Meet Martha, Great-Grandmother of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Dec 4, 2006
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Little House echoes; detailed and beautifully written; musical Scottish prose


The Bottom Line: If you love Laura Ingalls Wilder, you'll enjoy this lovely novel based on her Scottish great-grandmother's childhood.

Like many American girls, I grew up loving the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I can still recall hunkering down over bread and water in the kitchen, pretending that my family and I were living through the Long Winter and that this food was all I had to eat for the whole day!

I spent many happy, imaginative hours enjoying the beautiful prose of Laura Ingalls Wilder, vicariously living in her experience of growing up in the pioneer world of the 1870s and 1880s. So when I got to university and took a children's literature course, I wasn't at all surprised to find my learned professor declaring that Wilder's prose was some of the richest in U.S. literature. Not some of the best in U.S. children's literature, mind you, but in all literature produced in our country. Although I've come to realize since that my professor's opinion might not be mainstream, I still happen to think he's right. I accepted that judgement without blinking because I'd lived and loved Wilder's prose for years. No one had to convince me how good it was.

Several years ago, I heard that a number of other books were being written and published that were loosely connected to the amazing Little House books. Apparently they were being written by contemporary authors as sort of "prequels" to the books about Laura and her family. As such, they would focus on Laura's maternal ancestors: her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. I felt some distress about this: the cynic in me wondered if the publisher was just trying to compete with the American Girls publishing phenomenon. The realist in me knew that, even if well-intentioned, these books could never live up to the quality of Wilder's classic literature. You'd never find anyone who could touch her prose style. And then again, these books would all be penned by writers who had to research the times and places they were writing about, unlike Laura, who actually lived the stories she wrote.

I never planned to read any of these prequel books. I never even wanted to. And then one day I stumbled upon a very intelligent blog written by a children's author named Melissa Wiley. I liked her wit. I enjoyed her insights into literature and writing and education and life. She felt like a kindred spirit (an odd thing that can happen sometimes when one reads the blog of a total stranger). I discovered she was a published author and eagerly set about looking up what she's written. To my initial horror, I discovered she was the author of the "Martha Years" and "Charlotte Years" sets of books; stories about Laura Ingalls Wilder's great-grandmother and grandmother.

So What's a Gal to Do?

I decided to get over my literary snobbery and check out the first book in the Martha Years. Called Little House in the Highlands (echoing the Wilder titles, which made me sigh with some anxiety) it's about six year old Martha Morse, a child growing up in Glencaraid, Scotland in the late 1780s. A little less than a hundred years later, her great-granddaughter Laura Ingalls would be playing in a little house in a big woods in Wisconsin in the still young United States of America.

Even after I checked out the book, it took me a while to get up my nerve to open it and start reading. I was afraid I might hate it; I was also a little worried I might love it. After all, my own ancestors, many of them, came from Scotland. And to cap it all off, I too had a great-grandmother named Martha. I think it was those connections, even more than the Wilder ones, that finally got me reading.

And Once I Started Reading...

Let me just say right here and now that this is an excellent book. Little girls, especially those six and up (Martha's age when the story begins) will love it. Although I read this one to myself, I can tell from its rhythms that this book would also make a great read-aloud.

Is Wiley as good a prose stylist as Laura Ingalls Wilder? No, but as I settled into this lovely and enjoyable story, I began to sense that it was an unfair question to ask in the first place. The intelligence, clarity and wit I'd enjoyed in Wiley's writing in the contemporary space of an online blog are also present in this novel for young readers. Yes, it's true she had to research 18th century Scotland. She didn't live through these events, and had to bring imagination to bear on what the family was like, what they wore and ate, the things they said and did. Clearly she was given access to plenty of historic documents and did her homework thoroughly. These may not be as "true" as the stories of Laura, but they still carry the ring of truth in their beauty and simplicity.

I also realized it was unfair to compare the two styles because the inherent music of the prose was inevitably different. Laura wrote about life on the American frontier: the idioms and songs scattered throughout her books were invariably and thoroughly early American. Her prose has an almost tough leanness to it, the kind of sun-burned, prairie-grass waving, expansive blue sky prose you would expect from a lady who grew up surviving droughts, blizzards, and grasshopper plagues in the young American wilderness.

By contrast, her great-grandmother Martha, whose childhood Melissa Wiley was tasked with bringing to fictional life, grew up the somewhat privileged daughter of a Scottish laird responsible for numerous tenant farmers on his large Glencaraid estate. Although they weren't fabulously wealthy, they certainly had plenty of creature comforts and were considered noble gentlefolk in their neighborhood. (It gives one deeper insight into just how much Ma Ingalls must have loved Pa to have let go of much of the inborn refinement of her heritage to rough it in Kansas and Minnesota.) The dialects and songs that Wiley uses throughout also have a very different musical bent that Wilder's. The Scottish brogue, words like "ken" (for "know") and "canna" (for cannot) seem a bit strange to our modern ears in the early chapters, but soon seem natural and right in the mouths of these characters.

In addition to all that, Wiley had something to inspire her that Laura Ingalls Wilder never had -- and that was the complete set of the original Little House books. I don't mean that to sound odd, because of course Laura did have all those books -- in her head. But when she was writing the first book in the series, she didn't have the complete vision already down on paper. Wiley had the privilege of writing in the inspirational shadow of all those books, the complete story from start to finish. I'm guessing that felt daunting at times, but it also gave her a rich tapestry. She could pull colorful threads from the completed Little House tapestry and weave them into her own story.

Meet Martha

And weave she did. Martha is as likable a girl as the young Laura Ingalls, in part because she reminds you so much of her. She's lively, curious, and loves the outdoors. She even has an older sister, Grisie, who will remind astute Little House readers of Laura's older sister Mary: quiet, proper, always able to keep her dress clean while Martha ends up with grass stains all over her "dust-gown" (the sort of apron she wore to cover her play dresses).

But although there are appropriate similarities in Martha and Laura (as there should be, given their connection) there are also differences. The differences in social standing mentioned previously do matter: Martha grows up learning to relate to servants and tenants on her father's estate, something you never see Laura have to do. Martha is also blessed with three brothers, something the Ingalls girls never enjoyed. Her best friend is Duncan, the older brother closest to her in age. They love to play "Scots and Picts" in the fields near home; Martha especially loves to be part of the invading Pictish army!

Although Martha has wealth and privileges that the young Laura could never have dreamed of in pioneer America, she has fewer freedoms in other ways. She is more hemmed in by her social class and gender. Her brothers get to go to school and learn reading, writing, arithmetic and Latin, but the neighborhood school is deemed too coarse an environment for the daughters of a laird, so she and Grisie must study with governesses. In addition, certain subjects (like the Latin) are off-limits, though arithmetic is encouraged since women of their class often grew up to run estates and keep budgets. Fancy arts like embroidery were also encouraged, though so were more homespun arts like regular sewing, weaving on a spinning wheel, and cooking.

I was impressed by the factual knowledge that Wiley brought to the details of every-day life. Young readers and listeners will enjoy hearing the songs and fairy stories of Scottish legend, discovering some of the traditions connected to events like christenings and the new year, and learning about some of the foods eaten both at special times (haggis...mince meat sewed in a sheep's stomach!) and ordinary days (bannocks, a kind of bread or roll). Wiley weaves these details in with a skillful hand, keeping the story of the family's life, and especially Martha's young life within that family, front and center. Although not much of huge import happens within the story, filled as it is with a six year old child's concerns about making her doll's new dress or patching up a quarrel with her brother, it's so colorfully and warmly told, so well paced, and so filled with such unusual details of a different time and culture, reading it will be a pleasure for the whole family.

Little House in the Highlands is a book that will be enjoyed by many young readers, especially young girls, but fans of the original Wilder books will love it most of all. Although I didn't set out to pick up the "echoes" or threads from the Little House books, they kept popping out at me and I thoroughly enjoyed noting them when they came. Of special interest was the way Martha loves the "soft, sweet voice" of a fiddle (shades of Laura listening to Pa); the way she carries around her beloved doll Lady Flora (a very elaborate and fine doll compared to Laura's rag doll Charlotte, but a very similar love); and the description of Martha's enjoyment in watching the somewhat disgusting cooking of the haggis (very much like Laura's fascination with the cleaning and cooking of the bear Pa shot). There are other echoes, but I'll leave you to find them...I'm sure there are plenty I missed too!

What's nicest about the "connections" between this book and the original stories is the sense one gets that some connections are family ones...passions, interests and temperaments carried from one generation to the next. But there's also a sense that some curiosities and loves are simply universal to girlhood, to childhood, in all times and places.

Although it surprises me no end, I give this lovely book five stars. And I hope to read the rest of the books in this series so I can spend more time with Martha, a very worthy great-grandmother for one of the finest heroines (and authors) of American literature.

~befus, 2006

Little House in the Highlands
by Melissa Wiley
HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

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