I just finished reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie with my eight-year-old son. I was hesitant to share these books with him before, even though they were among my favorites when I was a child. On his own, he tends to gravitate towards funny books like the Dragonbreath series by Ursula Vernon, and the Geronimo Stilton books, as well as graphic novels like Tintin and Bone. So I wasn’t sure if he would enjoy what I remembered as being mostly quiet stories of a little girl growing up a long time ago.
Boy, was I wrong about them being quiet stories! Before this book, we had read Little House in the Big Woods, which was full of lots of peaceful, happy family times, interspersed with some exciting family stories, and incredible detail about their day-to-day life in the woods of Wisconsin. But Little House on the Prairie was, literally, a whole other story. In almost every chapter, the family is faced with some new potentially deadly challenge: the river rising while they are crossing in the covered wagon; a prairie fire; malaria; a congregation of angry Native American tribes who want to kill them. How had I forgotten all of that?
What I had also forgotten, or perhaps never noticed as a child, is that Wilder’s writing is absolutely stunning. Interspersed with all the dangers, she fills each chapter with lyrical passages about the beauty of the prairie, or the feeling of being safe with her family around her. Here’s just one example:
Everything was safe and quiet. Only the owls called “Who-oo? Whoo-oo?” in the woods along the creek, while the great moon sailed slowly over the curve of the sky above the endless prairie.
I don’t know if my son noticed the beauty of the language, but he was enormously impressed by her memory for detail. Several times throughout the book, he asked, “How on earth did she remember all of that?” And it’s true. I don’t know how much of she actually remembered, and how much she extrapolated or re-imagined (after all, the books were marketed as fiction, giving her a lot of freedom to improvise). But some of the descriptions are detailed enough to practically serve as a guide on how to, say, build a door without nails, or, for that matter, build an entire house complete with hardwood floors and a fireplace. It’s also rich with emotional details of how Laura felt at any given moment, as well as touching moments between her parents, and times when she resented her seemingly perfect older sister.
I was amazed by her father. I don’t know how much Wilder idealized him in the books, but he comes across as incredibly resourceful and practical, even though you have to wonder why he chose to move his wife and three very young children literally out to the middle of nowhere. It’s unimaginable now, the idea of being forty miles (on horseback!) to the nearest place where you could even mail a letter, much less buy any food or supplies or find a doctor. But then I can’t think of many people now who would have any idea how to build a house out of nothing but some nearby trees, make their own bullets, and dig a working well, all without any modern machinery. Apart from his knowledge of survival skills, Pa also comes across as a caring father and loving (and surprisingly romantic) husband. He plays the fiddle (the book is peppered throughout with the lyrics of the old songs he sings). And even though he clearly believes he has a right to live within the boundaries of the Kansas Indian territory, he is the only one of the settlers who never speaks badly of the Native Americans.
While we were reading this book, I happened upon a commentary online by someone who was upset about the way Native Americans were depicted in the book. I could understand her concern, because several people throughout the story say, “There’s no good Indian but a dead Indian,” which is a pretty horrifying thing for a child to hear. My son was appropriately appalled, and the book led us to lots of discussions about the not-so-nice parts of American history.
But I thought Wilder’s portrayal of the people and events were believable and balanced. She does describe the family’s terror when members of the nearby tribes barge into the house demanding food, and she captures the obvious racism of the other settlers, including her own mother. But she also describes how one remarkable leader of the Osage rode in to a massive congregation of tribes, and argued all night to convince them to spare the lives of her family and the other people who had settled illegally on their land.
And they are there illegally. At the end of the book, the father tells a neighbor that he moved to the prairie because some government official had said it would be okay for people to settle within the border of the Indian territory. But there are clear hints throughout the book that the law is not on their side. Eventually (spoiler alert!) the Ingalls family has to flee the territory before soldiers come to force them out. And yes, it is sad that they have to leave everything that they had built over the past year, but Wilder never betrays any resentment towards the Native Americans for this. It is, after all, their land. She actually ends the book on a surprisingly positive, hopeful note: she and her parents and two sisters are all together in the wagon again, just as they were in the beginning, looking forward to new adventures ahead.
Not only am I glad that I read this book to my son, I wish every American child (and adult) could read it. It’s incredible to look back on how different our country was, less than a century and half ago (the book was set in 1869). I know people often complain these days that we don’t know how easy we have it, but these books make it clear exactly what we take for granted: hospitals, cars, roads, 24-hour grocery stores, washing machines, running water, and on and on and on. One of the most startling, and moving chapters in the book describes the Christmas where Laura and Mary are overwhelmed and overjoyed to find, in each of their stockings, a new tin cup (they always had to share a cup before) and a penny! Even the adults in the story tear up at their astonishment and pleasure, and I admit I got choked up while reading it aloud. I think it had an impact on my son as well. A few days later he suddenly decided to go through his toys and give some that he no longer played with away so other kids could enjoy them, something he had always been reluctant to do before.
I enjoyed this book on so many levels: as a piece of eyewitness American history; an adventure story; a touching family portrait; and a remarkable, and beautifully written work of literature. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to share it with my son, and I hope other parents will keep it alive for their children as well.