Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

It’s safe to say that Little House on the Prairie is not my typical kind of reading choice. It’s a children’s book, a picture book, a kind of historical fiction based on memoir, and, I don’t know, a lot of other things that don’t seem to fit my style. But mostly, it’s a children’s picture book, and I can’t remember the last time I read one. That said, it made my list this year because of a category on the Back to the Classics Challenge, at which I’m failing miserably to succeed. The category is “Classic Adaptation,” and I chose this one both because I’d never read it and because I have fond memories of watching the old 1970s/80s television series with my grandma. We also used to watch Highway to Heaven together (she had a thing for Michael Landon).

The edition I read is the fully color illustrated collector’s edition, with art by Garth Williams, acclaimed illustrated of such books as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. The book is printed on thick, glossy paper and has a substantial heft for being a children’s book. This made me a little intimidated, and I refrained from dogearing or writing on any of the pages, the way I normally do when I’m reading. That said, I’ll refer here to general passages rather than specific quotes with page numbers, because I also didn’t write anything down in my notebook. Whoops.

I’m not sure what I can say about this book that no one else hasn’t, so I just give some personal reactions. Things I like include the fact that each chapter is a kind of mini-episode, making it no surprise that the book series was turned into a television series; it’s kind of perfectly set up that way, though of course this one was first published in 1935, so I think we can assume television wasn’t on her mind. I appreciated the way that each chapter really is about this “little house on the prairie,” all the steps it took to create a home in the late 1800s high plains United States, “Indian Country,” in this case. I loved the little glimpses into construction, daily activities, hardships and wonderments, and Wilder’s descriptions are both targeted and full of joy.

I was less enamored by some of the dated elements, of course, like the way Native Americans are described many times throughout and the general simplicity/lack of depth in all story features, from characters to descriptions, to plot, and etc. Thank goodness for the character Pa, who is wise and compassionate, and who teaches not just his family, but the reader, much about how to live with and treat other people; how to avoid assumptions, give people the benefit of the doubt, and act first with kindness and generosity. I have to say Pa might be one of my favorite literary characters, filled as he is with goodness and ingenuity. I’ve always dreamed of being the kind of person who could not just survive in any situation, but thrive. Pa always seems to know just what to do, and it’s a wonder to witness.

Characterization in general, though, is pretty flat, and there aren’t really any major story arcs, no complexity. This is no surprise, since the book is intended for young readers, but I’ll still admit that it’s a bit less substantial than I was hoping or imagining it would be (probably because I had the television series so in mind.) I was both heartbroken and cheered at the end, though, when the family makes a particular decision, mostly because they must, but also because it’s the right thing to do, which I’ll leave only alluded to in order not to spoil anything.

The illustrations, by the way, are absolutely lovely. They do add to the story, and I can picture a young family reading this aloud together, pausing to consider the illustrations that are so generously included on most of the pages.

I have to admit that, upon finishing the book, I did search for the television series again, but I couldn’t find it streaming anywhere (we have Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Roku, YouTube TV, and Amazon Prime) — this last, Amazon, was the only place I found it, but it seemed to cost something like $2.00 per episode!? Nostalgia is strong, but not that strong!

This is Book 4 completed for my Back to the Classics Challenge.

8 Comments on “Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

  1. I moved to a place, more like moving back in time, in the middle of 5th grade, in 1968. An avid student raised until then in California’s newfangled progressive schools, built around sunlight, individual learning and “pods,” I now found myself in a place that was strangely dark in winter and ideals. The teacher-drone format (in a s-l-o-w southern drawl) supported by prayer and discipline (with no balance of joy,) felt stifling.

    This sweet old lady took a chunk of each day to simply read Wilder’s books to us. Everyone grew quiet as she read aloud in her quiet, papery voice. We were transported, enthralled. If there were pictures in the book, we never saw them, but in that quiet darkened room I saw everything in my mind. It is a good memory.

    However, I must add that the overt racism and narcissistic colonialism in that book series served as part of my multi-pronged indoctrination to attitudes, still prevalent there, that torture my soul and haunt my memories to this day. I doubt that it really belongs in a list of classics, nor on the reading lists of young children. In my, you know, probably not that humble, opinion.

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  2. This book raises difficult questions now. I remember many episodes from the books vividly from childhood but the racism, which to me even at the time was obviously a product of its time, faded in my memory. Yet for some it is a bearer of trauma and that needs to be respected.

    With my son, I never got past Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy, which do not have any Native Americans. I haven’t reread the rest in the series for years.

    I’m glad you managed to read and review a book on your Back to the Classics list at least!

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      • I think educationally the book can be used to talk about the colonialist attitudes that are represented … not exactly their intended purpose, but they ended up as a kind of time capsule for those pioneer days, with ugly as well as beautiful things in there.

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      • Absolutely. I was just thinking about using it alongside something like An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. As an artifact of its time, it’s a great learning tool. It just requires some thoughtful treatment, especially with young readers. I could never read it to my nephews wihout commentary.

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  3. Yes, these days it requires some commentary, but I still think they’re wonderful time capsules (as Lory says), capturing so much of people’s experiences and thoughts back then. It doesn’t do to forget that — the bad just as much as the good.

    The books’ narrative style grows up with Laura, I think you’ll find if you read further. I really like several episodes in Plum Creek. Silver Lake is fascinating, between Mary’s blindness (and Ma’s description of it, where she says proudly that Mary “has never repined”) and a pretty shocking chapter in which some men perform in blackface. And in one of the last ones, Laura participates in a debate about the relative status of racial groups…

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  4. I admit, I was surprised to see that you read this, Adam, but nostalgia for the TV series as the reason makes sense! It’s been a long time since I read these books, but I echo Jean’s comment that the book’s style/narrative does mature with Laura. I’m not sure if that reflects Laura the character growing up, or Laura the writer growing in her writing. Regardless, my favorite books in the series were always the later ones, although if I were to pick up one to reread right this moment it would probably be Farmer Boy.

    They are definitely artifacts of their times, but I think that’s important, in a way, to help us know, and perhaps reckon with, our history. And in some ways it might be false if they weren’t artifacts (even if it makes us cringe). I just finished a fiction book in which the young southern protagonist was very proud of his ancestors who owned plantations but didn’t own slaves and the effort on the part of the author to instill late 20th century morals into the story rang false to me.

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