I am a life-long, and utterly unashamed, fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. So it was with delight that I discovered that today is the 148th anniversary of her birth (thank you, Google banner), which seemed the perfect excuse to write about the gorgeousness of the “Little House” books.
First, a disclaimer. The books are, of course, a thoroughly sanitised version of life for a pioneer family in the late nineteenth century Midwest. As a historical record, there are a lot of gaps. But as a depiction of what “home” can be – regardless of the fact that it cannot always have been like that for Ma, Pa and the girls – it is magnificent.
There is a real appreciation for the few treasured possessions that people had. Today we have so much that we are running out of space in which to keep it, and even out of space to throw it away. (#firstworldproblem, I know). Now, some of the possessions that I have that Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t – washing machine, dishwasher etc – I am grateful for on a daily basis. But what will our generation’s children remember with the same clarity and fondness as Laura had for the bracket that Pa carved for Ma, and the china shepherdess that sat on it?
Which takes us neatly to how so much was made with such love and skill. Yes, there wasn’t a huge amount else to do during the long winter evenings, and there wasn’t much to buy or money to buy it with, but that doesn’t take anything away from the loveliness of the doll that Ma made Laura when she was a little girl in Wisconsin, or the lace that Laura knitted for Mary when she away at college. The descriptions of the dresses made at home are exquisite, and all hand sewn until the momentous day when Pa buys a sewing machine, and then there are the quilts. Ah, the quilts!
It was a time when food was limited, always in terms of variety and sometimes in terms of quantity. (In “The Long Winter”, the little town is described as being on the brink of starvation after incredibly heavy snows stop the railway from running.) Ma is depicted as an expert in making a little go a long way, but when there was surplus, it was all hands to the pump to create a feast:
“All day long the kitchen smelled of good things, and when night came the cupboard held large brown-crusted loaves of white bread, a sugar-frosted loaf of cake, three crisp-crusted pies, and the jellied cranberries.”*
And finally, there is the most perfect description of the pleasure to be derived from a really good bout of spring-cleaning. Laura and her two younger sisters had worked on the house on the homestead for a week while their parents were away, and been reduced almost to tears by exhaustion. But eventually,
“The floor around the stove was scrubbed bone-white. The beds were made up with clean, bright quilts and they smelled sweetly of fresh hay. The windowpanes glittered. Every shelf in the cupboards was scrubbed and every dish washed.”**
* “The Long Winter”; ** “Little Town on the Prairie”