Posts Tagged ‘Little House on the Prairie’

Chloe’s Book Club: Little House On The Prairie

May 19, 2016

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?

(Wikipedia)

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!

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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.

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWeb

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

Laura Land Tour: Independence, KS

February 5, 2016

The Kansas prairie is the setting for Little House On The Prairie, the second book in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic Little House series. Today, fans can visit the site where the Ingalls family briefly made their home.

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

Laura was only two when the family began the trip to Kansas. Decades later she relied on her parents’ memories to write Little House On The Prairie. She wasn’t sure of the actual spot where her family settled. It wasn’t until 1969 that local historian Margaret Clement succeeded in identifying the location.

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

As at Walnut Grove, MN, the homesite was part of a family farm. Property owners and volunteers created a replica of the Ingalls’s cabin at what is now known as the Little House on the Prairie Museum, and offer Laura fans a warm welcome.  I’m grateful!

Independence Cabin

The interior is simple, and suggests how the family’s cabin might have appeared.

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

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Laura fans will recognize this replica of Ma’s china shepherdess.

One of the features that helped identify the spot was an old hand-dug well. Historians believe it was the one dug by Charles Ingalls and a neighbor.

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A couple of other historic buildings have been moved to the site, including this one-room schoolhouse.

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

A display shared information about doctoring in Laura’s day. (Fans will remember that the family was tended through illness by Dr. George Tann, a black physician.)

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

I love Laura’s descriptions of seemingly endless prairie in the book. The area is mostly farmland today, but a prairie has been re-established across the road.

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

If you’ve read Death on the Prairiemy latest Chloe Ellefson mystery, you may recall the dramatic scene at the Kansas site involving Chloe and her sister Kari. Chloe went to cool down along that treeline in the distance.

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

I’m happy to report that my sister and I had a fine time when we visited.

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

Logistically, it’s difficult to visit the Laura homesites in the order they appear in the books. However, the Kansas site is only about three and a half hours from Mansfield, MO, where Laura and her husband Almanzo spent most of their married years. Travelers might want to consider including both sites in one loop.

For more information about the Kansas site, visit the Little House on the Prairie Museum.

For more information about Death on the Prairie, including links to other tour stops, photographs, maps, and much more, please visit my website.

Next stop:  Rocky Ridge near Mansfield, Missouri!

Laura Ingalls Wilder: Book or TV?

October 24, 2015

Are you familiar with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s bestselling tales of life on the frontier of white settlement? And if so, were you introduced to the stories on the page, or on the screen?

My older sister and I read (and loved) the books as a child in the 1960s.

Laura Ingalls Wilder's books

Well-loved copies on display at the Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, IA.

The television series Little House on the Prairie began a decade later, with a pilot movie that aired in 1974. The series starred Michael Landon as Pa and Melissa Gilbert as young Laura.

May 29, 1976

May 29, 1976 – Michael Landon with his three TV daughters. (Melissa Gilbert on left)

I remember watching the first few seasons with my younger sister, and we enjoyed them. Sure, some liberties were taken—starting with the fact that Laura’s book Little House on the Prairie is set in Kansas, and the television series is set in Walnut Grove, MN (the real setting for the book On The Banks of Plum Creek.) Michael Landon did not look like Charles Ingalls (and once, I’ve read, stated that nothing would induce him to wear an “ugly” beard.) But all in all, the programs I remember from the mid-70s captured the spirit of the books.

Only recently, when working on my new Chloe Ellefson mystery Death on the Prairie, did I discover how strongly some book enthusiasts dislike the series.

A docent at one of the Wilder homesites told me she’d had to break up an argument between “book people” and “TV people.” Another, at a different homesite, told me that she’d had children break into tears when they discovered that in real life, Mary Ingalls (Laura’s older sister, who lost her sight as a child) never married.

July 14, 1979 – Michael Landon, Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary), and Linwood Boomer (Mary’s husband Adam)

I hadn’t realized how far from the original books the programs had strayed until very recently, when I sampled a few of the final programs.

I will always love the books the best. The books introduced me to Laura Land, and I like knowing that the stories are presented as Laura wanted them.

KAE w/ LHBW - KK Photo

My original hardcover copy, still treasured.

But there is another important side to the debate. Someone who works at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, MN, explained that most people in her community embraced the television series and its legacy—even though she often has to gently help visitors understand that not everything they watched on TV was true.

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As many Laura fans know by now, everything in the books is not true either. While largely autobiographical, the books are presented as fiction, with details changed, enhanced, or deleted to serve the purpose of the stories.

The first time I visited the Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, IA—a location omitted from the books entirely—a family from France was on my tour. Dad explained that he’d grown up watching Little House on the Prairie on French television, loved it, and wanted to share his enthusiasm with his wife and children.

This is the original building where the Ingalls family lived.

The Ingalls family briefly lived and worked in this building.

I might wish that the television series had not wandered quite so far from the original material. But I remember studying the principles of effective heritage interpretation in college. Freeman Tilden, author of the classic Interpreting Our Heritage, wrote that “the chief aim is not instruction, but provocation.”

If the television programs provoke viewers to learn more, to read Laura’s books, to read Laura historians’ books, to visit the sites—that’s a wonderful thing.

And as a mystery author, the complexities of studying and celebrating Laura Ingalls Wilder’s literary legacy provided rich material to explore. In Death on the Prairie, Chloe—who’s not me, but is a lot like me—tours the homesites. While trying to learn more about a quilt believed to have been owned by the author, and solving a murder or two, Chloe is forced to confront the differing perspectives and opinions within the Laura community. (Her sister Kari, for example, reveals that Little House on the Prairie is her daughters’ favorite television program.)

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWeb

If you’re a Little House fan, what ignited your interest?