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.