Monday, February 22, 2016

Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

"On the whole enormous prairie there was no sign that any other human being had ever been there." 
-- from Little House on the Prairie (41)

Well, this is crazily more dramatic than Little House in the Big Woods: crossing the river! Ma almost crushed by a log! Wolves surrounding the house! Prairie fires! Irritated Native Americans!  But oddly, it's the one I remember least well.

There's a lot of (lovely) description of the prairie, and an exhausting amount of construction. Pa builds a house, a barn, the doors, the furniture, the fireplace, the well. So there's plenty of wood-working and mud-stirring, much more so than depiction of food and clothes. Not that it's uninteresting, exactly, but it doesn't thrill me in quite the same way.

Laura is a little older and more worldly than the previous book, and she hasn't lost the rebellious nature that makes her such a beloved character. She still wants to slap her sister so badly that "she dared not look at Mary again" (181), and when reminded that children mustn't complain, "she was still naughty, inside. She sat and thought complaints to herself" (15).

That self-control that she's being conditioned to is shown in this book as a matter of survival value, as it was in Big Woods when they encountered a bear. At separate points in the story, the children doing what they're told is pivotal to their safety. However, the down side of that is obvious in the heart-wrenching moment when Laura believes their dog has drowned when crossing a rising river: "She knew it was shameful to cry, but there was crying inside her" (24). Her need to hold back her deep feelings of sorrow almost made ME cry, especially since this comes right after the realization of how nearly the whole family had come to perishing. "The river would have rolled them over and over and carried them away and drowned them, and nobody would ever have known what became of them" (ibid). That's a lot for a little girl to take in.

On the lighter side, the only things in the whole series that I like as much as the Surveyor's House are the Little House Christmases, and this is a great one: "Think of having a whole penny for your very own. Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny" (250). Reading that, I couldn't help thinking we might not be better of if we could be so happy with so little, or had any real grasp of the difference between desires and necessities. Not that I want to be digging my own well any time soon.

What I remembered vividly, but didn't remember it was this book: The scene of Mr. Edwards dancing like a jack-in-the-box. I had thought the dugout appeared in this book, but now I think that's Plum Creek.

Ma's aesthetic sense: Ma's china shepherdess survives the trip in the covered wagon (117), and when they're still on the trail, she not only washes, but irons, their dresses! (47) It makes me speechless.

The current trends: Gone into town for supplies, Pa brings the girls black rubber hair combs. Each has a star cut out of it, with a ribbon underneath, so Mary has a black headband with a blue star, and Laura with a red star. "They had never had anything so pretty" (271). Since the combs are "curved to fit over the top of a little girl's head" (270), there must be enough little girls passing through for this store in the middle of nowhere to stock this kind of thing.

Progress: The problematic nature of so-called progress comes across in this book, which sees white settlers displacing the Native American population (although they'll get driven out too, temporarily). The Ingalls' neighbors hold forth on how "the only good Indian was a dead Indian" (211, 284) which, eeee, obviously, but it's certainly true to the times. Earlier, one of them had said "They'd never do anything this with country themselves. All they do is roam around over it like wild animals. Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to folks that'll farm it. That's only common sense and justice" (211). Sort of a woman-on-the-street view of Manifest Destiny, tied in, maybe, with a perverse view of the Protestant Work Ethic, and while I couldn't disagree with this more, it does illustrate the common attitudes.

The books are often faulted in modern times for their attitudes toward Native Americans, so Wilder's perspective here is more balanced than I'd expected. Pa tells her that "when white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on," and she replies, "But, Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won't it make the Indians mad to have to --" And just like real life, he shuts that down with "Go to sleep" (237). Later, though, he tells the neighbor that "Indians would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were let alone. On the other hand, they had been moved west so many times that naturally they hated white folks" (284). Even after he finds out later that they had been in some danger from these understandably aggrieved tribes, the narrative explicitly states that "Pa did not believe that the only good Indian was a dead Indian" (301). So, not perfect, but it could be worse.

In the end, of course, the Ingalls family is moved on by the same government, and after a few detours, will end up on the famous Plum Creek.

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie. Revised edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1953.


  1. Great review. You touched on a lot that I left out b/c there was already so much to talk about, I had to put a limit on myself.

    But I like how you point out that Laura had to control her emotions, after the loss of Jack and the truth that they might have lost everything, even their lives, crossing that ford. That definitely is a lot for a little girl to take in. As a mom, I think I would have broke down, too.

  2. What? You didn't think that well-digging sounded liked fun? :) That was such a scary scene! I love the way you concentrated on Laura's feelings and the way she felt she had to at least hide if not overcome them. I almost cried for her about Jack's disappearance, too, and almost cried when he caught up with them, too! But those were happy tears when they were reunited. My dog was always so important to me as a child. Nice review and so glad you joined us for this reading adventure!

  3. Thanks for the comments, everyone! I am finding a lot more food for thought in the books so far than I expected. "Farmer Boy" was always my least favorite, so I'm curious if that will still hold true or not.