Rediscovering Little House on the Prairie

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.


The original book cover from 1933

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.

Carrie Mary and Laura Ingalls (Public domain)

Carrie, Mary and Laura Ingalls

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.

Caroline and Charles Ingalls (Ma and Pa) Public domain

Caroline and Charles Ingalls (Ma and Pa)

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.Replica Laura Ingalls Wilder Cabin

Yet for all that, there is a lot of love in these books. Love for family, obviously, for the wild

Almanzo Wilder (Public Domain)

Almanzo Wilder

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.

Related articles:

Wilder Women by Judith Thurman, the New Yorker

Photo of the replica house by David Hepworth [CC BY 2.0]



About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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2 Responses to Rediscovering Little House on the Prairie

  1. Judith Sawers says:

    Yes, there’s a lot of interesting stuff behind these books. i ran across someone who is a descendant of Laura Wilder once, too. That was interesting! But yes – reading them with boys… I did use a couple of them with Alexander in home-school, when he was just getting to the stage of reading longer books. There was lots of making things, and outdoors stuff to interest him, but I think I did choose which book out of the series fairly carefully. But they definitely shouldn’t be labelled ‘girls’ books’!

  2. maria says:

    I think I must have re-read them a thousand times. I remember my excitement when I found The FIrst Four Years serialised in Reader’s Digest in a Dentist waiting room when I was about 17. When I read Willa Cather’s My Antonia much later I was very interested in the comparison between Antonia and Laura; if you remember Laura is only allowed to help with the haying once and Ma says that American women do not help in the fields compared to the emigrant women.

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