Book Reviews

Book Review: Laura Ingalls Wilder Country – Bringing The “Little House” Books To Life

I know one thing that is always hard for me at times is imaging a place that I haven’t seen. I can imagine wooded areas because I’ve seen forests. I can imagine seashores because I grew up with a beach nearby. However, when I was growing up and reading the Little House books, I had no real concept of what a prairie was. I could read the descriptions penned by Laura Ingalls Wilder and not really grasp exactly how land could go on and on almost flat and covered with grass for as far as the eye can see. Being able to see a storm brewing sixty miles away was unheard of in my eyes.

Of course, now that I am older and I’ve been able to travel more on my own, I’ve seen some of the great Midwestern prairies, so when I re-read the Little House books, that setting was somewhat easier for me to imagine. There were other situations Laura talked about in her books that still left a bit of a mystery for me. With that in mind, when I had the opportunity to, I picked up Laura Ingalls Wilder Country by William Anderson with photographs by Leslie A. Kelly.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Country is a soft-cover book about 120 pages long which details Laura’s life in pictures along with words. It’s not an in-depth biography the way Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Donald Zochert is, but it does touch on things Laura didn’t write about in her books, such as the two years in between the end of On The Banks of Plum Creek and the beginning of By The Shores of Silver Lake.

What I really bought Laura Ingalls Wilder Country for, though, were the pictures. Most of the photographs are of the places Laura describes in her book, only how they looked in the late 1980s. The photographs of the little log cabin in Wisconsin are where the state marked Laura’s birthplace with a wayside in her honor, but gone are the “big woods” Laura wrote about, replaced with rolling farmland.

The photographs from Laura’s own life are here too. They have been restored and are of much better quality than I saw in Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I appreciated a lot. The wedding photo of Laura’s parents, Charles and Caroline is something to behold as the only description I had read of Caroline was that she was very plain, and she doesn’t appear that way to me at all in the photograph. Charles looks more like Abraham Lincoln than the illustrations in the Little House books.

The photographs are chronological and follow the books, with the exception of including the places Laura didn’t talk about but were part of her life’s path, such as Burr Oak, Iowa. The original illustrations by Helen Sewell from the first edition of the Little House books are also shown here and there, with the illustrations by Garth Williams which are the better-known illustrations.

Wildflowers of the prairie are photographed in Laura Ingalls Wilder Country, giving an impression of why some of the beauty Laura saw in her everyday life stayed with her well enough into adulthood for her to write about. Even the wild plums along Plum Creek are shown.

I liked seeing the photographs of the towns Laura talked about. Town to me has always been narrow streets; maybe two car lanes in each direction if you were lucky, but more often than not a lane of traffic each way and people walking on narrow sidewalks. Laura’s towns, such as Walnut Grove and DeSmet, seem to feature wide streets with the ability to park cars at an angle to the curb on either side and still leave plenty of room for traffic to get by. At first, I thought the modern cars would be a distraction, but I found it made it easier to think about horses with wagons or buggies behind them tied up in the same spots.

Some of the more spectacular pictures are the ones Leslie A. Kelly took around DeSmet after a particularly bad blizzard. Seeing the wind-swept snow on the prairie and the muskrat houses looking like snowdrifts made it easier to imagine what Laura remembered of those times. What helped even more was one archived photograph included of a stranded freight train seemingly buried in the snow as crews worked around it during that winter Laura wrote about.

The descriptions to go along with the photographs are good and really gave a feel for the setting both in the books and in modern times. They augment the short biography Anderson has written about Laura at the beginning of each chapter. These are broken up mostly in the same way Laura’s books were, but there are a few adjustments made for the parts of her life she did not cover. As a biography, it’s not complete, but it does convey the setting for each chapter very well.

I am so glad I came across Laura Ingalls Wilder Country and picked it up. When I read the books again with the photographs in mind, it made it that much easier to imagine what Laura wrote about instead of what became ingrained in my head after the television show. It’s a good book for fans of Laura’s to have, and something that is quite interesting from a historic perspective as well.

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