S.A.’s Book Review: Laura Ingalls, Revisited

Have you ever wondered how you will react if your children are starving and light-headed from malnutrition and you have no food left?

Have you questioned your resilience to life’s opportunities if you are continually beat down by nature and circumstances?

Want to know how to make a smokehouse out of a hollow tree? How to provide heat when there is no wood left to burn?  Crop failure?  Wild bees?

When I was a child, Laura Ingalls Wilder had already published her saga which included practical homesteading information wrapped inside a series of books. Her books for children were the story of her growing-up years in America 145 years ago.  She began this autobiography when she was over 60 years old. She realized a pioneer and frontier way of life had ended, and she could tell the story.  Laura’s life spanned the era from post-Civil War to the modern age. She serialized her story in the third person, told through the eyes of a little girl named Laura. As a child, it took me several books before I understood that the author was the Laura of the books. (My parents also had to tell me that Alice fell asleep and was only dreaming when she saw a rabbit run past her tree proclaiming that he was late, late for a very important date and then pop into the rabbit hole. I got smarter and more practical as the years passed.) Laura was a tiny bit naughty  —  occasionally slapping mean children on the face — and had, in her own mind, ugly brown hair instead of her sister’s lovely blond curls. My father would go to out-of-town conventions from time to time and my present, upon his return, was a new “Laura” book.

If you only know Laura through the television series, “Little House on the Prairie,” then you don’t know Laura. That family program only faintly resembles the Laura books by the use of the title of her second book, Little House on the Prairie . Eventually, people called the book series the “Little House on the Prairie” books.  Characters were even invented for the television series. While television is entertaining, the book series and the television series are two different creatures.

Ma and Pa Ingalls had four daughters, and these girls worked! They were not entertained to keep out of mischief. A leaf, a stick, a hanky, a corncob, and plenty of imagination could provide hours of enjoyment on a tree stump. And they obeyed when given orders, which could make the difference between life and death (encounter with a bear, fording a flooding river, fighting a chimney fire or wildfire).  The girls watched over each younger child everyday while the parents did farm work. Each daughter had daily jobs called chores and they were expected to be a part of the family and do her part to help the family survive during treacherous times.  For us, “treacherous times” translate as their “daily life.”

The family was responsible for their own food, and they had to work for almost every bite. Their diet included a lot of corn, using sacks of cornmeal traded for furs that Pa had trapped, but occasionally fresh ears and hulled corn.  During The Long Winter, my favorite book, the family and the whole town is malnourished, out of food, and starving to death. No trains can get through in order to deliver needed food supplies to the prairie town due to an extremely harsh winter and snow that blocks the tracks. Particularly read this book if you are considering moving to the American Redoubt and have never lived in the northern tier, i.e. snow country.

Laura and her family worked hard and they were not afraid of work. Laura lived from 1867-1957, ninety years. The childhood privations made her into the survivor she became and did not destroy her spirit or health.

These books were written for children. I read them as a child, I read them to my children, my grandchildren have begun the series, and now I reread them often. I teach in an urban elementary public school and introduce my class to Laura by reading one of her books aloud each year. Laura’s lifestyle is completely foreign to my students. However, in light of the world situation now in 2012, the books are more relevant than ever. I encourage you to acquire the set of books and cherish it. The Laura books are written in the style of our mentor, Jim Rawles. His book Patriots has been described as a handbook encased in a novel. The Laura books are how-to books for living in a primitive world without our ready access to modern conveniences and Wal-Mart.

Laura’s life spanned the period from right after the Civil War when panthers roamed the northern Big Woods and her mother cooked over a campfire on the open prairie, through the Great Depression, both World Wars, construction of the Interstate Highway system, invention of the automobile, and atomic bombs. She lived long enough to experience modern life such as running water, indoor plumbing, rapid transportation, antibiotics, washing machines, clothes dryers, and air conditioning. Her life was the essence of adaptability.

How did the Ingalls family spend their days? They were almost completely independent of a monetary system; they bartered and traded their way along life. A single penny was almost a fortune. They simply lived and lived simply, existed, and thrived, finding happiness and contentment on the life road they chose with faith, among family and a few friends in virgin land. These true pioneers had itchy feet, yearning for new, less crowded horizons with neighbors miles apart and sufficient wild game to hunt. They stopped moving west when Ma finally put her foot down and said, “No more.”

Laura proved to be made with great resilience and the ability to adapt to a changing world. These books are an incredible resource for individuals with interest in prepping for a changing future. Laura survived malaria, scarlet fever, and starvation.

I’ve listed her books with some of the crucial information bulleted that can be found embedded in each book. When you read the series, your outlook will be changed.  These books should be cherished and passed down. You will find the same themes running through each book: family as the basis for existence, importance of community and faith, simple recipes for simple foods, the joy that music brings to life, and an appreciation for the natural world.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you to purchase the Laura series, read them to yourself, your family, and learn from the practical lessons. The descriptions of flora and fauna in the untamed Midwest take your breath away.  Many, many people, both children and adults, have grown to love Laura and her writings. Vacationing families still visit her homesteads and home sites throughout the Midwest in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Missouri. She has had fan clubs since she began writing. Her inspiring story is classic and enduring.

There are dozens of other books written about Laura’s life and family by various authors, but they were not written by her, simply about her. The “Little House” books number only nine. Some other books about Laura and her growing up that round out her story that I have read and can recommend are: The Little House Cookbook by Barbara M. Walker; Young Pioneers by Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s daughter; A Little House Sampler by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane; Laura’s Album compiled by William Anderson; and On the Way Home by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Enjoy!

Little House in the Big Woods

• ·       How to keep needles from rusting
• ·       Collecting maple sap
• ·       Making maple sugar
• ·       Gathering honey from wild bees
• ·       Making butter
• ·       Cheese-making with a calf’s stomach lining (rennet)
• ·       Pouring and molding lead bullets
• ·       Gun cleaning
• ·       Building a smokehouse from a hollow tree trunk
• ·       Harvesting and stacking oat sheaves
• ·       Making straw hats
• ·       Treating massive numbers of wasp stings
• ·       Gathering wild nuts
• ·       Nixtamalization of corn (preparing hulled corn)
• ·       Making a salt lick
• ·       Cooking varieties of squash and vegetables
• ·       Preserving various foods for cellar and attic
• ·       Insulating a house and barn with stones, dead leaves, and straw
• ·       Family and community entertainment and recreation
• ·       Personal hygiene and grooming
• ·       Housekeeping practices
• ·       Salting fish in barrels
• ·       Root cellaring
• ·       Braiding onions
• ·       Pig butchering
• ·       Making sausage and head cheese
• ·       Using a kerosene lamp

Little House on the Prairie

• ·       Fording a rising river with a team of horses
• ·       Outdoor cooking with cast iron cookware
• ·       Traveling cross-country in a covered wagon
• ·       Where to position a homestead in relation to a creek
• ·       Hand tools essential to homesteading
• ·       Building a notched-log cabin
• ·       Picket lines for horses
• ·       Importance of music for happiness and contentment
• ·       Importance of a good, faithful dog (watchdog/guard dog)
• ·       Why not to camp in creek bottoms (malaria)
• ·       Latch string to open/close a door
• ·       Importance of neighbors
• ·       Reusing bent nails
• ·       Chinking cracks in a log cabin wall
• ·       Building a stone fireplace with river rock
• ·       Constructing a stick and daub chimney
• ·       Log splitting for floors, roof, furniture
• ·       Preparing rabbit fur for clothing
• ·       Digging a well, testing for natural gas in the ground
• ·       Milking a wild cow
• ·       Drying wild blackberries
• ·       Recipes for various cornmeal dishes
• ·       Treating malaria
• ·       Chimney fire
• ·       Making a willow rocking chair
• ·       Fighting a prairie fire
• ·       When government makes rules

Farmer Boy

• ·       Abundance of food and simple recipes

On the Banks of Plum Creek

• ·       Grasshopper plague
• ·       When crops fail
• ·       Life cycle of a grasshopper
• ·       Minnesota blizzard
• ·       Getting caught out in a blizzard and surviving
• ·       Haying

By the Shores of Silver Lake

• ·       Effects of Scarlet Fever
• ·       Feeding livestock during a blizzard
• ·       Grading and scraping plowed land
• ·       Making a road cut
• ·       Mob psychology
• ·       Which water birds are fit to eat
• ·       Lyrics to many old-timey, long-lost songs
• ·       Making a homemade checkers game
• ·       Living on salt pork and wild game
• ·       Family working together to succeed at life
• ·       Taking in boarders to earn money
• ·       Fighting mosquitoes with smoking fires

The Long Winter

• ·       Saving seed for spring planting vs. eating the seed to survive
• ·       Braiding hay to burn for heat
• ·       Grinding wheat in a coffee mill daily to make bread
• ·       Surviving starvation
• ·       Isolation in winter
• ·       How starvation and malnutrition affects the body
• ·       Taking extreme life-threatening steps to survive

Little Town on the Prairie

• ·       Skimming cream
• ·       Teaching a calf to drink from a pail
• ·       Plowing prairie sod
• ·       Hand-feeding a tiny kitten
• ·       Sewing on a treadle machine
• ·       Hand-basting seams, buttonholes
• ·       Using a chicken tractor
• ·       Saving a corn crop from blackbirds
• ·       Entertainment in a small community
• ·       Public schools/education in the 1880’s

These Happy Golden Years

• ·       Severe winter in South Dakota
• ·       Breaking horses to buggy and wagon
• ·       Tornado season on the Great Plains
• ·       How to dress in bitter winter weather

The First Four Years

• ·       Pros and cons of farming as a career choice
• ·       When a homestead is invaded by thieves
• ·       Folksy sayings about the weather
• ·       Getting from house to barn in a blizzard to feed livestock
• ·       Stacking hay
• ·       Home birth
• ·       Diphtheria with complications
• ·       Prairie blizzard
• ·       Prairie fire
• ·       Prairie tornado
• ·       Youthful optimism