Darkness on the Prairie

Until six weeks ago, I had read none of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House novels. At the age when I might first have picked one up, I was living in Minnesota, the scene of some of young Laura’s adventures. But, unfortunately, I was under the impression that the books were “girly” and incompatible with my own taste in stories of the American frontier, which ran from Mark Twain to Zane Grey. Later, I was further put off by witnessing an episode of the TV show, one in which Pa and Ma are shown propped up in bed, all comfy, eating popcorn as if they, too, were watching TV. Recently, however, I abandoned myself to  the Library of America’s two-volume edition of the books, reading through all eight, plus the posthumously published The First Four Years and a few short pieces.

What I didn’t expect to find in Wilder’s fictional reconstruction of her girlhood was darkness, the air of menace and madness that surrounds the Ingalls family in the woods and even more so on the prairie. Though they are a happy family — they love and get along with each other; Ma’s busy as a bee; Pa’s eyes frequently twinkle — they are a happy family that has landed in an alien land, somewhere like the plains of Mars. The prairie of these novels is a weird and hostile terrain, swept by fire, flood, blizzard, and cyclone; blasted by heat and drought, petrified by cold. It is inhabited by outlandish creatures and fearsome beings: swarming locusts, stampeding cattle; the ravening wolf, the subtle panther, the formidable Indian. And all is not sweetness and light among their fellow settlers, either: loneliness and monotony plague the periods between emergencies; cruelty, drunkenness, and murderous despair erupt in this land. Well, I said to myself, this is a little more like it!     

Each of the novels includes frightening scenes, but the invasion of locusts in On the Banks of Plum Creek, the fourth in the series, is surely one of the most horrific episodes in American literature. The sunlight begins to dim over the Minnesota prairie, a cloud approaches the Ingallses’ farm, but “not like any cloud they had ever seen before. It was a cloud of something like snowflakes, but they were larger than snowflakes, and thin and glittering. Light shone through each flickering particle.” Suddenly the family is pelted from the heavens by enormous grasshoppers, “thudding down like hail.”  

“Laura tried to beat them off. Their claws clung to her skin and her dress. They looked at her with bulging eyes, turning their heads this way and that.” And then the creatures are everywhere: on the livestock, in the milk, under the family’s clothes, all over the fields. “You could hear millions of jaws biting and chewing,” devouring all the wheat, oats, the vegetables in the garden, the leaves and fruit of the trees, the prairie grasses, every green thing. The “nipping, clicking, gnawing sound of the grasshoppers’ eating” goes on and on.

But still worse is to come in the horror department, and one is reminded how indispensable insects have been to science fiction. After some days, “Laura saw a queer thing. All over the knoll grasshoppers were sitting still with their tails down in the ground. They did not stir, even when Laura poked them.”  Digging into one of these holes, Laura comes up  with “a grey thing.” She wonders at it, and, sniffing, so does that good dog, Jack. But Pa knows what’s up: “That’s one of ’em, a pod of grasshopper eggs. I’ve been cutting them open. There’s thirty-five or forty eggs in every pod. There’s a pod in every hole. There’s eight or ten holes to the square foot. All over this country.” The Ingallses’ prospects in Minnesota are doomed — as they were in Kansas, the setting of the previous book, Little House on the Prairie.

In that novel we found Pa staking a rogue claim in what was Indian territory, believing the rumors that Washington was going to open the land to settlers. It was certainly a good bet based on historical odds, but after Pa busts acres of prairie sod and builds the most wonderful, snug house, the Osage become dangerously restive, and, mirabile dictu, federal troops arrive to kick the settlers off the land — surely one of the few instances of this in U.S. history. Although it is impossible today to take Wilder’s view of American Indians with equanimity — or indeed, her celebration of Pa’s industry in ripping up the primeval prairie — still, we glimpse again and again throughout the novels how settlers themselves were ruthlessly served, pawns in the bigger, more pitiless game played by politicians, banks, and railroads.

Set between 1870 and 1885, the novels reflect the triumphal height of the interlinked projects of forcing American Indians onto reservations, granting railroads the run of the land, and populating the Great Plains with white settlers. Little House in the Big Woods, the first of the novels is set in the western Wisconsin woods when the fictional Laura Ingalls is five. The second, Farmer Boy, detours to upper New York State and the boyhood of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s future husband, Almanzo. The third, Little House on the Prairie, set in the early 1870s, brings us back to the Ingalls family, their grueling trek from Wisconsin by covered wagon to Osage territory in Kansas, and their ill-fated tenure there. On the Banks of Plum Creek begins with the family debouching from their covered wagon again, this time in Minnesota in 1877. They live first in a dugout and, eventually, thanks to Pa’s carpentry wizardry, in another snug house. The gruesome devastation of their crops already described propels them into the Dakota territory.

There they stay for the final four volumes, set from 1879 to 1885, moving back and forth between small-town society and a homestead’s rural isolation. In By the Shores of Silver Lake the family takes up winter residence in a railroad surveyor’s house and, later, a claim shack; in the course of the story come encounters with a homicidal mob of enraged railroad workers and brutal claims seekers. The Long Winter is just that: For seven months, successive blizzards and appalling cold reduce the family to burning straw for heat and near-starvation rations. Little Town on the Prairie shows us life in a small frontier community, Laura’s schooldays, and the town’s petty social rivalries. These Happy Golden Years sees Laura off, at age fifteen, to teach school in a tiny settlement and board with a family in which the wife is going mad from the isolation and meagerness of life on the prairie. It is a harrowing picture of the lot of many settlers, that of wives dragged from the East by starry-eyed husbands, and of those husbands themselves, the ones who had not married someone as resourceful, enduring, and submissive as Ma. In the end, Laura gets married — and, alas, more troubles begin. They are the subject of the posthumously published The First Four Years.

Life on the prairie is just one darned thing after another, as Pa might say. The calamities that strike the Ingalls family — disease, debt, near starvation, failed crops, eviction, and, not least, Pa’s westering itch — provide each novel with a dramatic crux, but it is the can-do details that are among the books’ central appeal; and it is surely the vision of self-sufficiency they convey that lies behind their initial success. Little House in the Big Woods, the first in the series, appeared in 1932, followed the next year by Farmer Boy. These years marked the nadir of the Great Depression, with unemployment reaching 25 percent. The third and fourth, Little House on the Prairie and On the Banks of Plum Creek, came out in 1935 and 1937, by which time millions of people had lost their homes. When Pa builds that little house on the prairie without “boughten” materials — with wood he has hewn and borrowed nails — he is fulfilling the dream of countless Americans; and when the family is forced to abandon the place, it’s a shared nightmare.

There is some controversy over how much Wilder’s journalist daughter, Rose Lane, contributed to the writing of these books. Editor Caroline Fraser’s helpful notes on the text make it clear that it was in some degree a collaborative effort; and an article she wrote years ago in The New York Review of Books (December 22, 1994) convinces me that, collaboration notwithstanding, Wilder, whose life provides the story, is justly called the books’ author. Be that as it may, the prose style is vividly plain and eloquently blunt; depictions of work and technique are matter-of-fact — clear, precise, and viscerally satisfying — and paeans to labor and its rewards. The reader’s heart sings at Wilder’s descriptions of building different dwellings: house, claim shack, and dugout; of the business of digging a well, shearing sheep, planting, harvesting, and threshing; of making butter, maple sugar, hominy, candles, shoes, hats, pillows, and bullets. This infectious esteem for honest toil and good workmanship extends even to muskrats, who “had gnawed dried grass to bits and mixed the bits well with mud to make a good plaster for their house, and they had built it solidly and smoothly and rounded the top carefully to shed rain.” Every one of this author’s sketches of nature — of animals and plants, of the day and nighttime skies — are carefully observed and touched with elation.

Wilder’s rendition of the world as seen through the eyes of young Laura shows the limits, literalness, curiosity, and even boredom of a child without a jot of coyness. As Laura travels the long, long journey of childhood, growing older from book to book, Wilder deepens that mind with an understanding of responsibility and charges it with an awareness of the fragility of civilization and of the void beyond it. She touches, too, on Laura’s frustration with the trammels set on women — the sheaves of clothes she has to wear despite sweltering heat, the taboo on vigorous work and play for nice girls, and the requirement of demureness in general. It astounds me that I could have been so wrong in my youthful estimation of these extraordinary novels. Yet that prejudice has granted me the exhilaration of coming to them fresh at this late date, and I am infinitely grateful to the Library of America for reeling me in.