The stars hung luminous and low over the prairie. Their light showed plainly the crests of the rises in the gently rolling land, but left the lower draws and hollows in deeper shadows.
And so begins “The First Four Years”, the final canonical Laura Ingalls Wilder book, published after her death. It’s also some of the only truly beautiful prose in a book that’s otherwise filled with mayhem, disappointment, near-death and death.
A couple of weeks ago, I went on my own prairie tour in Minnesota and South Dakota. Unlike Laura and her family, who took weeks and even months to get from place to place in the books, I did it over a long weekend using modes of transportation inconceivable in the 1870s.
When we examine the past, I think we tend to ere into one of two camps, depending out our own political views and experiences. On one had, we can think condescendingly of our forebears, viewing them as simplistic, ignorant, unenlightened, and prejudiced. This is how much of the left views American history. Alternatively, we can convince ourselves that way back then was really far more moral, that everything was simpler, and that people were more contented without the vices and cares of our modern day world. This can be the fallacy of the right.
I had heard both, even before going, about Laura Ingalls especially. When we look at the past, we tend to view people as being more innocent, even when it’s not true. When I see a video from the 90s, I sometimes think to myself, “They had no idea that 9/11 was coming. It must have been so much nicer!” But I forget that the people of the past had their own problems to worry about too. A popular radio preacher, Kevin Swanson, said a couple of months back something to the effect of, “When Laura went to school, they weren’t worried about molesters and pedophiles and school shootings.” Since I had also read her uncensored autobiography, I knew that he was wrong. Parts of the true story not included in the children’s book include a local man trying to rape her when she was about twelve, and a man randomly shooting through an inn while drunk. There’s also adulteries and fornications, and it’s even implied that a woman dies for her immorality. It is wise not to view these people as children in a state of unpolluted bliss.
Conversely, I have friends who view the 1800’s as an incredibly dark time, unenlightened by modern philosophy. “It would have been horrible to be a woman back then,” they say. “Women were basically treated like property.” These people also view these historical figures as children, but they view them as spiteful and malicious underlings who were never taught what they needed to know. This is not correct either, and it ignores the nuances surrounding culture traditions of those times and ours. As the books show, the women really did have a lot of autonomy. Laura married for love and was fully given the choice to or not to. Based on modern suicide rates and other data, I would dare wager that most women were happier then than they are now.
Are the books over-romantic? Many people complain about this, but I would say no. The Long Winter contains brutal depictions of near starvation, especially for a children’s book. In fact, the books were considered quite edgy when first published. I can attest that the scenic descriptions Laura wrote about are not exaggerated. If anything, Laura probably under-described them. Places like the Big Slough and Silver Lake were even more spectacular in the 1800s than when I saw them, as there wasn’t a cement plant between them. Conversely, the houses (or recreation of the houses) were far more spartan than I had imaged they would be. The Banks of Plum Creek are breathtaking on a fall day – everything I had hoped they would be and more. While the warm wind blew across the prairie grasses, up the tableland, and into the hollow where the river slowly wound its way around, I could easily imagine the Ingalls dugout as any child’s dream backyard fort. But when I saw a recreation of it, I realized that it was far closer to living in a dirt closet.
And the people worked brutally hard. Everyone did, male and female. I felt unbelievably wimpy after witnessing what I been done by back and hand. Walk 300 miles for a job? Common. Trudge 40 miles through snow to retrieve mail? That happened too. Live on almost nothing but coarse bread yet clear hundreds of acres of land with your shovel and a mule? Spend an entire weekday doing laundry? It was all accepted as part of life. The amount of work required for a return on capital was incredible. A century of free-market capitalism has brought huge technological revolution and we’re foolish not to appreciate this.
When we see the wilderness, we think of recreation. When they saw it, they thought of danger and hardship. They conquered it for us. In only five minutes of a 500 mile trip was I ever out into the prairie enough not to get cell phone reception. We should not lionize our ancestors or think them more righteous than us, nor should we revile them from our perch of sanctimonious presentism. But along with learning from their mistakes, we should be grateful for what they left us.
And now, I know that some of you have been hoping for some pictures from my epic, air-conditioned journey!
The tableland surrounding the dugout site, Walnut Grove MN:
Me in front of the dugout location:
The meandering banks of Plum Creek:
Inside a dugout mockup:
Panoramic of the Big Slough and Silver Lake, DeSmet SD:
The rustling prairie grasses Laura wrote so much about:
Pa worked for the railroad. The CNW, my favorite railroad. It’s still there. You can envision horse teams cutting and grading it.
The Surveyor’s House, “By the Shores of Silver Lake”. This house was true luxury by the standards of the day, and is about the size of your two-car garage or a couple of U-Store-It units:
Main St. DeSmet, where Laura often walked:
The small lip of land between Lakes Henry and Thompson, where Almanzo courted and wooed her:
The claim shanty is long gone, but the cottonwoods so eloquently described in the books still stand after the house has long turned to dust: