Chloe’s Book Club: Little Town on the Prairie

Welcome back! I’m glad to be picking up the book club where we left off.

By chance, I attended a book signing at my local indie bookstore last week, and spotted this on the “Staff Picks” table:


How about you? I hope you’ll share your reaction to the book in the comments section below.

As a child, this was not one of my favorites—probably because Laura was growing up faster than I was. I’ve found the book much more satisfying as an adult.

One of the most poignant moments for me comes on page two. When Pa introduces the idea of Laura getting a job in town, Ma reacts: “No, Charles, I won’t have Laura working out in a hotel among all kinds of strangers.”  Pa responds, “Who said such a thing? …No girl of ours’ll do that, not while I’m alive and kicking.”

I know now that Laura did work in a hotel, and at a much younger age, when the family went through hard times and ended up at the Masters Hotel in Iowa. It’s telling, I think, that Laura presented that topic as she did in this book.

That moment is followed in the next chapter by one of my favorite scenes in the entire series. While walking with her sister Mary, Laura reflects on their improved relationship. Mary had always been good. Sometimes she had been so good that Laura could hardly bear it. But now she seemed different.

Little House in the Big Woods Garth Williams

Our first glimpse of the girls in Little House in the Big Woods. (Garth Williams illustration.)

Laura has recently shared how annoying she used to find Mary’s behavior. Here’s Mary’s confession:

“I’m not really (good). …If you could see how rebellious and mean I feel sometimes, if you could see what I really am, inside, you wouldn’t want to be like me.  …I wasn’t really wanting to be good. I was showing off to myself, what a good little girl I was, and being vain and proud, and I deserved to be slapped for it.”

Laura is shocked by this confession, and so was I! Suddenly Mary, who’d been pretty one-dimensional in earlier books, jumps off the page as a complex and, to me, a more sympathetic character. To further the theme, later in the book Laura confronts the reality of Mary going off to college, and realizes how much she’ll miss her older sister.

A different “sisters moment” provides another of my absolute favorite scenes in the chapter titled “Sent Home From School.” When the vindictive teacher Miss Wilder orders young Carrie to rock her seat, which has come a little loose from the floor, Carrie is soon exhausted. Laura is so angry she takes over and soon is loudly thumping the seat back and forth.


Garth Williams captured the moment beautifully.

The girls were ultimately sent home from school, a punishment worse than whipping with a whip. Shocking! I think Ma and Pa handled it well.

Again, a little behind-the-scenes knowledge adds layers of complexity to this chapter.  Eliza Jane Wilder was destined to become Laura’s sister-in-law; Laura’s daughter Rose spent extended time with her. Still, Laura painted Eliza Jane as a petty tyrant who seems to torment Carrie in an effort to provoke Laura. That must have led to some interesting family conversations.

As in all the Little House books, the landscape is evoked in vivid detail, and becomes a complex character itself.  “The prairie looks so beautiful and gentle,” (Laura) said. “But I wonder what it will do next. Seems like we have to fight it all the time.”

Laura is just as skilled at describing the town itself, and her reaction reveals much about her:  The town was a sore on the beautiful, wild prairie. Old haystacks and manure piles were rotting around the stables, the backs of the stores’ false fronts were rough and ugly.  …The town smelled of staleness and dust and smoke and a fatty odor of cooking. A dank smell came from the saloons and a musty sourness from the ground by back doors where the dishwater was thrown out.

We’re getting toward the end of the series, and this is a transitional book.  Laura gets her first glimpse of Almanzo’s beautiful horses, her first job, her teaching certificate. She’s in her mid-teens, and her girlhood is fast slipping away.

Little Town on the Prairie

PS – I stayed at a B&B in De Smet while working on Death on the Prairie,  and the proprietor told me that bluish-gray cats are not uncommon in town today. Perhaps they’re descendants of the kitten Pa brought home?

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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:  These Happy Golden Years.

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8 Responses to “Chloe’s Book Club: Little Town on the Prairie”

  1. ggmjanette Says:

    This is one of my favorite books in the series as well. I really like all the details in this book about Laura’s social life, fashions, and the growth of the town.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Janette, is is definitely a community book, isn’t it? The family isn’t as isolated as in some earlier books. Just in time for Laura to grow into adolescence/young adulthood.

  2. Dianne b. Says:

    I, too, enjoyed all of the Little House books, but Little Town on the Prairie is one of my favorites, because it portrays Laura in a more adult, mature time of her life. She’s beginning to notice fashion and “boys”. She’s learning more about life and how to react to the various situations that she encounters. I have read some of the biographies written about Laura Ingalls Wilder and understand the difficulties she had in her real life. But to write of the harsh things she dealt with in her real life, would not have been appropriate for a book meant for adolescents.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Dianne, I’m sure you’re right, and as author she was free to make whatever choices she wished. In addition to tempering things for her audience, I suspect she didn’t want to dwell on particularly bad times. (Obviously she made good ones, given the success of the series!)

  3. Lois Scorgie Says:

    More Laura comes out in this book, adventure, temper, humor too. I’ve always admired the variety of ways they gathered together for fun, entertainment plus education.

    To see how Laura’s 150th birthday was celebrated in Pepin Wisconsin, look on their website. Over 500 people attended that wonderful day, enjoying winter, activities of Laura’s day and a piece of cake. I’m so proud of my parents, Lester and Marie Lund, who worked very hard and thoroughly enjoyed their part of the earlier years in of the Pepin Laura Ingalls WIlder association

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Lois, I think the community entertainment storyline was wonderful! I can completely understand why spirits lifted after that got started.

      I would have loved to be at Pepin for the 150th! How very special. Your parents and their colleagues did something very important!

  4. Jill Nisbet Says:

    As a child I could hardly comprehend the amount of responsibility Laura had to take on. She was only a few years older than I was and had to sew all day all summer. I felt sorry for her. Having to work so hard for Marys schooling even to the point of having to become a teacher herself at the tender age of15.

    I vividly remember the passage you highlighted about the town being an ugly soar on the beautiful prairie. Like Laura I have always loved the country side . That sort of bothered me for years.

    All that being said it sure did seem that Laura adjusted to city life rather quickly. I think she did enjoy some of the social aspects. And it was nice to have girl friends. The reunion with Nellie Olson not so much! Also we meet E!iza Jane. And it is the beginning of a budding relationship with Almanzo.

    I notice the last several books cover a lot of territory. I think this was because Laura was older and could actually remember more of if it.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Jill, that sewing job stuck with me as well. What an intense job for someone her age. I remember reading somewhere that she didn’t like to sew, but she was obviously very good at it. I saw a blouse of hers on display in Missouri that was exquisite.

      One of the things that fascinates me about Laura’s writing is the specific sensory details that enrich every book. It seems particularly amazing in the early books, when her own memories must have been fuzzy. One thing that caught my eye was the mention of the sour smell coming from the spots where women threw dishwater. Vivid!

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