I really enjoyed this article in The Guardian. I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books when I was younger and I’ve found them very interesting to re-read as an adult; as a young reader, I didn’t fully grasp quite how close the Ingalls family came to starving to death during The Long Winter, for example.
I hadn’t really picked up on Pa Ingalls’s general hopelessness, though, so this was quite fascinating:
Her novels – progressively darker and more ambivalent – revealed a woman with a robust hatred of debt and credit, and a deep suspicion that only the government and rich financiers back east made any money out of the great land-rush dream. She married in her black cashmere dress to save the trouble and expense of an elaborate wedding, and refused to say “I obey” in her marriage vows, defying social convention. She wrote, “I could not obey anybody against my better judgment” – a view possibly forged by watching her mother suffer from her father’s disastrous financial decisions.
While she often writes of her desire to be “free like the Indians”, riding bareback, Little House on the Prairie is built illegally on occupied Osage Indian land and the family live in fear of a massacre. Her father’s bad judgment forces him to abandon it before they are evicted by federal troops. He buys a Minnesota farm, apparently oblivious to the regular plagues of grasshoppers that, combined with prairie fires and duststorms, drive the Ingalls into crushing debt.
I do remember the novels getting more and more serious – The First Four Years is very sombre in tone. And no wonder:
She then documents heartrending hardship in The First Four Years, which dealt with her early married life and was published posthumously in 1971. The couple are burdened by a massive mortgage; drought, hailstorms and fires destroy their farmhouse and then Almanzo is crippled at 31 by diphtheria. The book tells of the secret sorrows of women. In one incident Wilder recounts her horror as their desperate childless neighbours the Boasts offer her their best horse in return for her baby daughter, Rose. Wilder herself lost her only son in infancy.
There’s only one thing for it: I’m going to have to track down this set of novels and read them again.