F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler wrote, “is a subject no one has a right to mess up. Nothing but the best will do for him”; and that is how I feel about Laura Ingalls Wilder, who deserves to be ranked with Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Twain and O’Connor and Dickinson as one of the geniuses of American letters, though she has been regarded for sixty years as a “children’s writer,” however fine a one, and for the past ten as the “inspiration” for the television show Little House on the Prairie. (Michael Landon is probably in Hell for his part in that trivialization of a work of high literary art, with Melissa Gilbert and company likely to follow him in due course; while, as far as children’s writers go, these are a relatively recent addition to the literary scene as “authors” like Stephen King, Jackie Collins, and Robert Ludlum scribble diligently to provide brain fodder for brutish and lascivious post-adolescents.) Thirty-four years after her death at the age of 90 on Rocky Ridge Farm near the town of Mansfield, Missouri, Mrs. Wilder has still to receive the critical recognition due her, although the estate itself has accrued millions. If, on the other hand, she ever does receive it, the result will probably be a mere upgrade in her literary status from “children’s writer” to “Western writer,” since—to paraphrase H.L. Mencken—critics must have categories, as a dog must have fleas.
As even television audiences know, Laura Ingalls was born near the town of Pepin in west-central Wisconsin on February 7, 1867, second child and daughter of Charles Phillip and Caroline Quiner Ingalls. Her father had been born in Cuba, New York, and taken by his parents first to Illinois, then to southeastern Wisconsin, where in 1860 he married one of several daughters of a neighboring family who had come west from Connecticut. The young couple moved with the husband’s family to the vicinity of Lake Pepin, a bulge in the Mississippi River, where in September 1863 he bought a farm and built a house out of logs cut from the surrounding forest. Their first child, Mary Amelia, was born January 10, 1865; Laura Elizabeth followed two years later. In 1870, the Ingalls traveled by covered wagon from Wisconsin to Montgomery County, Kansas, where Charles built a second log house near the Verdigris River and Carrie Ingalls was born August 3. The family remained in Kansas a year, before abandoning their homestead in advance of federal troops ordered by Washington to remove all the white settlers from Indian territory. From Kansas they traveled, again by wagon, to Plum Creek near Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where drought and grasshoppers ruined their attempts at farming and where the Ingalls’ only son, Charles Frederick, was born November 1, 1875, only to die a few months later. The family moved again to Burr Oak, Iowa, where they lived two years before returning to Walnut Grove to spend two more years, this time in town. In 1879, Caroline, Mary, Carrie, and Grace (born 1877) became ill with scarlet fever, and Mary was left blind. In the spring of the same year, Charles’ sister Docia offered him a job as timekeeper and paymaster in the construction camps of the Chicago and Northwestern Railway, so he took the family west again, into Dakota Territory, where he staked a claim near the nascent town of De Smet. Later, he built a house in town and worked as a carpenter and finally as an insurance salesman.
De Smet proved to be the settling place for Charles and Caroline, Mary, and Grace, but Laura, having married a claimholder from New York state named Almanzo James Wilder on August 25, 1885, moved with him to Minnesota, then to Florida, and lastly to Missouri, where they purchased a 40-acre farm. Although Laura produced two children within the first two years of her marriage, only the first—a daughter. Rose—survived, a son having died in spasms at the age of a few weeks. Rose Wilder Lane became a world-famous author; her mother, having established herself as a supremely competent farmer’s wife and business woman, in her mid-40’s began writing for the farm papers and some national magazines. A collection of over 140 of her pieces has recently been published by Thomas Nelson, Inc., of Nashville, Tennessee, as Little House in the Ozarks, edited by Stephen W. Hines. These articles—none of them very long and many hardly more than a paragraph or two—appear to be the work of a strong but highly conventional mind. They provide no hint whatever of the work that was to result when Laura Wilder, in her eariy 60’s, began to write the story of her childhood and early youth in the orange school tablets she bought at a nickel apiece from a grocer in Springfield, Missouri. Fifteen years before, in a letter to Almanzo from San Francisco where she was visiting Rose, she had remarked, “I intend to try to do some writing that will count.”
Appearing first in 1932, Little House in the Big Woods achieved instant acclaim and immediate popularity. Its timing was perfect, though almost surely not considered (at least, not consciously). Nearly everywhere, the old America had been supplanted by the new one—the product of progress-and of science, of industrial capitalism, the New Nationalism and the new internationalism. Big Business, boosterism. One Hundred Percent Efficiency, mass advertising and mass production, and wave upon wave of those huddled masses from abroad yearning to breathe free—and almost everywhere also that new America lay in ruins. While Mrs. Wilder, as a former hardscrabble pioneer girl, was certainly not opposed to “progress” and “modern conveniences” (“Then there is the gasoline engine,” she had written in 1911 in a column titled “The March of Progress.” “Bless it!”), an implicit criticism of dependency on modern technology is perceptible throughout her books, and so is the (also implicit) suggestion that the old ways were somehow better, not just because they were simpler but because they helped develop character and moral stamina. By the time she came to write about life on the American frontier, Laura Wilder was far too wise a woman to indulge herself in nostalgia, and far too fine an artist to spoil her work with it. Nevertheless, her view of the past was clearly affected by what contemporary America had become, while her vividly immediate, tough-minded, and unsentimental portrayal of that past could not help but appeal to nostalgic sentimentalism by the historical juxtaposition of its content, as well as by the warmth and complete humanity of its presentation.
At the age of 65, Laura Ingalls Wilder was a celebrity with her first book, and there were yet six more to go (not including Farmer Boy, the story of her husband’s boyhood and her third published book, and The First Four Years, an account of the dreadful ordeals suffered by her and Almanzo early in their marriage that is, however, the posthumously published first draft of what would surely have been a far longer and more complete work). But that Little House in the Big Woods was a book for children only, nobody seemed to question.
“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.” That is the very first line of the book, and certainly it appears to establish what follows as a work of children’s literature; though James Joyce, 16 years earlier, had published his fine Modernist art novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which begins this way: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down the road and this moocow that was down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. . . . ” The second sentence of Big Woods, which also starts a new paragraph, is this; “The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees.” How could a generation of readers, supposedly sophisticated in the precepts of Modernism, one of which was that the “primitive” and the “childish” are actually modes of a deeper insight, have failed to find echoes, on this first page, of Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway? Nor, 11 pages later, did the following passage—actually a highly sophisticated example of the Modernist poetry with which this book is replete—alert those early readers of Mrs. Wilder’s work who determined how it would be read and accepted for the next sixty years: “Onions were made into long ropes, braided together by their tops, and then were hung in the attic beside wreaths of red peppers strung on threads. The pumpkins and the squashes were piled in orange and yellow and green heaps in the attic’s corners.”
Little House on the Prairie was published three years after Little House in the Big Woods. When Big Woods opens, Laura is about four-and-a-half years old; as the second begins, she appears to be around six. (This is my reckoning from the text; although in 1870, when the Ingalls moved to Kansas, Laura was three.) And here are the first two sentences comprising the first paragraph of the new book: “A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born. Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. They drove away and left it lonely and empty in the clearing among the big trees, and they never saw that little house again.” As Laura grows older, her consciousness expands to embrace concepts like time and the human generations and loss; it becomes more complex, and the change is both reflected by, and embodied in, the writing. Such writing need not be lost on children but it certainly isn’t for them. I have been acquainted with Mrs. Wilder’s books since I was five years old, and I still read her with greater pleasure and emotion and appreciation than any other author I can think of. To adapt a saying of Gertrude Stein’s, “There is all there there.” You will find all of life in Laura Ingalls Wilder except war, and in her tremendous description of the pow-wow on the Verdigris River in Kansas in which the Indians debated whether to scalp the white settlers, even war comes very close. Her life was the experience not just of the West but of the United States itself, and her humanity was that of a great artist and a great woman and a great soul. Contemporary “women writers” and their ideological touts seem hardly aware that she existed.
There is a completeness, both human and historical, in her vision, and she achieves it by establishing, at the very start of her long enterprise, its central intelligence. From the first sentence of her book, the story—insistently but unobtrusively—is Laura’s story, seen through her eyes and told from her own point of view. (There are five departures from this method, all of them in The Long Winter, where Mrs. Wilder makes Pa and Almanzo, respectively, the governing consciousness of the narrative.) And while all of her characters change noticeably with the years (Pa becoming somewhat worn by time, hard luck, and the thwarted desire to move farther west; Mary in her priggishness growing self-aware; Carrie growing up), it is the development of Laura’s personality that is to the front. On page 85 of Big Woods, we are allowed the first glimpse of what is both distinctive of, and essential to, that personality when Laura, studying the pictures in the family Bible, asks her mother whether Adam had good clothes to wear on Sunday and is told no, “‘Poor Adam, all he had to wear was skins.'” To which the author adds, “Laura did not pity Adam. She wished she had nothing to wear but skins.” With those two brief sentences, Mrs. Wilder skillfully begins to establish the polarity between the two sisters: the older blonde, “civilized,” docile, patient, a homebody, and “good”; the younger brown-haired, “wild,” headstrong, an out-of-doors tomboy, and “naughty.” In them also is the germ that will grow into the special relationship between Laura and her father, whose daughter she truly was (restless, adventurous, full of empathy for wild creatures and for all of the natural world), and the identification of Mary as her mother’s child (gentle, not wishing to be “dragged from pillar to post,” for whom nature is something more to be endured and, if possible, avoided than appreciated). “‘We’re across the Mississippi!’ [Pa] said, hugging [Laura] joyously. ‘How do you like that, little half-pint of sweet cider half drunk up? Do you like going out west where Indians live?'”
Little House in the Big Woods is an idyll, a portrait of a sparely comfortable life in what was no longer quite wilderness, cut short by the westering impulse. “Wild animals would not stay in a country where there were so many people. Pa did not like to stay, either. He liked a country where the wild animals lived without being afraid.” (With the contradictoriness, or doublemindedness, of the frontiersman, he had welcomed enthusiastically the threshing machine that processed his wheat crop in Wisconsin: “‘Other folks can stick to the old-fashioned ways if they want to, but I’m all for progress. It’s a great age we’re living in.'”) Little House on the Prairie, while not exactly an idyll (Mrs. Wilder does not tell just how closely the Ingalls came to being scalped on the Verdigris), is nevertheless in some ways the most lyric of all her books; certainly it describes what the author must in hindsight have recognized as the apex of her family’s experience of the frontier. The long-grass prairies beyond the Mississippi are Laura’s first sight of the true West, to which she responds with an instinctive enthusiasm. “Kansas was an endless flat land covered with tall grass blowing in the wind. Day after day they traveled in Kansas, and saw nothing but the rippling grass and the enormous sky. In a perfect circle the sky curved down to the level land, and the wagon was in the circle’s exact middle. . . . When the sun went down, the circle was still around them and the edge of the sky was pink. Then slowly the land became black. The wind made a lonely sound in the grass. The camp fire was small and lost in so much space. But large stars hung from the sky, glittering so near that Laura felt she could almost touch them.”
Little House on the Prairie ends as it began, in a wagon box: “Once more the covered wagon was home.” Like its predecessor, the book encompasses a year’s time—later ones expand to cover, several—but the paragraphing, sentence structure, syntax, and comprehension are advanced in complexity by a degree of two. Some of the most beautiful passages Laura Wilder ever wrote (Mr. Edwards from Tennessee dancing in the moonlight before the unfinished house to the music of Pa’s fiddle, the Indian jamboree, the Indians riding away in file into the West) are to be found in Little House on the Prairie. Here, the American myth of human freedom in an empty and untrammeled land is almost realized, however briefly, but without sacrifice of gentility as it is symbolized by Ma’s shepardess, “the little china woman [who] had come all the way and had not been broken” and who, from the mantlepiece of the newly finished log house, presides over a hearth that is the representation of a balance achieved between man and nature, wilderness and civilization.
Twice in this book, at the beginning and at the end as the family is preparing to drive away from the house ahead of the oncoming soldiers. Pa assures Ma, “We have all the time there is.” In fact, time—free time, frontier time—was already running out for the Ingalls. On the Banks of Plum Creek describes Charles Ingalls’ attempt at remaining a free man of the soil, independent, self-sufficient, dependent on nobody in the new Eden that is by no means, however, any longer a wilderness. That it is not a wilderness indeed is the principal reason for the family’s settling near Walnut Grove, Caroline having insisted forcibly that it is time for the girls to begin their formal education. The new house Pa builds is only four miles from town (in Kansas the nearest settlement had been Independence, Missouri, forty miles away); and though it is a “wonderful house,” made partly from boughten parts and with a new patented stove in it, its construction is treated by Mrs. Wilder far less poetically than the raising of the log cabin on the Verdigris was. Unlike the original, moreover, this Eden reveals itself in onslaughts of fire and ice, droughts, and plagues of grasshoppers that destroy the wheat crops and put the Ingalls perennially in debt. Until this point in her writing, Mrs. Wilder has emphasized the beauty of nature and the harmony in which man can live with the natural world; now, by means of the episode in which Laura falls into the freshet-swollen creek, she personalizes the family’s experience in Minnesota while replacing the sentimental view of nature proper to a very young child with the tougher-minded idea appropriate to an older girl. “In that very instant, she knew the creek was not playing. It was strong and terrible. . . . It would not care.” And then Laura learns another lesson. “But the creek had not got to her. It had not made her scream and it could not make her cry.” That fall, the Ingalls experienced their first blizzard on the northern plains.
The theme of By the Shores of Silver Lake is change—change in its personal, social, technical, and environmental dimensions. The book opens in the aftermath of the scarlet fever epidemic, with Mary blind and Aunt Docia driving up in a buggy with her offer of a railroad job for Pa. Before Pa leaves, the bulldog Jack, who has accompanied them under the wagon, walking all the way from Wisconsin, dies and is buried beside Plum Creek. Laura, now almost thirteen years old, knows that with Pa already gone west and Mary blind, she has major responsibilities within the family. “Now she was alone; she must take care of herself When you must do that, then you do it and you are grown up.” Silver Lake has a different tone, a different feel, a new quality to it, and this difference is reflected by the typeface, reduced from the childishly large size in which the first three books were set. It is overtly an adult book, with adult themes and adult subjects, treated in a frankly adult way.
The Ingalls take the train to the end of the building line at Tracy, Minnesota; together with their first experience in “riding the cars,” the girls have their first brush with modern high-pressure salesmanship as personified by a boy vending candy and chewing gum. At the Tracy depot, Laura muses as she watches the detached engine being rotated on the turntable. “She knew now what Pa meant when he spoke of the wonderful times they were living in. There had never been such wonders in the whole history of the world. Pa said.” Her reflections are rudely interrupted by a “big young” railroad man singing a crude (but rather hilarious) parody of Ma’s favorite hymn. At the hotel where Pa is to meet them with the wagon, Laura thinks that she “would rather not stop anywhere. She would rather go on and on, to the very end of the road, wherever it was.”
The railroad camp chapters are absolutely splendid work, full of a spontaneous poetry applied directly and almost unthinkingly to the sharpest social and historical awareness. Laura makes friends at once with her cousin Lena, who is even more of a tomboy than she and a year older. The two girls take the buggy, hitched to a pair of black ponies, and drive to a claim shanty to bring back the laundry to camp. Lena, whooping like an Indian, gives the ponies their heads. “‘They’re running away!'” Laura cries, but Lena yells, ” ‘Let ’em run!'” The freedom of the West could hardly be better rendered; and, for the first time, the fact of sex is suggested by Lena’s songs (“I wouldn’t marry a farmer / He’s always in the dirt, / I’d rather marry a railroad man / who wears a striped shirt”). Lena confides to Laura that she doesn’t want to marry ever, she wants to keep on moving west instead.
Vying with the exhilaration is a sadness produced by the growing knowledge that Pa’s dream of absolute freedom and unlimited space will never be realized, though he himself appears alternatively philosophical and (perhaps willfully) obtuse regarding this fact. (‘”By George, our luck’s turned at last!'” he tells Ma, immediately after being hired to work for the railroad corporation.) Already by 1879 there are no buffalo left in Dakota Territory, only their grassed-over wallows, and the machine has arrived in the garden: men with teams and plows are breaking the virginal prairie sod ahead of the railroad grade, and more men with teams and earthmovers are going behind them, building it up. Laura, bursting with excitement and hoping secretly to hear the “rough language” she is always being warned against, is escorted to the construction site by Pa, who is full of admiration for the efficiency of the system: ” ‘just like the works of a clock. . . . Watch the boss and you’ll see how it’s done.'” (Even as he spoke, Frederick Winslow Taylor was developing his theories of “scientific management” and “stop-watch efficiency.”) Laura too is caught up in his vision: “she could almost sing the tune to which they moved.”
The Ingalls spend the winter in the cabin used during the summer by the surveyors who are laying out De Smet, and in early spring Pa files on a claim a mile southeast of the town. Ma and Mary are pleased that they are going to be settled for good now, but Laura cannot help thinking that, if Pa for some reason fails to file, all of them can go on to Oregon. On the prairie she had felt alone and happy, but the new town makes her “lonely and scared.” “Wild birds did not like the town full of people, and neither did Laura.” ‘”The buffalo are gone,’ Laura thought, ‘and now we’re homesteaders.'” Half-lost in the slough grass with Carrie, she emerges to see a hay wagon with a young man lying on top of it, looking at her. She thanks him primly for his direction and goes away thinking only of the horses. “With all her heart Laura wished for such horses. She supposed she could never have them.”
The Long Winter begins with a highly skillful anticipation of the terrible winter that invaded Dakota Territory in 1880-81. Reading the signs, and warned by an ancient Indian, Pa moves the family from the claim shanty—where they would certainly have perished—to his store building in town. Here, ironically, trapped by storms in which people literally could not see their hands in front of them, they are far more isolated than they had been the previous winter in the surveyors’ house. Since there is too little space between blizzards to allow the cut at Tracy to be cleared, the railroad suspends service to De Smet until spring, an event that prompts Pa to observe that, “‘These times are too progressive. Everything has changed too fast. Railroads and telegraph and kerosene and coal stoves—they’re good things to have but the trouble is, folks get to depend on them.'” In late winter, Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland, gambling on a day of clear weather, drive their sleds 12 miles south of town in search of a nameless homesteader rumored to have put up a harvest of seedwheat the previous fall. They find the man, cajole the wheat from him at a scalper’s price, load it on the sleds, and beat the next blizzard home by seconds, thus saving De Smet, if not from actual starvation, at least from severe privation. The book ends in May as the Ingalls open the Christmas barrel that has just arrived on the train, and with a lovely and moving paean to spring.
>The last two volumes—Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years—are social books, whose themes (apart from her courting by Almanzo) are Laura’s accommodation to town life, which she learns to enjoy and appreciate, and her acceptance of the duty to become a schoolteacher in order to earn the money needed to send Mary to the college for the blind in Vinton, Iowa. (That her own sacrifice is related to Pa’s is understood by Laura: “He must stay in a settled country for the sake of them all, just as she must teach school . . . though she did so hate to be shut into a schoolroom.”) It may be that in Mrs. Wilder’s account of the social activities in a small frontier town in America in the late 19th century, even more than in her moving and brilliantly evocative description of the relatively unspoiled nature surrounding it, a sense of loss shows through. In the De Smet of the 1880’s, people did not sit around at home watching Little House on the Prairie. They held sociables, founded a literary society that gathered at the schoolhouse on Friday nights for spelling bees and other such entertainments, attended religious revivals (the Congregational minister in De Smet was a cousin of John Brown of Ossawatomie), had New England suppers, put on their own minstrel shows in blackface, kept up with Eastern fashions by trading name cards and writing in each other’s autograph albums, went for cutter rides in winter and buggy ones in summer. Of course, they also paid some attention to the opposite sex.
Mrs. Wilder’s treatment of her husband’s pursuit is one of the loveliest and most delicate of its kind in literature. Laura was 18 when she married Almanzo Wilder, and they had been going together for three years. He had made her father’s acquaintance almost immediately after the Ingalls’ arrival at Silver Lake, and seems to have had his heart set on the second-eldest daughter from the beginning. Laura’s first sight of Almanzo was from the edge of the slough, when she had had eyes only for his horses. In town, she had seen him on occasion (always admiring the handsome matched team), but without any apparent interest in their owner. When Almanzo and Cap risked their lives to bring the seedwheat, Laura had thought “all day” of them struggling across the snow-drifted prairie. A year later, when Almanzo asks to see her home after a revival meeting, she finds it “an odd thing for him to do, for he was a grown-up.” She is conscious, though, of the cigar odor in his coat, which appeals to her as being “more dashing” than the comfortable smell of Pa’s pipe and reminds her of his daring trip with Cap Garland. When she is boarding miserably at her first school, a dozen miles from De Smet and in circumstances that can only be described as representing the “other frontier,” Almanzo comes for her every Friday afternoon to drive her home, and every Sunday to return her to the school superintendent’s shanty. His stated reason for doing this is that his horses are better suited to make the trip than Pa’s team; and Laura, nagged by her conscience, finally tells him that, if he expects her to continue to ride with him after school is out, he ought to leave her at Brewster’s over the weekends.
But the virtuoso chapters are those describing the final months of Almanzo’s courtship, when he drove out to the Ingalls’ claim every Sunday in a new buggy hitched to a pair of green-broke horses. Laura is the only person in town, man or woman, who will ride with him behind those horses, and Almanzo allows’ her to take the reins herself. In these wonderful chapters, all the physical excitement of this most demure and restrained romance is expressed by the wild power of the half-tamed animals, rearing and plunging and running away across the swelling prairie blooming with masses of wild roses. When Almanzo lays his arm casually along the seat-back behind Laura’s shoulders, she leans forward and rattles the whip-socket to startle the horses into a tearing run. Later, driving the single horse, “Laura’s arms took the force of Barnum’s pull; his strength flowed up the lines with the thrill she had felt before. Oh, Barnum! she begged silently; please don’t pull so hard, I want so much to drive you.” That is the evening on which Barnum finally walks. It is also the night when Almanzo says quickly to Laura, “‘I was wondering if you would like an engagement ring.'”
Remarkable among Mrs. Wilder’s many and considerable literary abilities is her competence in handling that notorious problem known in the writing trade as “point-of-view.” Here, the technique she employs is substantially that of the great fictionists of the Modernist school: the refusal to provide the reader with information or material that the central intelligence could not itself grasp as well as, more subtly, think to take notice of or to mention. For this reason, a great deal of the background material that a reader would ordinarily expect to be provided with in a memoir or an autobiography—in particular one intended for children—is left out by Mrs. Wilder. It would not, for instance, occur to a child of four to tell the hovering bystander or listener which side of the family Grandpa and Grandma and Aunt Docia and Aunt Ruby belong to, and so we are left to infer the relationship from the text of Little House in the Big Woods. Similarly, in Little House on the Prairie, point-of-view prevents Mrs. Wilder from explaining what a “sadiron” is or how it got its name, since the child Laura, watching her mother iron laundry in the middle of the grassy wilderness, knows herself and doesn’t think to explain. And though we learn that “Ma had been very fashionable before she married Pa,” we are left in ignorance of her history and of Pa’s before they married and raised a family, even though these questions cry out to be answered. Mrs. Wilder isn’t telling, though, because she knows exactly what she is doing, where to begin, and—always—where to stop.
Point-of-view in Mrs. Wilder’s case, because she is writing nonfiction rather than novels, is intimately connected with the role of the writer’s imagination, first in reconstructing her early life and then in presenting it to the reader. Since it is impossible that she could have recollected the past, after a period of sixty years and more, as clearly, completely, and evocatively as she wrote it, obviously she must have had recourse to a powerful imagination in order to compensate for the deficiencies of memory. In regard to this problem, the discrepancies between what she did write and what we know of the historical record are crucial. For example Carrie, though she is a character in Little House in the Big Woods, was not born until the family reached Kansas; while Laura, who was three when the Ingalls left Wisconsin, is plainly several years older than that in Little House on the Prairie. I do not believe that Mrs. Wilder is misremembering here; I think she is manipulating literal truth in the interest of poetic reality in a way that Ford Madox Ford would have understood and approved. Similarly, On the Banks of Plum Creek represents itself as the story of the Ingalls’ unbroken stay near Walnut Grove, though in fact their residency there was interrupted by two years in Iowa, of which no mention is made. Finally, Mrs. Wilder tells us nothing whatever of Ma’s pregnancies, of the births of Grace and Charles Frederick, or of the death in infancy of the little boy.
Concerning these last omissions, it is possible—probable even—that Mrs. Wilder’s sense of what was fitting for children to read, as well as her Victorian standards of discretion, privacy, and good taste, helped to determine what was included in her books and what left out. Still, I believe that she had in mind literary criteria as well as conventions of propriety in selecting her material. Each of her books has its special tone and mood, and each appears to have been consciously shaped to bring those forward and establish them securely. The mood of These Happy Golden Years, for instance, is elegiac and romantic, and it is maintained nearly from start to finish. When we read in The First Four Years that Laura told Almanzo before their marriage, “I don’t want to marry a farmer. I have always said that I never would. I do wish you would do something else,” her words are shocking. Nothing is said in These Happy Golden Years of her reservation, nor of the couple’s agreement that Almanzo would try farming for three years and then quit if h