Friday, February 21, 2014

Book Review - The First Four Years

Powell's Books · Barnes & Noble
Laura Ingalls Wilder ©1953
I read several reviews for this book and it was critiqued pretty harshly. People said the writing was poor and not at all like the rest of the idyllic Little House series. I, however, liked it—a lot.

First of all they're right, it is not a literary work of art. It was actually published from four notebooks, a handwritten rough draft, found after Laura’s death. But, what resonated with me was a feeling of authenticity. The other book I've read, Little House in the Big Woods, was wonderful, but felt censored—highly polished? For example, she’s afraid of being spanked by her Pa, but instead he curls her up in his lap for a moral story. Leaving me feeling that this man never, ever, lost his temper… Not even when his daughters disobey him, not once, but twice. But, if she was afraid of being spanked then wouldn't she have to have felt his belt before?

Laura and Almanzo are married early on in the story. Laura is nineteen and Almanzo twenty-nine. That's what attracted me to this story, I was twenty when I was married and part of me wanted to revisit those newlywed years and contrast them with hers. The comparisons in our daily lives are that there aren't any. I lived in a cozy little apartment in the suburbs and she lived in a government homestead in the Dakotas. However, Laura and Almanzo are immediately recognizable. Laura is still a woman/child, (like I was) who spends a snowy day playing and sledding, (like I did). Almanzo is an earnest, hard working man that doted on his young wife. (Like mine did.)

Laura has doubts (what? Laura has doubts!?!) about Manly's choice to earn a living by farming a homestead. She doesn't want to spend her life poor and broken from work. Infinitely optimistic, Manly convinces her to try it for three years. Each year their labor is devastated by forces of nature. Their wheat is filling out beautifully, then heat swoops in and dries it out. All that hard work was for naught. Plowing, seeding, tending… Done. Gone. The livestock, the prairie grasses (sold as hay) and Almanzo's strong back, provides just enough to get by and they try again the next year. Then Rose arrives.

Authenticity aside, I was a little relieved that Rose didn't arrive by stork. Although when Laura's labor began, the doctor arrived and then she fell asleep and the baby was here. Woah. I think modern medicine has taken a step backwards. Or she did a little creative storytelling to protect her modesty. I can understand that in a pioneer era woman.

The next three years are rife with disasters and oddities that can only be real, fire, losing a child, fever, Almanzo's stroke, their friendly neighbor who offers to trade baby Rose for a horse. Through it all, Laura never despairs and Almanzo never loses faith. After hail flattened $3000 in ripe wheat, money that would render them debt free with some to spare, Almanzo cheerily suggests they use the hailstones to make ice cream. Laura and I decline, and wonder if he’s a little touched in the head..

I understand why Laura, herself, never published this book. I also understand why she had to write it. Sometimes a writer is not in charge of what she writes. Sometimes a story becomes a nag, crowding out other ideas demanding to be written. So she did. However, she chose not to publish her doubts, trials and pain.

I am glad she wrote it. I’m glad it was eventually published. I'm in awe of their perseverance and hope. I'm in awe of their evident love for each other. I’m touched by Laura’s vulnerability and support of her husband despite her reservations. Perhaps their struggles bound them as a couple. In modern “me” times, it seems to tear couples apart.

Three ways I felt this book's authenticity:
  • Laura is not always happy.
  • The Dakotas are a scary place to live—weather wise. You could go out for a walk on a mild spring day, get caught in a freak blizzard, and be found frozen to a rock three days later.
  • I closed the book feeling admiration for what they endured, and wholly fortunate to live in modern times.

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