I read two short books about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s travels as an adult. They weren’t written with an eye toward publication, at least not in the form she left them. They were just travel journals, notes she made for herself along the way. Perhaps she just wanted to remember certain things about her trips, perhaps she wanted to note details for letter-writing, or perhaps she did plan on incorporating some of the information into future articles or books. But since she did not start writing for publication until seventeen years after her first trip, it seems more likely that these were just notes she kept for herself. Both were published after her death.
The first book, On the Way Home, details Laura’s move with her husband and daughter from De Smet, South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri in 1894. Laura’s daughter, Rose, who was seven at the time, provides an introduction and ending to set the context from her vantage point as a child. Rose had had to stay with her grandparents (Ma and Pa Ingalls) while her parents had diphtheria. Dire prediction were forecast about their health, but they survived, although Almanzo walked with a limp the rest of his life and “was never as strong as he had been” (p. 8). In addition there was a worldwide “panic,” which Rose explained was different from a depression. For these and various other reasons, the Wilder family decided to move, traveling with anther family, the Cooleys. Rose shares details of some of their preparations, like Laura’s sewing to make money. Once Laura “made sixty good firm buttonholes in one hour, sixty minutes; nobody else could work so well, so fast. Every day, six days a week, she earned a dollar” (pp. 11-12). I enjoyed seeing a few glimpses of the Ingalls family through Rose’s eyes, like her “aunt Grace, a jolly big girl,” singing “Ta-ra-ra boom-de-ay” (p. 9).
After the family got their covered wagon ready, packed it, and said good-bye to their loved ones, the narrative shares Laura’s notes. Often she jotted down little details like the price of crops, landscape conditions, places they found to bathe or trade, and the weather. (The first day, their thermometer showed 102 degrees inside the wagon!) Of course, as with any trip, there were various mishaps, like a horse running away, causing a later start one day.
Some of her most interesting notes involved the people they met along the way, like a Russian settlement.
Laura’s notes end just after the family’s arrival in Mansfield. Rose takes up the narrative again, describing her father going out every day to search for just the right spot. When he found it, the family dressed up to take the $100 bill they had hidden in Laura’s writing desk to the banker and buy the land. But the $100 was missing. Rose was highly offended that her parents asked her if she had told anyone about it or played with the desk. Since they could not find the money, Almanzo looked for work for a few days while still keeping an eye out for an ideal property. Finally they found the $100 and bought what they later named their Rocky Ridge farm.
To be honest, I have never been fond of Rose. I read one biography of her years ago in which she just did not seem like a likeable person. Then in more recent years I read that she played fast and loose with facts, even in biographies she wrote. So I have never really trusted her. I enjoyed her writing and the scenes from her viewpoint here, but she paints Laura rather harshly most of the time. Then again, Rose seems highly sensitive. For instance, when her father cut wood from the property to sell in town, she greeted him outside when he came back and learned he had sold the whole load. Excited by the news, she ran in to tell her mother. When she “pranced out to tell my father how glad she was . . . he said, with a sound of crying in his voice, ‘Oh, why did you tell her? I wanted to surprise her.'” Rose then writes:
You do such things, little things, horrible, cruel, without thinking, not meaning to. You have done it; nothing can undo it. This is a thing you can never forget (pp. 106-107).
She might have been referring to her father being cruel for his reaction, but I think she’s talking about herself. Somehow she magnified what would have been in the grand scheme of things a minor misunderstanding and disappointment into something “horrible” and “cruel.”
There’s one really odd sentence in Laura’s section. She described hating to leave the Russian settlement where they were camping. As she looked back on the scene:
I wished for an artist’s hand or a poet’s brain or even to be able to tell in good plain prose how beautiful it was. If I had been the Indians I would have scalped more white folks before I ever would have left it (p. 30).
She wasn’t wishing the Russians harm, because she had enjoyed her time there. Looking at it again just now, she seems to be saying if she lived there, she would have put up a fight rather than leave the area – or perhaps she understood the Indians fighting to stay on their land in a way she had not when she was a child.
The Road Back contains Laura’s notes made some forty years later on a trip back to De Smet to visit Carrie and Grace, the only remaining family members. It was interesting reading this right after the previous book, because they covered the same ground, only going the opposite direction, in an un-air-conditioned Buick instead of a covered wagon. Laura was 64 and Almanzo was 74.
I marveled at how many times Laura remarked on the good dirt or gravel roads. Some roads were made of cement, but many were not: yet in that day they still beat the trails or prairies they had come in on.
They had not been back in the forty years they had lived in Mansfield. Laura had written Little House in the Big Woods, but it had not been published yet. So she was not well known as a writer at that point except for her columns for the Missouri Ruralist.
Once again Laura detailed road, weather, crop, and economic conditions of the places they traveled through. She also listed their travel expenses: their first night on the road, they spent $3.42 for gas, food, a night in a cabin, and paper. They got a lot of their news about different areas from filling station attendants. Once again, Laura’s humor winks in places. She described seeing a group of signs along the road that said, “For the land’s sake, eat butter.” When they stopped to eat, she wrote, “I had bacon and eggs and coffee, bread, and for the land’s sake ate the best butter I’ve tasted” (p. 305).
I enjoyed her different observations about seeing again the places and people she had know. She said of Carrie, “She had changed a great deal but I knew her.” (I guess so, after 40 years.)
She waxed a bit more philosophical in this journal. She and Almanzo and those they visited also did some sight-seeing. One interesting stop was observing the carving of Mount Rushmore in progress.
The narrative ends near the end of the trip, where they stopped to eat and call Rose to say they were nearly home. Laura noted that though she didn’t keep up very well with the accounting, the trip cost “$120 for 4 weeks and 2,530 miles” (p. 344) for the trip to De Smet and back.
These two books have been packaged together with West From Home, Laura’s letters to Almanzo while visiting Rose in San Francisco for the World’s Fair, into one volume called A Little House Traveler. Since I had read West From Home a few years ago, I did not read that one at this time. On the Way Home and West From Home had been published as stand-alone books, but The Road Back has only been published here. Rose had On the Way Home published a few years after her mother’s death. Roger Lea MacBride, Rose’s lawyer and heir, found the notes for the other two book in Rose’s papers after her own death. He had West From Home published and wrote the introduction. Abigail MacBride, Roger’s daughter, provided the introduction for The Road Back. It’s interesting that the mode of transportation for the first trip was a covered wagon; for the second, a train; and for the third, a car.
Sprinkled throughout the book are pictures of the Ingalls and Wilder family, their homes, and some of the scenes the Wilders might have seen in their travels. At the end is a short (three-page) biography of Laura, a family tree, photographs of notes children had written to her, and a copy of her last letter to Rose.
I enjoyed visiting with Laura on her travels. Even though her notes were off the cuff and not polished, I enjoyed her powers of observation and descriptions as well as her characteristic humor.