With On the Banks of Plum Creek, I think that the Little House books turn a corner. While the first three books cover just one year, this one covers an indeterminate time of around 18 months. It begins when the Ingalls family arrives at their new home in Minnesota and ends on Christmas Eve over a year later. It shares with the earlier books a keen feel for description of nature and Laura’s joy in experiencing it, especially in the earlier chapters. However, like the later books, it reveals a much larger world, including town institutions such as store, school, and church. The story arc involves Pa’s plans to bring in a huge wheat crop in order to pay his debts for building a new house for the family. Unfortunately, his dreams are dashed by a grasshopper infestation that lasts two years. Pa must walk hundreds of miles east to get wage work to support the family; at home Ma and Mary, Laura, and baby Carrie face uncertainty, loneliness, and doubt. Later, Pa is lost for four days during a blizzard. Wilder’s descriptions of the feelings of young girls faced with the possible loss of a parent are strikingly evocative. I found myself crying for joy each time Pa is reunited with his family. (I’m also getting older and certain members of my family say that I’m getting sentimental…)
This is the first book of the series that the church makes its appearance in a significant way. Unlike the one-chapter descriptions of Sundays in Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy, religious observance appears in no less than seven chapters in Plum Creek. In chapter 21, “Going to Church,” the family goes to Sunday School and a worship service for the first time. The family, and particularly Laura, must have made a significant connection with the pastor of that church, a “tall, thin man” named Reverend Alden. Throughout the rest of the book, he is described sympathetically. He speaks kindly to Laura and Mary, always remembers their names, calls them his “little country girls,” and compliments Laura on her new dress. The family rides or walks to town every week after that for Sunday School—on days the Rev. Alden did not come—or Sunday School and preaching on the days that he did. We are told when the family could not go to town on Sunday: when Pa is gone (chapter 27) and when winter blizzards threaten (chapter 36). Famously, Pa also takes the $3 he meant to spend on new shoes and donates it to the church’s fund for a church bell.
The church is also front and center for chapter 31, “Surprise,” which depicts a Christmas party in the church building. An enormous Christmas tree sits at the front of the sanctuary, full of presents sent by Rev. Alden’s regular church in the east. (The church in the Ingalls’s town is his home missionary church in the west, which is why he is only there to preach once every three or four weeks.) All members of the family receive multiple gifts, but most importantly Laura is given a fur cape and muff that is nicer than the cape that Nellie Oleson has been taunting Laura with all winter. Nellie makes her first appearance in this book and remains Laura’s foil and nemesis for the rest of the series. She is a spoiled shopkeeper’s daughter who has everything but doesn’t know how to treat others.
Christianity is also present in chapter 27, “Rain,” a dense chapter that describes the hot and dry late summer of the year the grasshoppers arrive. Pa is gone working for wages, and one Sunday afternoon, Ma reads from the Bible of the locust plague that God brought upon Egypt (Exodus 10). Ma then also reads about the promises of God to bring His people into “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Mary asks where that might be, and Ma says that Pa believes that it might be right where they were in Minnesota, “if we stick it out.” (521) The heat becomes so unbearable that Laura exclaims that she wishes she were an Indian so she didn’t have to wear clothes. “‘Laura!’ said Ma. ‘And on Sunday!’” (521) The rest of the chapter describes the coming of a raincloud in almost Biblical terms. While it doesn’t explicitly refer to I Kings 18, it reminds me of the descriptions there of the coming of rain to Israel after 3 years of drought during the time of Elijah. The rain shower is clearly depicted as God’s provision for the Ingalls and their land.
These three appearances of church and Christianity are positive. The church is described as an important institution for Pa, Ma, the children, and the community they lived in. The pastor is especiaslly beloved. It is not mentioned what type of church it is, though we know from other sources that the Ingalls went to the Congregational Church in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, that was pastored by Edwin H. Alden. (630, footnote 2)
However several descriptions in the book are somewhat discordant with the positive depictions mentioned so far. One is in the midst of the description of Laura’s first trip to Sunday School; her Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Tower, insults her twice by treating her as younger than she really was. First, Mrs. Tower tells the children a Bible story that Laura already knew: “Laura did not listen any more. She knew all about Moses in the bulrushes. Even Carrie knew that.” (505) Second, she gives Laura a Bible verse to memorize that is offensively easy: “‘The shortest verse in the Bible… just three words!’” (505) In addition, the congregation’s singing is depicted as incredibly poor: “They all opened their mouths and tried to sing ‘Jerusalem the Golden.’ Not many of them knew the words or the tune. Miserable squiggles went up Laura’s backbone and the insides of her ears crinkled. She was glad when they all sat down again.” (506) Rev. Alden’s sermon is long: “Laura thought he would never stop talking.” (506) Finally: “At last, everyone stood up and tried again to sing. When that was over, there was no more. They could go home.” (506) It appears that these things struck Wilder such that she would remember them and describe them vividly in ways that children would understand. These comments do not completely undermine the positivity of other descriptions of Christianity and the church. But they do provide a bit of a sharp edge to the stories.
So I’ve read four of the eight Little House books and so far I’m not sure what to make of their descriptions of Christianity. I’m still working with the same questions. If Laura was a lifelong Christian, why isn’t organized religion mentioned extensively until chapter 21 (of 41 chapters) of the fourth book in the series? If church was a vital part of life, why do the descriptions of services have an edge? Were the negative comments from Wilder or her daughter Rose Wilder Lane? Right now, I don’t think I have to have answers. I still have a lot to read. Historians have to cultivate their questions to get a fix on what we don’t know. Eventually, Lord-willing, we find answers to them. Ken Cmiel, a mentor of mine at the University of Iowa, called this “the thrashing around period” of a research project. He encouraged students to not cut short the thrashing around period, i. e. not to jump to conclusions.
As always, I’d be glad to hear others’ comments.