Free land, my ass. According to this novel no one ever worked harder or suffered more disappointment than the original farmers who bought into the federal “giveaway” of Midwestern acreage provided by 1862’s Homestead Act. David and Mary Beaton nearly starve in their efforts to bust sod and plant wheat and make a living, in…
Free land, my ass. According to this novel no one ever worked harder or suffered more disappointment than the original farmers who bought into the federal "giveaway" of Midwestern acreage provided by 1862's Homestead Act.
David and Mary Beaton nearly starve in their efforts to bust sod and plant wheat and make a living in Rose Wilder Lane's Free Land, in the teeth of rampant land speculators (that's who wound up with most of the Homestead Act land), winter-long blizzards, summer-long droughts, greedy store owners, outrageous freight costs, outlaws and not so hostile Indians. The story about the stolen papoose corpse is genius -- a better description of the clash of pioneer culture with Indian culture I never read. While the story is told from David's perspective, Wilder doesn't demonize anyone.
Another wonderful (and painful) scene is when they're harvesting fifteen acres of turnips and Mary's hands are bleeding and David wants her to stop and she won't because she hasn't been able to help him in any other way or earn any money the way she would have if they'd stayed in New York (butter, eggs). The sheer physical, mental, emotional and spiritual stress feels overwhelming to the reader, never mind the characters.
Rose Wilder Lane is of course the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and from what I can google this book is meant to be a fictionalization of Laura's parents' early years together, and fans of the series will recognize certain scenes. Free Land reads like non-fiction in its detail and its immediacy. There is a lot of romanticizing of this period of history elsewhere. By contrast, this book reads like the plain unvarnished truth. Well worth reading.
Lane really, really didn't like the small town America in which she was raised, and in particular she didn't like the lifestyle it forced upon the women living it.
The first chapter is a beautifully written indictment of the nameless Midwestern town in which the story is set. Parochial, insular, stuffy, middle-brow, Lane's old home town is obsessed with what is proper and especially what isn't.
The rest of the chapters are stories told by a young girl named Ernestine about other women who live there, and most of them are pretty easily identifiable as wish fulfillment on the part of the author. The old maid escaping seduction by town ne'er-do-well by her own pluck and the timely appearance of a new suitor. The hired girl forced by gossip to marry the husband when the wife dies, which ends about as well as you might expect. A wife who leaves her husband and goes on to become a couturier. The selfish old woman who lies about her daughter being fast to her daughter's suitor so he'll jilt her and she'll have someone at home to take care of her. Ernestine's "fast friend" Elsie falls for a traveling man with disastrous results. The town beauty elopes with a hayseed, and a mother sells her beautiful daughter to the highest bidder, with homicidal results.
In the last chapter, Ernestine has finally had enough (and so have we) and against the wishes of her parents leaves home for school in NYC. You don't so much as cheer as think, "What took you so long?"
...there were two clear ways to flaunt one's loss of modesty and virtue; one was to wear red, the other was to be seen needlessly gadding around uptown.
Makes me want to put on my reddest outfit and prance right up town. I'm certain that was exactly how she meant me to feel.
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