Reading Giants in the Earth in Laura Ingalls Wilder Country: Some Parallels and Personal Reflections

Mary TeckYear of the Pilgrim

By Ana Braga-Henebry

This piece was originally published in the ‘Year of the Worker’ Newsletter.

Michael Ancher, A Summer Landscape with two Girls, 1887

One of the most delightful things about reading is that no matter how many different genres we may read, we never know what awaits us when we open a new book. This past winter we read Giants in the Earth for Well-Read Mom. The book tells the story of a Norwegian immigrant family that settle in the Northern Plains. Before we moved to the university town where we now live, we owned acreage about an hour away, somewhere in the southeast direction. The 1880’s
farmhouse sat on the prettiest 18 acres this side of the Minnesota border with a creek running through it and a robust, imposing shelterbelt. The property
was so old that it predated even the county country roads, forcing a rare curve on the road. During the eight years I lived there, for the first time a resident of a country property, and astounded by the brutality of the winter each year, I wondered how the first settlers ever made it. How did they get there? Why did they come? And most intriguing: What on earth made them stay after surviving their first winter?

What was immediately interesting to me about the book was that I knew where the first scenes took place. That was, in fact, our corner of the world when we lived out in the country. Some of the older, dirt roads that follow the creeks in that area are not traveled regularly, but during the time we lived there, we did a little exploring of our own. Split Rock Creek winds around the area and several establishments in the area display the name “Split Rock.” To read a novel that takes place in my corner of the world was a new experience for me. I read the Little House books while growing up in South America. Yet as much as I would try to imagine the dugout, the prairie wind, or the Long Winter, I simply could not. The Laura Ingalls’ books were my favorites, and little did I know that later in life I would be living here, under the same sky, experiencing the same prairie wind. Indeed, we live in a house that was built while Laura was still in these parts!

I found many parallels in the two literary works. The opening scene where the protagonists wonder if they are lost in the sea of grass brought to mind the episode in Laura’s pages when she cannot find baby Carrie. The long and cold winters, the unexpected storms, the locusts, they are all there. The
thirst for the land, the uncertainty of what the seasons will bring, the dependence on the weather. I still live near all of the locales where Rölvaag places his characters, but we have since moved to town. Even if now my husband’s office on campus is but an eight-minute walk from our house, the experience of the acreage left its mark on me. While I disagree with some readers’ opinions that Laura Ingalls sugarcoated her story – I find in her pages some pretty realistic descriptions of a harsh world – this time the realistic tone of the pilgrims’ plight was very interesting to read. The optimistic and hard-working character of Per Hansa reminded me of Pa Ingalls many times, but while Laura did bring up a severe case of depression in one of her books, here depression takes center stage as a destroying force. Had I not lived in our acreage – where we could not see a single neighbor – I may have not found this book so fascinating. I saw parts of my own experience depicted in what Beret experiences. The prairie is beautiful but it is also unpredictably harsh. This fact is easily attested by the fact that very
few events are held outdoors around here. Unless events can be easily canceled, such as the municipal band playing at the park on Sunday evenings, they are scheduled indoors. We simply cannot trust the weather. This makes one enjoy the beautiful days all the more, but it also takes a toll on a person’s mental health.

At the acreage, during my husband’s long international trips and with young children still underfoot, I too felt depressed and afraid. I remember it. The feeling of isolation was overpowering, especially during the times we ran out of electricity, or found ourselves snowed in as a brilliant white morning dawned. Beret’s downward spiral from what would be called an expected, normal amount of depression into a severe mental illness somehow did not surprise me. Beret did not have the resources we have today. The author did an excellent job recording her progressive illness down to the fateful end. When we close a book, there is a moment of contemplation, of satisfaction, sometimes sadness. As I put Giants down on my bedside table, I reflected on how surprisingly personal the read had been, and how much it had enriched me.

Ana Braga-Henebry is a wife and mother of seven children in Brookings, SD. She received her masters degree in Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas where she met her husband. Ana enjoys being an educator, writer and book reviewer.