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Little House on the Prairie was a television phenomenon that was ongoing at the time I was born. Of course, it *could* be complete coincidence, but during my first year in college, there were three Lauras on my floor alone. This isn’t to say that the book series wasn’t already well-known – pretty much from the time that they were published, the “Little House” books were incredibly popular. However, the television series probably did the most to enshrine Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories from mere books to legend.
As a kid, I read a number of the “Little House” books. If I remember correctly, I read Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, Little Town on the Prairie, and (though technically not part of the series), West from Home. I liked them well enough, though I also remember starting By the Shores of Silver Lake and These Happy Golden Years because I never really “got into” them. Laura has a very matter-of-fact way of recounting the stories of her life, and as a kid, it hardly seemed strange that her family would be travelling around the US, settling here and there. As young as the narrator is at the beginning of the series, not only is there no self-pity, there’s almost the attitude, even in the earliest stories, that of course life was difficult, but that it was a given that family pulled together to get through it all.
Everyday life in Laura’s time
As a homeschooling mom, I wanted my kids to have some familiarity with the Little House books as a matter of course, to understand a little bit about living in (American) history, and to get a glimpse of life as it was not all that long ago. Especially now with the advent of the internet (and gaming systems), I think it’s especially hard for kids to even imagine what life was like without these or have any perspective of when or how these changes happened. (Once, when the power went out due to a storm a few years ago, one of my children – then around 8 – asked me if the lack of electricity reminded me of growing up in the 1980s!)
Laura Ingalls was born in 1867, near Pepin, Wisconsin, in a pre-industrial age. By the time she died in 1957, at age 90, industrialization had radically changed the way most people in the United States lived. Even in the 1930s, when the books began to be published, many of the things and processes that she describes had long since disappeared. For example, her family travelled thousands of miles in a covered wagon, but the advent of the railroads made the covered wagon obsolete. Even in my lifetime, my dad usually referred to the refrigerator as the “icebox”, but the Ingalls didn’t even have that; food was smoked and canned or otherwise preserved in season to allow the family to eat year-round, but already in the 1920s, electric refrigerators were common in US households. Wilder herself acknowledged the huge change in the way of life at the beginning of the series, mentioning how a lot of what she was writing about was how “grandma did things”.
As an adult, with a perspective of decades now, it’s insane to imagine that much change in such a short amount of time. Yes, I still remember a time before the internet was a thing, when people called each other on phones without caller-ID that were plugged into the phone jacks in the wall, when using checks (especially in small towns) was at least as common as credit cards, etc. However, as I read somewhere awhile back – if someone from 1950 visited a home in 2020, things would look a lot different, but even so, a large percentage of them would look familiar. If someone from 1880 visited a home in 1950, imagine the shock at the difference, say, at how a kitchen was set up. Or think of it this way – in 1880, the Amish may have seemed a little “old fashioned”, but in 2020 they seem like they belong to a different time completely!
The amount of the frontier the Ingalls saw and experienced
Also, as an adult, it seems almost crazy in the amount of moving the Ingalls did, considering how difficult moving was. Both of Laura’s parents came from families (the Ingalls and the Quiners) that seemed determined to keep moving with the edge of civilization. In Wisconsin, there was family nearby, but then Laura’s family moved to Kansas, back to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, back to Minnesota, and then to South Dakota. With the exception of the move to South Dakota, these moves were made in a covered wagon at a rate of 20-30 miles a day, with all one’s possessions in a wagon. The animals pulling the wagon needed to be fed and tended to, and there was constant risk of wild animals and bandits. Interestingly, Laura spends a lot of time and goes into great detail talking about her father’s gun and the care he took to keep it in good condition. The longest discussion of this happens in Little House in the Big Woods, which, in the book account, begins when Laura is four, because even then she understood how the gun was so incredibly important not just for hunting, but for protection from a number of possible scenarios.
The Ingalls family – minimalism and “tiny house” pioneers
It’s also startling to understand how few possessions the Ingalls owned. When Laura talks about packing up the house in a morning to move at the beginning of Little House on the Prairie, it seems almost an impossible feat. However, after visiting one of Laura’s homes in South Dakota, then it made a lot more sense. When she talks about a “little house”, she’s not kidding. In the book “By the Shores of Silver Lake“, Laura talks about being able to move into the Surveyors’ House, and from the way she describes it, it sounds like a mansion. When visiting De Smet, South Dakota, I was absolutely shocked to see the Surveyors’ House. It has been moved from its original location, but it still stands in De Smet. It is tiny. It’s smaller than most of the small houses in town. My grandmother lived in a house in the country whose original section was built by her grandparents in the 1890s. It certainly wasn’t big (which led to it being expanded by quite a bit later) but it was probably at least twice as big as the Surveyors’ House.
A hard life
It seems that one of the things that really sticks out to people reading the Little House books as adults today is the amount that the Ingalls had very few comforts – life was hard and it was a lot of work. There was no delusion that if one worked hard one would become rich or famous. Part of the fabric of life was that there was work to be done, and it was each person’s responsibility to do what they had to do. If one was able to make it a little out of poverty, that was admirable, but it wasn’t guaranteed. The criticism comes especially to Laura’s father, whose wanderlust, in their eyes, seemed to contribute to their poverty. It is a stark contrast to today, where even a lot of poor people in the United States live relatively comfortable lives. Many seem to think that this way of life – “deprivation” in their eyes – is tantamount to child abuse.
Through it all, there is a strong sense that character and honor are more important than whether one is rich or poor.
Understanding one’s parents
Related to this, Laura always writes positively about her parents, even when the situations were extraordinarily difficult. Part of this, I believe, comes from the way she was raised; she had the understanding of the duties and responsibilities her parents had. I have no doubt that her parents were amazing people, but I also wonder that since she was writing this at a point where her own independent & headstrong daughter was grown up that she may have been more gentle towards them in the retelling. I’m sure it does help that Laura seems to have had a good bit of wanderlust herself, and ended up moving again a number of times as an adult. Furthermore, even as a young bride, she and her husband experienced a lot of hardship and tragedy, including the death of a baby , illness, and a house burning to the ground.
Learning to be eyes for the blind (including the reader)
Another thing that strikes me in the writing of these books is how descriptive she is of the scenes. On one hand, people back then were much more cognizant of the signs of nature, and generally could name a lot more of the plants and animals around, but when her sister Mary lost her sight, Laura’s father told her that she needed to be Mary’s eyes. I have to think that the practice of describing things in fine detail to her sister helped her not only notice more around her, but also put those descriptions into cognizant thoughts and words, which would later assist her when writing the Little House books.
In the 1940s, Garth Williams was tasked with illustrating the entire Little House series. He did an incredible amount of research, meeting and speaking with Laura, using the books as source material for his illustrations, and travelling to many of the locales mentioned in the books. In 1953, he had this to say about finding the location of Laura’s family’s house along Plum Creek:
I did not expect to find the house, but I felt certain that it would have left an indentation in the bank. A light rain did not help my search, and I was about to give up when ahead of me I saw exactly what I was looking for, a hollow in the east bank of Plum Creek. I felt very well rewarded, for the scene fitted Mrs Wilder’s description perfectly. I took my pictures, and returned to Walnut Grove..”(via werewolf.co.nz)
The combination of her descriptions and his illustrations make the stories come to life for young and old alike. I’m not usually one who pays much attention to illustrations, but the Williams’ illustrations help make clear things that Laura spends time describing, such as the smoker that was built in “Little House in the Big Woods”. Having no experience myself with building such a contraption, although her description is correct, it’s with the illustration that it really makes sense. Without her description, though, the illustration probably would not have had nearly the amount of authenticity.
These Happy Golden Years/The First Four Years
One of the reasons I didn’t read These Happy Golden Years as a kid was because of the cover of the book, where Laura is standing with Almanzo, in a pose that is obviously of the two of them courting. As a kid, reading about the “grown up” Laura wasn’t necessarily interesting. As an adult, I picked up the book and was shocked that when she talked about “these happy golden years” she was talking about being between 16 and 18 years old! I was not mistaken that the book talks about her courtship with Almanzo, but this happened much earlier than I ever really considered. The “Golden Years” refer to a period of time in her life when her family was settled in one place, she had a good deal of independence, she had her own social circle, and she was not yet burdened by the crushing responsibility of being in charge of a homestead and a family.
The First Four Years is a little different, as it wasn’t a finished manuscript when it was found after Laura’s death. It’s a basic account of the first four years of her marriage, and probably the start to a more fleshed-out book. In any case, whereas the rest of the series is pretty upbeat – even with The Long Winter, which really flirts with the ideas of depression, resignation, and even giving up – in general, they still have a streak of determination and hope that runs through. Had this book been finished, it very well could have been framed in the same manner, but as it stands, it begins with Laura and Almanzo’s wedding, and recounts the hardship, disaster, and catastrophe that followed them those first four years. It does serve as a kind of bookend to the beginning of the series; as a kid, Laura sees a lot of their life as an adventure, as an adult, here’s the realization that keeping going is a lot harder than it looks.
I still believe that these books are fun and worthwhile for kids. The life of Laura Ingalls Wilder was unique in many ways, but the fact that she’s able to create familiarity with wide swaths of people in the way she writes is an amazing feat. Her writing also captures a very short, but very influential, period in American history. For those who haven’t read them, I would recommend picking them up, because they really aren’t just for kids. For those who have read them as children, there’s really a lot more to pick up on as an adult, whether you read them on your own or along with kids.
Note on the pictures: Nearly all the pictures in this post were taken at the Ingalls Homestead outside of De Smet, South Dakota in 2020 and 2021. Whether one is a Laura Ingalls Wilder fanatic or just interested in this period of American history, it is well worth visiting.
Amazon links to the books in the series (full color editions, unless otherwise noted):
- On the Way Home
- West from Home (regular paperback)