On the Way Home, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Publisher: Harper Trophy
Publication Date: October 20, 1976
Format: Paperback, 112 pages
August 9- Started at 8:30. Awfully hilly roads and stony. We saw a milk-house built of stone with a spring running through it, a splendid thing. Improved land here is $15 to $25 an acre. Could buy an 80 on the Blue bottoms, well improved for 3,000. The bottom land is all good farms. The bluffs are stony. -Laura Ingalls Wilder, On The Way Home
This book has been sitting on my bookshelf for, literally, at least a decade. I was s a big fan of the Little House Books as a kid and thought it would be great to read an actual diary of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
This diary was written as Laura and family, husband Almanzo and daughter Rose, are traveling across country from South Dakota to Missouri to find better land and build a new home. I spent a month or two of entries thinking they were going to New York because they kept referring to the trip as going to the “Land of the Big Red Apple”. The “Land of the Big Red Apple” is very different from “The Big Apple”; in actuality the term “The Big Apple” wasn’t used to refer to New York City until 1924. Anyway, that made me laugh. I was so confused.
More than anything else, On The Way Home is great as a primary source for the life and times of a small farmer out west in the 1890’s. Laura and Almanzo Wilder spent months driving across country looking for a suitable piece of land to farm and carefully studied the kind of crops that it would support. Laura catalogued everything in sight, hoping to find the best place to settle with her family. The plants they saw, land prices, the bounty of the crops and the prices they were getting on the market, water conditions, temperatures, weather patterns, the immigrants and how there were so many of them (“Saw five emigrant wagons”, “Eight emigrant wagons trailed our three through several streets of the city.”). At times this short work read more like a checklist, than it did as a personal account of a life. But of course, that was their life.
It was interesting to read her comments on the things that she saw, like whether people and towns were industrious or lazy- particularly the immigrants. She was attempting to assimilate a lot of information rather quickly and often relying on appearances and snap judgments. It reminds me that our problems and the source from which they stem, never really change. They worried and we worry about the price of land, housing, food and immigrants. The same issues of that time crop up in our newspapers and elections today.
I was looking at some of the publication information on Amazon and they recommend this for nine-to-twelve year olds and I would have to disagree. While that is a good age to read the Little House Books, On the Way Home doesn’t read like them at all. This would not have been of much interest to me at nine or maybe even twelve. I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate what the information conveyed. I would not have been able to take these entries of weather conditions and agriculture, and build a story. Thirteen and up- would be my recommendation- and that’s if I were looking for information on a research project or maybe just particularly gung-ho about farming and agriculture.
You can see the bare bones for the Little House stories here, but without a lot of the warmth and the charm that have come to characterize Laura and her family in the books, and later the television series. I also wouldn’t recommend a child (or an adult for that matter) reading this in tandem with the Little House books because they are reality, and could in fact temper your love for the characters if read too young (or curb the magic as an adult). Laura as the fiery girl who battles Nellie Olson, lives in a sod house and plays on Plum Creek is very different from contentious adult Laura, who has a temper and a cool relationship with her 5 year-old daughter. She definitely comes across as less charitable than in the children’s stories which she based on her life.
The most interesting parts of On The Way Home from a relationship perspective, are the chapters written at the beginning and end of the book by Rose Wilder Lane. They provide context for the Wilder’s trip, Rose’s relationship with her parents and their relationships with each other, which struck me as less than warm. Rose relates an incident where a hundred dollars is lost and how she cries because she is suspected of having been careless and either told someone outside the family the location of the money or playing with it and losing it herself. Her mom is very abrupt and Rose seems particularly upset that Laura could think that she had anything to do with the disappearance of the money. It’s a strange to contemplate their exchange and realize that it is between a mother and her seven year old child.
At another point Rose spoils a surprise that her father, Almanzo, has for Laura because she is excited that he has been able to sell a wagon load of firewood and he chastises her for not letting him be the one to tell. The way she still thinks of the incident is rather surprising. “You do such things, little things, horrible, cruel, without thinking, without meaning to. You have done it; nothing can undo it. This is a thing you can never forget.” It’s so interesting to look back and see the things that stick with us and really get under our skin; the little things we carry from childhood to adulthood. To me, Rose’s action were those of an excited child, but after being chastised by her father, Rose, seemingly for the rest of her life, interprets her own actions with malice.
Rose’s writing style in her pieces in On The Way Home are interesting as well. I remember reading somewhere that there was some dispute on whether Laura actually wrote the Little House Books and that maybe they were actually written by her daughter Rose. Rose’s writing style is very homey, familiar and descriptive in the way Laura’s journal was not, so I can see why people could come to that conclusion just from a reading of this book. The contrast in writing styles is stark. While I don’t know that my own journal writing would compare favorably with pieces that I meant for publication I feel like some element of my style show up in everything I write. But in the case of the Wilder’s, unless definitive evidence was uncovered I don’t think that true authorship can ever be known for sure. It is also important to note their strong collaborative partnership and in instances like that it can be hard to make those types of calls; where editing leaves off and authorship begins. It was interesting to see the contrast their styles.
I have to say, that in sitting down and reflecting upon this little book, I came away with a lot. I wouldn’t characterize this as a fun read, and I didn’t particularly enjoy it as I was reading it, but it was interesting and I feel like I have greater insight into how hard the frontier/homesteading lifestyle must have been, and a fascinating little glimpse into the relationship of this mother-daughter duo. Give it a try if you are interested in “the real” Little House on the Prairie, or if you like your history directly from the source.