Across the Puddingstone Dam, the last Charlotte Years book, is the best one. Dealing with issues of death, loss, family, change, and maturity, it’s the most serious of all four books, but there are still moments that are heartwarming and uplifting. One of those is the reunion of Martha and Duncan. The benefit of Wiley having written both the Martha Years and the Charlotte Years is that there’s no retconning or mistakes made—stories and characters and situations are true to what was revealed earlier.
This book is the last Charlotte book, but it’s also so closely related to Martha that it’s almost as if it’s a continuation of the Martha Years. We learn much more about Martha in this book than we ever did in the first three Charlotte books. Perhaps this book was written with the knowledge that HarperCollins was killing the series, so Wiley wanted to give as much information about her characters as possible. The book is still definitely about Charlotte, but there is a strong focus on Martha—even to the extent of sacrificing the characterization of Charlotte’s brothers and sisters.
I’m really not sure how historically accurate Wiley’s books are (in terms of the real-life people they depict, not the events), but if there’s one thing I can appreciate about this book, it’s the love and dedication Wiley clearly has for these characters, particularly Martha. And while the maturity of this book is quite a step up from the previous titles, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, as it shows that Charlotte is growing up, too. The Charlotte Years were not my favorite, but Across the Puddingstone Dam was a highlight.
The last two Charlotte Years books are the most interesting, in my opinion. Perhaps it’s because Charlotte is of a more relatable, readable age—8 and 11, respectively—and so the problems and lessons of the book are more directly related to her, as opposed to simply something she observes. The Road from Roxbury is still not a great book, but it’s at least better than On Tide Mill Lane.
The Road from Roxbury deals with new babies, new schoolteachers, new technology, new friends, and new responsibilities. Each chapter is still more “slice of life” than anything else, but there are some plot threads running throughout to unite them. My favorite is perhaps the schoolmaster plot arc, though the plot arc that deals with jealousy, sullenness, and a near-death scare is also quite good. The rest is typical Wiley and typical Charlotte Years—vaguely interesting, but ultimately lacking in charm. It ends on the cheesy sort of note that Wiley is fond of striking—grand pronouncements and dreams that seem to come out of nowhere and are triggered by the most random things.
Having an older Charlotte makes the books more relatable and less observational, but there’s still something lacking from the Charlotte Years that I can’t quite pin down. Charm, or quality, or depth, or something. The Road from Roxbury is an improvement on the first two books, but it’s still a far cry from a good, solid, timeless children’s book.
On Tide Mill Lane is a dreadfully boring installment of the Charlotte Years. Though it details the end of the War of 1812, there is little to keep it interesting, family and friend drama aside. The Charlotte Years have always seemed the weakest to me, but this book highlights that weakness. There’s virtually no plot—each chapter is only tangentially related to others, if at all—and Charlotte has no growth at all. She’s also not a very convincing five-year-old. In fact, it’s Charlotte’s mother, Martha, who has most of the focus, as if Wiley is still trying to hold on to those Martha Years.
The dialogue and descriptions are also really cheesy. A child likely won’t find them that way, but as an adult, I could barely keep from rolling my eyes. In addition, everything is spelled out very nice and neatly, so that nothing can possibly escape the reader’s attention and understanding. I love children’s books, but this one is too non-subtle for me.
I can barely remember what happens in the next Charlotte book, but I remember the last one being quite interesting, and it at least has Charlotte stop being perpetually five. I will, however, be glad to be done with these last two books so that I can move on to the Caroline Years, one of my favorites.
Little House by Boston Bay, by Melissa Wiley, was published in 1999 by HarperTrophy.
Having finished the Martha Years, I’m moving right along to the Charlotte Years—Martha’s daughter, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s grandmother. The same author wrote both sets of books, which is a good thing—Martha remains familiar, and the details of her life in Scotland remain accurate. Not that many details are given—Wiley saves that for another book.
As a kind of hopeless romantic at heart, for most of the book I reflected on Martha and Lewis. If I remember correctly, Martha marries Lewis, a blacksmith, someone of a much lower station than her, and as a result her family disowns her (however, there is some research that indicates that “Martha Morse” was never Scottish at all, and that her husband’s name was really Joseph). It’s kind of interesting to read this book with that perspective and reflect on all the sacrifices that were made, but also see how much Martha and Lewis love each other.
The book is fairly similar to the Martha Years books—as it would be, with the same author—although obviously without the Scottish background. Instead, we have the War of 1812, and the political tension of the day woven into the background. It’s maybe not as immediately gripping as were the backdrop of the Scottish Highlands, but Little House by Boston Bay is still part of a series that were dearly loved by me as a child—I know the scenes like old friends, and I vividly remember the too-spicy pounded cheese chapter and the Saturday family. Perhaps the Charlotte Years aren’t too exciting, but reading this book has been a great nostalgia trip for me.
Beyond the Heather Hills is the last Martha book, though I don’t believe it was intended to be. From what Wiley has said about her ideas for future books, I could see seeds of them being sown here, especially in the relationship between Martha and Lewis Tucker, and in Martha’s desire to see more beyond her home—yet also her fierce longing for the familiar.
This book deals with a topic not yet addressed in the Martha books, which is death. Martha is confronted with death, with leaving home, with change. Fear is a prominent theme in this book: fear of the unknown, fear of leaving the ones you love. Yet the end brings the promise of joy in new life, too. It’s a very familiar bookend, death and life, but it’s one that’s always needed.
Beyond the Heather Hills isn’t as fun as some of the previous Martha books. Martha spends too much time being homesick for that. But it is a very poignant one. It’s a shame that these books weren’t more popular, as they really are quite good children’s books, but they do lack a little something. As fiery as Martha is, the books are a little too plain.
I’ve enjoyed rereading these books, though they don’t hold a candle in my mind against the original Wilder books. Wiley did a good job with conveying Scottish tradition and culture and with making Martha a good protagonist who learns a lot but still manages to have fun along the way. They’re not my favorite of the “prequel series to Little House books,” but they hold a special place in my heart because of their presence in my childhood bookshelf.
Down to the Bonny Glen has always been my favorite of the Martha books. It’s longer than the others and is mostly concerned with the character development and growth of Martha. Martha is more than just a spirited young girl in this book—she’s now finally starting to realize that she’s the daughter of a laird, and in that sense she’s quite different from other children around her.
This conflict is sown all throughout the book—Martha’s awkwardness around her friends, her brother and his friends’ hesitation at seeing one another after Duncan comes back from school, Martha’s realization that as a laird’s daughter she has different expectations. And yet we also see her determination to not let things like that bother her, to push past barriers and boundaries and do what she wants to do. We see that in her eagerness to cook and her parent’s appall at the thought of her cooking for a living, we see that in her desire to go to America, to have adventure, to play outside instead of sit in and sew. And we see that in the hints and subtle indication that connect Martha and the blacksmith’s son, Lewis Tucker.
Other than the character development, Martha also gets some personal growth in terms of her rashness and thoughtlessness. Her new governess helps by channeling Martha’s energy into suitable tasks and by the end of the book, Martha is much more careful without having lost any of her spiritedness.
The Martha Years will never be as memorable or long-lasting as the Little House books, but Down to the Bonny Glen is the highlight of the series, chock-full of thoughtless Martha, interesting events (my favorite is Martha and Grisie cooking for the house), and lots of character development.
In The Far Side of Loch seven-year-old Martha is lonely and restless. The Stone House was filled with people during the holidays, but now the cousins have gone home, Martha’s father is traveling, her brothers are at school, and her older sister, Grisie, is too busy brooding over her embroidery to pay any attention to Martha. Her new pet hedgehog makes things a bit more fun, and then Father comes home with some thrilling news and suddenly Martha’s house is bustling with excitement!
The prequels to the Little House books can tend to be devoid of the charm that made Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books so popular. Unfortunately, that’s true of the Martha Years in general. While Little House in the Highlands was interesting in its look into Scottish life, it didn’t have a whole lot of appeal to carry over to this next book, The Far Side of the Loch.
Wiley continues to give insight into Scotland with this book, but the simplistic writing and basic emotional insights let it down. I mean, I didn’t hate the book, but I didn’t love it, either (my favorite of the Martha Years is actually the next book, Down to the Bonny Glen, which has lots of character growth for Martha in it). The most interesting part of the book was seeing the contrast between city and country life and the exploration of homesickness and family.
I did find it very clever, or perhaps cheeky, of Wiley to include the tale of “The Laird’s Lass and the Smith’s Son.” Wiley delves into this slightly in later books, before Harper sadly cut off the prequels before she could get to the actual romance, but Martha Tucker in real life married the son of a blacksmith. The tale told in this book has a slightly happier ending in terms of family than does Martha’s, though—since Martha married significantly beneath her, her family basically cut her off. I think there’s a mention of her brother in the sequel to this series (about Martha’s daughter and Laura’s grandmother, Charlotte), but other than that, she pretty much leaves Scotland and never sees her family again (that is–if this book is historically accurate). That’s part of the reason why I found the focus on family in this book to be so interesting.
If you liked the first book in the Martha Years, The Far Side of the Loch is more of the same. It doesn’t build a whole lot on the first book, nor does it have particularly complex themes or insights. It does play on the idea of “home is where the heart is,” as well as the conflict between city and country life and other things that are interesting in light of what happens to the real Martha Tucker. Children will probably like this book if they enjoyed the first one, but it lacks a little something for an older audience.
Little House in the Highlands, by Melissa Wiley, was published in 1999 by HarperCollins.
Meet Martha the little girl who would grow up to be Laura Ingalls Wilder’s great-grandmother. It’s 1788, and six year old Martha lives in a little stone house in Glencraid, Scotland. Martha’s father is Laird Glencaraid, and the life of the Laird’s daughter is not always easy for a lively girl like Martha. She would rather be running barefoot through the fields of heather and listening to magical tales of fairies and other Wee Folk than learning to sew like a proper young lady. But between her dreaded sewing lessons, Martha still finds time to play on the rolling Scottish hills.
Because of the success of the Little House books, HarperCollins commissioned more stories about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, as well as a series on her daughter, Rose. Growing up, the Martha, Caroline, and Charlotte Years were almost as dear to me as the Little House books. I’ve been in a “Little House mood” recently, due to reading both the fictionalized Caroline, a telling of Little House on the Prairie from Caroline’s point of view, and the fantastic Prairie Fires, a thoroughly researched biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder (and her daughter). So, I decided to start from the very beginning.
I read Little House on the Highlands I-don’t-know-how-many-times growing up, so this entire book was super familiar to me. It was a huge nostalgia trip for me, though I also tried to separate from that aspect of it and cast a more critical eye, though I’m not sure how well I succeeded.
I know almost nothing about Scottish culture and lore, so I’m not sure how well Wiley portrays it in this book, but it certainly feels authentic. There’s great fairy tales scattered throughout, and lots of descriptions of Scottish things. Wiley does her best to explain things to her reader without compromising Scottish terminology. The only thing that is a trifle put-upon are the accents, but, again, it’s used to represent that this is quite a different place and time than the one the reader is in, so it lends itself well to the setting.
Fiery little Martha is a great protagonist, and though there are a lot of other characters, they are all quite distinguishable from each other, except perhaps for Nannie and Mollie, who serve almost identical functions. There is definitely a Little House feel to Little House in the Highlands, with its extended descriptions of daily activities, way of life, and, yes, food, but it also serves quite well as a simple historical fiction. There’s no need for the reader to have read the Wilder books before this, as by itself, it stands as quite a nice little Scottish children’s book.