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.
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.
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?
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.
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.