2 volumes, 1750 pp., New York: Library of America, 2012.
The Little House books are American classics not only for their content (they follow the Ingalls family as they move around the nation during the pioneer days of the nineteenth century) but also, one could argue, for the fact that they are in essence what is an early attempt at creative non-fiction (Laura Ingalls Wilder writes about her life using novelistic techniques, sometimes including fictionalising, exaggerating, and redacting). They are engaging stories that are both personal in that they are about Laura’s life and also more general and historical, as they trace an era in the history of the United States. It is definitely time for them to be discovered by a new generation of readers.
This newly published edition collects all nine of Wilder’s novels together, and because of the desire to get so many books along with notes and appendices into just two volumes, by necessity the font is quite small and can be challenging to read for some. Still, on the whole, it’s fantastic to have all of the books together.
‘Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.’ So begins Little House in the Big Woods, the first novel Wilder wrote and the earliest, chronologically, as well. From that point on, the reader is drawn into young Laura’s life and the adventures she has with her parents and sisters. ‘Adventure’ is the right word because somehow Laura, or ‘Half Pint’, as her father calls her, seems to enjoy everything, and her parents manage to make her and her sisters feel happy and secure, despite some extremely difficult times. Fires, droughts, a locust infestation, hailstorms, food shortages, illnesses: the Ingalls family lives through all this and more, although some of the harder periods seem to be downplayed somewhat in the stories, perhaps due to Wilder’s desire not to scare a younger audience. The novels are full of excitement and suspense, because the reader wants to know how the family survived yet another crisis, or how they built yet another new home in yet another new location, or celebrated another Christmas when once again the weather was extreme and Santa couldn’t possibly make it out to their snug little cabin (Christmas in particular is always a time of great joy, and as Pa says while he plays his fiddle for the family, ‘Look … how Laura’s eyes are shining.’ (On the Banks of Plum Creek).
Farmer Boy, based on the childhood in New York state of Alonzo Wilder, later Laura’s husband, always seemed to me to not fit so well with the other books. The stories about her childhood ring truer and feel more lived-in, whereas Alonzo’s tale has been imagined, although it too is based on facts. Farmer Boy does give readers a glimpse into yet another part of America’s past, but its placement in the volumes between Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie can feel almost like an annoyance, so eager is the reader to know what happened to Laura next.
A modern reader will undoubtedly cringe at the politically incorrect elements of the novels, especially the description and treatment of native Americans, but unfortunately this needs to be understood in the context in which the books take place and were written. Still, that is partly what makes them so historically important and fascinating; Wilder’s texts are documents that provide us with a greater understanding of the history of the United States, while also entertaining us with a wonderful story.
In short, the Library of America’s two-volume edition of Wilder’s Little House books are well worth reading. Today, America scarcely resembles how it was in Laura’s time, in regard to how neighbours helped one another, and how family-centred (and church-centred) life was, but a reader can easily imagine her – or himself travelling in covered wagons across the plains and living a pioneer life.