This book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. It is the third book in the “Little House” series.
One winter during the late 1800s, Laura Ingalls and her family leave the woods of Wisconsin for the West because where they live has become crowded with new settlers. They hope to cross the Mississippi River before its frozen ice melts. They will travel across Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas to reach the open prairies.
While crossing a creek with unusually high water, the family loses their loyal dog, Jack, who is taken downriver. As they travel, the landscape slowly changes, but Pa discovers plenty of good hunting. At night they hear the howl of wolves, which scares the children. Laura spots eyes in the darkness staring at them. It turns out to be Jack; he found his way back to them.
Their days are filled with chores and finding or making food, but there is still time for the children to explore. Mary, Laura’s older sister, and Laura pick flowers, hunt rabbits, chase gophers and keep an eye out for Indians.
On the final day of travel, they come across a beautiful open space of land on the plains. They are near the Verdigris River, and there are no worn trails in sight. The Ingalls decide to unpack their wagon and begin to settle this land as their own.
Laura and Mary fetch water, do laundry, prepare food and help care for their baby sister, Carrie. Pa begins building a home for them. One afternoon while hunting, Pa meets a neighbor who lives 2 miles away. He is a bachelor named Mr. Edwards. They help each other build their homes. The evening their home is complete, minus a floor and roof, Ma makes a special dinner. After dinner, Pa takes out his fiddle and sings while Mr. Edwards dances.
Before working on the floor or roof, Pa hurries to make a stable for their horses because so many wolves are in the area. Before winter, Pa helps Mr. Edwards build his home. He eventually builds the roof, a bed for Ma, chairs and a table. He even digs a well for water.
Other settlers are to moving to the area. Although neighbors may live a few miles apart, they share provisions and take care of one another. The Indians share these prairies; however, they resent the white man and do not interact with them. The government has been pushing the Indians out of their land for years. They are being forced west to settle in new areas as the white man continues to settle their land.
As winter nears, Pa builds a rock chimney so that Ma can cook indoors over a fireplace and their family has heat. Everyone continues to work together to care for their family’s daily needs. One afternoon while Pa is out hunting, two Indians come into their home. Out of fear and respect, Ma feeds them and gives them cornmeal and Pa’s tobacco, at their request. Ma fears the Indians; however, Pa tells her that they will not be a threat if they don’t feel threatened.
By the sound of cattle rumbling nearby, Pa knows that cowboys are heading north with their herds. Two men stop by to speak with Pa about herding cattle along the creek. In exchange for his help, Pa brings home beef and a new calf that couldn’t make the journey. Now the Ingalls will have milk and cream to eat, too!
As the season shifts, mosquitos are everywhere. After being bit by the mosquitoes day after day, everyone in the family grows sick. A passing doctor makes his rounds in the area and finds the Ingalls family has been ill for days, unable to do their daily chores or even fix a meal. Their neighbor Mrs. Scott comes to stay with them and nurse them to health. As they slowly begin to heal, they attribute this illness to watermelon seeds. In later years, they learn that the illness is malaria contracted through mosquito bites.
Late in the winter, two Indians come to the Ingalls home. Pa cannot speak their language, but he sits down with them to eat and share his tobacco for their pipes. The next morning, one of the Indians crosses a trail near their home. Jack the dog runs out to attack him, and the large Indian raises his gun. Pa calls Jack off, and the Indian rides down the trail. Pa believes he is an Osage Indian chief.
Pa makes it to Independence, Missouri, in the early spring and returns with a plow, seedlings, wheat, tobacco, coffee and even glass for the windows. Pa has heard a rumor that the government will ask the white settlers to leave Indian Territory. Pa doesn’t believe this news is true, but it worries Ma.
As the spring wears on, the Ingalls fear the sound of the Indian war cry that lasts for days. The Indians are fighting each other as they decide whether to fight the white man or move from their land. The Osage chief is responsible for sparing the lives of the white man. In the end, the Indians head west. The family sees the long line of Indian men, women and children traveling with all of their possessions from the horizon on the west to the horizon on the east.
With the Indians gone, a great peace settles on the prairie. The Ingalls stay busy planting new crops and caring for their land, until one day when Mr. Scott and Mr. Edwards came to talk to Pa. They share that the government is sending soldiers to drive the settlers out of Indian Territory. Pa refuses to be escorted across the line as if he has done something wrong. They will leave this land and find a new place to settle.
After a bittersweet farewell with the land and home they have come to love, the Ingalls family is on the road again. Laura discovers that whether home is in their house or in a covered wagon, the important thing is to be together and safe. They have a comfortable life on the open prairie, and more adventure is in their future.
Laura asks her mama if their dog, Jack, is in heaven. Ma cannot answer her, yet Pa assures her that as God remembers all of the sparrows on earth, He won’t forget about a dog like Jack. Laura finds peace in this perspective. Later, when Pa and Ma are building the log cabin, a log falls on Ma. Her leg is not crushed; her foot landing in a small dent in the ground is attributed to divine providence. One night, Pa sings a song giving glory to God. The family celebrates Christmas, though the emphasis is primarily placed on gifts from Santa Claus. Laura and Mary say prayers every night before going to bed.
Pa and Ma’s delivery of discipline is firm, yet rooted in love. To disobey is unacceptable, and the girls each understand this, whether they like it or not. Pa and Ma are well respected by their children, and their “no” means “no” without question. The girls are encouraged to do as they are told and mind their manners in several scenes throughout the book. Pa Ingalls is clearly the leader of the family. He devotes much time and energy to protecting and providing for the family. When Mary and Laura are told to leave Jack chained, Pa scolds them for even considering untying him in order to protect Ma from an Indian. Authority is also portrayed by the way that Jack responds to Pa’s commands, even when instinct seems to override his behavior.
Pa asks his friend Mr. Edwards to watch out for his family when he travels to Independence, Missouri. Pa is comfortable that Mr. Edwards can take care of any needs in his absence. Mr. Edwards checks in on Ma and the girls daily. Mr. Edwards offers to stay with them, and sleep in the hay in the stable one evening, when Indians are nearby.
There are repeated references to the Indians’ Minnesota massacre. Although it happened long before these times on the prairie, the idea of it still scares people. On multiple occasions, the adult women reference the Minnesota massacre without detail to support their fear of the Indians. Details are not discussed so as not to scare the children.
The nightly battles and the sounds of the Indian war cry make the settlers fearful; however, violence is never depicted. There is only the mention of the Indians working through their conflicts.
Prejudice: Viewpoints in this book are taken from a settler’s perspective during the 1800s. Indians are viewed with fear and sometimes contempt.
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