Little House: Revisiting a Childhood Classic

To a girl who grew up in the 90s in New Jersey, the Laura Ingalls Wilder’s America, with her family constantly and directly affected and impeded by their environment and at times struggling just to survive, is an alien one. But in another sense, it is a very appealing picture. The Ingalls family were one another’s only entertainment, often only company, and though we often picture old-fashioned families as very stern, the Ingalls’ story is one filled with song, laughter, and love. Irecently reread this series after about a decade and a half, and it was a totally new experience. I engaged with the characters in a way I didn’t think would be possible, considering differences in time and lifestyle, and while I was reading, I felt like I was a member of the Ingalls family.

The series begins with Little House in the Big Woods, which takes place in the Big Woods in Wisconsin. This book centers around the Ingalls homesteading, and is probably the ‘coziest’ of the books, as it doesn’t touch as much on the dangers and difficulties of survival as much as the other books do. Laura, her older sister Mary, (and their baby sister Carrie, included in the story though chronologically not born yet), alternate playing and helping around the house, sometimes combining the two, and spend their evenings being entertained by their Pa’s fiddle and vivid storytelling. While living in Wisconsin, the Ingalls were near their cousins and grandparents, so we also get a glimpse into what it was like visiting family and hosting social visitors in this time period.

Garth WIlliams's iconic illustrations from Little House in the Big Woods.
Garth WIlliams’s iconic illustrations from Little House in the Big Woods.
The happy Ingalls family
The happy Ingalls family

Growing up, this was my favorite book in the series and has had a massive influence on who I am as a person. I love gardening and homesteading-related hobbies. I love to sew. I hope one day to own enough land to grow the majority of my own produce, and to preserve and store it as the Ingalls did. But more than the influence it had on me, I treasure the impressions it left me with as a child. The lively family in this story is nothing like how they appear in photographs – stern, and grayscale, their clothes restrictive and mouths tight. The young Ingalls family read just like any other family – loving, interdependent upon one another, and truly pleased with their lot in life.

Little House on the Prairie, technically the third book and the namesake of the TV series based loosely on the books, was the second book that I read during my re-read. I chose to omit the books centering around the childhood of Almanzo Wilder because when I initially read the series as a child, I had no idea they even existed. (I plan to follow up with them in future.) Little House on the Prairie chronicles the events of 1869-1870, in Kansas, where the Ingalls moved, following rumors that the nearby Indian Territory would soon be settled. Moving in a covered wagon from the Big Woods, the Ingalls suffer a number of hardships that come in as a stark contrast to those in the first book. One such is the “fever n’ ague” that the family comes down with (later identified as malaria) which puts them out of commission while a neighbor, Mrs. Scott, cares for them along with her own family. Mrs. Scott is one of a few companions of the Ingalls family in this book, another being Mr. Edwards, a bachelor from Tennessee, who later on plays “Santa Claus” for the children. At great risk to themselves, the Ingalls’ neighbors weave into the story by helping them through times that the Ingalls mightn’t have gotten through on their own. In 1870, the government announced that the land would not be open to settlers, and so the house that Pa Ingalls built on the land, and all of the work he’d done tilling the field came to nothing, and the family packed up to move East, closer to ‘civilization,’ where the girls could get educated.

Laura and Jack
Laura and Jack

I have to say, this particular re-read was the most incongruous to my memory. I may have conflated it with the following book in my mind, but the easy laughter and confidence of the Big Woods book is gone in this one. Pa Ingalls comes across as a more imposing, decisive character; moving his family from place to place on nearly no notice. Though the trek certainly was fascinating, and brings back old memories of playing Oregon Trail, I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as I expected to–ruined by my own memories and ideas about it, I guess. One thing I will say is that I grew an unexpected and truly fierce love for Jack the dog, though. Jack is the Ingalls family companion, and though he squares off against mountain lions and bears in the Big Woods, his protectiveness and stalwartness along the trail to Kansas is incredibly endearing, and his near loss is heartbreaking. (In real life, it wasn’t a heartbreaking near-loss, but an actual loss, and Jack didn’t journey from Kansas to Minnesota with the Ingalls.)

On the Banks of Plum Creek is what I had been expecting from Little House on the Prairie: community, family, adventure, and history, all within the setting of an untouched landscape in Minnesota. Living in a pre-“built” dugout home near the banks of Plum Creek, the Ingalls begin working on their wooden, above-ground home, while also gathering wild grass as hay for their horses and beginning again to till the land. Mary and Laura also go to school for the first time in this book, and the infamous Nellie Oleson is introduced. Nellie, I think, is a more infamous TV character than in the book, where she comes across as your average schoolyard bully, but Laura makes you hate her either way. Nellie is a shopkeeper’s daughter from New York State, and she makes sure everyone knows it and how many advantages it’s given her. Rubbing her considerable wealth in everyone’s face, Nellie hosts a “town party” and invites the “farm girls” to join, almost for the purpose of flaunting her resources. Laura’s resulting jealousy inspires her to host her own, more fun party later in the year.

Unfortunately things take a turn, and a swarm of Rocky Mountain locusts literally wipe the traces of the Ingalls’ entire year’s work from the earth, leaving them in debt, without food, and a little later, trapped by a snowstorm. Pa goes missing just before the blizzard, and is gone for two days before the blizzard lets up and he can make his way home–apparently having been trapped behind a hill only a few hundred yards from home.

Go to hell, Nellie.
Go to hell, Nellie.

Gosh this book was exciting, and immersive enough to get me saying “gosh.” As Laura ages and the Ingalls’ lives become more and more complicated, the story reveals more about America’s past and the private lives of citizens in the late 1800s than I could have imagined. The humanity and relatability of these characters is something I never would have applied to the early settlers of America’s farmland if I hadn’t read them.

The following book, By the Shores of Silver Lake, follows the Ingalls’ life in De Smet, South Dakota and introduces the fourth Ingalls child, Grace, as the baby. With ‘baby’ Carrie now getting a little older, she is responsible for helping around the house like Laura and Mary were, and is a more apt playmate for Laura as time goes on. However, this book opens with the surprise that Mary has gone blind from her illnesses previously mentioned in the other books, along with a bout of scarlet fever. (Mary’s blindness was later theorized to be due to a thyroid disease, and diabetes that plagued the entire Ingalls family.) Along with Mary’s sight, in this book, we lose Jack, a device Laura moved to this story to help signify the change from childhood to young adulthood. Jack’s peaceful death the day before the family’s long journey to South Dakota is sad, but they give him a wonderful last day filled with his favorite foods and games.

We gain some insight into Laura’s story-telling ability when Pa tells Laura to “be Mary’s eyes” and Laura becomes responsible for describing to Mary the many sights of their new home, and the move, and even the train that the family takes and its passengers. The train is also an exciting part of this story, and begins the relationship throughout the series between the train’s advancement, and America’s encroachments over unsettled land. Pa Ingalls even gets a job working for the railroad company as a paymaster, and the family is able to winter in the surveyor’s house, making friends with the local Boast family and hosting workers and pioneers. The Ingalls home became almost an inn during that time, making the family a great deal of money by charging 25 cents for meals and board overnight, and thus begin saving to send Mary to a college for the blind that their former Reverend told them about on a visit. This story is the first to truly engage in the technological advancements and travel capabilities of America’s settlers. The Ingalls not only get visits from family, but make friends and see old ones as they travel across the country, settling in different states.

The Ingalls home in South Dakota
The Ingalls home in South Dakota
Hardship in The Long Winter
Hardship in The Long Winter

In The Long Winter, we not only get a true scope of the hardships faced by a family genuinely on their own as far as resources go, we also begin to get a sense of the small-town communities we know to be a big part of American culture today. Shops, inns, and homes begin to crop up in the area, and the Ingalls family winters in the center of town, to be closer to the train as well as the shops and fellow homesteaders. We also first meet Almanzo Wilder in this story, who in the fictionalized account was pretending to be 21 (actually 19) in order to lay a claim to unsettled land, but in reality was closer to 23 (Laura was 13.) Laura and Carrie attend school as often as possible, but are hindered and ultimately stopped entirely by successive blizzards which bury the town and make the roadsimpassable. Food dwindles and even the innovative methods of stretching their stores fail the Ingalls eventually. The blizzards continue for 7 months, and many throughout the town go without food until Almanzo Wilder shares his seed-grain with the locals, and the trains finally thaw, delivering a Christmas barrel of supplies and donated clothing to the weakened Ingalls’ home.

Despite being one of the shorter books, The Long Winter was certainly drama-packed, and at times I truly was scared while reading it, but ultimately I felt it could have been rolled into Little Town on the Prairie. Undoubtedly one of the most formative times in Laura’s life, this book was one where Laura began to really seize on adulthood and responsibility, often talking about protecting her younger sister Carrie, who’s discussed as being a sickly child (despite going on to be quite athletic in her adulthood). Little Town on the Prairie, however, is less focused on hardship and more focused on economy. Laura gets a job sewing for a shop in town in order to pay for Mary’s college education. When she’s let go, the family tries to sell crops, only to have their harvest destroyed by blackbirds. Finally, selling a cow for the money, Mary gets ready to go off to school with Pa and Ma escorting her, leaving Laura, Carrie, and Grace at home.

Trouble in the schoolhouse
Trouble in the schoolhouse

Trouble in the schoolhouse

Again demonstrating her responsibility, Laura leads her sisters in the fall chores, leaving the house sparkling for Ma and Pa’s return. Nellie Oleson befriends the new schoolteacher, Almanzo Wilder’s sister, whose father is on the school board and who had consistently clashed with Nellie in the past, and turns her against the Ingalls girls. The younger students rally behind Laura and torment the new teacher, halting lessons essentially until Nellie joins in the bullying of Ms. Wilder and she eventually leaves. The new teacher helps Laura to achieve her teaching certificate, which Laura wants only to earn more money for Mary, and not because she wants to be a teacher (which she makes clear she does not). Around the same time, Almanzo Wilder begins walking Laura home from church, which Laura seems not to fully understand, but comes to appreciate. At the end of this book, Laura is offered a teaching position in a nearby town, and she prepares to move away from home for the first time.

I have to say, the minute Almanzo enters the story as Laura’s suitor, I began to get giddy. Laura’s narration seems almost willfully naive about his romance attempts, and I found myself rooting for their relationship hopefully, despite knowing that in reality, the couple were married until Almanzo’s death at 91. This feeling intensified in the following book, as Almanzo became Laura’s only rescue from her teaching position and boarding situation.

The book These Happy Golden Years starts out miserable, with 15-year-old Laura being driven by her Pa out to the teaching position from the previous book. Laura boards with the Brewster family, who, unlike her own family, allow animosities and arguments not only to surface, but to come to light in front of her. Mrs. Brewster begins with the silent treatment, but rapidly progresses to shouting at Laura, her husband, and anyone who will listen to her. Eventually, Laura wakes up to the sound of the Brewsters arguing because Mrs. Brewster was standing over her sleeping husband with a knife and he woke up. Almanzo Wilder, fond of Laura and having gotten permission from her Pa, appears each weekend to take Laura home. Throughout the season, Laura proves to be a good teacher; eventually gaining the respect of her students (some of whom were older than she was) and completing her school term, earning $40 for Mary’s college fund. When Laura returns to town, however, Nellie makes a move on Almanzo.

A young Almanzo. Just wow.
A young Almanzo. Just wow.

I have never hated anyone as much as I hated Nellie Oleson while reading this book. Nellie, in previous books, boasted about getting whatever she wanted from boys, often flirtily stealing their candy and gifts for other girls, and frequently mentioning that she wanted to go for a ride with Almanzo Wilder and his beautiful horses. Nellie gets her wish, and Almanzo takes her along on a few of his rides with Laura. Laura is eventually able to trick Nellie out of these rides by urging the horses to go faster and scaring Nellie out of repeat trips. Shortly afterwards, Nellie moves back to New York State due to financial hardships, and around the same time, the Ingalls are visited by a relative. Laura’s Uncle Tom, Ma’s brother, comes bearing tales of a terrifying trip to try to mine gold in the Black Hills. Laura later takes a short job helping a family with housework on their homestead, returning for a summer visit from Mary, and to attend singing classes with Almanzo. On their last day of class, Almanzo proposes to Laura, almost casually, and she accepts. On his next visit, he gives her a garnet ring with pearls, and her first kiss. A few months later, Almanzo finishes building their house, and asks if Laura would mind a quick wedding, so that his mother and sister don’t take over and host an enormous one. Laura agrees, and the two are quickly married by Reverend Brown, have a wedding dinner with Laura’s family, and settle into their marital home.

Maybe it’s the effect of having my own schoolhouse love in my life, but Almanzo and Laura’s three-year courtship took my breath away. In a time where most girls are more restrained, Almanzo admires Laura’s bravery and sense of adventure, and while she doesn’t admit much of her own admiration, Laura behaves possessively of Almanzo almost from the start. When Almanzo and Laura kiss for the first time, and Laura tells her parents about her engagement, I was just about jumping with joy, which was really embarrassing, because I was on the subway. It’s impossible not to feel caught up in their love, which is another thing that confronts expectations about old-fashioned families and courtships. Sure, there were fewer fish in Laura’s sea, but it’s obvious from the first time they walk home from church together that Laura and Almanzo were right for one another–just enough thirst for adventure and freedom, just enough seriousness and responsibility. Laura doesn’t want to be a “farm wife,” but promises Almanzo a few years of ‘trying it out,’ hence the title of the next book, The First Four Years.

The first four years of the Wilders’ marriage do not go very smoothly. Almanzo becomes briefly paralyzed, a condition which would continue to hinder him throughout his lifetime, and the environment and loans take their toll on the family’s resources. Much of the material in this book is more adult-oriented than the other books, but not by much. It was never finished by Laura, or edited by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane (one of the founders of Libertarianism), but was found by Lane’s adopted grandson and subsequently published, and thus is less poetic and polished than the other books.

Unfortunately, the first crop of wheat the Wilders raise is destroyed by hail, and Almanzo mortgages his homestead claim. What they grow on the claim helps to pay for some of their debts and supplies, and Rose Wilder is born in December following Laura’s confusion at her own illness, which turned out to be her first pregnancy. Almanzo and Laura both get diptheria, and Almanzo subsequently struggles with physical disability. As he can no longer work all of his land, they sell their claim and move to their first home. Heat destroys their next crop, but they stay afloat with a flock of sheep Laura invests in. Hot winds destroy the harvest the following year as well, and their son is born in August, but dies a few weeks later, unnamed. At the end of the story, their house burns to the ground, but the story ends on an optimistic note, and the Wilders move to Mansfield, Missouri, where they lived out the rest of their days on a successful dairy farm.

Laura Ingalls Wilder and Almanzo Wilder
Laura Ingalls Wilder and Almanzo Wilder

While I was disappointed by The First Four Years because I’d hoped Laura and Almanzo lived joyfully together ever-after, it was incredible to see how the young family faced their struggles. While Laura’s family was never far off, while they lived in South Dakota, the Wilders were ultimately independent during this time, occasionally trading help with neighbors and family. I was also a little bummed to find out that the (to me) infamous Rose Wilder Lane was actually Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, but even this brought some revelations. Most of the struggles that the Wilder family, and to a certain extent the Ingalls, faced were made worse by government intervention, or lack of government protection, and it’s easy to see how Lane could have gotten the impressions on which she based her ideology. As a story arc, including The First Four Years in the Little House series makes it somewhat anti-climactic, with no real solution for the problems set up by this book, and no sequel, (after Almanzo’s death, Laura stopped writing) this story, for me, is a bit of a downer. However, knowing the historical fact of the Wilders’ happy lives together and the joy which Laura expressed and received from sharing her stories with the nation brings the tail end up again.  Rereading these books felt like going on Laura’s adventures with her, and particularly from the perspective of a young adult, framed the incredible courage and strength of will put forth by my peers of over a century ago. It was a unique experience capable of being shared by anyone, which in my mind, is exactly what Laura meant to do–bring the entire world into her little house–and she succeeded.

Gabbie Robbins

Gabbie is a rapidly aging Office Manager at a startup in NYC. She spends her conscious, non-working hours reading, playing video games made for children, and watching movies with her boyfriend.

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