On Westward!

How many of us have known a place, where we felt like we had been there and breathed the air just from reading the pages of a book? From the time I was a child I’ve been transported to so many places throughout the world that I have never even been to, yet through my reading feel as if I have been a part of them in some way. One such place is the great plains; the land that spreads out so wide and vast with golden wheat swaying in the breeze. The first author to introduce me to this region was Laura Ingalls Wilder. While reading Wilder’s exciting descriptions of her family’s travels in the covered wagon, I was a part of her family, traveling right alongside Laura and Mary, skipping through tall, sun-burnt grasses, helping Ma bake cornbread, and sitting around in the evening listening to the fiddle.  I remember glorious summers spent outside under our large pine tree, not being able to pry my eyes from the pages of the Little House books, and literally feeling as if I had left my home for the day. What an extraordinary sensation! I would sometimes go out in the large meadow behind our house and imagine I was Laura in the prairie lands. I even had a home-made dress similar to the style that she wore: I just needed the bonnet.

That writing has the power to transport us to other places and times and transform us into the characters we meet in books is an incredible gift.

Another treasure in prairie literature that my mother suggested to me while browsing OWL one fine summer day in my youth was Blue Willow by Doris Gates. Janey Larkin, the main character in the story, longs for a permanent home where she can display a beautiful blue willow plate which had belonged to her great-great grandmother. Like the Ingalls family, the Larkin’s moved around a lot out west, looking for places where work was needed. Gates’ novel is rich in description of setting, and she created a memorable character in Janey; I have carried a part of Janey’s story with me ever since I finished it. The story is best for ages 10-14.

Imagine my joy then upon discovering recently an adult version of these books about prairie life…Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Author Bradford Morrow  recently revisited the novel on All Things Considered on NPR (read the review here). Morrow states:  “What’s interesting about My Antonia is how it manages to function as a perfectly inviting story for young readers, and how an adult willing to revisit it with a more developed critical eye can appreciate it for the subtly sophisticated narrative it truly is.”  He also added that for those who had not yet read it, he was envious of the readers journey through the first time. I immediately went to Cather’s spot on OWL’s shelf and plucked it down. I must say I have not been able to put it down since.

 Cather’s writing is simple, yet amazingly she creates an image of the places she discusses with such accuracy you feel as if you are right there. Take this paragraph for example: “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” Don’t you just feel as if you are there amongst the tall grasses with the blue sky above and the sun shining down on you without anything obstructing it?

Cather also wrote O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark, both of which take place out west. O Pioneers! was Cather’s second novel and some believe it was her finest. It tells the story of Alexandra Bergson and others who are transformed by the land. Here is a beautiful excerpt from the story: “The land belongs to the future . . . that’s the way it seems to me. . . I might as well try to will the sunset over there to my brother’s children. We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it-for a little while.” Song of the Lark is the story of Thea Kronberg, whose musical talents and ambitions lead her away from her home in Colorado. Amidst the canyons of Arizona she struggles to find her way in the world.

I must say that it’s a great pleasure to revisit the prairie in my adulthood.

The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie is a newly published book by author Wendy McClure that speaks to my heart, and I’m sure to thousands of readers, when she writes about her obsession with “Laura world.” The opening says it all: “I was born in 1867 in a log cabin in Wisconsin and maybe you were, too. We lived in our family in the Big Woods, and then we all traveled in a covered wagon to Indian Territory, where Pa built us another house, out on high land where the prairie grasses swayed. Right?” The book describes the journey McClure takes into Wilder’s world, visiting the places that the Ingalls family lived, and even going so far as to order a butter churn to see what it was like to churn butter. And we all thought we were huge fans of Little House…

Learn more about the devastating locusts that plagued life on the prairie for many families like the Ingalls in Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier.  The book provides a fascinating look at one of nature’s most peculiar disasters, and what people did to fight back. It must have been absolutely frightening to see that dark cloud making its way across the grasslands.

The Dear America series for children are fabulous historical fiction novels set in compelling diary form, following the thoughts of each character in a certain time period. Two of my favorites, set in the west of course, are Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell 1847 and West to a Land of Plenty: The Diary of Teresa Angelino Viscardi 1883. I was always drawn to the diary format of the books, curious to know what would happen next in the life of the main character. Best for ages 8-12

West from Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder is a collection of letters that Laura wrote home to Almanzo while she was visiting her daughter in San Francisco in 1915. Although she is not in the prairie lands when she writes these letters, her heart is always back home with Almanzo on their Missouri farm.

I only discovered The Little House Cookbook a few years ago, but of course I had to check it out (once a fan, always a fan). Most of the recipes call for lard or other ingredients typically not used anymore, but I loved browsing through it nonetheless and recalling to mind the descriptions of the origins and preparation of the luscious foods Ma made.

Prairie Songs by Pam Conrad is another children’s book that paints a vivid picture of the great plains. Louisa loves her home in Nebraska, despite the fact that at times it gets lonely in its vastness, but life becomes interesting when a new doctor and his wife move to town. Best for ages 10-14.

*Note: I list ” best ages” for some of the children’s books, but it is only a recommendation. I still enjoy reading children’s literature myself!*

Both Gates and Ingalls showed me a place that was so beautiful, yet one that was unforgiving as well. From locust, to prairie fires and drought, the plains were a terrible nightmare for many. Despite these hardships, these stories nonetheless brought a rich depiction of plains life that have made me yearn for more. I encourage you to take a journey westward, whether it’s for the first time or the thousandth, and relish in the delightful life of the characters who made their homes there so long ago.

Sarai is the Publicity Coordinator/Library Assistant and is currently humming the tune My Antonia off of Emmylou Harris’s album Red Dirt Girl.

One thought on “On Westward!

  1. I remember many of these books from my childhood, too. What a great blog, one of the best OWL blogs ever. Thanks so much!

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