I started rereading the Little House books after Jennette and I got talking about them the other day. (I’m not entirely sure how we made the segue from brunch mimosas to The Long Winter. We are talented!) I’d totally recommend rereading them as an adult and rediscovering so many familiar scenes, but if you’re going to reread them, definitely take a break between These Happy Golden Years and The First Four Years. I reread them in succession, finishing each one and then immediately beginning the next, and at The First Four Years, I felt like I’d been punched in the gut.
Each chapter of These Happy Golden Years reads like a blog post, a narrative essay ending on a high note. I read on my iPad, and without the thickness of a book in my hands, I kept thinking each chapter end was really the book’s end. They have all the Ingalls tells, like song lyrics and poetic prairie descriptions.
And then in The First Four Years, Almanzo is suddenly 10 years older than Laura. Apparently the part where she is a 16 year old schoolteacher and he is a 19 year old homesteader was fictional… so they are not a well matched precocious pair of young adults, but a slightly creepy 15 and 25 when they begin sleigh dating. Also he took on massive debt to fund their new house! And their crops keep failing! And Almanzo keeps borrowing against the next year’s crop!
I thought I might have been taking the story of a young (ish. I mean, Almanzo is my age.) couple’s setbacks too much to heart, but after three years of crop failure, and a bout of diphtheria, their house burns down. I was really surprised to read about their stillborn son, I didn’t remember it from childhood reading because the oblique references to pregnancy and childbirth went right over my little girl head. Ma Ingalls would have approved.
So yeah, take a little break first, and think about how great Those Happy Golden Years is.
I was happy to get the eARC for Bich Minh Nguyen’s Pioneer Girl, because it was described as a novel about a Vietnamese-American grad student researching Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. The key to the mystery is a golden brooch, that resembles the description of a gift Almanzo gives Laura in These Happy Golden Years. An American journalist called Rose left it in a Saigon cafe in the 60s, and now the granddaughter of that cafe owner wonders if that journalist might really have been Rose Wilder Lane.
The Lien family and the Ingalls-Wilder family share more than just possibly the gold cabin pin. As Lee Lien investigates Rose’s papers, she also starts to uncover more about her family and the topics they don’t discuss. We also see parallels between the Ingalls family’s travels, always in search of a better place, and the Lien family, immigrating from Vietnam and then moving throughout the Midwest.
Lee is hanging out at home after grad school, helping out a bit in the family’s cafe, and hoping for a job offer. Spending time at home as an adult leads to levels of discovery, as she ruminates on her brother’s favored status, on job prospects for a lit grad (I hear you, Lee!), their father’s death, the family’s travels around the Midwest, working at Chinese buffet restaurants, and focuses on her grandfather’s meeting with Rose Wilder, throwing herself into research and uncovering secrets in both families.
Sections of the book rang so true, like reading Edith Wharton for what the author calls the “wealth porn”, while other sections, like stumbling across secret documents at Rose Wilder historical site, were almost magical fiction. (I had some feelings about Rose’s secret child, but I Had Feelings over the improper archival methods.)
As Little House is a memoir that reads like fiction, Pioneer Girl is fiction that reads like a memoir. The story is a collection of loosely related arcs, and between the rambling and the slow reveals, it just felt more like an account of real events than a novel.
It’s not a memoir. I kept telling myself, because I would cringe at the unflattering descriptions of characters. (I’m over 30 years old, and I worry about fictional characters feeling badly about themselves) It’s not real people. I should have tried this for The First Four Years.
Pioneer Girl is ultimately about wanderlust, that brought Pa Ingalls out to Indian Territory, and the wanderlust of all the homesteaders and immigrants, and the wanderlust in Lee’s family, as they move from one Chinese buffet restaurant to the next in the Midwest, and Lee’s own wanderlust, taking a job that seems promising but still might fail, leaving her just like Pa and Almanzo.
I received an eARC of this novel from the publisher to review. As always, all opinions are my own, and review copies have never stopped me from snarking about a bad book.