Chloe’s Book Club: Little House On The Prairie

Little House On The Prairie in some ways epitomizes the view of pioneer life many readers of my generation grew up with. What could be more iconic than a family packing their belongings in a covered wagon and heading west? Garth William’s cover, showing Mary and Laura watching from the back of the wagon, is classic.

Little House on the Prairie

As always, the descriptions are remarkable.  Here’s one of my favorites:

Kansas was an endless flat land covered with tall grass blowing in the wind. Day after day they traveled in Kansas, and saw nothing but the rippling grass and the enormous sky. In a perfect circle the sky curved down to the level land, and the wagon was in the circle’s exact middle.

Prairie landscape, Little House On The Prairie Museum, Kansas

Prairie landscape, Little House On The Prairie Museum, Kansas

Also as always, Laura emerges a real, complex, and thoroughly likable character. When Ma chastises her for complaining:

So she did not complain any more out loud, but she was still naughty, inside. She sat and thought complaints to herself.

And when Mary primly offers to give some beautiful beads she and Laura collected at an abandoned Indian campsite to baby Carrie, Laura—with some silent prompting from Ma—feels compelled to do the same: Perhaps Mary felt sweet and good inside, but Laura didn’t. When she looked at Mary she wanted to slap her. So she dared not look at Mary again.

This book brings out all of my conflicted feelings about Ma. I empathize with her challenges.  Pa takes her to Indian territory—knowing full well that Indian people terrify her! They crossed the ice-covered Mississippi River at its widest point—only to hear the ice breaking up that night; when Pa says they were lucky the ice didn’t break while they crossed she responds: I thought about that yesterday, Charles. The poor woman took the reins during a difficult river crossing when Pa plunged from the wagon to help the struggling horses.

Nonetheless, her fussiness can be annoying. During that dangerous river crossing, the beloved family dog Jack disappears, presumably drowned. When the exhausted dog finally catches up to the family, Ma complains that the happy reunion woke baby Carrie. Really, Ma?


Caroline and Charles Ingalls (Wikipedia)

That said, there is much to admire in Ma. Readers understand that she craves a more genteel life. As an adult, I know what I think I missed as a child:  Ma must have been afraid a lot. On more than one occasion Pa’s life literally is in her hands.  One of the most poignant moments comes when Charles goes down the well to help a neighbor overcome by fumes, and Ma must find the strength to pull him to safety. After everyone is safe: She covered her face with her apron and burst out crying.

She must have feared for her children’s safety too. Still, she always does what needs doing.

This book makes many modern readers uncomfortable due to its portrayal of Native Americans. Wilder signaled something important on page one:  They were going to Indian country. And on page six, she foreshadowed a key scene to come:  Pa promised that when they came to the West, Laura should see a papoose.

While certain scenes and bits of dialogue do make me cringe, it’s important to consider the plot within the context of the time it depicts. Ma hates all Indian people—as she was surely taught to do, growing up when and where she did. Laura is both afraid of and fascinated by Indian people. I see her feelings as a reflection of the personality divide within the family. Ma and Mary are homebodies. Laura and Pa are more intrigued by the outside world.

Little House In The Big Woods ends on such a satisfactory note that at first, it can be hard to understand why the family left Wisconsin at all. Pa’s feelings are explained well, though, and first-time readers take pleasure as they create a new home on the vast Kansas prairie:

We’re going to do well here, Caroline, Pa said. This is a great country. I’ll be contended to stay in the the rest of my life.  …No matter how thick and close the neighbors get, this country’ll never feel crowded.  Look at that sky!

Since I know the story, this type of foreshadowing is all the more poignant. In the end, of course (Spoiler alert!) Charles/Pa discovers that he built his cabin on land that was not, yet, available for settlement.

Replica cabin at the site of the Ingalls home. Little House on the Prairie Museum, KS. (Photo by Barbara Ernst)

Replica cabin at the site of the Ingalls home. Little House on the Prairie Museum, KS. (Photo by Barbara Ernst)

Was it an honest mistake? Did he know all along, and simply presume he could bide his time until the Federal government declared the land officially available to pioneers? Laura scholars are still debating.

In any case, even as a young reader I understood how heartbreaking it was for the family to have labored so hard to create a new home—only to have to pack up and leave it all behind.

How do you feel about Little House On The Prairie? Do you have a favorite, or least favorite, chapter?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Note: I am a former curator and love research, but I am not a Laura Ingalls Wilder scholar. For more academic information, see titles by William Anderson, Pamela Smith Hill, John E. Miller, and others. To learn more about the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries, please visit my website.


Next up for discussion:  On The Banks Of Plum Creek.

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12 Responses to “Chloe’s Book Club: Little House On The Prairie”

  1. Bonnie Says:

    A great read. I loved all the twists & turns. The names of some of the characters were interesting. 🙂 We have Death On The Prairie in the gift shop in Burr Oak. We read it & liked it so are now carrying it. I generally am not a mystery book reader but loved this book.

  2. Arletta Dawdy's Blog Says:

    Hi Kathleen,
    This is a very thoughtful essay on the Wilder books, especially re; attitudes about Native Americans as a reflection of the times. I like the distinction you make about Pa/Laura vs Ma/Mary on their outlooks on life and Indians.. I didn’t read the books, doubt they were available in my day, but enjoyed them through my daughter and then the TV series. I remember making Shannon a “Laura” dress one year and wish we’d kept it for my granddaughter!
    As ever, Arletta

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Arletta. One of the things I love about “Laura Land” is that so often the stories (in whatever form) can be shared through the generations. My parents gave me a Charlotte doll one year, and I wish I’d kept that!

  3. Susan/s Says:

    I appreciated your reflections on the book, which is full of fascinating details about prairie homesteading and pioneer life. Like you, I especially appreciate that Laura is a real child with impulses to be kind and impulses to be selfish. She’s very engaging and prompted many great evenings of reading with my daughters.

    For a great read about how the Little House books were written, you might check out the novel-based-on-diaries called A Wilder Rose, the work of best-selling author Susan Wittig Albert.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Susan! My mom shared the Little House books with her daughters, and as I mentioned to Arletta, I love how so many families share the stories through generations. It’ so much fun to visit the sites and see two or three generations exploring together!

      I’m familiar with A Wilder Rose, and Ghost in the Little House too. My personal preference is to immerse myself in the books and leave it at that! (Although I do have Pioneer Girl too, so I guess I am straddling the line between enjoying the novels and appreciating information.)

  4. Ariane Roque Says:

    i just love the show on tv

  5. Jill Nisbet Says:

    When I read this book as a child., I found it unbearably sad when they left the !title house after they finally got glass windows and all. As a grown up knowing what I now know about the 0sage diminished reserve I couldnt wait for them to leave. I think my favorite scene will always be when Mr Edwards brings the Christmas candy! As a child and well into adulthood I thought all the books were absolute fact. It wasn’t until I read Wendy Mc Clures excellent book The Wilder Life that I became obsessed with what really happened. I was so happy to get a copy of Pioneer Girl! I never really liked Rose but after reading Ghost in the Little House and A Wilder Rose I just feel so much for her. I will always love Laura but Rose had her side too and i have come to respect her.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Jill, the Christmas scenes in the various books are among my favorites too. Even as a child I somehow appreciated the fact that the girls thought they were so incredibly lucky to be given such small (by modern American standards) tokens.

      I too accepted the books as basically factual. Once I started pulling at the loose threads part of me was sorry to dispel that illusion, but once you learn something it can’t be unlearned! It makes perfect sense that Laura (and Rose) shaped the stories as good novels. I get impatient with both Laura and Rose when I read about their lives…a challenging relationship, I think.

  6. Lois Scorgie Says:

    It’s June 22. i was late reading LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. it certainly portrayed how sisters can be totally different characters. Prairie descriptions made me nervous. I do not like flat land being a native of the bluff country of Wisconsin. What’s next?

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Lois, thanks for sharing your reactions! Interesting that the descriptions of the prairie made you nervous, but it makes sense that coming from a place with vertical landscapes, the vast endlessness might make you feel uneasy. (I often wonder how often people got lost.) As for what’s next, I just posted about On The Banks of Plum Creek.

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