The other day, I was randomly gifted with Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, which purports to be the original manuscript for the Little House on the Prairie series, painstakingly typed up from notebooks written in Laura’s very own hand, and then annotated/edited with loads of historical information by Pamela Smith Hill.
For someone who is a long-time Little House fan and also a bit of a nerd (ahem: me), the book is a trove of long-sought information. It talks about the real people in the Ingalls family circle, gives the backstory of characters we otherwise only brush by (ex. Tay Pay Prior), and reveals grim truths hitherto known (Cap Garland’s tragic death; the short life of baby Freddie Ingalls) and unknown (mostly having to do with how other people died, also tragically, and usually younger than I had hoped).
But this is not a review of Pioneer Girl.
Pioneer Girl inspired me to hunt down and re-read the Little House on the Prairie series. Due to a series of events (I married a guy; we live together; we had a kid) followed by unavoidable consequences (my kidlit/YA bookshelf was co-opted by baby paraphernalia) and personality quirks (the guy doesn’t like “too many” bookshelves…whatever that means), I really had to hunt for them. In the end, the hunt was fruitless and I went to the secondhand bookstore and bought These Happy Golden Years, which I did not yet own, and proceeded to read it through. Twice.
It’s pretty good. I haven’t decided yet if it is only “pretty good” because I had the memory of the True Events in my head from Pioneer Girl, or whether I have outgrown it, or whether I just vastly prefer earlier books with more about the Ingalls family and their delicious meals, and less about courting with Almanzo and teaching at school. Because the book is mostly about teaching and courting.
According to Pioneer Girl, the real Laura Ingalls Wilder was acutely aware that her Little House series had overarching themes and lessons to convey to young Americans about a way of life that had mostly disappeared. The independence of the family, their work ethic, their strength, and the steady advance of civilization towards the West were, like it or not, the message she wished to convey. So I guess that These Happy Golden Years is the part of the story arc where an increasingly independent Laura (who goes out to teach and makes a ton of money to shower on her family) eventually is won by an already independent Almanzo (who gets Bonus Points for breaking the wildest and most beautiful horses in town), and they start their new life together as the second generation of Prairie Taming Pioneers. And God Bless America.
I hope I don’t sound too cynical, but I’m also reading The Temptations of Big Bear, by Rudy Wiebe and – as happens whenever I read anything about How the West was Won – it leaves a bad taste in my mouth about living in North America in general, and the colonization of the prairies in particular.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved the Little House books when I was growing up, and still do. But it’s worth remembering that those Happy Golden Years are written from a particular point of view and that those same years were not so happy for everyone.
Laura and Almanzo were married in 1885. People were moving west in droves. Pa had just about lived on his claim long enough to own it “free and clear”, and Almanzo hoped to soon do the same. Almanzo also had a “tree claim”, which the government gave to settlers who promised to plant trees across the prairies. As he explains to Laura:
They are going to cover these prairies with trees all the way from Canada to Indian Territory. It’s all mapped out in the land offices, where the trees ought to be, and you can’t get that land except on tree claims.
Laura is amazed at the idea that the prairies would be covered in forest. I like to think she was also incredulous. But her amazement is a blip in the book, overcome by the prosperity (finally!) of the Ingalls family, the excitement of being a young woman in love, and the many new happenings in Town.
In the same year, Cree Chief Big Bear (Mistahi-maskwa) is tried and found guilty of treason for a massacre he had tried to stop. Louis Riel is captured that year, found guilty of high treason, and executed. The events leading to the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre (where more than 200 people, including women and infants, are killed by government forces and buried in a mass grave) are unfolding. It is not a good time to be an “Indian”.
But none of this matters to Laura. Perhaps she doesn’t even know of these things. After all, she has a new black cashmere dress! A green poke bonnet with ostrich feathers! There is an organ for Mary to play! Almanzo has a new cutter, followed by a new buggy, with new horses! There is candy for Christmas and there are firecrackers on the Fourth of July! Life is full of love and plenty!
So what can I say?
This is a good book, part of a great series of books. I am a big fan of historical fiction, because of the way it enlivens the past (I find non-fiction more difficult). These Happy Golden Years is the triumphant conclusion of the many years of hard work and hardship that began in Little House in the Big Woods, and is a happy tale that glows with the comfortable and warm light of colonialism rewarded.
Kids should read about this period in our history. But I think they should read about it from more than just this one point of view. And if anyone has suggestions for books that are appropriate for children about what may possibly be the most depressing period of Native history, I am all ears.
Rating: A-. Because, after all that, I do still love this book. It’s not Laura’s fault that she is a white woman with one very narrow point of view…it’s our fault if we don’t recognize it!
Reading Ages: 8 to 80.
Favourite Part: When Laura refuses to promise to obey her husband in her marriage vows. GOOD FOR YOU, LITTLE HALF-PINT!