‘On the Banks of Plum Creek’: Literary Overview (Part Two)

In the opening pages of ‘On the Banks of Plum Creek,’ Wilder is very clear not only about its main character, but how much she has grown since the previous book. “Laura was a big girl, seven years old. she was too big to cry.” Even as Pa trades Pet and Patty for Hansen’s property on Plum Creek. Just a very quick note here: in books for children and young adults, it’s important for authors to identify the age of their protagonists right away, usually within the first chapter, as Wilder does here. She is very direct about Laura’s age, but she also pairs age with maturity. Laura is too big to cry. This observation in the opening pages of ‘On the Banks of Plum Creek’ signals yet another distinctive theme of the book, and subsequent books, in the ‘Little House’ series: that Wilder will trace Laura’s maturity throughout the pages of this book and through her family’s ongoing experiences in the west. In this book, even the descriptions of pioneer skills and crafts relate back to Laura and her evolving maturity. Think about the fish trap, for example. Laura helps Pa build it, but the chapter devoted to its construction is less about the process, and more about the deepening understanding between Laura and Pa. “He sat on his heels and Laura sat on hers and they waited. The creek poured and splashed, always the same and always changing.” The scene then takes an unexpected turn: Pa uses this opportunity to encourage Laura to go to school. He builds on their mutual appreciation of nature to talk about her future. “‘It isn’t everybody that gets a chance to learn to read and write and cipher. Your Ma was a schoolteacher when we met, and when she came west with me, I promised that our girls would have a chance to get book learning. You’re almost eight years old now, and Mary going on nine, and it’s time you began. Be thankful you’ve got the chance, Laura.'” She sighs, reluctant to take this first step away from the absolute freedom of childhood, but does as Pa advises. On the following Monday, Laura walks to school with Mary. ‘On the Banks of Plum Creek’ is also about Laura’s quest to understand herself more fully, to learn to control her fierceness and fearlessness, the very qualities that set her apart from her sisters. Let’s take a look at the episode that forms the heart of the chapter entitled “The Footbridge.” Laura ventures out on the footbridge which is nothing more than a plank across Plum Creek. The water is running high, but it’s a temptation Laura can’t resist. “Now it was running swiftly and making a joyful noise. Where it struck the edge of the plank it foamed up in white bubbles and laughed to itself.” Laura is beguiled by its laughter, completely unafraid. She takes off her shoes and stockings, then ventures out on the plank. “In that very instant, she knew the creek was not playing. It was strong and terrible. It seized her whole body and pulled it under the plank.” Laura’s courage was her strength and her weakness. She comes away from the experience with a new respect for the natural world and a clearer understanding of herself. “Laura knew now that there were things stronger than anybody. But the Creek had not got her. It had not made her scream, and it would not make her cry.” But let’s look at another passage from this chapter because it reveals something else about Wilder and her work. “No one knew where she was. No one could hear her if she screamed for help. The water roared loud and tugged at her stronger and stronger. Laura kicked, but the water was stronger than her legs. She got both arms across the plank and pulled, but the water pulled harder. It pulled the back of her head down and it jerked as if it would jerk her in two. It was cold. The coldness soaked into her. This was not like wolves or cattle. The creek was not alive. It was only strong and terrible and never stopping. It would pull her down and whirl her away, rolling and tossing her like a willow branch. It would not care.” This passage illustrates something critically important to a fuller understanding of Wilder’s work as a children’s book author of the early 20th century. Although she wrote for young readers, her novels are part of distinct American literary traditions. First, Wilder’s work from the very beginning applied the principles of literary realism to children’s literature. Realism, which developed as a literary tradition in the mid- to late 19th century, focused on depicting characters, settings, and events accurately, truthfully, and believably. Fiction, according to practitioners of literary realism, should be a reflection of reality, focusing on the everyday, the commonplace, the ordinary. All the ‘Little House’ books we’ve read so far illustrate these concepts. They depict the everyday life of a pioneer family in the late 19th century. The following definition of realism could apply to all the Wilder the books that you’ve read so far. “The realist is a believer in democracy, and the materials he elects to describe are the common, the average, the everyday.” Furthermore, writers in this tradition use simple, clear, direct prose in their fiction and value the individual very highly and praise characterization as the center of the novel. As we’ve just discussed, character becomes central to Wilder’s is work in ‘On the Banks of Plum Creek’ and in the remaining ‘Little House’ books. But how does the passage that we just examined– Laura fighting for her life against the creek and its ambivalence– fit into an established literary current? Wilder’s books are also part of the agrarian tradition in American literature. Here’s a quick list of agrarian characteristics: land is God’s gift to man and consequently God especially favors the agrarian way of life; agriculture is the foundation of civilization–it produces the best citizens; agriculture is the center of a nation’s economy, other occupations are of secondary importance; farmers are the best representatives of the human race, their life breeds independence; the family farm is the fundamental unit in society; no one should have more land than they can personally cultivate; nature is a dynamic force, ambivalent towards human life. I think the connections to Wilder’s ‘Little House’ books are fairly obvious, but please note this last characteristic: nature is a dynamic force, ambivalent toward human life. We’ll see this again and again in Wilder’s books, but that characteristic plays a major role in ‘On the Banks of Plum Creek.’ “The Creek was not alive. It was only strong and terrible and never stopping. It would pull her down and whirl her away, rolling and tossing her like a willow branch. It would not care.”

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