One advantage of the football World Cup has been having a lot more time for reading undistracted by the television. It enabled me to get through a fantastically good doorstop of a German book for New Books in German – maybe more on that another time – and also to rapidly work through the whole Little House on the Prairie series.
I had stupidly given away my set of the books on the sexist grounds that the boys wouldn’t be interested in them, but a recent discussion elsewhere on the internet made me really want to re-read them. So I borrowed them from my mother-in-law (who also only has sons, but there you go) and set to. I was very surprised both by how clearly I remembered them and by how well they stand up to reading as an adult. I still think Laura Ingalls Wilder slightly overdid the detail in her descriptions, particularly of how things were made, but perhaps that’s because I don’t have a particularly visual imagination. I skipped those bits as a child, and I skipped them again. There is a lot in there that might really interest the boys, if they were to get started – that’s always the hard bit, getting them started.Reading as an adult, I was far more struck by the hardship as well as the romantic idea of living this self-sufficient lifestyle in the middle of nowhere. How hard it must have been for Laura’s Ma, who had been “very fashionable” before she married, to uproot the family whenever Pa got itchy feet, or circumstances conspired against them and drove them on. How terrifying a lot of their adventures must have been in real life. How awful to have the whole family struck down with malaria, with no idea of the cause, and no way of getting help until a doctor happened to pass by. The terror of the elements – blizzards, storms, the long winter when the family, and the whole town, nearly starved, fire, being chased by wolves, crops being destroyed by grasshoppers or blackbirds, and so it goes on.
For that matter, Ma can’t have been any easy person to live with either. She comes across as having a rather stifling piety and impossibly high expectations that her girls will be good and ladylike even in the middle of the prairie, but also as kind and gentle with it.
There’s a strong sense of patriotism about these books – “Hooray, we’re Americans!” Independence Day celebrations come round regularly and that made them seem appropriate to write about for the 4th July. There’s a surprising amount of the Declaration of Independence repeated at one point, which I found fascinating – I must have skipped “the long and terrible list of the crimes of the King” too, when I was younger. All in all, I had far more awareness of the politics of it all, especially the racism and ill-treatment of the Native Americans, driven from their homes by settlers on the grounds that they won’t “do anything with the land” – Ma is of the view that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”, and you can see how this is rooted in fear, both of the “other” and a specific fear of massacres that mustn’t be mentioned in front of the children.
Yet for all that, there is a lot of love in these books. Love for family, obviously, for the wild
landscape, for animals, especially horses, for music and dancing – thankfully leavening the puritanism – and later on for Laura’s husband Almanzo. It’s lovely to watch Laura grow from a little girl to a young woman, and to see her relationship with Almanzo grow from friendship into romance and a certainty that they’re just right for each other.
I was also interested to discover how far these novels diverge from the actual events of Laura’s life – they are definitely fictionalised rather than autobiography. The chronology of the early books is quite out of synch with reality – more on that here if you’re interested – and I did notice a slip at one point reading them all in a row: the baby cousin Dolly Varden appears in Little House in the Big Woods, but is then mentioned much later on by a visiting cousin as if she’d been born since they left. Other events were left out altogether: a little brother who died, a hard period when the family worked in a rough hotel and so on. There is also controversy about the degree to which they were edited/shaped/ghostwritten by Laura’s daughter Rose (see below).
The fact remains, though, that these are a fascinating insight into a bygone age and well worth (re)discovering.
Photo of the replica house by David Hepworth [CC BY 2.0]