A haphazard trip through the ‘Little House’ books

By Jayson Jacoby June 22, 2012 08:18 am

I’ve been reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” anthology to my daughter, Olivia, who just turned 5.

We’re going about this in a haphazard way.

(More so than usual, anyway — any reading endeavor which involves 5-year-olds can hardly be described as regimented.)

We started with “Farmer Boy,” the only book in the series in which Laura herself doesn’t even show up.

I can at least justify this decision on chronological grounds. The titular character in “Farmer Boy” — Laura’s future husband, Almanzo Wilder — was a decade older than she, so the events in the book actually predated Laura’s birth.

Which makes it pretty tough for the author to insert herself in what’s purported to be a work of non-fiction.

I lack such a compelling excuse, though, for why, having left off with Almanzo earning the fine colt, Starlight, at the end of “Farmer Boy,” we then leaped ahead clear to “Little Town on the Prairie,” and so skipped the five volumes that cover Laura’s earlier childhood.

Actually I don’t need an excuse.

It’s Olivia’s fault.

After I explained to her that Almanzo would marry Laura, she insisted that we go to their meeting straightaway, rather than dither around for hundreds of pages with the itinerant Ingalls family, and not so much as a mention of Almanzo as we journeyed through the Big Woods of Wisconsin and on to the banks of Plum Creek and the shores of Silver Lake.

Almanzo does show up in “The Long Winter,” the book immediately preceding “Little Town on the Prairie.” But though he plays a heroic role, riding through the snowbound prairie to bring wheat to the starving pioneers of De Smet, he is but a minor character who has no real interaction with Laura.

“The Long Winter” is my favorite in the series, but that’s because inclement weather plays such a prominent role in the proceedings.

Olivia, I was sure, would quickly tire of blizzards and twisting hay into stove fuel, so we forged ahead to “Little Town” and its first tentative conversations between Laura and Almanzo.

We have since gone on, in this case just as the author intended, to “These Happy Golden Years,” in which the couple’s fledgling romance flourishes.

This experience, no matter its lack of historical consistency, has been for me especially enjoyable.

Besides the joy of instilling in Olivia the unique thrill of tales well told, I relish revisiting the 19th century landscape that Laura preserved with such care and obvious love.

Aside from an elementary school obsession with the Hardy Boys, the “Little House” books would rank as the series I have read most often.

As a general rule I slide the first book — “Little House in the Big Woods” — from the shelf every few years, a trifle dusty but otherwise intact.

And once I have settled into that snug log cabin that Pa built, I am helpless to resist the pull of Laura’s prose, and must, in the way of the pilgrim, stay on the trail til it ends.

It is only a coincidence that I have introduced Olivia to this wondrous work in 2012, which marks the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act.

But this seems to me a happy sort of coincidence.

It was that act, after all, that lured Laura’s father, Charles Ingalls, to come west.

Without the legislation, I suspect the Ingalls family’s story would be quite different — and perhaps would never have been memorialized in print.

I have tried to explain to Olivia that the “claims” mentioned so often in “Little Town on the Prairie” and “These Happy Golden Years” are pieces of land that the government gave to people who were willing to live and farm there.

I think my explanation was less than compelling because Olivia, who can be quite peppy even at 3 in the morning, actually yawned.

But then a couple of weeks ago Olivia went with her mom to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, which is commemorating the Homestead Act in a big way, and they came home with a replica of the certificate that homesteaders got when they “proved up” on a claim and the land became their own.

A sheet of paper embossed with words rendered in a fancy script is a tangible thing — more tangible than dad’s lectures, anyway.

Besides which, Olivia is fascinated by certificates, which she calls “certickets” — one of those cute linguistic gaffes that all kids come up with but which their parents, sadly, sometimes forget.

Or maybe she just likes brevity.

In any case, the Homestead Act sesquicentennial also has reminded me that there is a link, albeit not a direct one, between the Ingalls family and Baker County.

Although the events that Laura writes about can seem to a modern reader (or to a 5-year-old listener who complains that she doesn’t get to play with mom’s and dad’s newly acquired smartphones) nearly as ancient and inconceivable as the Middle Ages, she was in fact born in 1867, six years after Henry Griffin discovered gold near the site of what became, a few years later, Baker City.

And there remain, in the sagelands east of town, decrepit shade trees, desiccated fence posts and other remnants of a time when people who must have been very much like the Ingalls sought their fortunes in Baker County.

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Baker City’s latest eBay auction of surplus city-owned stuff has ended, and the event contained a most unexpected link to an odious aspect of Soviet Communism.

Among the host of innocuous items the city disposed of — such things as parking meters and old street signs — was one with more sinister connotations.

A security camera.

In America, of course, these devices don’t symbolize government repression.

It seems to me that their most common use here is supplying footage to the TV stations when a customer tries to rob a clerk at a convenience store by brandishing a handful of Slim Jims or other spear-like processed meat products.

But the successful bidder for Baker City’s camera was foreign.

From Bulgaria, to be specific.

I’m sure this Eastern European country is a pleasant place these days — albeit one with a reputation for poverty, even in a region not known for wealth.

During the Cold War, though, Bulgaria was perhaps the most faithful of the Soviet satellites, known in particular for handling some of the nastier pieces of work farmed out from Moscow.

Offing spies and the like.

I have no idea where Baker City’s old camera will end up.

But I’ll wager it won’t be watching the counter at a 7-Eleven in Sofia.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.