Remember how I was worried at the beginning of this reading adventure, when we drew two of the Laura Ingalls Wilder series for our first reads? I had visions of stories about happy, rosy- cheeked, calico-clad girls playing outdoors and cheerfully doing chores. Nice for the kiddos, but I was concerned that I wouldn’t find them exactly gripping.
I already admitted with Little House in the Big Woods, the only thing that I found sappy were the maple trees that provided candy and sugar for the family, that it was a lot about the work that went into everyday life back in the late 19th century. And true to form, Little House on the Prairie was far from being a nice little story about the charm of frontier life. In fact, the private title that I used in my own head for the book was Little House of Terror.
I mean, they started out by packing up everything into a covered wagon (except the furniture, since Pa could always make more), crossing a frozen lake that was about one day from melting back into an unfrozen lake, traveling for weeks where there was no one, and then parking in the middle of an endless prairie. Almost singled-handed, Pa builds a house and a shed. Ma helps for a while but then part of the wall falls on her leg.
Then once the house is up, when it still has no more than a quilt covering the door, they are surrounded by a ring of howling wolves. Then there are prowling panthers, malaria, prairie fire and Indians (they were not yet aware that this term was politically incorrect) who walk into the house and expect to be fed.
And the family’s protection from all of these things? Their own wits, about 3 neighbors living a couple miles away, and their dog.
I read this book very much as a mom and often put myself in Caroline Ingalls’ place. I can’t begin to imagine how frightened she must have been every single day and night – even if all of these events didn’t happen in the same year in real life. She had three little girls, was surrounded on all sides by threats known and unknown, and going “to town” was a 4-day journey. But Laura’s description of her behavior is very matter of fact. She does not give the impression that Ma was falling apart. She was still the strong and capable parent figure.
Come to think of it, Laura describes it all in a pretty matter of fact way. She does describe things as frightening at times, but never gives the reader the impression that this was a family living on the ragged edge of disaster. Things happen, sometimes they are scary, and the parents deal with them.
A lot of stuff happens in this little house on a very big prairie – it’s pretty much one thing after another. But that keeps the story moving along, and it still has a truthful ring to it. One forgets that it is a novel.
And if I ever need a little house built on the prairie using only the supplies at hand – Charles Ingalls is the man I would want to build it. Or at least, I would want the house that Garth Williams drew for the book.
A few words about our storyteller and her older sister, Mary. Mary is the golden girl in all ways. She has the beautiful blonde hair; Laura’s is basic brown. Mary is always well behaved and polite. Laura is a good kid – but we get to see her inner thoughts, so we know when she slips up – like any kid (or adult, for that matter). One day, Pa and the girls came upon an abandoned Indian camp and collect beads off the ground. Each girl gathers a handful that Pa ties carefully into his handkerchief. When they get the beads home, they are even more beautiful than they realized.
“Laura stirred her beads with her finger and watched them sparkle and shine. ‘These are mine’, she said.
Then Mary said, ‘Carrie can have mine.’
Ma waited to hear what Laura would say. Laura didn’t want to say anything. She wanted to keep those pretty beads. Her chest felt all hot inside, and she wished with all her might that Mary wouldn’t always be such a good little girl. But she couldn’t let Mary be better than she was.
So she said slowly, ‘Carrie can have mine, too.’
‘That’s my good little unselfish girls,’ said Ma.
Laura gets over her disappointment a little bit when she realizes she doesn’t have enough beads for a necklace, but the whole lot together will make one big enough for the baby – but she is less than enthusiastic as she and Mary string the beads:
“Perhaps Mary felt good and sweet inside, but Laura didn’t. When she looked at Mary she wanted to slap her. So she dared not look at Mary again.”
It’s plain, honest emotion that any kid can understand, and I think it’s a big reason why these books have been so popular. Laura is clearly a well-behaved child who does chores and moves uncomplainingly into unfamiliar territory, trusting her parents to be right and strong. But she gets angry. And scared. And disappointed. And curious. Maybe a little reckless. And she tells us about what’s going on in her head even if on the outside she is doing what is expected of her (or at least trying to). Kids can relate to her.
And we get to see a great example of how this kind of reckless, not-prim-and-quiet kid can sometimes be exactly the type you want to have around. When a chimney fire drops a burning log right under Mary’s skirt while she rocks the baby, she is frozen with fright. Laura is frightened, too – but she finds superhuman strength, grabs hold of the chair with both girls in it and pulls them away from the flames. Young readers can easily appreciate that there is more than one way to be “the good girl.”
One word of caution about a topic that no one would have thought twice about when I was in elementary school – lots of talk about “the Indians” in this book. This is natural enough, since the family seems to have built their house smack in the middle of Osage territory. Pa seems the most comfortable with the natives of the area, acknowledging that “they were here first” and respecting their space. Ma is always accommodating when men come to the house and want food – but this is mostly due to fear. She is a lady, and does not say hateful things about these visitors, but she clearly does not like them. The homesteading neighbors are less polite and make some nasty comments about the native neighbors. The girls are a bit nervous, but also fascinated and Laura in particular wants a “papoose” for her very own, like some type of plaything.
Overall, the author shows a decent balance of “wild” and reasonable depictions of the Native Americans. And in the end, the Ingalls and their neighbors are in the same situation as the native inhabitants – all are forced off the land by the US government.
All in all, I felt relieved for the family as they headed back to their home in Wisconsin. I know Pa likes his wide open spaces, but it seemed that they could use just a bit more civilization around them. But this book did make me appreciate the bold persistence of the settlers of the American frontier. I’m glad I didn’t have to do it. In the 21st century (and well before), Kansas doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a place of non-stop excitement and peril, but through the eyes of a little girl whose family was there long before the freeways and universities and shopping malls were built, we see how very much times have changed.
Number of pages: 368
Date of publication: 1935
Story time and setting: 1870s, the Kansas prairie, about 40 miles from Independence
First line: “A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and little girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.”
Main characters: Pa, Ma, Laura (5-6 years old), Mary (7-8 years old), Baby Carrie (still a baby)
Amazon.com Best Sellers rank: 18,009 (considerably higher than the first book in the series, no doubt due to the association with the title of the popular TV series)
Reading age level: 8 and up
Emotional/Maturity level: Good for young kids, lots of potentially scary situations and getting used to new situations, but the adults always seem to have things under control; some potential for racist conclusions – could be a good springboard for family discussion