Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 30, 2010

Classic Friday: Little House Series

Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder, 8 vols, (1932-1943).

These are such familiar books that I need say very little about them or their author. Just three personal connections.

I’ve visited four of the Little House sites: De Smet, South Dakota; Mansfield, Missouri; Independence, Kansas; and Walnut Grove, Minnesota. De Smet and Mansfield revealed the most about Laura’s life, perhaps because she spent so many years in each location. I hesitate to describe these trips as pilgrimages, and fortunately Laura fans aren’t quite as mad as Anne Shirley fans, who’ll travel from as far away as Japan to be married at Green Gables.

But there’s still a sense of something special in the air at these sites. Walnut Grove’s site, for instance, is essentially a field, something you could easily pass even though you’re looking for it. But to walk through that field, down to Plum Creek, is to time travel to America’s pioneer past, when people moved great distances in wagons covering perhaps 15 miles a day (I think of this each time I drive from NYC to Oklahoma–at that rate, it would take three months to get there) and lived through harsh winters in sod huts half buried in hillsides.

Another connection comes from my teaching. Several years ago I taught tough but sweet college students whose first language wasn’t English. Kids who could maneuver safely through the NYC subway system but couldn’t write college-level English. Kids who’d never read a book but could recite rap lyrics for hundreds of songs. I wanted to give them an enjoyable history lesson as well as some do-able reading, and selected three books from this series: By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie.

I was surprised by the responses. Young men from the Dominican Republic, tough and still acting like high school students, found themselves sucked into Laura’s stories of battling elements and building a town. When Cap Garland and Almanzo Wilder took out across the prairie, between blizzards, risking their lives to look for some wheat that would keep the townspeople from starving, the young men in my class, perhaps for the first time in their lives, read ahead in the scheduled assignments.

Finally, the saddest character in these books, despite his love for life and music and work, is Pa. Always yearning to go west, to leave the crowds, to escape civilization (much like Huck Finn), but stopped finally in eastern South Dakota when his wife finally put her foot down to root her family in one place. Pa, shouldering his tools to walk into town to find work, no longer hunting the countryside to feed his family. I don’t blame Caroline. It can’t be easy, to be constantly alone, and with a blind daughter, all the more reason to settle in a community.

But I still side with Pa. Laura gives us an Eden in her portrayal of the unsettled Great Plains, no doubt colored by her own preferences for wild places. We don’t hear about the loneliness, the quarrels, the illnesses, the unending monotonous work leavened at night with a few tunes on the fiddle. I could never survive a winter, as they did, with perhaps five neighbors within a 20-mile radius. But I’d still love to try, to know what it’s like.

Wilder’s story has become a huge industry, with books covering five generations in her family (from her great-grandmother, to her daughter), the saccharine TV series (I was a fan nonetheless), activity books, cookbooks, etc. These books are a good way to get young girls excited about reading and about history, but there isn’t much to offer young boys. What about a series that takes in five generations of the Ingalls men?

Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years, all illustrated by Garth Williams

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