What Jenny's Reading

{September 2, 2015}   Review: The First Four Years, Part 1

Yes, it’s been awhile.  I suck.  I’ve been mostly reading things for work, which aren’t all that fun for recapping unless you have insomnia I guess.  But today I have part one of The First Four Years.

The forward on this is written by Rose’s personal friend and lawyer. There isn’t much we don’t already know: the book was found after Laura’s death among some of her papers, and the lawyer presented it to a publisher after Rose died. They didn’t really edit the book, deciding to leave it as presented. So the writing style is more Pioneer Girl than Little House, which is fine by me.

He does offer some other stuff on Rose, though. She went to Vietnam as a war correspondent in her seventies, and died suddenly at the age of 81 when her heart stopped. She was supposed to have set off for a world tour the next day. Rose was quite the badass, but I think we already established that in the prologue of Pioneer Girl, yes?

Anyway. The book starts out with Almanzo coming to the house on that day to discuss getting married sooner rather than later. It’s slightly different than in These Happy Golden Years, and I believe it was done this way to set up the book’s premise and framing device: Laura tells him she doesn’t want to be a farmer’s wife. She says it’s because it’s too hard and they’d always be poor and dependent upon the townfolk. Well, that’s because she grew up with Pa as a father. Almanzo’s father was a farmer and did very well for himself. But anyway, she wants him to take work in town, where it would be easier for them both.

Almanzo argues that farmers are really the only ones free and independent, because the townfolk rely on them for trading and so forth. I think he’s not exactly right here, but he’s also not exactly wrong. Sure, a farmer can grow his own food, but without trading or buying things in town it would likely be a big struggle to dress himself and I’m sure lots of other things too.

Incidentally, I agree with Laura. But then I’m not so sure I’d be a huge fan of living on a farm, so perhaps I’m a bit biased.

So while I was rambling on, Almanzo has convinced Laura to try the farming lifestyle for three years. He promises that, if at the end of the three years, he’s not successful, he’ll give it up and do whatever she wants. I think that’s a pretty fair compromise, and Laura agrees, and so that’s where we get the book’s title (you’ll see).

The wedding and last dinner with the family are glossed over, but that’s okay because we got that in These Happy Golden Years. So their first day begins early, with Almanzo leaving to go do some work with somebody called Webb and Laura getting the house arranged. She describes the little house. It’s obvious that she loves it and that she loves that it’s hers, too. My favorite part is where she’s excited that the bedroom is carpeted. Hee!

I also think it’s a little funny that she goes on and on about how the house is just theirs. Again, you’ll see what I mean.

Laura does some cleaning and observes that the windows need to be washed, and she hates washing windows. But then! Almanzo has hired a girl from nearby, called Hattie, to come and wash the windows for them! Such dashing domesticity!

I’m not kidding around here. If I had to do a hated household chore and my husband/significant other had found a way for me to NOT do that chore forever? Oh yeah. Personally, I think Almanzo’s getting a little something special in the bedroom tonight!

My inner child is cringing right now. Whatever. I’m leaving that line.

Laura’s first big challenge is the next day. She’s cooking dinner, which is what they called lunch back then (I don’t know either) for a bunch of threshers! She’s worried because she’s never done anything like this before, but Almanzo’s all, you’ll manage. This lackadaisical attitude either speaks to his lack of caring about the issue, or his faith that she’ll manage just fine. I’m going to assume the latter.

The next day, she meticulously plans the meal. She’s got bread that Ma gave her the day before, and is going to make cornbread. Pork and potatoes are on the menu as well, along with navy beans and something called “pie plant.” The fuck is that?

Okay! Google has informed me that it’s rhubarb! OMG you guys I have the BEST recipe for rhubarb pie! It was my grandma’s and it is just DIVINE. Shut up. You don’t know.

The meal is ready by the time the guys get there, though Laura does tell us the beans were still hard. Also, she forgot sugar in the pie. The first man who ate the pie covered for her and said he preferred it that way, since then everyone can sweeten it to their own taste, but she was mortified.

I totally feel Laura here. When we have family gatherings, I almost always end up in charge of the meal, even though everyone agrees I am a crap cook. It’s the stuff of legends in my family, truly. I think they think that eventually I’ll get the hang of cooking and that’s why I keep ending up the one who does it. Sometimes we have to order pizza. Anyway, there’s always something wrong, or missing, or just plain weird, about the meals I make. Lack of attention to detail, maybe, I don’t know. Maybe I just want to punish them for making me cook instead of hanging out with them and drinking wine. Maybe I just drink in the kitchen instead, and that is what the problem is. IT’S A MYSTERY.

That is probably not what Laura’s issue was, though. She claims not to have Ma’s watchful eye, but she also doesn’t have Ma’s years of experience with this sort of thing. I think she did great for her first time. If it were me, the threshers would’ve come in to burned cornbread, exploded beans, and a sobbing farmer’s wife on the kitchen floor.

But I guess the pie would’ve at least been delicious. So there’s that.

After Laura’s mostly triumphant luncheon, she tells us that the wheat crop sucked. Well, obviously. At this point I feel like I barely even need to mention this kind of stuff. I think we all assume that things are going to go poorly for these people. They did manage to have a decent oat crop, and they sold some wheat, so that is good.

Laura says that it was a busy and happy time, with Almanzo getting ready for the next year and her keeping house. God, it sounds so. Fucking. Boring. Baking, sweeping, cleaning, no distractions whatsoever? Well, she does get to knit socks in the afternoon. Ugh.

They store extra wheat in the other claim shanty, instead of a silo, because they don’t have one. I have a feeling this isn’t going to end well.

The other shanty – Almanzo has two claims, next to each other. One’s a regular one, like Pa had, for farming. He already proved that claim up, so it belongs to him/them. The second is for trees, and he built their house on the tree claim one. That one is still being proven. You will probably remember you need five years to prove a claim. I don’t know when he got this one, but I am thinking it must’ve been two years before they got married, because he offered her the three year time period. I can’t see him offering her less time than would prove the tree claim.

Why do these people need so much fucking land? The claims are all 160 acres. How could you possibly keep track of it all, with just one person?

Quite awesomely, Laura tells us that on Sundays, they take buggy rides and sing non-religious songs. Ha!! In your FACE, Ma! Now that Laura’s a grown married lady she doesn’t have to sit around doing nothing on Sundays! I bet these Sundays, of actual rest instead of enforced sitting around and false piety, were great.

Almanzo bought some new horses, larger ones, who could help till the land, along with a tiller or whatever device they used. He put down a note for half of them, but this was about fifty-five dollars only. Laura learned to hitch the horses with him and thought it was fun. Soon after that, he came home leading a new gray pony and told her it was a new friend for her.

Hold up. He bought her a pony! HE BOUGHT HER A MOTHERFUCKING PONY! A pony to ride and play with and OMG I have been promised for YEARS a pony and never got one.

And now that word makes no sense to me anymore. Pony!

After she learned to ride, she and Almanzo rode their horses (he had one just for riding too) all over the prairie, and Laura’s was of course faster. They had a lot of fun with that.

She worried about the crappy wheat crop, and tried to help out around the house. She sent Almanzo to town with butter and eggs to sell, but he wasn’t able to get much for them. She reasoned that he wasn’t concerned about the crop, so she tried not to worry either. I don’t think Laura is capable of not worrying, but she tries.

Their neighbors were dicks. She tells us about how one of them was always coming over and borrowing stuff, and then either not returning it at all, or returning it broken with no explanation. She and Almanzo fought about this, but he insisted they be “neighborly.” I didn’t know that the definition of neighborly included being a total pushover, but maybe I should try it on my own neighbors.

She also tells us of a scary episode, where she was alone at the house and some “Indians” (I just find her use of the word distasteful, even though I’ve read recently that some First Nations are okay with it) came by. They tried to get into the barn, I guess to get the horses and oxen, and she argued with them. They were apparently so impressed by her anger that they wanted her to go with them, but she refused.

Okay, the book makes it seem scarier than that, but it’s also a little bit racist, so I don’t really want to discuss it. They tried to take her horses, she fought with them, and then they left.

You know, it would be pretty unnerving to be by yourself all the time, with little means to defend yourself. I guess all the farmers and claim people were busy with their own things, but I’m surprised Laura doesn’t talk more about things like this happening, at least in Pioneer Girl. In the kids’ books, I can understand leaving that stuff out. But I’d be very surprised if these things didn’t happen all the time. And I’m not talking about Native Americans, either. There are always plenty of unsavory types about who could kidnap and/or rape a woman alone.

Winter comes, and it looks like it will be a difficult one. Almanzo gets stuck in the stable during a blizzard, and tries to get to the house on his own. He almost misses it, just like Laura and Carrie almost missed the town during that blizzard in The Long Winter. He gets home okay, though, and strings up a clothesline to get himself between the house and the barn so he can go back and forth, like Pa did. I wonder why they didn’t set that up earlier. I also wonder why they don’t have any fucking rope or clothesline or SOMETHING in the barn that he could’ve used as a tether.


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