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.