I did it. At 29 years old, I finally finished all of the books in the Little House on the Prairie series.
Aside from the last book (which I'll talk about in a moment), it was a wonderful experience, and I've already mentioned several times my deep regret with not reading them when I was younger. (I actually read several of the spinoff series' as a kid (including all eight books in The Days of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Thomas Tedrow), and my mom is baffled (and now I am too) why my enjoyment of those books didn't prompt me to read the books that inspired them.)
Anyway, I'm going to give my boys another year or so and then we'll definitely be reading Farmer Boy. (Remember when I talked about why I wouldn't start with Little House in the Big Woods?)
In a way, it doesn't seem right to review these two particular books together. Even their titles seem to reflect how different they are: These Happy Golden Years (warm, pleasant, joyful); The First Four Years (bleak, unembellished, factual).
These Happy Golden Years recounts Laura's experiences teaching school and being courted by Almanzo Wilder. Every time Almanzo pulled up to the house in his cutter or had to circle the yard because Barnum was too feisty to stop or sang with Laura on the drive home from Singing School, I smiled.
I absolutely loved the chapter where Nellie Oleson hijacked the outings, and Laura gave Almanzo the clear ultimatum that he would have to choose between her or Nellie, and poor Almanzo was just clueless why it was even a problem because he was just letting Nellie come along to be nice and not because he had any intention of courting her.
It was also nice to see Pa prospering and being able to afford such luxuries as an organ and a sewing machine. I loved Mary's visits home from school and seeing how accomplished and confident she became. In every way, this book felt like it should be the final installment in the series.
And that is why The First Four Years just felt wrong to me.
When Laura and Manly get married, Laura agrees to try farming for three years. They experience hailstorms, drought, diphtheria and debt. They think their luck will surely take a turn for the better during the fourth year, but it is even worse: the death of their baby boy, a fire, not being able to prove up on the tree claim, etc.
And while all these things are going on, Pa and Ma, Mary, Carrie, and Grace are glaringly absent. Laura goes home a couple of times, but those visits receive only a brief mention without any of Pa's optimism, Ma's wisdom, or Mary's friendship. I wondered how the hailstorm affected Pa's crops, whether or not Mary moved back home, what Ma said to comfort Laura, but it's almost like she's been abandoned.
It's rather horrible to watch it all unfold, and this quote impacted me, "[Laura] was tired of waiting for the wheel to turn. And the farmers were
the ones at the bottom, she didn't care what Manly said. If the weather
wasn't right they had nothing, but whether they had anything or not they
must find it somehow to pay interest and taxes and a profit to the
businessmen in town on everything they bought, and they must buy to
live." It just seems so unfair that Manly and Laura could work so hard and still be left with nothing. (And then I read a little about their real lives, and it just depressed me even more--I hate it that their independent spirits were broken to the point that in their later years they became dependent on their daughter, Rose.)
I'm sure there's been much written about whether or not The First Four Years should have ever been published, but my own opinion is that it should not. These Happy Golden Years was published in 1943; The First Four Years was published posthumously in 1971. Laura didn't pass away until 1957, so there was plenty of time for it to be published in her lifetime (since the manuscript appears to be from around 1940). She had already written eight successful novels. If she had wanted it published, it would have been published.
It's not that I have to have a happy ending or that I can't handle reading about hardships or the injustice that sometimes is life. But it makes me angry that Laura didn't get to choose whether or not she wanted to share those experiences with the world. And also that when it was published, they decided to tack it onto the end of a series that was already complete and beautiful as it was.
The one and only reason I'm happy it was published is it's nice to see what Laura's writing was like without any editing from her daughter. But in any case, it doesn't seem like it should have been published as part of the original series. It leads the reader to think it was always meant to go with the other books, and it wasn't.
But despite my strong feelings about the final book, I absolutely loved this series as a whole, with some of the books (Farmer Boy, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie) taking up special residence in my heart. It's crazy how often I think about them during the day (particularly when I'm doing laundry and wishing we only had three outfits per person). I fully expect to enjoy them many more times over the rest of my life.
Tell me about your feelings towards the books. What do you think about The First Four Years? Which one is your favorite book?