‘On the Banks of Plum Creek’: Literary Overview (Part Three)

‘On the Banks of Plum Creek’: Literary Overview (Part Three)


Wilder sometimes personifies nature, but it is always ambivalent to the human condition. Unlike many children’s book writers, Wilder doesn’t romanticize nature– it is a dynamic force over which men, women, and children have absolutely no control. I think much of the grit, strength, and objectivity of Wilder’s work comes from her view of the natural world. Characters like Laura and Pa admire its beauty, wildness, and spirit. But they also respect its strength and essential ambivalence. In this scene, Laura learns its ambivalence firsthand, and it’s a lesson she doesn’t forget. On the other hand, ‘On the Banks of Plum Creek’ exposes Laura to the larger world beyond the farm, in such chapters as “School,” “Town Party,” “Going to Church,” and “Going to Town.” Laura also meets her nemesis in this novel, the unforgettable Nellie Oleson. The contrast between Laura and Mary, the wholesome country girls, and Nellie and Willie Oleson, the spoiled shopkeeper’s children, certainly reinforces Wilder’s agrarian themes in this novel. We’ll talk more about Nellie in the next lecture, but another strength of Wilder’s storytelling for young readers is that Laura unapologetically dislikes Nellie, and she doesn’t regret her dislike or feel guilty about it. “At the door Laura looked back, and Nellie made a face at her. Nellie’s tongue was streaked red and green from the candy. ‘My goodness,’ Mary said. ‘I couldn’t be as mean as that Nellie Oleson.’ Laura thought, ‘I could. I could be meaner to her than she is to us, if Ma and Pa would let me.'” Again, this reflects Wilder’s solid position as a writer in the realistic tradition. She doesn’t give way to sentimentality and didacticism, as many lesser children’s book writers do. And I think this is a major difference between Wilder’s novels and the television series. Wilder trusted her readers to find their own moral compass within the pages of her “Little House” books. She didn’t hand them a compass and tell them which way to go. In other words, Wilder didn’t preach, and as we’ve already seen in a previous lecture, most of the great children’s book writers don’t preach either. I want to touch on one other significant theme in ‘On the Banks of Plum Creek,’ and that has to do with the role of financial security or insecurity, and how it plays out in this book. Wilder plants subtle cues and plot points throughout the book that relate to the Ingalls’ poverty and their quest for financial security. This actually begins with the dugout itself and that quote from Ma: “‘Oh, Charles, a dugout! We’ve never had to live in a dugout yet.'” The Ingalls have sunk so low financially that they have to live underground. Furthermore, Pa has to sell Pet and Patty. Now horses are a luxury; oxen, a necessity. This too reinforces the family’s financial hardship. Pa has to hire out at the Nelsen’s to earn extra money; he can’t work his own land full-time. Think too about Laura and Mary’s first day at school. The girls are bare-footed, and their dresses are too short. The boys in the schoolyard call them: ‘”Snipes! Snipes! Long-legged snipes!’ Laura wanted to sink down and hide her legs. Her dress was too short. It was much shorter than the town girls’ dresses. So was Mary’s. Before they came to Plum Creek, Ma had said they were outgrowing those dresses. Their bare legs did look long and spindly, like snipe’s legs.” The family couldn’t afford new dresses for the girls, and there’s a reference early in the book to Carrie’s red dress, made from a cast-off of Laura’s. That said, however, Wilder balances this portrait of poverty against the family’s self-sufficiency and pride; how they make do with less and find innovative ways to live off the land–Pa’s fish trap, for example. And gradually, the family’s financial situation seems to improve, with Sam and David, the Christmas horses, and the new house with its store-bought luxuries: boughten shingles, shining, clear-glass windows, boughten doors, boughten hinges, and boughten locks with keys, a shiny black cook stove. All of these items, however, are purchased in advance against the wheat crop, which makes this scene in ‘On the Banks of Plum Creek’ so poignant and pivotal. “Saturday morning Laura went walking with Pa to look at the wheat. It was almost as tall as Pa. He lifted her onto his shoulders so she could see over the heavy, bending tops. The field was greeny-gold. At the dinner table, Pa told Ma about it. He had never seen such a crop. There were 40 bushels to the acre, and wheat was a dollar a bushel. They were rich now. This was a wonderful country. Now they could have anything they wanted.” And then this in the next paragraph: “Laura sat facing the open door and the sunshine streaming through it. Something seemed to dim the sunshine. Laura rubbed her eyes and looked again. The sunshine really was dim. It grew dimmer until there was no sunshine. ‘I do believe a storm is coming up,’ said Ma.” That storm, of course, is that glittering cloud of grasshoppers, a plague of biblical proportions, a threat far worse to the family’s economic future or survival than the wolves and Indians Ma associated with their precarious existence in Indian Territory. By the end of the novel, the family is stretched so thin that Pa has to leave Ma and the girls alone on Plum Creek and seek work back east. We’ll discuss the grasshoppers and other historical perspectives in the next lecture, but it’s important to note that Wilder ends this novel of devastation on a note of optimism. Her fictional farm family is reunited again in their home with a spirit of hope and resilience. “Everything was so good. Grasshoppers were gone and next year Pa could harvest the wheat. Tomorrow was Christmas, with oysters stew for dinner. There would be no presents and no candy, but Laura could not think of anything she wanted.” This book was published in 1937, and marked Wilder’s emergence as a major force in children’s literature. The following year, in 1938, it won Wilder her first Newbery honor book status, the equivalent in children’s book publishing of being nominated for an Oscar. Wilder’s editor at Harper & Brothers showed this book to dozens of authors as the model for a perfect juvenile novel.

local_offerevent_note September 21, 2019

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