As a child, I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books.
I began them when I started third grade. When people ask about formative books, I think first of this series: of these books that I read when I walked around the house, that I carried to the dinner table, that I pored over during recess, and that I bugged my teacher to put on her curriculum even as the school year was ending. But I put off writing about them for a long time as it seems that I can’t bring myself to re-read them.
I still can’t.
Wilder’s semi-autobiographical children’s novels follow the pioneering Ingalls family as they move from Wisconsin (Little House in the Big Woods) to territory that was in reality an Osage Indian reservation in Kansas (Little House on the Prairie). The family then departs for Walnut Grove, Minnesota (On the Banks of Plum Creek), where they live in a house made of sod, then to De Smet, South Dakota, the setting of By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years. One book, Farmer Boy, follows the childhood adventures of Almanzo, Wilder’s husband, as he tends to livestock, does chores, eats cake, and tries to get along with siblings in upstate New York. The Ingalls family (and the Wilders) sew their own clothes, endure blizzards, illness, and locusts, and still manage to find love, and joy, and adventure with family.
I say that the books are semi-autobiographical because despite the fact that the main character has Wilder’s name and the family travels roughly along the same paths that Wilder’s family did, the novels are very much fiction. Liberties were taken with Wilder’s real life story. And to a certain extent, this is acknowledged. Little House in the Big Woods, after all, opens like this:
Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.
The book has the opening for a fairy tale, with one solid fact thrown in—sixty years. Reception of the series—and certainly my feelings about it when I was young—concentrated on the harsh pioneer life, on details about playing ball with a pig’s bladder or making a doll out of a corn cob. I know I also identified with the setting of the story because I lived in the flat, cold middle of Canada (albeit in a city, in a house with indoor plumbing and heating). I know I also wanted to be resourceful and plucky, like the Ingalls family. I wanted to make my own bread, sew my own clothes, churn butter, and plant things.
(Basically, I wanted to do crafts and ride in horse-drawn buggies—but to have other modern conveniences.)
More recently, however, writers and scholars have turned their attention to the fictive-ness of the books—and to the mythmaking. Some memorable characters, the handsome Cap Garland, for example, are made up. More important, Pa Ingalls’s reasons for dragging his family across large swathes of Kansas and the Dakotas are elided. Pa Ingalls and his family weren’t benign settlers pitting their ingenuity against the dangerous wild; they were invading Native American territories. They had to do it on their own because they weren’t supposed to be there.
Indeed, Caroline’s Fraser’s 2017 book, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, looks at the ways that Wilder’s books not only diverged from the realities of her life but made that life into one of the shaping narratives of American identity. The book also examines how Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a follower of Ayn Rand, extensively rewrote her mother’s books, often twisting facts to reflect Obectivist values.
But Fraser’s is only the latest in a series of sources that made me re-examine my feelings about the series. Among those:
- “Little House on the Prairie: On Hating Ma,” by Jasmine Guillory;
- “A Liberterian House of the Prairie,” by Judith Thurman;
- Louis Erdrich’s books Birchbark House books, written from the perspective of Native Americans and set at around the same time as Wilder’s books;
- Scholar Debbie Reese’s blog, “American Indians in Children’s Literature,” in which she talks about the depiction of Native Americans in the Little House series and in other books. This is just one example.
It was a conversation about Wilder’s books that Dr. Reese shared on Twitter that initially made me question what kinds of books from my childhood I wanted to give to my own child (which I talked about here) and, more important, why exactly I wanted to share them.
Does reading the Little House books lead to a greater understanding of history? Not on their own. Would it lead to my daughter understanding me or my life better?
Would it bring us closer?
If that were true, would this I want this particular story connecting us?
I am at a loss. I don’t know how to reconcile my memories, my newer knowledge, and my feelings about what is best to do right now. I have been told I should talk these issues out with kids, but so far I haven’t mentioned Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series to my daughter. I’m not actively hiding them. But I’ve chosen to put different books in front of her and to have her explore what she likes on her own. In any case, it’s likely that she’ll encounter them without my interference. She’ll be older.
By then, I hope I’ll be better prepared to talk about them.
Top photo: flickr / Scott Book