Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder evokes a romantic view of childhood as well as of a shimmering, exotic-seeming past. She cannily observes a bygone age. Her memories, as transformed into this novel, bring forth a dreamy sense of childhood, of people, place and time. Specifically, she recalls that yeasty era when the United States, as a country, still grew (or one might say lunged) westward. For all its popularity as a children’s book, Little House on the Prairie possesses a complexity that gives it credence as Literature, in the capital letter, worth-studying-it sense. It can usefully and enjoyably be read on several levels. The best of children’s literature functions that way.
As narrative, Little House is brisk and clear: it presents a year in the life of the Ingalls family. With little prologue, the family pulls up stakes in Wisconsin and journeys to Kansas. Kansas then, early 1870s, was wild land, Indian land. Wilder is nothing if not romantic in her vision of this land. Here is a brief description of the Wisconsin that the family leaves: “Wild animals would not stay in a country where there were so many people. Pa did not like to stay, either. He liked a country where the wild animals lived without being afraid. He liked to see the little fawns and their mothers looking at him from the shadowy woods, and the fat, lazy bears eating berries in the wild-berry patches.” I enjoy how Wilder, by implication, likens her father to a wild animal. He is a bear of a man, albeit a gentle one. He wasn’t one to set deep roots. Pa Ingalls has a bit of the wanderer in him, a native wildness. I find that wildness in Laura herself.
While Little House shouldn’t be read as a historical document—it is fiction, after all— it paints a warm picture of pioneer life. It was a busy year for the Ingalls family, with plenty of ups and downs. The narrative would probably be more sanguine if written from the perspective of Laura’s parents (especially her mother), for life was hard in this wild territory. Though there are desperate moments for the Ingalls, like when the chimney catches fire or when the nearby Indians almost go on the warpath, Wilder doesn’t dramatize these events histrionically, as lesser writers might. Instead, she lets people and events speak for themselves. A gentle poetry, especially in her descriptions of nature, results.
Wisconsin in those days was hardly the Hub of the Universe, but it was too crowded for Pa. He illustrates a version of a romantic type: the American Pioneer. No doubt, the real Charles Ingalls was as described above, with allowances for a child’s hero-worship, but he also fit an American mythology that has arisen, of this rich, wild land heroically conquered by industrious, spirited Europeans. Fifty-Forty Or Fight, as the slogan for Manifest Destiny had it.
True enough, this continent was conquered, but one can debate how heroic the enterprise was. Romanticizing this land-taking ignores the travesties and misdeeds that annihilated a people. This romantic vision brags of a stern puritan work ethic, the core of which says that taking this land and building on it somehow promotes a higher good. That higher good must be balanced against the broken treaties, land grabs, and massacres that have been served upon this country’s native population, to speak nothing of the exploitation of the land itself that this continent has endured since the European incursion.
The story is told from Laura’s perspective. She is around five years old. The author was in her sixties when she wrote the novel. Her ability to see with young Laura’s eyes is admirable, and proves to be one of the charms of the book.
I like how the child’s perceptions come through. The child Laura’s curiosity and excitement liven her story, in all its strange and homely details, be it prairie fire, potential Indian attack, or digging the well. I especially liked the description of the Ingalls’s meager but endearing Christmas. Wilder does not pretend to be objective: this story is entirely made of her childhood memories brought to surprising freshness.
It took me time to understand Wilder’s subjectivity. Young Laura is much concerned with naughtiness. At first, I thought the author wanted to present a wholesome lesson for young readers. I did not know, when reading the book, that Laura Ingalls Wilder had been a teacher, but I was ready to guess as much. I misread the tone. Eventually, I realized that Laura’s concept of naughtiness was received wisdom, pushed onto her by her parents. Her naughtiness, I found, expressed her wild side, be it her curiosity, her stubbornness, her sense of injustice.
In the first chapter, Laura is tired from travel and complains that she wants to stop. Her mother scolds her and Laura keeps quiet, “but she was still naughty inside.” As if travel irritation, especially for a child, was wrong.
In the chapter “Indian Camp”, Laura is made to give her Indian beads to baby sister Carrie “and she [Laura] was still naughty enough to want her beads for herself.” In having Laura give up her beads, Ma and Pa probably wanted to teach generosity (good sister Mary already learned the lesson). However, giving the beads to Carrie, too young to appreciate them, seems like a harsh lesson for Laura. Her naughtiness often seems righteous to me.
The family’s travels are Pa’s idea. Ma Ingalls fears (rightly) the dangers of their new home, while Pa is almost blithe about them. Not that he ever fails in his duty, but that he would subject the family to wolves and prairie fires and possible Indian attacks, all for the sake of his wanderlust, speaks to his own selfish will. Laura’s parents—especially her mother, as I infer—try to curb Laura’s incipient wildness. Partly this owes to gender roles—that is, what’s okay for girls—but also this is the commonsense that a wild land demands. Pa is an adventurer, but he’s careful when it comes to keeping himself and his family alive. The parents must’ve feared that their second daughter’s curiosity and impetuosity could land her in trouble.
Wilder has a guileless way of painting characters. There is a seeming objectivity in her presentation, for she rarely directly describes her characters. Subtly, though, a picture of each appears, as well as Laura’s attitude toward them. Pa is heroic, dutiful and capable, but unlikely ever fully to settle down. Ma must’ve been as brave and capable as Pa, the situation in which they lived demanded it, but Laura renders Ma’s care and concern as worrisome fret. Ma constantly speaks ill of the Indians while Pa is more understanding and accepting. For Laura, the Indians are an exotic fascination, but to Ma they represent a real and present danger. The adult Laura would understand this, but the child only saw her mother removing interesting elements from her daughter’s life
Older sister Mary seems merely sketched. There are no major tiffs between the girls but a mild tension exists, though perhaps tension is too forceful a word. Mary is obedient to a fault, in that parent-pleasing way that to other children seems like a weakness. Both during the chimney fire and the first time that Indians invaded the little house, Mary froze in fear whereas Laura mustered her courage. I don’t think the girls were inimical, they just possessed different natures. Laura was her father’s girl, while Mary was her mother’s.
I have read none of the other books in the Little House series. I was surprised to discover that Little House itself is third in the series, I assumed it was first. That guilelessness that I mentioned seemed the fresh effect of an author’s first effort. I imagined a degeneration of that freshness as later books were written. Maybe this happens further on in the series but I am glad to be proven wrong so far.
Surely all the books are worth reading. Wilder writes with the authority of one who knows her subject. She is a keen, honest observer. Wilder takes pleasure, and transmits it, in describing how things were done in those days, like well digging or making a latch for the door. Her descriptions of nature, though couched in the simplest of language, are vivid and lovely. I will end by quoting a valedictory passage as the Ingalls, at book’s end, leave their little house:
As hard as frontier life was, a wistfulness to Wilder’s writing arises here, bespeaking the loss of a simpler way of life, as well as of her own charmed childhood. Surely, that core of remembrance has kept this book, and the whole series, in public favor for almost seventy years now. It is a book I will return to.