The First Four Years; Chapter 4: Section 13

Guest post by Suzanne Falck-Yi

Last week, a hailstorm shredded my garden.  I was standing at a window near my office at the local college, thinking of Laura and Manly in their first four years, watching marbles of ice pour out of the sky, thinking of my open windows at home and how my flowers just that morning had been so gloriously ripe with pinks and purples and greens.

When I could finally make my way home to shovel out the drifts of ice from my August garden, I found tomatoes bare of leaves and fruit, rhubarb leaves torn to mere holes, nasturtiums that had finally–finally!–started to bloom that day now turned into nothing but bare stalks.  I had looked over the yards of the other houses around town, and few seemed to have suffered as much damage as mine did–perhaps because of the random nature of wind and hail, perhaps because of the angle of roof and garden.

And that led me to think about Laura and Manly.  For me, the ruin of vegetables and flowers means I’ll go to the local farmer’s market more often for awhile.  For the Wilders and other homesteaders, the hail, the hot wind, the rain that came too much or not enough, the tornado that hit one farm and leapt across another could each mean, in this random world of chance, near-bankruptcy, potential foreclosure of a homestead, the devastating loss of a whole year’s labor.

In the other Little House books, we see a relentlessly persistent belief in the American Dream:  hard work, dedication, and perhaps a bit of luck can build a little house, feed a family, eke out enough to live even through a Long Winter.  But here in the posthumously-published and therefore less-revised and edited First Four Years, we see the other side of the story of homesteading farm life:   there might be some good times when a young couple can slip out for a quick ride on the horses between checking on their sleeping little girl in the house, and there might be quiet moments when a young woman can enjoy the freedom of the open prairie sky when she sneaks away from her farmwife’s duties, but for the most part, farming during the Wilders’ time meant unceasing, backbreaking, and at times overwhelming labor.  Joy, in this novel, comes only in brief moments of freedom from the confines of the house and farm and their unceasing workload.

And despite the unending labor, so much still depended not on human effort, but on chance and the weather.  At the beginning of this section of the novel, we see that…

As spring turned the corner into summer, the rains stopped and the grains began to suffer for lack of moisture. … For a week, the hot winds blew, and when they stopped, the young wheat and oats were dried, brown, and dead.

The trees on the ten acres were nearly all killed too. Manly decided there was no hope of replanting to have the trees growing to fulfill the law for the claims.

It was time to prove up and he could not.

Gone is the fiercely independent spirit of the other books, and instead we see Manly seeking loan after loan that he ultimately will not have the money to pay back and will not have the courage to discuss with his young wife before he borrows.  We see Manly failing to prove up on his claims because the trees have died and so he must pay the government $1.25 an acre to stave off others who might stake a claim on the Wilders’ land. We see Manly unable to keep his young family afloat.  And then a tornado touches down a quarter-mile from where Laura huddles in her cellar with baby Rose while Manly rushes home from town to see if they’ve survived the latest natural disaster.  They did, but clearly another round of devastation could come again at any time.

Throughout the Little House books, we’ve seen time and again how Laura evades writing in detail about the weakest, most vulnerable moments in her life.  Her initial approach to telling of Mary’s blindness was to gloss over Mary’s debilitating illness at the beginning of the first manuscript version of By the Shores of Silver Lake.  Pa’s indebtedness and the death of the Ingallses’ baby boy, though recounted in the not-yet-published manuscript Pioneer Girl, were omitted entirely from the Little House series.  The final months of near-starvation in The Long Winter were skimmed over as Laura sank into a weakened state of apathy.  Similarly, in The First Four Years, again we see the author’s tendency to protect herself emotionally; she avoids writing in detail about her unnamed baby son’s death, only briefly mentioning it before the narrative rushes back to the list of chores that must be done:

Laura was doing her own work again one day three weeks later when the baby was taken with spasms, and he died so quickly that the doctor was too late.

To Laura, the days that followed were mercifully blurred. Her feelings were numbed and she only wanted to rest–to rest and not to think.

But the work must go on.  Haying had begun and Manly, [her cousin] Peter, and the herd boy must be fed.  Rose must be cared for and all the numberless little chores attended to.

The urgent need to find enough hay for the growing number of animals on their farm receives more description than does their son’s short life.  And yet, Laura had to keep on going, cooking and watching Rose and finding a means of living through her grief by throwing herself into the work of a farmer’s wife. The workload so overwhelms this young farmwife that it is the work, more than the mourning, which controls her thinking.

On the other hand, perhaps it was the work that helped her to set a limit on the boundless sense of loss she must have felt, spending her days alone with a toddler in a little house on a homestead that would not in the end prove up.  “An endless significance lies in work,” wrote the nineteenth-century thinker Thomas Carlyle, and perhaps it is through work that Laura and Manly found significance for this bleakest part of their lives.

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24 comments on “The First Four Years; Chapter 4: Section 13
  1. Debi says:

    I’ve often wondered why Laura and Almanzo never had any more children. I used to think it was due to his stroke. But, the baby boy was conceived after that, so it must not have affected his ability to produce children. Was Laura too distraught to try again? That just doesn’t seem like Laura! She was still quite young (22?). I suppose we may never know. Losing a baby is such a terrible thing. I know my friend who lost one said the hole in heart didn’t start to heal until she finally had another baby. And even then, it never healed completely. That part of the book always made me so sad.

    • naomi says:

      I think this topic has been addressed in some previous chapters.

      But one thing that I don’t think was mentioned before was simple lack of opportunity. For most of the next 6 years or so they were living in a single room … and while it can be possible to snog with a toddler in the room, as Rose got older, they were going to have be much more discreet. And yes, hard work and poor diet meant less energy and lower fertility. I also wondered in my chapter if her two difficult pregnancies made her less eager to go through it all again.

      (The separate beds thing seems to have started much later in their life.)

      My big question on this chapter was the fact that the baby wasn’t named. These days it seems that for most young couples, ‘picking a name’ is the first thing on their mind after the positive pregnancy test. (Or before .. some teens seem to enjoy ‘collecting names’.)
      When Laura was pregnant with Rose, and she brought up the subject of names, Almanzo said they couldn’t name the baby because they didn’t know the sex. And Laura serenely predicted it would be a girl, and picked the name. But they apparently never discussed what baby would be named if it hadn’t been a girl.
      And now, they DO have a son, and over a week later, have failed to pick a name. WHAT was the problem? (And do Congregationalists not practice infant baptism?)
      Speculation time — perhaps there was an argument between the parents. In Almanzo’s family there was a definite trend towards … unusual names for boys. (Almanzo .. Perley … Royal..) Perhaps Almanzo wanted to name the baby for himself or one of this brothers, while Laura was holding out for something more normal. (Charles? James?).

  2. Michelle says:

    Re Debi’s comment, I always figured they didn’t have the energy/time/interest in further “intimate relations.” They had separate beds at Rocky Ridge, hardly conducive to canoodling. As a woman approaching 50, with a 9 yr old & a 3 yr old, my own business, DH working for me (so we spend almost too much time together), and a household to run (meal planning & cooking, & laundry – the rest of the housework doesn’t get done unless we have company over, & DH is our dishwasher), I have almost no time for myself except for moments like this when I should be emailing clients – I can tell you “romance” is the last thing on my mind these days! Of course, when I consider what Laura & Almanzo had to go through, I REALLY don’t have any problems….

    I still get irritated when I think of how Almanzo overextended himself/the 2 of them, by taking on the second claim, without the wherewithal to carry the work…..but I guess if they had had only the 1 claim they still would have lost everything……..(but I still don’t know why in heck Almanzo took on a $500 debt to build a house when a soddy would have done! didn’t they build them in those days?!? the only sod structure I can think of in the entire LH books is the barn on Plum Creek….they were standard here on the Canadian prairies right up to World War I and beyond – I know a man who was born in a soddy in Saskatchewan in 1930….)

  3. Becky Harris says:

    Pure speculation – but I wonder if something was wrong with the baby and they didn’t name him because they didn’t want to get too attached? Who knows. Maybe no more babies because of their financial struggles.

  4. Adkmilkmaid says:

    Twin beds were considered the height of sophistication in the 1920s and 30s, as well as a sign of prosperity (TWO BEDS). I don’t think the fact that they had twin beds had any bearing on the number of their children.

    Nor do I think it had much to do with opportunity or privacy. Remember that Ma and Pa managed to have THREE more children while sharing tiny, tiny houses (the dug-out really a cave) with Mary and Laura… by the time Freddie was born, those girls were pretty big!

    Though Laura and Manly thought Almanzo had had a stroke, he had not: it was a case of diphtheria which followed the normal course for its strain — apparent recovery and then swift collapse. I wrote about my research in a post reply somewhere on this site but unfortunately the comments are not searchable.

    It is interesting about the lack of name for the baby. Are we completely sure he was not named? I ask simply because often people in the past were reticent and private about losses in a way unimaginable today. For example, Teddy Roosevelt never mentioned the existence and death of his first wife. Today we might assume he did not care about her. The reverse was true. Her loss was so utterly devastating that he never referred to it again. Speaking about deep emotion was thought to cheapen it.

    • Melissa says:

      I have always wondered if maybe they had named him, but after his death, no one spoke of him, so anyone outside of the family that knew the name, forgot it. Alternatively, I wonder if he was born with some problem, so they knew he wouldn’t live long and therefore didn’t name him. That seems like “old time ” advice to me. “Don’t get too attached to him” No matter it is sad.

      • LauriOH says:

        That’s what I think happened. It’s curious to me that they wouldn’t have known that there would be a problem, and had a name picked out (James?), but decided not to use it even for the stone.

  5. Becky Harris says:

    His gravestone at the DeSmet cemetary says Baby Son of A.J. Wilder. I would think they would have put his name on the grave but I guess it’s not proof one way or another.

  6. Carla Banks-Williams says:

    Hi, I’m not sure if this has any bearing…but I remember visiting a cemetery “down home,” my mother’s birthplace. There were many baby makers that just had the designation “Baby” or “Infant” and surname. My mother explained to me at the time that, back then, infant mortality rates were so high parents waited for awhile to make sure the baby was going to live before naming it. I have also read quite a few historical novels that have expressed the same thing. That mothers were not encouraged to get attached to their infants too soon. These settlers were far away from sophisticated medical help, far out in the wilds of frontier life. I think it may have just been the times. As to why Rose was named, perhaps that was just Laura’s “writer’s vehicle” to explain how Rose came by her name. It is a pretty story. I mean, realize that Laura had used several such things before. If you look at small details from These Happy Golden Years to The First Four Years, there are many tiny inconsistencies.

  7. Joan Cresimore says:

    Here’s just another theory. Many couples who had children born with birth defects chose not to have more children for fear that future children would have the same problem. I had an aunt and uncle in 1941 who had a son born with spinal bifida and he only lived one day. They never had any other children because of their fears for future children. The chances for a repeat occurance were higher for them, but not a definate possibility. Little was known about birth defect issues even that recent. Now as to why no name was given I do not know. Was it a live birth? How long did he live? Customs may have been not to name the child if it was not a live birth.

  8. naomi says:

    He definitely was alive at birth — he lived over a week.

    But the idea that there have been some obvious problem at birth (whether a birth defect, or just a frail or sickly baby, or one who wouldn’t suckle), leading Laura to ‘not get too attached’ is an interesting one. Isn’t there a line about how Laura ‘wanted Rose more than ever’?

    • Melissa says:

      Yes- “Laura was proud of the baby, but strangely she wanted Rose more than anything.” It goes on to talk about how Rose was kept away and the hired girl was taking indifferent care of her.

  9. Carla says:

    I tried back in September to post this, but my phone wouldn’t let me. O know from “country” experience in my mother’s VERY old-timey hometown that many, many babies weren’t named until they got to be of certain age. It WAS the old wisdom of “Don’t get attached.” Many headstones in her hometown just said “Infant Johnson” or whichever.

    • Sparkysweet says:

      Even before the American Revolutionary War, many of the colonists waited until a child was of a certain age before they gave the child a name. It was the mentality of not becoming too attached to a child that might die. Especially if the child was sickly at birth. I am wondering if there is a death certificate for baby Wilder or records that the doctor may have kept that may explain the cause of death or if there was a birth defect. The baby was born before the doctor could arrive but he did arrive after the birth & he did arrive after the baby’s death. Maybe that doctor kept records of these two events.

  10. Mary Whitney says:

    Of course, no one really knows what goes on behind closed doors in a marriage (or in this instance maybe the opportunity for alone- time while children are far off playing in a creek). I’ve read the first hand accounts of the neighbor who helped Laura out after Almanzo died. She says that she found Laura holding him just after he died, like she couldn’t let him go. When the woman stayed the night to keep Laura company, Laura asked that she sleep in her bed just so she could sleep in Almanzo’s to be close to him.

    This makes me hypothesize (and it is really only a guess) that she and Almanzo were very physically intimate until the end (even if it wasn’t sexual in their old age). If she really hadn’t shared a bed with him for all those years, why would she still desire to be so close to him when he was gone?

    My theory on why they didn’t have another child is that their lives weren’t settled again and until they were long into living in Missouri. They were always on the road, and the last thing they needed was another mouth to feed.

    As for Rose’s belief that Laura hated sex, somewhere in my reading it’s said that Rose was very sexually active at a young age. That was one of the reasons she was shipped down to Eliza in Louisiana (otherwise why would Laura send her to a woman she disliked). Anyway, I think maybe Laura was trying to stop Rose’s sexual activity.

    Of course, the tragic narrative that negates our hopes in THGY is that Laura didn’t want sex after the baby boy’s death because sex led to babies which led to heartbreak and hardship. I don’t know … that kind of negativity just doesn’t seem to jibe with their overall never ending optimism.

    Finally, I think the Little House books are a romantic love letter to Almanzo who was her hero even later in life. She may have hen-pecked him, but he seemed to always joke about it – at her expense. I think they shared that sympathy she talked about until the very end.

    • Carla says:

      Mary, I totally agree with your comments here. Also, I’ve tried to post this elsewhere, but I have a stupid phone (as opposed to a smart one!) There I’d all kind of evidence toward some sort of secondary infertility with Laura and Almanzo. First, I read where she’d told Rose they’d prayed for another baby, but it didn’t happen. Second, has anyone read recently about the genetic disposition of Henry VIII? It seems that he had a sex-linked genetic on the Y-Chromosome that caused a host of problems, including secondary infertility., especially with baby boys. Laura was of Gaelic descent. It’s possible, given her family history, that X she likewise suffered.

    • Linda Winkler says:

      I doubt a lot of what you are saying. First of all unmarried women were not sexually active when Rose Wilder Lane was young. Such a claim is preposterous. She may have been in love with love as many young women were and still are but sex in the early part of the century was limited to married people and prostitutes. Secondly, why all this speculation about why Laura never had more children? She had two, one died and no more came. My husband’s mother had one child and no more came. It happens to some women. No fertility clinics in Laura’s time.

  11. naomi says:

    I’ve just been checking out some links on your theory about Laura’s fertility.
    Henry VIII’s ‘genetic disposition’ seems to be something called the Kell Protein. This was proposed as a possible explanation for his wives’ many miscarriages. It doesn’t seem to cause infertility (secondary or otherwise), but repeated, usually late miscarriages or neonatal deaths due to severe anemia. Henry’s wives were fertile (Catherine A and Anne B conceived early and often — they just had trouble carrying to term.) Whether Jane would have had another child if she hadn’t died one can only speculate. Anne of Cleve’s marriage was never consummated, and very likely the last two weren’t either due to Henry’s failing health. (Or at least there wasn’t enough sex to make pregnancy likely.) The articles also mention that even for Henry this diagnosis might be a stretch. (Mary wasn’t Catherine’s first baby, and the Kell factor usually results in a healthy, full-term first baby, followed by many miscarriages.)

    Some sort of genetic subfertility for Laura is definitly possible (Grace had no children, and Rose herself wasn’t conceived until 7 months into the marriage … a longer-than-expected lag for two healthy newly-weds.) But I’ve never seen any mention that Laura ever conceived after losing their son, let alone had any late miscarriages/still-births. (And when you look at Laura’s extended family on both her parent’s sides, most of her aunts and uncles had many, many healthy children.) Or it could be some other form of secondary infertility, due to any of a million health issues or pregnancy complications.

    • Tracy Sapp says:

      Didn’t Charles & Caroline Ingalls marry in 1860 & they didn’t have Mary until 1865? Is there any mention of Ma having miscarriages or stillbirths in this time period? That is a long time to be married & not conceive. Rose also had a stillbirth or a late term miscarriage when she was married to Lane.

  12. naomi says:

    For the first few years of their marriage, Charles and Caroline spent much of the time living with his parents and siblings, all crammed into a small house. So there probably wasn’t much … opportunity there. (Because once they did start having children, they arrived with reasonable regularity — 2-3 years apart. )

    It’s unclear whether Rose’s baby was stillborn or died soon after birth. But there is no reason to assume that it was a genetic issue — from what we know it was more likely to have been a complicated birth. (Rose had to have surgery afterwards, which left her unable to have more children.)

  13. Margaret Curtis says:

    I have wondered if the Ingalls women (Caroline, Laura and Rose) carried an X-linked chromosomal or metabolic disorder. Each of them had a baby boy that was stillborn or died in infancy, and only female children grew to adulthood. In genetics, this is a dead giveaway for some disorder that females carry but is expressed (shows symptoms) in males. Metabolic disorders (there are dozens of them) show up in infancy, and can lead to seizures and death – both Freddie Ingalls and Laura’s son are described as dying with “spasms”, the term for seizures in that day. I know less about Rose’s baby, so those who mention a complicated birth may have it right – so many reasons babies (and women) died in those days.

  14. Anita says:

    It is notable that three generations of women (Caroline, Laura and her sisters, and Rose) had no sons survive early infancy. While this could of course be a coincidence it would be consistent with them carrying an X chromozone linked genetic disorder which caused miscarriage or death in males during gestation and early infancy.

    It is quite possible that there were many miscarriages for these women for which there is no record. In some cases, the women may not even have known they were briefly pregnant and when they were aware of miscarriages, it would likely not have been talked about much or widely known. My own miscarriage is no secret but I would be surprised if very many people who know me remember or ever knew that I had one.

    I find it interesting that the Boasts assumed that Laura and Almanzo could have another but in fact Rose was the only child they were able to raise. Having suffered from infertility myself, I find their desperation for a child sadly credible. (Fortunately for me, in modern times, my options for building a family were much more extensive.)

  15. Susan says:

    Mary Whitney
    >>This makes me hypothesize (and it is really only a guess) that she and Almanzo were very physically intimate until the end (even if it wasn’t sexual in their old age). If she really hadn’t shared a bed with him for all those years, why would she still desire to be so close to him when he was gone?<<

    I knew two old people who definitely did not have sex anymore. They had had a relatioship some years back, then the woman lost her appartement and the man took her in. They were constantly heavily complaining about each other to their respective friends and had separate bedrooms. The woman presumably commited suicide – she had always told everybody that she did not want to survive her 74th birthday and had put things in order for her "flatmate" before her death (arranging repairs in the bathroom etc.).
    After her death, the man moved to her bedroom and slept in her bed (and was not shy to tell that to everybody). He never said that he had loved her, still had a lot of things to complain about her post-mortem, but continued to sleep in that bed until he moved to a retirement home.

    So this is not necessarily evidence for physical closeness.

  16. Linda Winkler says:

    Sod houses were generally considered temporary homes at that time. My mother was born in a sod house on the Canadian prairie (Manitoba) in 1908. They were considered unhealthy even then. After all you were living in a dwelling made of dirt. My mother said there were constant insects and during the summer garter snakes hung down from the ceiling inside.