Tuesday, April 17, 2018

'On the Banks of Plum Creek' by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This year, I'm hosting a read-along of all of the Little House on the Prairie Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which you'll find here. We'd love you to read along and share your thoughts, if you feel so inclined. I haven't included a sign-up sheet of any sort, but kept it all very informal. Here we're up to the month of April.
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Based on the real-life adventures of Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek is the Newbery Honor-winning fourth book in the Little House series, which has captivated generations of readers. This edition features the classic black-and-white artwork from Garth Williams.

The adventures of Laura Ingalls and her family continue as they leave their little house on the prairie and travel in their covered wagon to Minnesota. They settle into a house made of sod on the banks of beautiful Plum Creek. Soon Pa builds them a sturdier house, with real glass windows and a hinged door. Laura and Mary go to school, help with the chores around the house, and fish in the creek. Pa’s fiddle lulls them all to sleep at the end of the day. But then disaster strikes—on top of a terrible blizzard, a grasshopper infestation devours their wheat crop. Now the family must work harder than ever to overcome these challenges.
We catch up the with the Ingalls family for their very next move after leaving Indian Territory, where they might have just escaped with their lives. (See Little House on the Prairie.) Pa's newest big idea is to settle in Minnesota and harvest a fine crop of wheat, which he's certain will bring them unprecedented wealth. Their list of dreams keeps being added to. It includes a new buggy, fine horses, silk dresses and candy every day. Also salt pork, gravy and fresh beef for regular meals. It's great fun to have all this to look forward to from their temporary home, a dugout in the ground.

Pa gets so excited that he starts borrowing money before he even harvests the wheat, to have some luxuries early. They purchase Sam and David, their beautiful horses, along with lumber to build their best house yet. Pa really splashes out to add metal door hinges, shingles, glass windows, china door knobs, and the boss of all cook stoves to surprise Ma. He says, 'Don't worry about the expense. Just look through the glass at that wheat field.' And Laura thinks how brilliant it is that they have the wonderful house just because the wheat is growing.

The girls start school for the first time. I remember being aghast as a kid that 9-year-old Mary and 8-year-old Laura could hardly read at all. Literacy snuck up on me from a very early age, and the same thing happened with my kids, who we homeschooled. (In all honesty, I can't say I taught them much before they were off on their own.) This re-read of Plum Creek shows that it was less to do with any fault in Pa and Ma as role models, and more to do with complete lack of opportunities to read. They owned just a handful of adult books and lived in a world with no sign posts, newspapers, adverts or computers. When you're not inundated unconsciously with letters and words almost every waking moment, you don't read. This speaks as much about our era as theirs.

How sad to think that Ma had only one novel to tide her over through the years. I haven't read Millbank but hope it was good, because they had to get a lot of mileage out of it. They obviously did. It turns out Laura knew swaths off by heart, just from hearing Ma read it to Pa.

777072In spite of lack of the written word, there was plenty of opportunity to learn good life lessons. The creek in which Laura almost drowned taught her that some things just can't be controlled, and an old badger possibly saved her life. Because, 'once you begin being naughty, it is easier to go on and on, and sooner or later something dreadful happens.'

Laura's descriptive writing skills bring the books alive. Nobody gives nature personality the way she does. For example, the storm 'seemed angry' that they'd managed to fetch two loads of wood behind its back. After a much needed rainfall, 'the air was cool and the earth was damp and grateful.' And in a terrible three-day blizzard, 'the voices in the storm howled and giggled and shrieked.' It's so subtle, but she makes features of the great outdoors seem like extra characters, without us even realising.

My very favourites are the bits that simply highlight the joy of being alive. The best happiness is in simple pleasures, after all.

We see it in insects. 'Bees and hornets stood thick along the cracks (in the plums) sucking up the juices with all their might. Their scaly tails wiggled with joy.'

And it's the same with dogs. 'Jack looked up at Laura and a waggle went from his neck to his stubby tail.' 

And with people. 'Pa was sitting on the wagon seat. His face was one big shining of joy.'

But life has its fair share of heartache too. The wheat field becomes a loss, when a plague of grasshoppers of biblical proportions show up. They really show the power in numbers, but you feel like wringing their millions of rotten little necks, one after the other. I was so sorry for Pa, to have to walk hundreds of miles in his shabby old boots to earn enough money to pay back what he owed. At this stage, readers might start thinking, 'I hope this poor man's hopes and dreams won't be crushed near the end of every book.' But he's a product of his times, and knows how to take the bad with the good. 'There's no use protesting. What must be done is best done cheerfully.' Another one of his ideas he couldn't quite pull off, just like the move to Indian territory.

There are great descriptions of the town, which seem like a pioneer village in action. I used to adore the chapter with the Christmas tree in the church. (More about that incident here.) And we're introduced to Laura's nemesis Nellie Oleson, one of the snobbiest, brattiest girls in literature. (See my list of famous mean girls.)

We get to take in our fill of lazy summer holiday incidents, with the swimming hole, the creek bank, the dusty tablelands and the ripe plums. Let's soak in the sunshine while we can, because The Long Winter isn't too far off. But just before that, and next up will be By the Shores of Silver Lake



  1. I'm not done with it yet, but I realized that all of the characters from the television show were from this and Little House in the Big Woods.

    1. Hi Carrie, I've been remembering Melissa Gilbert, Michael Landon and Co too, from way back 😊 It helps you remember Laura's era, but also the 70s and 80s when it was on TV.

  2. Gosh, you're so right, the lack of opportunities to read for these children is so heartbreaking! I hadn't thought of it like that, but you're spot on - when you're not surrounded by writing, you don't do much reading. How lucky I feel to have grown up in an environment with books on every surface... <3

    1. Hi Sheree, we just can't imagine it, can we. It's even more than taking for granted. More like having something in our unconscious minds that we don't even realise 😊

  3. One of my favorite sections was Laura's descriptions of the bees and hornets on the plums. She was so fearless! (I'm a coward when it comes to insects with stingers.) Nonetheless, it was so well written, as I read from the safety of a century gone by via the pages of my book.

    This is one of my favorite of the series. They endure so much hardship and complication and conflict, and always with a cheerful countenance, which prepares them for more of that which is to come.

    1. Hi Ruth, yes, they suffered so many losses, but their ability to appreciate the simple gifts of life was never one of them. This is one of my favourites of the series too. And I always enjoy Mary's bafflement at the scary things Laura enjoys 😊