Book Review: Old Town in the Green Groves

Laura Ingalls Wilder originally wrote out the story of her life in Pioneer Girl. When that manuscript was rejected several times, acting upon suggestions from editors, Laura reframed her narrative into a story for children about a pioneer family traveling west (p. 31). She left out a year that the family traveled back east due to the grasshopper infestations that twice ruined their crops and hopes in Plum Creek, although she had told of it in Pioneer Girl. Pamela Smith’s Hill’s notes on this section in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography says:

She deliberately chose not to depict this part of her family’s experiences in her fiction. “It is a story in itself,” Wilder explained to Lane in 1937, “but does not belong in the picture I am making of the [fictional Ingalls] family (LIW tp RWL, [Dec. 1937 or Jan. 1938], Box 13, file 193, Lane Papers). Moving the fictional family east and not west would have undermined Wilder’s optimistic portrait of their resilient pioneer spirit. Furthermore, her experiences in Burr Oak were more urban, gritty, even edgy. Although Wilder introduced some adult ideas and themes into her later novels, she waited until the fictional family had moved west once more into Dakota Territory, where her main character was a more mature adolescent. Wilder herself was just nine years old when the family moved to Burr Oak (p. 95, note 99).

I’ve seen some criticism of Laura for leaving out the events that take place in Burr Oak. But I would defend her decision for several reasons. Everything I have read about memoirs and autobiographies says you can’t share everything. She did include this era in her original autobiography. The Little House books were fictionalized, focusing on the life and progress of a pioneer family. The time in Burr Oak might have seemed a stop or even a setback to the action. Plus the family’s proximity to a saloon and the unsavory behavior they saw and heard might not have seemed suitable to an audience of children at the rime she was writing.

Old Town in the Green Groves about Laura Lingalls Wilder's lost yearsBut readers are curious about the “lost years” in the LH narrative. So Cynthia Rylant was asked to write what was known about the family’s story during this period in the style of the LH books. Her book is Old Town in the Green Groves.

The story begins back in Plum Creek, where the family contentedly moved from their winter rental house back to their farm. Baby brother Freddie was born. Ma was severely ill for a while, but recovered. Then the second wave of grasshoppers returned and destroyed everything growing. Pa declared he’d had enough of the “blasted country.” He had debts to pay, and the crop that would have paid them was ruined. Pa sold the farm to pay off the debts and lined up a job at a hotel in Burr Oak in Iowa.

On the way, the family stayed with their aunt and uncle and cousins, Peter and Eliza Ingalls and their children. They helped in various ways around the farm until ready to move on. Sadly, brother Freddie died there.

One chapter describes meeting with a kind beekeeper who was also planning to move since the bees couldn’t thrive without flowers. (Hill’s note on p. 96 of her book says Charles and this beekeeper kept in touch with each other for years).

When they arrived in Burr Oak, they lived above the hotel. Life was hectic: Ma helped with cooking and cleaning, and the girls all had to help, too. The saloon next door was loud, people were constantly coming in and out. Laura missed the quiet of her home and the prairie.

The book goes on to describe the various people they encountered and things that happened in Burr Oak before they decided to head west again.

I think Rylant did a good job. Just glancing over this section again in Pioneer Girl, I can see how Rylant took the narrative and fleshed it out. It’s more or less in the style of the LH books, but it’s not Laura: it couldn’t be.

I was glad to see the illustrations by Jim LaMarche in my library copy were also similar to the Garth William’s illustrations of the Little House.books. Like the words, they were not quite the same, but they seemed a similar style and spirit.

The book cover shown above is the one on my library copy. I’ve seen another illustrated cover here that makes Laura seem a little older and a photographed cover here that I didn’t care for at all.

I share my friend Ann‘s concern over the placement of the book on the back cover. The top says “Read all the Little House books.” The covers of all the books are shown, with this book set in-between On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake. I’m assuming this was done to show that the action in this book takes place between those two. But, as fine as this book is, I would regard it as supplemental and wouldn’t include it as part of the set or as one of the LH books.

Though this book describes some of the hard times the family went through, it also shares their resilience and hope. It’s a good story in its own right, but especially for fans of the Little House books.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Old Town in the Green Groves

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  3. Interesting.
    I’m reading Leslie Leyland Fields’s book (Your Story Matters) and I in her advice about writing memoir, I would say that she would approve of Laura’s selective sharing. We have to tell the truth, but we don’t have to tell everything.
    I love it when you write about Wilder and her books.

  4. Pingback: Laura Ingalls Wilder Challenge Wrap-Up «

  5. Pingback: Quarterly Reading Update | Stray Thoughts

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