Little House On The Prairie

Every year my daughter and I watch the 2005 Disney miniseries adaptation of Little House On The Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We usually watch it in winter, on a day with inclement weather. Now that she’s 12, she’s ready for the books. She picked out Little House On The Prairie in the middle of winter. I’m not surprised; these books are peak hygge. They also appeal to the wish fulifilment fantasy of self-sufficiency. I’ve watched a few episodes of Doomsday Preppers and temporarily experienced the same delusion: that there is such a thing as self-sufficiency among small, tight-knit communties, and that I should probably start collecting canned food.

From Jugend, 1904
From Jugend, 1904

People living precarious lives of yore were probably well-practised in what we now called mindfulness:

She thought to herself, “This is now.”

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and 
the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be 
forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never 
be a long time ago.

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, final words of Little House In The Big Woods, prequel

NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE

Ingalls Wilder knows how to talk to children. She never accidentally breaks into the point of view of the parents. Ingalls Wilder was no great stylist, so this would have come naturally from the fact that she was writing herself as a child. Her great gift lay in remembering what it was like to be a child.

Despite the trail of adversity the Ingalls faced, the books—especially the early ones—offer the sense of a happy busy childhood where the troubles and worries of adults are absent.

Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder Is Not The Same When You’re A Parent

SHOULD WE STILL READ LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE?

Little House On The Prairie was written in racist times by white people for white peole, and the entire concept of European expansionism is racist. (Others have written about that.)

The question for parents: Should parents expose our modern kids to Little House On The Prairie, given the uncomfortable realities? There is a danger in reading these books to a new generation precisely because of the cosiness. The cosiness only applies to the viewpoint via white characters.

But nor is it right to deny the realities of colonial history.

The Association for Library Service to Children in America published a guide to talking with young children about race.

The Disney miniseries of Little House On The Prairie turns Ma into a far more palatable character with modern values. Ma’s racism is instead transferred to Mrs Scot, who has little to no role in the novel. This is similar to how the creators of Anne With An E dealt with racism in the third season. Previous seasons did not deal with race at all because the cast was entirely white, but in order to include diverse characters they were obligated to deal with the race issues. Anne of Green Gables was likewise written in Imperialist times and Anne herself would have been a product of those times. She would not have associated with Black people as she does in the reboot.

Reading these older books with our children is the best way to go. My daughter is twelve, which is about the right age for Little House On The Prairie. A much younger child could deal with the story at a sentence level, but the reader needs to be old enough to understand my history lesson sidenotes. I read Little House In The Big Woods alone when I was six. I didn’t understand the parts about the Western expansionism — partly because I was six, partly because I’m not American, partly because I was able to decode sentences, and from the age of six was left to read alone. If possible, we should all be reading with our kids even after they learn how to decode.

  1. PERIOD — This aspect is vital to this particular story, which can only take place when it does: the 1870s. (This is also when Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry is set.)
  2. DURATION — In line with your typical domestic story for girls, Little House On The Prairie takes us cycling through each season.
  3. LOCATION — The young reader probably won’t have a specific sense of where this story takes place. As a kid, I imagined the family had travelled much, much further than they actually had. I’d underestimated how difficult it was to travel without a car. But if we plot the Ingalls family’s journey on a map, the location is confined to a relatively small geographical area of the United States.
  4. ARENA — Once the Ingalls get to the bit of prairie where they build the cabin, the girls don’t venture far from the house. Only Pa makes lengthy journeys to Independence. The edge of the arena is basically the log cabin and as far as the eye can see, including the river. The girls are allowed to play in spinneys, so long as they don’t play with snakes. (The fact that Pa thought they might do that suggests both of them were far more wild and brave than depicted in the books. My Australian kid gasped at the thought.)
  5. MANMADE SPACES — The entire point of this story is the wilderness. Apart from the odd tracks suggesting the trails of earlier settlers, the Ingalls family feel that they are going where No Man Has Gone Before. It doesn’t cross Ma and Pa’s mind that they may have plonked a log cabin right where Native Americans didn’t exactly appreciate it.
  6. NATURAL SETTINGS — There’s a river nearby and a massive river needs to be forded. The family comes close to drowning, though the peril mostly focuses on the family dog, who gets temporarily washed away, only finding the family later. (I deduce it’s just as well the family weren’t washing. Their body odour probably helped Jack to sniff them out from afar.)
  7. WEATHER — The days Laura remembers most fondly are pleasant sunny days without rain. By the time the weather turns harsh, they have a cosy log cabin and are able to take refuge from the elements. The most unpleasant season is mosquito season, which almost kills them.
  8. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — The wagon is a vital piece of technology. If something had happened to the wagon, or to the horses, the Ingalls family would’ve been in real trouble. The settler wagon is an iconic image and is often used on the book covers. Once they’re building their houses, the family is required to make do with what they have, displaying their ingenuity to almost superhero levels reminiscent of Walter White or MacGyer (from the 1980s). Whatever problem they have, they are able to make do.
  9. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — In the wider world of the story, white immigrants to America are securing as much of America for themselves as they possibly can. Whether individual pioneers admit it or not, they are on a genocide mission. They justify this genocide by turning Native Americans into bogeymen, and by considering uncultivated land wasted land. The natives don’t deserve it if they are not going to settle and farm it. This is how the parents justify all this to Laura and Mary, who have the same questions as the young contemporary reader and must be coerced into colonialism. This is the most interesting part of the book, and the most interesting point of discussion because the reader can see this happen as Laura asks decent questions and she is met with racist answers.
  10. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — Because Little House On The Prairie is told via the naive viewpoint of child Laura, and because even as an adult Laura wrote the naivety of her child self, there is a vast difference between her utopian, imaginative prairie, and the dangerous reality of the veridical Wild West. Laura occasionally gets a glimpse of this, for example when she notices her Ma doesn’t like the Indians. She asks why and Ma says, “I just don’t,” leaving Laura perplexed, but also leaving the child reader perplexed. The astute child reader will sense there’s more to the story than what is on the page. But when the women of the household do meet the Indians, Laura’s fears escalate.

The Vulnerability Of Prairie Living

Perhaps hygge cannot exist without vulnerability as its counterweight.

The opposite of snugness is vulnerability: they are a pair. So, Peter Rabbit’s return to his mother at the base of the fir tree is all the more welcome because of the precariousness of his time with Mr. McGregor; and Mole especially prizes Badger’s underground retreat, or his own Dulce Domum, after his anxiety in the Wild Woods. But perhaps the sense of vulnerability in the immensity of space is most acute in Little House on the Prairie where Laura Ingalls feels ill at ease: “All around them there was nothing but grassy prairie spreading to the edge of the sky,” she writes, “The land and sky seemed to large, and Laura felt small.” Laura feels that way at least until the house is built.

Jerry Griswold

When I imagine the prairie, I imagine a flat land. This is affected by the TV miniseries, in which the prairie really does seem flat. But in the novel, Laura goes out of her way to say that the prairie is not flat. It contains all manner of rises and falls, and in one of those depressions there might be an Indian hiding. The prairie therefore seems to function symbolically as the basement in a dreamhouse. (It’s right where you live, and you never know what’s down there.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE

PARATEXT

Little House On The Prairie is such an iconic American book that most readers will have heard of it. Moreover, the American story is well-known the world over because of America’s cultural export of story, so we come to this story knowing the basics: White pioneer settlers move West. There have been several tentpole TV adaptations, with a long-running series that aired here in Australia over my childhood, but not in New Zealand, where I grew up. My Australian husband grew up with it in the 1980s but I’ve never seen it. (The difference between our childhood television consumption is the main cultural difference between us.)

The titular house of Little House On The Prairie is, in children’s literature as in all literature, generally used metonymically to stand for the people who live inside it. So it’s surprising to revisit this story as an adult and find that the book is just as much about the architecture of the house as it is about the family who build it. The chapter about the two doors is literally a description of how Pa built a front door and another for the barn. Ingalls Wilder goes deep into the opening mechanisms for each, explaining that because horses can’t open latches, there’s no latch on the barn door. This chapter comes hot on the heels of the chapter about the wolves, which is exciting and dangerous. The description of the doors is almost comical in the way it goes on and on, repeating the word ‘door’, describing the mechanism long after I, personally, have lost interest. I put it to you that Ingalls Wilder would have been a carpenter, engineer or architect had she lived in more gender equal times. She was clearly fascinated by mechanisms and building.

This is partly what makes the book ‘suitable’ for boys, even among the most gender essentialist, conservative readership, and in a reading culture where parents don’t generally buy stories about girls for their boys, despite buying plenty of stories about boys for their girls. There is nothing girly about it. If this story had been fabricated from scratch rather than semi-autobiographical, 20th century children’s literature basically confirms that the writer would have chosen an older brother and younger sister as main characters instead of two girls.

The 1953 illustrations by Garth Williams are now iconic, and in some editions have been coloured.

SHORTCOMING

Laura is a ‘tomboy’ character (a term I will only put in long-handled-tong speech marks). Whenever you get two girls starring together in a story, they’ll tend to be distinguished by their conformity/divergence from expected gender roles.

The hair colour also matches up with this archetype pair. Although this story is said to be autobiographical, the Mary and Laura duo have been repeated successfully across many children’s stories: The dull-haired tomboyish character, full of fun and mischief, versus the blonde-headed, polite and slightly anxious girly-girl character who is often the voice of reason. (She functions as the little mother.)

When Laura thinks of letting Jack loose on the Indians who visit their log cabin, it is Mary who urges Laura to listen to Pa. Mary is the perfect girl and the perfect sister, because she doesn’t rat on Laura even when Laura is wrong.

The Disney adaptation better illustrates Mary’s anxiety, and we deduce she’s a good friend when she is sad (unlike Laura) that they’ll be leaving their birth home as well as their friends. Laura doesn’t seem to understand the finality of their journey, and has an unempathetic view on the world. This can’t be just a developmental thing because the same thing plays out when they are about to leave the prairie; Mary is deeply saddened to be leaving Mr Edwards whereas Laura is wholly focused on new experiences. (My AD/HD daughter thinks that Laura is also AD/HD.)

The Disney adaptation affords Mary some spark. Mary talks back to the racist Mrs Scot, and is berated later by their mother. This appeals to a contemporary audience in which even good child characters must have a ‘flaw’ of some kind , or some evidence of independent thinking in order to be relatable. Laura is now impressed with her docile sister. In the mid 20th century novel, the words of the parents are always final. Ma and Pa are always right. (Especially Pa.) Ma defers to Pa. When crossing the river, Charles asks for Ma’s opinion. Ma says, “Whatever you think is best, Charles,” and off they go, almost getting swept under. This level of deference has been omitted from the Disney adaptation. The parents appear to be a team.

In the Disney adaptation especially, the actor who plays Pa looks like he spends plenty of time in the gym and plenty of money at the dentist. In reality, white men of the era commonly looked like the guy below, with long, shaggy beards and sunken cheeks. Their bodies were lithe from work but slightly malnourished, and I bet if this guy were smiling we’d see he’s missing a number of his teeth. (Disney casting Gregory Sporleder as Mr Edwards was a more realistic choice.)

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of a Bearded Man c. 1894, black chalk, pen and black ink on paper

DESIRE

Sometimes in stories about families, one child is cast as ‘belonging’ to one parents, the other child ‘belonging’ to the other. These are also sometimes the stories families tell about themselves. “Oh, Anne is a Smith and Betty is a Jones.” In Little House On The Prairie, Laura is thought to be the personality offspring of her father: adventurous, brave and free of anxiety. Pa drives the move West, so Laura follows his lead. She desires adventure.

The more feminine and motherly Mary would be happy to stay put, and there’s the contrast. We might also consider these girls two sides of the same child; as people we each have a more adventurous side, craving novelty, balanced against the need for safety and stability.

Little House On The Prairie is a story structure that appeals equally to both sides of a young reader. At first it is a classic adventure story with a mythic structure: A character (family) sets out on a journey, encounters many obstacles, meeting opponents and allies both, then finds out who they are. In the end, they find a new home.

In your classic hero’s journey, the hero doesn’t find his new home until the end of the story, but this story is part adventure, part domestic story, because after the first journey, the father finds a nice bit of land and they all set about making their home. The rest of the story is wholly centered around their new home, and although Laura focuses on the stereotypically masculine aspects of building and construction, it’s a home-making story.

OPPONENT

This cosy story is full of allies, exhibiting the kindness of strangers in times of scarcity and precarity. Mr Edwards is a great help when he helps Pa to build the house, and gives him nails to secure the roof.

Then there are the Scots, and the ‘two bachelors’ who live a little further away again. They’re nice guys who help another family out. I have a few questions about the bachelors. Laura has heard the story, clearly repeated by everyone, that they built their tiny house on the border of two parcels of land. One sleeps alone on a bed along one wall; the other sleeps in his separate bed along the other wall, each on HIS OWN SEPARATE parcel of land. They do come together to eat at the same little table. They have clearly spread this story about until it’s become legendary among neighbours.

So, maybe they were a couple of straight guys, but I put it to my twelve-year-old that they might equally have been gay, in a world when no one was allowed to be out and gay. My kid loves that take. Knowing that queerness has always been a part of human history, I’m always second-guessing when reading about ‘two bachelors’ out of history who ‘sadly never married’, but who lived happily together over many long years and were known for their lavish dinner parties and snappy sense of style. (We never learn much about these guys, other than that they generously help a family in need.)

But any good story needs opposition. Off the page, the government is dragging its heels on securing land for white settlers.

The Minotaur opponent: The Indians, scary mostly because they are unseen. When Laura finally meets two Indians, they are wearing nothing but fresh skunk skins. They are presented as unappealing in every way: Stinky, naked savages who are also home invaders and thieves. Laura is at first taken in by the romanticism of the Indians, and wants to see a papoose. But Ma tells her not to be so ridiculous, schooling her up to be fearful of the Indians. “If you ever see a papoose, that means you’ll be seeing Indians.” Laura asks her mother why she doesn’t like Indians. “I just don’t like them,” she says, like racists everywhere. (Australia’s Pauline Hanson springs to mind.)

Then there is the natural opposition of nature itself. The Ingalls family must constantly work against the weather. If they don’t plug the gaps between the logs, we can deduce that the winter will kill them. (In fact it’s probably the mosquitoes coming through those cracks that almost kills them.)

PLAN

The Ingalls family’s plan is to travel West and find their own parcel of land, where they can enjoy a more prosperous life for themselves and for their descendents.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

Little House On The Prairie is episodic in nature, with each chapter including its own miniature struggle: crossing a river, dealing with the loss of a dog, building a door, putting out a fire, almost being killed in a well.

ANAGNORISIS

The chapter in which Laura sees the trail of Indians ride past and sets her heart on securing for herself a little Indian papoose is the jewel of the crown in this novel.

The chapter reminds me of a short story by Katherine Mansfield, “The Garden Party”. Laura seems to have some kind of epiphany but she can’t quite explain it. Something to do with inequality, and securing something for yourself because you’re entitled to it, but which you can never truly have. (By coincidence the main character in “The Garden Party” is also named Laura.) The “Indians Ride Away” chapter is a very short-story-like narrative, and feels Impressionistic, though not because the truth can never be known; only because Laura is too young to articulate how she feels to know that the Indians are passing her by and she’ll never see them again. Even the adult Laura reminiscing is unable to articulate why she was struck by this strong desire to ‘have’ the Indian baby looking out at her over the top of its basket.

The chapter is masterful for its dual audience appeal. The young reader can easily identify with finding something unaccountably appealing and wanting to grab it. Ask any toddler who’s ever been to the mall. “Indians Ride Away” appeals to the adult reader equally because adults understand that the trail of Indians riding past is a snapshot from a lost era. Those people will never be seen again. By entering the West, white people upset the equilibrium. Child Laura only understands that she won’t see that particular baby again, but adults can see that’s the Wild West in a microcosm, walking away forever.

This sense of loss, and sadness that time passes by, never to be seen again twice, really comes home when the family says goodbye to the kind Mr Edwards. Notice how the story has led us to this highly affecting moment. These people are not simply saying goodbye to each other; they’re saying goodbye forever to a snapshot version of themselves.

NEW SITUATION

Pa decides (without seeming to consult Ma) that they’ll all be moving on. It’s not safe to stay where they are.

The Disney miniseries takes an affecting scene from the end of the book and places it near the beginning; the part where they meet the two white settlers broken down and distraught because their horses have been stolen. In the novel, the Ingalls family meets them on their way back out. Pa offers to take them to Independence, but they refuse.

It bothers me that it’s only after riding away that Pa reassures the questioning Laura that he’ll send rescuers after reaching Independence. He never told the broken-down people that! Pa is also very scathing in the book about how stupid they are to travel without a dog and to let horse thieves cut the ropes. This Mr Ingalls is a hard man by modern standards, and I deduce he was written more softly to appeal to mid 20th century ideals of fatherhood.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Disney’s Pa is a good example of how storytellers depict sympathetic fathers, and if this story is adapted again in another 50 years time, that Pa will be written as an ideal father figure of that era, and he will be different again.

That’s just one of my thoughts. This series leaves the modern reader with much to mull over. The story continues, so the end of Little House On The Prairie is not the end of the narrative.

My extrapolation comes from comparing the cosy novel to anti-Westerns written for adults. If you take a short story author like Annie Proulx, or the Comanche Moon book of the Lonesome Dove series (the most violent), and if you know anything at all about Native American history, it’s impossible to read Little House On The Prairie in isolation and sink into it as a utopian success story.

RESONANCE

Little House On The Prairie is a perfectly blended domestic adventure story, and is also a Western for kids. After the second world war, America mostly stopped producing genuine Westerns, with the notable exception of Shane, and instead switched to producing anti-Westerns — stories set in the Wild West, but which avoided romanticising expansionism for white people.

Does Little House On The Prairie count as an anti-Western? That depends on whether the reader has an understanding of a wider context. I can’t read this series as an adult without seeing the trauma just below the surface. But that’s not how my twelve-year-old reads it, yet. She’s starting to understand a bit of the racist colonialism, but the more difficult parts of the Ingalls’ lives can only be fully appreciated after reading a recent biography for adults such as Prairie Fires, or by listening to The real and far more sobering life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, discussed on the Stuff You Missed In History Class podcast.

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