When I was about my daughter’s age, nine, a friend of the family gave me my first Little House book. That book was On The Banks of Plum Creek. I was immediately captivated by the stories within and read them over and over through the years. The copy I had contained wonderful illustrations to accompany the story by Garth Williams. Eventually, I was given all of the books in the series, plus a few other collections of Laura’s writings. I gave my set to my oldest daughter and it soon became scattered in their room. I purchased a second set for my now nine-year-old.
About a year ago I wanted to read the books again for myself. Unfortunately, my daughters could no longer assemble a complete set between them. I wanted a set of books for ME now that would be hands-off for the rest of the family. When we traveled to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri I saw exactly what I wanted.
On The Banks of Plum Creek seems to pick up almost where the previous book in the series, Little House on the Prairie ended. The Ingalls family, consisting of Pa, Ma, and sisters Mary, Laura, and baby Carrie had to leave their home in “Indian Country” at the end of that novel. As this book begins, they are arriving in Minnesota; “a long way into Minnesota” according to Laura.
Pa trades just about all they have in the world, their wagon-cover, horses, and mule to Mr. Hanson for his land, oxen and current year’s crops. Hanson is eager to go West. Pa anticipates being able to turn a good crop the following year.
For the time being, the family must live in a dugout. It’s exactly what it sounds like, a house dug out of the ground. Despite what seems like the obvious misgivings, Ma makes the best of the situation. Laura is just seven years old, but so much more seems to be expected of her than we would expect of our seven-year-olds!
Although Pa always seems to think success for his family is just around the corner, they face some terrible hardships. In anticipation of a bumper crop of wheat, Pa builds a real house for them. Then the grasshoppers arrive and destroy everything and Pa must go away to find work. There are terrible and no weather forecasts like we have now, so getting caught out in one is a real danger.
For Laura, On The Banks of Plum Creek marks the first time she meets other children besides her siblings and the cousins she had back in Wisconsin. She and her older sister Mary are sent to school in a town four miles away and they must walk that every morning. Here Laura meets a rival that will plague her for quite some time, a girl named Nellie Oleson. Nellie comes from a storekeeper’s family and they are better off than Laura’s family when it comes to money.
However, I don’t think there is any other family with a stronger bond than the Ingalls’. The hardships bring them closer together. Laura also writes a great deal more in this book about the spiritual health of the family as they attend church in the town and their faith is tested but doesn’t waver.
There are fun times for the family. They take time to swim in the creek which runs near the dugout. One Christmas Laura receives a surprise gift that she treasures. There are many nights of sitting together listening to Pa play his fiddle and sing songs.
There’s some controversy about how much of this story was actually written by Laura Ingalls Wilder and how much was written by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. It’s believed by some that the reason this book seems so much more fraught with peril than Laura’s previous novels is Rose’s influence in trying to jazz up the story a bit. I’d have to say that although there are perils in On The Banks of Plum Creek, I think that it is a somewhat lesser level than Little House on the Prairie had.
In any case, the book reads quite well and was a pleasure to read with my daughters. They enjoyed the story as they tried to envision the life Laura describes. I believe seven is the youngest age I would try to start reading these books with a child. Even then, it is sometimes hard for them to comprehend a life so different from their own. This is especially true because Laura is that age in this book and seems very grown-up for her age. In her writing, Laura manages to describe in great detail the daily chores and lifestyle of a time long ago. At the same time, I don’t find her descriptions to be overwritten and bogged down, but fascinating. I love reading this book with my children because we can all imagine what life was like back then so well and at the same time it brings up interesting discussions of the differences.
My new edition of On The Banks of Plum Creek is a paperback-bound book with the same beautiful illustrations by Garth Williams that I grew up with. The difference is that they are now in color, rather than the pen-and-ink style drawings I first saw all those years ago. My favorite drawing in this book is the one of the bulls crashing through the roof of the house. The grasses look so green in contrast to the tawny color of the bull. I see the pink of baby Carrie’s dress, the slight coloring of the flowers around the door of the dugout, and the gray coat of Jack, their bulldog. Even the tiniest pictures which accompany each chapter title have been enhanced with color, adding a richer flavor to the story.
The font in the new full-color collector’s edition of On The Banks of Plum Creek seems larger than the other editions, making it easier for little eyes to read. When I read the story with my girls, the chapters were the perfect size to read one each night at bedtime.
If you’ve never read the books, I definitely feel they are worth it for adults as well. I am enjoying reading them again just by myself for the first time in years. If you have children, it’s a wonderful experience that will spark lots of conversation and questions about life so many years ago.
Previous book in the series (link): Farmer Boy
Next book in the series (link): By The Shores of Silver Lake