Book Reviews

Book Review: The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder – An Incomplete Memoir of a Sad Time

When I was about nine, a friend of the family gave me my first Little House book. I was immediately captivated by the stories within and read them over and over through the years. The copy I had contained wonderful illustrations by Garth Williams to accompany the story. 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.

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 to 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.

The First Four Years is exactly what the title states – the story of the first four years of the marriage of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Almanzo Wilder. However, the book is incomplete. Published after both Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane passed away, the manuscript that would become The First Four Years was found among Laura’s belongings. It was published as it was written, so its style was much different from the rest of the series.

It’s not known why the book was never finished. Some have speculated that Laura just didn’t have the heart for completing it following Almanzo’s death. However, Almanzo died in 1949 and These Happy Golden Years was published in 1944. Up until this point, Laura had been publishing the story of her life at the rate of one book per year. There has also been speculation that the subject matter was just too troubling to her.

It‘s easy to understand why after reading this story. The First Four Years is far from a happy book. There are hardships galore; more than anyone can be expected to endure and still have a positive outlook on life.

Laura is reluctant to marry Almanzo here. She is nervous about being a farmer’s wife after watching the struggle her own family has gone through all the years. However, he convinces her their life will be different.

The two set up their home on a tree claim and begin their life together. There are happy times of horse rides across the prairie before breakfast. Her description of their first home together on the tree claim is wonderful and I could see it as she was describing it – and this was from her own memory almost fifty years later! Laura recounts some of her early mistakes as a young wife – such as failing to properly sweeten a pie baked for the men who came to help thresh the wheat.

The birth of their daughter Rose is also recounted, though not in such great detail that anyone would have to worry about explaining the facts of life to a child who read it. However, because of the hardships in this book, I think a young child could easily be upset and would caution parents against allowing them to read it. It’s hard when bad things happen to a beloved character.

There are mounting debts as Almanzo has big plans for his acreage that never seems to pan out. Storms strike the prairie and his crops are destroyed. Shortly afterward, both Laura and Almanzo contract diphtheria and Almanzo suffers a stroke and is never the same. Laura gives birth to a second child – a son – who doesn’t even live long enough to be named. A fire destroys their beautiful home and most of their belongings – Laura and Rose barely manage to get out with their lives.

Since the book ends with the events of Laura losing her infant son followed by the fire, my opinion is that reliving those times was too painful for her to continue. The tone she describes herself with is so despondent that I felt she conveyed a sense of guilt over not bouncing back from the baby’s death and allowing the fire to happen. Still, her strength of character shows that she does manage to come through such adversity the way she does.

The rich man has his ice in the summer, and the poor man gets his in the winter…

This saying is repeated throughout the book and it’s one I’ve often kept in mind, even if my children have no idea what it means (doesn’t ice come from that contraption in the refrigerator?) I felt the book was balanced, although the heartbreak does come through and seems to be the tone. Laura does try to keep everything upbeat, but these were hard times for the young family. In addition, the book hasn’t been polished the way her other novels were, so at times it feels more like just a writer’s notes than a cohesive storyline.

It’s not a long read, coming in at just 134 pages. We through the book fairly quickly in the evenings before bedtime. There were some questions as Laura continually defers to Almanzo’s judgment when it comes to financial matters and though it seems to worry her, she keeps repeating that “it’s not her concern”. How different times are now, and it provided a great deal of discussion between myself and my two daughters.

My new edition of The First Four Years 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. There aren’t as many drawings in The First Four Years as there were in the other novels in the series, but the ones that are here are well done and accentuate the story nicely. One of the most moving is the one of the terrible fire and seeing Laura in the grass being held by her husband. The fire is in the background and the focus is on the three members of the Wilder family as Rose stands nearby in a pink dress, her hands filled with wildflowers. It’s a picture that’s a testament to the bond the three of them shared.

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): These Happy Golden Years

4 replies »