One time when Laura Ingalls Wilder was asked why she didn’t write more books, she replied that the money she received from them cost her more in taxes. “She never found taxes on those who had labored their way to prosperity to be an incentive for even more labor.” But another time she said that if she wrote more, she’d have to get into some of the sad times of her life (I Remember Laura by Stephen W. Hines, pp. 102, 97, and 122).
The First Four Years was not originally part of the little House series, according to the introduction. The manuscript was found among Laura’s papers when she passed away, written on the same kind of tablets on which she had written her other books. Her daughter, Rose, entrusted it to her friend and heir Roger Lea MacBride. After Rose passed away, Roger met with Laura’s editors, and they discussed and thought over the issue and decided that, considering what Laura, Rose, and Laura’s fans would want, the manuscript should be published as is.
A fairly short book at 134 pages, it’s also straightforward, and it’s easy to imagine that Laura would have filled in and fleshed it out a bit more than this first draft. But it is still a great story, covering the first four years Laura and Almanzo were married.
They had a rough go of it those years, and I imagine this is what Laura was alluding to when she talked about getting into the sad times of her life.
The story opens just before their wedding, with Laura saying she didn’t want to marry a farmer. She did want to marry Almanzo, however, so she encouraged him to do something else for a living. After debating about the problems and benefits of farming, Almanzo proposed that they give it a three year trial, and Laura agreed.
They had a very simple ceremony, no honeymoon, and on Laura’s second day of marriage, she had to make a meal for all the threshers who came to help with that work. But she was happy to be in her own home. “Laura found doing work alone very different from helping Ma. But it was part of her job and she must do it, though she did hate the smell of hot lard, and the site of so much fresh meat ruined her appetite for any of it” (p. 30).
They enjoyed horseback riding in the warmer evenings and sitting by the fire on cold ones. They dealt with larger dangers of Indians and blizzards and smaller domestic ones of neighbors borrowing and not returning equipment. Soon baby Rose came to them, and Laura discovered “there was a good deal to taking care of babies” (p. 75).
But trials came, too – lost crops, against which they had borrowed money, diphtheria for Laura, a stroke for Almanzo, the loss of another baby, fire, ever-present debt.
Though these things took their toll, and they grieved, there was nothing else to do but pick up and go on. Almanzo seemed characterized by optimism, and though Laura struggled wondering how everything was ever going to work out, eventually she concluded “it would be a fight to win out in this business of farming, but strangely she felt her spirit rising for the struggle” (p. 133).
Once again I marvel at that pioneer spirit. Any one of these trials would send a modern person into depression and counseling for years (please know that I am not making light of depression or the need for counselors). How did people cope then with so much loss? It seems it was just accepted as a part of life. Everyone had struggles, not just the Wilders. Has our relative ease weakened us? I don’t know. But here and there we still find those whose “spirits rise for the struggle,” who overcome overwhelming odds.
I’m so thankful this book was found and published. I enjoyed the peek into Laura and Almanzo’s first years and am inspired by their example.