time I could first read to when I left home, I must have read the entire series every couple of years at least, which adds up to an impressive number of times.

The Little House books take the reader on a journey through the challenges of a little pioneering family venturing into the uncharted American West in the late 1800s. They’re told through the eyes of little Laura, for the most part based on the author’s life, and the books grow with her. Not only does her perspective change, but the language becomes more complex, the number of pictures gradually reduces, and even the font gets smaller from one book to the next. What I love about these books is the delicious level of detail. If I could handle an axe, I could quite happily build my own log cabin based purely on the description of Pa building one. Alternatively, I could make hats from loose straw, or cure venison, or sew a rag rug (that last one is actually on my list of projects this winter).

The First Four Years, though, is a bit of an oddity. Look up the box set of Little House books online, and you’ll see it tacked on the end, less than half the size of any of the others in the series. Unlike the rest, it was not published in Laura’s lifetime, nor even finished; although it has a beginning, middle and end, it’s really just an early draft of a book that was never completed. As a child who had loved the earlier books, I read it and disliked it. It reads clumsily, spoils scenes from the previous book by repeating them less well, inexplicably uses a different name for one of the main characters. As for the story, which picks up where the last one left off with Laura’s marriage to Almanzo Wilder, it feels just like a long list of disasters. The neat closure of the previous book is destroyed and all in all it leaves a bit of a bad taste.

But I’m not here to diss the book. In fact, quite the opposite. Over the last week I’ve reread the entire series, and thoroughly enjoyed the who thing, but this last book stood out as by far the most interesting read, for the very same reasons I didn’t enjoy it as a child.

Like I just said, the book reads like a long list of disasters. The fact is, however, that the other books also tell of many hardships. The entire plot line of The Long Winter, for instance, is simply one blizzard following another while the whole town gradually runs out of coal and then food – not exactly cheery. The difference is mainly that the other books are more detailed; a higher proportion of the pages are given up to descriptions of the wild prairies, family gatherings round a cosy fire, and how to make a fish trap. There’s also a much thicker coat of perspective. Laura’s approach to life, learnt from her parents, is built around simple faith, strict codes of behaviour and a solid work ethic. There is no time for questioning the way things are, no option but to work hard and trust that all will come well in the end. This may sound harsh to modern ears, but it is the only way to survive in an untamed world. And within this clear-cut structure there is room for love and happiness to flourish; there is joy to be found in hard work and accomplishment, in good food and beautiful surroundings, in music and laughter, in the harmony of a caring family where each one is valued and needed by each of the others.

In The First Four Years, much of this veneer is stripped away, leaving the bare bones of the story obvious. It’s a reminder that life was simply very hard and what we would now see as abject poverty was the norm. To me, it was a humbling reminder of how little most of us have to contend with these days, with our indoor plumbing and central heating and effective healthcare; and, quite frankly, what a bad job we often make of it. I know it takes considerably less than a grasshopper plague destroying my year’s work to reduce me to a shivering wreck of anxiety.

I have a feeling that the difference is something to do with how solid our worldviews are; in a pluralistic world, my generation has learnt to question everything and to build our own truth, which can make the simplest things in life incredibly complicated and exhausting. It makes me question the value of questioning things. It almost makes me jealous, although I don’t fancy the food insecurity. Finally, it’s yet another reminder that difficult circumstances absolutely do not have to define your life, if you believe in something that runs deeper.

The other thing that made this read interesting was the insight into how Laura wrote. The story may be complete, but the book is unfinished. Descriptions and reflections are present, but they don’t flow. The characters aren’t really developed; we know Laura well, and Almanzo less well, from the rest of the series, but we don’t get the chance to really meet anyone else. It seems that Laura’s approach was simply to get the story down on paper first, then add the flourishes later. I think I could learn from her here – my first attempt at the NaNoWriMo challenge has yielded a paltry 1,866 words, partly because I spend so long fussing over getting each sentence right rather than getting on with the story.

As a wannabee writer (like literally every other arts graduate I know), I also found it encouraging that the book was, frankly, not great. In case you didn’t catch this at the beginning, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote some of my very favourite books, and the rest of the world seems to rather like them too, but it seems her drafts didn’t cut it. If even the best have to start by producing something unimpressive, then I needn’t balk at my own poor attempts. This leaves me with no excuse not to try. I like that.

Maybe I’ll see if I can hit that 2000 word mark tomorrow.

6 thoughts on “The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder (guest review)

  • December 3, 2016 at 9:41 pm
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    Love the Little house books, confess to never having read them as a child but if I had of done I would have loved them then. The Long Winter is one of my favourites as, to me, it shows even more the spirit of the pioneers to endure what came and their ingenuity ie the twisting of hay to burn and the button lamp. I think we expect too much from this life in the form of convenience and want everything instantaneously and this only leads to dissatisfaction. We need to stop and smell the roses.

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  • December 4, 2016 at 4:18 am
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    Laura’s books have a peculiar publishing history. She’d do the first drafts, then send them to her accomplished writer/editor daughter Rose, who’d fix them up. It was a true collaboration, and I don’t think their great artistic and popular success is due to that. Laura had the experiences and she could tell a story, but her writing style was flat and often almost amateurish. Rose was the quintessential professional, a genius editor and a spellbinding storyteller in her own right. Yet her books were no great success. Laura’s never would have been without Rose. They needed each other. And when we’re agonizing over an imperfect first draft of our own, how nice it would be to have Rose Wilder Lane swoop down and fix them up!

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  • December 4, 2016 at 4:19 am
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    Sorry, I meant I DO think their great success was due to their collaboration – not DON’T! :-)

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  • December 6, 2016 at 9:46 am
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    Lovely review; I haven’t read these for a long while, but like you, the detail was what I loved best, and still love in a book, to be honest (one of the things I weirdly love about Iris Murdoch is the detail she goes into about plans and workings-out). I also loved finding out about the relationship between LIW and her daughter in their writing; I can’t remember when I found out about that but I really liked it.

    Oh, and regarding your own writing, an author I know who does a lot of support to new writers basically says you have to write cr*p in order to have something written that you can edit, so there is that.

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  • December 6, 2016 at 3:08 pm
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    As a child, I had a very similar reaction to The First Four Years to the one that you describe – it seemed to end the series on the wrong note, particularly since These Happy Golden Years seems so perfect in its conclusion. I read Pioneer Girl last year with Pamela Hill’s annotations – although I’m British, my family too took the Little House books very seriously – and I understood Laura Ingalls Wilder’s creative process a lot better. I don’t think it’s fair to say that her daughter was her ghost writer but I think that the First Four Years is a different beast to the others in that Laura is looking at some very dark events when in general, she tended to skim those – there is the big time jump between On the Banks of Plum Creek to On the Shores of Silver Lake because the intervening events were too grim. Her choice to cover them again is interesting since it was around this time that Laura’s own husband died, so she seemed to lose motivation to write at all. I read a really mean-spirited book called Wilder Rose last year that cast Laura as the mean mommy and Rose as her long-suffering daughter and the author took such pleasure in describing how awful First Four Years was without Rose’s guiding hand – it’s not like the others, but it’s not that bad and more importantly than anything, it’s not finished. A lot of Wilder’s writing kind of reminds me of my own grandmother who grew up in similar circumstances but in Northern Ireland in the 1930s – there is something in the voice of Pioneer Girl that holds true throughout the Little House Books and it is that which keeps me returning to it.

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  • December 7, 2016 at 5:36 am
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    I read these books so often as a child but have never revisited them as an adult. And yet I remember them so clearly (including all the random homesteading tips that aren’t particularly practical for my 21st Century city life but are all the more irresistible for that).

    I think I reread These Happy Golden Years and The First Four Years more than any of the other books. At nine or ten, I don’t remember critiquing the skill of the books – I was a pretty undemanding reader that that stage – but I do remember a lot of friends refusing to read The First Four Years. Dead babies and invalid husbands aren’t the most fun to read about, frankly. But imperfect endings are important, especially for children. I don’t remember being as upset as my friends by The First Four Years, but perhaps I had already been hardened by L.M. Montgomery by that stage. I do remember being devastated by the deaths in Anne’s House of Dreams and Rilla of Ingleside when I read those books for the first time, realising even my most beloved fictional character didn’t get an entirely happy ending.

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