The First Four Years
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura Ingalls Wilder died in 1957. Afterward, her manuscript for The First Four Years was found, and it was decided by the publishing company and a close family friend to publish this final story of The Little House series. It has an incomplete and melancholy feeling compared to the previous eight books, but my third read settled on an optimistic closure to Laura's stories.
The First Four Years began a retelling of Laura's and Almanzo's wedding day, in 1885. Laura expressed that she did not want to marry a farmer. Proverbs must have been popular in those days because Manly, Laura's nickname for Almanzo, used them like Pa and Ma: "Everything is evened up in the end . . ." He claimed, "Farmer's are independent," and he promised that if the farming failed after three years, he would quit and do whatever Laura wanted.
Manly provided a ready-to-move-in home for Laura, and she "looked the place over with the pride of possession." Often times, when Laura felt anxious about the finances or the farming or the trees not growing, she reminded herself not to worry; Manly didn't.
Laura did not always agree with Almanzo. For example, he lent every tool that a needy neighbor asked for, even knowing the borrower may never return it. When Laura thought the same neighbor would ask for a hog to scald, Laura sarcastically thought she would give it to him if he asked because she knew Manly would have given it. When a terrible hail storm struck, Manly suggested they make ice cream. Laura facetiously asked her visitor if she felt like celebrating, and the woman replied, "No! I want to get home and see what happened there. Ice cream would choke me." And later, Manly purchased a beautiful clock during a time when Laura was adding up doctor bills and costs for medicine. She questioned his judgment, but he was not concerned.
In their second year of marriage, Laura had a baby girl, Rose, whom she absolutely adored. Nonetheless, there was still plenty of concern about expenses. Laura did not agree that they could afford a new stove, though she resigned that to be "Manly's business." That's what I say, myself, when I disagree with my husband's purchases: "It's on him."
At one point Almanzo and especially Laura were very sick with diphtheria. Rose was spared and remained with Laura's mother. But Almanzo suffered a stroke soon after because he overexerted himself before he was fully recovered. Thereafter, Laura needed to help Manly with his work until he could use his hands again.
Now there were more doctor bills, and those stupid trees weren't doing very well. They needed more cultivation and babysitting. Almanzo had to sell the homestead to a buyer, and he and Laura moved back to the tree claim. Then they got into the sheepherding business. Apparently, it was an election year and a Democrat was likely to win the White House. "Mr. Whitehead, being a good Republican, was sure the country would be ruined. The tariff would be taken off, and the wool and sheep would be worth nothing." They sold Laura's colt to help buy 100 sheep, with cousin Peter, who shepherded the sheep on their property.
In the fourth year of marriage - the year of grace, Laura called it - the crops were mostly failures. The treacherous wind storms were a problem for the sheep, as they would roll over and over, unable to get up. Then Laura found out she was pregnant again, which was never a pleasant time for her. Thankfully, a neighbor brought over a load of books for her to read, which was like medicine for her condition.
And now the four walls of the close, overheated house opened wide, and Laura wandered with brave knights and ladies fair beside the lakes and streams of Scotland or in castles and towers, in noble halls or lady's bower, all through the enchanting pages of Sir Walter Scott's novels.
She forgot to feel ill at the sight or smell of food, in her hurry to be done with the cooking and follow her thoughts back into the book.The grief of farm life continued, although she must not let her pride be a burden. The trees were mostly lost, and Manly could not "prove-up"; he had to pre-empt the land. Soon after, Laura delivered her baby boy, who died three weeks later. She described the days that followed as "mercifully blurred." Another day, a fire started in the kitchen of their claim shanty, which consumed their house and almost everything in it. Laura felt like a failure.
Some pages back, Laura lamented how she hated farming. During a time of weakness, she thought,
How could [I] ever keep up the daily work and still go through what was ahead. There was so much to be done and only [myself] to do it. [I] hate the farm and the stock and the smelly lambs, the cooking of food and the dirty dishes. Oh, [I] hate it all, and especially the debts that must be paid whether [I] work or not.Now after some painful suffering, and at the end of four years of farm life, Laura pondered:
It would be a fight to win out in this business of farming, but strangely she felt her spirit rising for the struggle.
The incurable optimism of the farmer who throws his seed on the ground every spring, betting it and his time against the elements, seemed inextricably to blend with the creed of her pioneer forefathers that 'it is better farther on' - only instead of farther on in space, it was farther on in time, over the horizon of the years ahead instead of the far horizon of the west.
She was still the pioneer girl and she could understand Manly's love of the land through its appeal to herself.
"Oh well," Laura sighed, summing up her idea of the situation in a saying of her Ma's: "Well always be farmers, for what is bred in the bone will come out in the flesh."
I must admit that I literally was grieved for Laura and wanted her to return to her little girl days of times past - to return to the comforts and securities of home, with Ma and Pa; but Laura, being more mature and responsible than I was at 19, was proud to be the mistress of her own domain and optimistic about the future.
This may be the end of The Little House series, but it is not the end of Laura's and Almanzo's story, that we know. She left journals and articles and letters beyond the first four years on that first farm in South Dakota. My family and I visited their homes in Mansfield, Missouri. Unfortunately, you cannot take pictures inside the homes, but it was wonderful and exciting. If you ever are in the neighborhood, don't miss the opportunity to experience it.
Home of Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder:
|My daughter, standing under one of the |
many surviving apple trees
that the Wilder's planted on their property.
Rocky Ridge , the home that Rose had built for her parents:
|This is a little ice house that Almanzo built |
on a stream that ran through their property.
It still stands today.