Confession: I’ve never read the original “Little House on the Prairie” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I didn’t realize this until nearly half-way through reading them this summer as an adult this was the case. I was convinced that I had read them all in one big gulp in fifth grade, when I remembered borrowing them volume-by-volume from my friend who had a beautiful paperback collection of them.
But as it turns out, I read the entire Rose Wilder series (that’s Laura’s daughter) and not the original series that started the entire franchise.
This summer I decided it was time to take a deep dive into the classics of children’s literature. I know they take up sentimental real estate in the hearts of so many readers, young and old, and it felt like I was missing out on something by not having read them.
And now, having blown through nine volumes and having the Laura Ingalls Wilder autobiography Pioneer Girl sitting in my to-read pile, I can say I’ve successfully conquered the series. I’m not in any way sure I loved it, nor that I even think it was something I would have loved dearly as a young reader, but it sure was enlightening to come to it with my adult eyes and perspective.
Here are some of the uncollected thoughts I had while reading the series from start to finish.
- Going in, I knew immediately because of my own reading about the series that it wouldn’t stand the test of time in terms of representation. That’s a nice way of saying that the books are unkind to anyone who isn’t a white settler; it’s repeated in book after book that “Ma hates Indians,” yet we’re never given a great reason as to why. It’s not just Ma, though — it’s the entire family that hates Natives, as well as black individuals, as well as (wait for it) the Norwegians. On The Banks of Plum Creek, perhaps my favorite of the series that focuses on Laura’s story, we get to hear time and time again how irritating the Norwegians are. Which makes perfect sense since it was the Ingalls family that decided to settle in rural Minnesota . . . where there are and have been large Scandinavian settlements.
- The Ingalls family literally complains about everything. It’s interesting to think about this in context of the fact these books were written by Laura after the fact; the things she chooses to tell in the story are things she found relevant, and apparently, complaining was a big worthwhile memory. For example, did you know that the church folks in Minnesota are nice but can’t sing in tune? This is a repeated chorus in Plum Creek, where we hear about how great it is to attend church but how irritating it is that none of the congregation can carry a tune.
- The pacing and consistency of the books as a whole are wild. Books like These Happy Golden Years cover the early parts of Laura’s “adulthood” (ages roughly 16 to 20) in just over 200 pages, but prior to that, we get a book like The Long Winter, which clocks in at over 300 pages and is literally about one winter. It is so boring. If you live in a snowy part of the world, say the Midwest, you know how boring long winters are. The book only validates your own perspective of how boring winters are. Likewise, we see pages and pages dedicated to Laura’s giving birth to her daughter Rose and her growth where we get one page — one page!! — dedicated to Laura giving birth to a son who gets really sick and dies a couple of weeks postpartum. I had to reread this section of The First Four Years numerous times to make sure I’d actually read it correctly. Granted, that was an unfinished book but it’s interesting to think about how little time is dedicated to that son. I spent some time on “Little House” forums after reading this volume to see what fans had to say about it, and I’m happy to settle with the theory that Laura knew the baby would likely not live and thus, she didn’t want to invest the time and resources into that child (a product of the times).
- Pa Ingalls. I haven’t yet read the autobiography, but I cannot fathom the reality of this man. I’ve been told it’s possible he was an alcoholic (someone told me that early on in my reading) and it changed my perspective of his follies. The man couldn’t keep a job to save his soul, nor could he farm (but damn could he talk a great game about how everything was going to be just fine). Pa irritated me from the beginning with his misadventures, but it was when Laura herself finally starts working — with the goal of helping her sister get to college with the money she’d be earning — that Pa really began to make me angry. He tricked Laura into giving him money in so many pointless ways. “Mary needs a piano for when she gets home from college!” he’d say, as a way to get Laura to fork over money for an instrument that . . . no one ended up using. Because Mary didn’t play it when she got home, and it ended up becoming a literal piece of furniture in their shanty. This wasn’t the first nor the last incident of Pa taking advantage of his daughter’s money, and every time it happened, Pa went from a man full of terrible ideas to a man who as just not enjoyable at all.
- It’s impossible not to look at this series through a feminist lens. It’s stated specifically in These Happy Golden Years that Laura doesn’t believe women should get the vote nor that they deserve equal rights. Yet, it’s in that same book Laura eschews a traditional wedding to Almanzo, opting instead for a marriage at home in (wait for it) a black cashmere dress. The takeaway here isn’t that there are mixes messages or that Laura doesn’t understand what feminism or women’s rights are; the takeaway is that when Laura wrote these books, she inserted her political views post-facto, despite the fact she lived in ways that were not in line with those views. When you stop and realize she’s writing after the fact, this, along with the blatant repeat racism, becomes even more frustrating and jarring.
- The most surprising thing to me in this read was how much I liked Farmer Boy and thought Almanzo’s story and family were a million times more interesting that Laura’s. Where we get six books about her father’s follies, Almanzo’s single volume showcases a family that worked hard, that loved one another fiercely, and that strove for real independence. When Almanzo’s family ends up in De Smet, along with the Ingalls, their stories converge in ways that make it clear that one family has it far more together than the other. Where Pa prided himself on being a pioneer, on being stronger than those people from the East, he also had to go beg Almanzo for wheat seed and other goods during that terribly long winter. It was Almanzo who took the horses out on a long, scary ride through a blizzard to seek out food for the residents of De Smet, and it was Almanzo who made the journey to pick up Laura after she finished her teaching every Friday afternoon. When we get to the final book in the series, we begin to see that the reality isn’t necessarily that Almanzo is spectacular; he’s instead excellent by comparison to Pa. When the story focuses on Laura and Almanzo, the romance around him and his story fades a bit as we see he’s far from perfect. . . but still better than Pa.
- What it is Pa wants for his family is an ever-shifting thing. In Little House in the Big Woods, we begin the series by seeing the Ingalls family in what seems like a really happy situation, just outside Pepin, Wisconsin. But at the end of the book, that family is moving because Pepin’s getting too big and bustling (for what it’s worth, the town of Pepin today has a population of 850). We begin Little House on the Prairie with the family settling in Kansas, in “Indian Country.” Aside from being rife with racism and imperialism, the family suddenly realizes that being so isolated is a huge problem because it means . . . they’re isolated. Also, they took the stupidest path from western Wisconsin to central/western Kansas, but that’s another piece all together.
- By the end of book two, Pa decides that being too isolated isn’t smart, so they’re moving to Minnesota. This is where we find out, of course, about how irritating the Norwegians are, as well as how out of tune the church congregation is. But the family lives in what is essentially a grass-covered cave. And it’s the coolest. But also, if animals are running on their roof, they could possibly fall through it. While it all sounds good and dandy in On the Banks of Plum Creek, we soon learn it’s not, and the family is off yet again to get a land claim out in “Dakota Country” (South Dakota, in this case).
- Did I mention how boring The Long Winter is? Let me also note that By The Shores of Silver Lake is also boring. These are the first two books in De Smet, South Dakota, and suddenly, we’re back to this idea that being in town is important. The Ingalls have a claim shanty and land that will be theirs if they settle it, but they prefer living in town when the weather gets rough because it’s warmer and there are people around. Yes, these are the same reasons they left Wisconsin. And boy, the whining about not seeing people or leaving the house or being bored. Also, the non-stop whining about school. They are literally never happy.
It’s hard to say whether I really liked the experience of reading these books nor feel like they’re the kinds of books I’d immediately pass off to younger readers as essential. They’re fine, and they’re certainly a slice of life in historical America in the midwest. But they’re also a product of that very thing, complete with unbelievable amounts of overt and subtle racism and a story that offers little in the way of offering females any roles or responsibilities. I could talk about the fact Ma’s story doesn’t really exist here because she’s taking care of everyone and everything at home, but that is itself a story we don’t get. Instead, the biggest takeaway is that she “hates Indians” and she goes along with Pa’s follies again and again.
But one thing reading this series did do for me as a reader was remind me that there are other books set in this time period, for the same reading audience, but this time, about the Natives who were living on and with the land around them.
Louise Erdrich, herself a Native, started her Birchbark House series in 1999, and has since added further editions to it. This series follows an Ojibwa family that lives in rural Minnesota, up by Lake Superior. It’s a fascinating story on its own, but it’s even more compelling when read immediately after the better-known Wilder series. The women in Erdrich’s story are all active, all vital, and are all fully-fleshed characters who play a huge role in the survival of their families and their community.
Omakayas and her family take care of the Earth around them and are wildly compassionate with nature and one another. They use what’s available to them and do so in a way that’s respectful; they, too, tell stories and have adventures like the Ingalls family, but it is impossible not to see the stark difference in the story telling, in the tone, and in the straight-up deference the characters have toward the world around them.
For all of the racist and sexist commentary inserted into the “Little House” books, Erdrich’s book makes the Ingalls look like ungrateful assholes. The time period is the same, the settings in the Midwest are similar, but the tones of the stories and their portrayal of a slice of life differ wildly.
The “Little House” books will forever be a part of the children’s literary world, and the franchise itself will live on as part of American history and cultural literacy. It will be passed along generation to generation, especially as the series reaches big anniversaries and we’re given more new editions and more insights into the story of the Ingalls family. There’s no reason to not hand these books off to young readers, but there is something to be said about the fact this series needs to be talked about with young readers.
And perhaps, more importantly, the series should be read in conjunction with Erdrich’s. It’s frustrating to know that her series is the only one set at this time about the Native side of the story and it’s more frustrating to know that it’s not given the same sort of raise, the same sort of legacy, or the same sort of respect as the Ingalls.
Now that I’ve wrapped up reading the series and plan on reading the autobiography, the next stop on my to-do is visit at least the Pepin house, since it’s only a few hours away from me.