As an avid reader, my local library and school library were vitally important to me in childhood. I got through books at an alarming rate, nagging my grandad to walk me to the town library every Wednesday teatime (and hoping for an ice cream on the way home), and looking forward to our class visit to the school library each week.
So you can imagine my disappointment at the age of nine when I saw the state of the small classroom library in Year 4. The books on the shelves were ancient. Seriously ancient and seriously dull.
It seems our young, forward-thinking class teacher felt the same way and somehow managed to purchase one shelf’s worth of brand new paperbacks, which we were allowed to borrow if we were very careful.
I don’t remember all that she bought. But I do vividly remember a series about a nurse called Sue Barton which I read over and over (and wanted to be a nurse for a while. Ha! I can’t stand the sight of blood!) . . . and the whole series of Laura Ingalls Wilder books. At that point, I hadn’t seen the Little House On The Prairie TV series – although I loved it later – but I absolutely adored those books.
Laura Ingalls Wilder transported me to another time and another place so completely, I wanted to be her. I was fascinated by what the family ate (codfish gravy for breakfast, anyone?); what they wore (and the fact that they sewed it all by hand); how they played, turning everyday objects into toys for a while.
For someone who has not got a technical mind, I was intrigued by the methods Pa used to build their houses with limited materials. I was as excited as Laura and Mary on their first trip to town, struggling to understand why they were so gobsmacked by the number of houses and the goods in the general store – I couldn’t imagine living somewhere where you had to travel for hours just to buy (or trade for) provisions, or sometimes even just to see a neighbour. I loved the idea of the small, cosy schoolhouse, teaching across the age ranges, with its warm heater in the middle of the room keeping the frost at bay.
I bought the set for myself when I was in my early twenties – I couldn’t bear not having them on my shelves – and then shared them with my daughter as she was growing up.
My favourite in the series is the first – Little House In The Big Woods.
It has that innocence of young children at play, their natural sense of wonder and a certain oblivion to the stresses of the grown-up world.
I love the cosy log cabin, making butter and cheese (not so much slaughtering the pig!), the stories Pa tells to the girls, and I remember the “sugaring off”, pouring maple syrup onto snow so it hardens in squiggly shapes, and the dance that follows.
In an opposite kind of way, I also love The Long Winter.
The hardship that slowly creeps upon the family, their real struggle for survival, near-starvation, Pa’s inventiveness just to keep a small corner of their home heated, Almanzo’s interepid expedition to bring wheat to the town, blizzards so severe that you couldn’t see more than inches ahead and could be lost forever on the open prairie, the arrival of their Christmas turkey in May . . .
It certainly puts my suburban, centrally-heated, well-fed life in perspective! 🙂
So, beyond this obvious enjoyment, why or how did Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books influence me?
As with Enid Blyton’s books (see link below), they taught me that a writer can transport their reader to a whole other world. The fact that Wilder’s books were based on her own childhood made no difference – to me, a child growing up in the UK in the seventies, the distance in time and miles was still great. I didn’t mind the detailed description – it helped immerse me in Laura’s life. As I’ve grown older and occasionally reread them, the books always make me hanker after a simpler kind of life . . . for a while. After all, I know I wouldn’t last two minutes with all that hardship and the bears and the walking goodness-knows-how-many-miles to school and waking up with snow covering my bedding and the . . . well, I keep getting stuck on the idea of codfish gravy at breakfast. Eugh!
Any other Laura Ingalls Wilder fans out there? What am I saying? I know there are thousands of you! Form an orderly queue, please! 😀
If you missed my previous posts about books that were important to me, you can catch up here: