little house

I read Farmer Boy a couple of years ago, but other than that I’m not sure when I last read the rest of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. After catching a couple of episodes of Frontier House recently, I wanted to re-read them to find out how the Ingalls family dealt with the pressure of the nonstop work and uncertainty of survival that the 21st-century “homesteaders” faced.
Update: Here’s a fun site I just found about the Ingalls family.

As a child I identified with Laura perfectly, I don’t think children have changed fundamentally in the last 140 years. As an adult, I was watching more how adults felt and thought, how they met the challenge of feeding and housing their family using only the land around them and what grew and lived on it. I think I understand more now about how the adult Laura felt about the events that she described.
Her writing style is simple and restrained–she uses simple words and sentences that children can understand, and when I read the books as a child I got the impression she was simply writing down what happened. I was talking about the books with Andy yesterday, and he asked if there were any underlying conflicts or themes within each book or the series, tying it together or giving it a “plot.” I said that they were mostly about what the family did from day to day, there’s not really an overarching plot. It’s more than just a record of what happened though–it’s difficult to explain, because it is so subtle, how Wilder appears to merely be telling you what happened in simple words, but somehow she conveys what everyone in the scene is thinking and feeling, and an overall atmosphere of love, lighthardedness, suspense, or horror. There is also a constant interplay between the fact that deadly danger could arise within seconds at any time, and the characters’ faith in themselves, each other, and God to bring them through any situation. This is never explained or described outright, but is depicted through events, conversation, and almost photographic (videographic?) images like this:
“Laura lay down, but her eyes would not shut. She knew that Pa was out in the dark, where the terrible howling was…Jack growled.”
“Then Ma began to sway gently in the comfortable rocking-chair. Fire-light ran up and down, up and down the barrel of Pa’s pistol in her lap. And Ma sang, softly and sweetly:
“‘There is a happy land,
Far, far away,
Where saints in glory stand,
Bright, bright as day.
Oh, to hear the angels sing,
Glory to the Lord, our King–‘
Wilder gives the impression not only that it was just yesterday that she experienced the events described, but that you the reader were there too. The Little House books, with their restrained and economical use of words tell you not only what happened, but how it felt. You see and feel the excitement and fun of a “sugaring-off” dance in the Big Woods; you feel the oppressive fear and helplessness of the Ingalls family as they sit awake night after night on the Kansas prarie, listening to Indian war cries probably less than a mile away, with the nearest town two days’ journey away.
So far I’ve read Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie. Big Woods is incredibly cozy. The family works hard, but Laura find almost all the work fun. Mary and Laura have fun improvising toys from items around them–the only real toy they have is a rag doll each–and their parents find time to spend with them too. There is always plenty of food of all kinds, the occasional trip to town provides them with more than enough of everything else they need. Though they rarely see a human being other than themselves, and although dangers such as panthers and bears haunt the Big Woods, Laura feels safe and secure, and her parents are apparently confident in their own and each others’ ability to provide for the family. It must have been a very different way to grow up, rarely seeing anyone but your sisters and parents for much of your childhood. Laura, like the rest of her family, is always brave and competent when dealing with questions of danger and survival; but she finds it difficult to deal with people (In one of the books, maybe Happy Golden Years, there is some quotation along the lines of “When she was only with family, everthing ran smoothly; but as soon as she was among outsiders she was in difficulties.”) This conflict begins in Big Woods: Laura always feels loved within her family and, as the family tomboy, has a special bond with Pa; but she finds it difficult to remember to be polite and good with outsiders, and when she discovers that people admire her sister Mary’s appearance more than her own, she learns to be jealous.
Big Woods ends with the beautiful passage:
“When the fiddle had stopped singing, Laura called out softly, ‘What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?’
“‘They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,’ Pa said. ‘Go to sleep, now.’
“…She thought to herself, ‘This is now.’
“She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”
Big Woods covers one year. Prairie begins early the next spring, with the Ingalls’ move to Kansas, then Indian Territory. In Prairie, the family moves because the Big Woods has grown too crowded–they now see neighbors almost every day, and Pa wants to be where the wild animals live without being afraid of humans.
Prairie has a sense of menace and danger that Big Woods lacks, and it is evident from the beginning. The family leaves on a dark, frozen early spring morning so as to cross the Mississippi River before the ice breaks up. Their aunts and uncles and cousins come to wish them goodbye:
“Mary and Laura clung tight to their rag dolls, and did not say anything. The cousins stood around and looked at them. Grandma and all the aunts hugged and kissed them and hugged and kissed them again, saying good-by.”
In all likelihood they would never see these people again, and it is clear that the parting is a sad one, but the situation is strange and disturbing, and there is already a sense of distance and differentness between Mary and Laura and their cousins. As they leave, “The shutters were over the windows, so the little house could not see them go…And that was the last of the little house.”
Immediately after this, “Pa promised that when they came to the West, Laura should see a papoose.” Laura is immediately entranced with this idea, and thus the sense of menace, which I don’t think I fully appreciated as a child, is accompanied by a love of freedom and adventure which Pa and Laura share, and which Ma and the rest of the family facilitate. Throughout their journey, despite the strangeness and danger, Pa and Ma to make their family feel safe and at home even while camping in a covered wagon in the middle of what is apparently a completely uninhabited land.
I have to wonder what these people were thinking. They travel for a long time, until one day Pa stops and announces this is where they would settle. Laura describes the landscape as a big circle, circumscribed by the horizon and containing nothing but grass. The family has nothing but two horses, a wagon, some tools and clothes, and some cornmeal and salt pork, they are two days away from the nearest town; and they propose to make a life for themselves, by themselves, in a land with nothing but grass and sky. Pa discovers that there is plenty of wild game in the land, and also that there are about five other settlers within walking distance. However, they also discover that there are hundreds of hostile Indians nearby, and a massacre of settlers by Indians in Minnesota was fresh in the minds of one of the other settler couples.
The family weathers not only the hostility of the Indians, but also fire, wolves, injuries, and malaria. Pa had chosen to settle in Indian Territory because of the richness of the land, and because he had been told the Indians would soon be made to move west once again. However, one day, in the middle of spring planting and having finished their house down to floor, chimney, and glass windows, the get word that the army is coming to move the settlers out of Indian Territory. Rather than being turned out of the country “‘like an outlaw,'” the family moves the next day. Once again, they leave their little house: “The snug log house looked just as it always had. It did not seem to know they were going away.”
During the day’s journey, the family comes across another couple. They are sitting next to their wagon. Their horses were stolen in the night, they have no way of getting anywhere, but they refuse to leave their wagon, which contains everything they own. This episode underlines the fact that settlers on the frontier were gambling their lives and those of their familes against their own competence to make a life out of nothing. Pa’s judgement is that these two were lacking in the necessary competence–they had left their horses unguarded and vulnerable to thieves, and he resolves to notify soldiers at Independence to come back and make them return to town. Despite a second loss of everything they had worked for, the book ends optimistically, the family has confidence in their own ability to start again:
“‘Do you know, Caroline…I’ve been thinking what fun the rabbits will have, eating that garden we planted.’
“‘Don’t, Charles,” Ma said.
“‘Never mind, Caroline!’ Pa told her. ‘We’ll make a better garden. Anyway, we’re taking more out of Indian Territory than we took in.’
“‘I don’t know what,’ Ma said, and Pa answered, ‘Why, there’s the mule!’ Then Ma laughed, and Pa and the fiddle sang again.
“…They were all there together, safe and comfortable for the night, under the wide, starlit sky. Once more the covered wagon was home.”
Many of the events in this book are life-threatening, and I would think enough to discourage the bravest and most competent settler. The books must have been softened to make them suitable for children, and I wonder what everyone was really thinking and feeling–did Pa and Ma really have as much confidence in themselves and each other as they seem to, did the children really trust their parents as implicitly, and did everyone really have enough self-control never to give way to tears or despair?
Of interest to the 21st-century reader are gender and race relations as reflected in the books. Pa and Ma have clearly distinguished, traditional roles within the family. Pa hunts, farms, and carpenters; Ma apparently wastes nothing remotely edible as she prepares and preserves food for her family, as well as cleaning and sewing. Ma takes pride in her own femininity (I remember in one of the books, she quotes to Laura “‘Her voice was ever soft and low, an excellent thing in a woman'”), she has an tremendous amount of respect for and trust in her husband, which is reciprocated:
“Then Pa looked at Ma and said, “Nobody’d starve to death when you were around, Caroline.’
“‘Well, no,’ Ma said. ‘No, Charles, not if you were there to provide for us.'”
The couple never seems to fight and rarely has a difference of opinion. They are affectionate with each other, and apparently quite devoted. Ma apparently usually defers to Pa in decision-making; she agrees to several moves probably more because the adventurous Pa wanted to make them than because she did. On occasion Ma prevails, however: in one of the later books, after the family is well-settled in South Dakota, Pa tells her that he would like to move west again. Ma objects, saying that after years of being dragged around the countryside she thought they were finally settled; and the family stays. In The Long Winter, when the entire town has insufficient food due to an unusually sever winter, Pa toys with the idea of making a very dangerous trip because there is a rumor that there might be food available. Ma suddenly becomes terrible and commanding, and says she won’t stand for it. Pa capitulates immediately.
However much the real relationship might have deviated from this picture, it is interesting that this combination of traditional gender roles, mutual respect and reliance, and the strength shown by both husband and wife in taking care of their family, is considered the ideal. I was reading one of those insidious articles about how the Christian wife ought to act the other day (I really need to leave those alone), and it decried the modern idea that a marriage ought to be a “partnership.” Though Pa and Ma’s relationship had clearly defined gender roles and division of labor, I think it was in the full sense of the word a partnership: it is doubtful that either person could have made it on their own, or at least done as well. Even if both people had been part-time hunter-farmers and part-time homemakers, I doubt if it would have worked out as well: Pa and Ma were each specialists, each had long training and expertise in their own designated jobs. If they had both taken on every role, they would probably only be amateurs at everything.
In addition, both seem to be more than contented with their lot in life. Though Caroline is less enthusiastic about being on the frontier than Charles, she is more than willing to go along with it. It is interesting, however, that on Frontier House the men seem, in general, to enjoy the frontier experience more than the women. One wife describes the place as a man’s playground (or fantasyland, I forget the term). The women seemed to be tied to the house; one settler said that the mother with several children seemed to spend her entire day doing nothing but cooking. The girls certainly seemed to enjoy riding horses or haying with their father more than domestic chores. The men, on the other hand, seemed to really get into it–they were proud of having accomplished so much physical labor and even missed it after they left. I’m guessing that men’s work was really more “fun” than women’s–Laura seems to find it so, though Mary is happy to be domestic.
The issue of Indians vs. settlers is also interesting. Unlike his wife and the other settlers, Pa seems to like the Indians. He doesn’t think they mean the settlers any harm, and he doesn’t blame them for being resentful at having their land taken and being moved west, though he does think they should “know when they’re licked” and fully intends to settle in Indian Territory. Laura is somewhat afraid of the Indians, but also fascinated by their strangeness and their apparent freedom from the restraints placed on her as a Caucasian girl.
When the Ingalls family contracts malaria, an African-American doctor who has been working among the Indians comes to their rescue. I really didn’t know there were any African-American doctors in the 1800s, it would be very interesting to research how he might have become a doctor and what led to his working with the Indians. Though the doctor’s appearance is strange to Laura, who may never have seen a black person before, no racism is apparent in the settlers’ dealings with Dr. Tan. Perhaps this reflects that the Civil War had taken place not long before, and according to Big Woods, Pa’s brother had apparently fought for the Union.
The whole settlement of the American West, the incredible feat wrought by the settlers combined with the tragedy of the expropriation and devastation of the American Indians, seems so fraught with heroism and tragedy and lunacy, I’m amazed that these calm, comforting childrens’ books which are so full of the importance of kindness, love, and charity as well as bravery and self-reliance. Even though our lives and world are radically different from Laura’s, the frontier still seems to epitomize the American experience–our insistence on individual rights, the ability of each person to decide his or her own destiny and that of the nation, and the necessity of hard work and sacrifice; which are so important yet can be destructive unless combined by strong, loving relationships and the imperative of helping a neighbor in need.
There is a passage from one of the books which I can’t remember perfectly, but which has stuck with me and affected how I think about politics and life in general. It occurs during a Fourth of July celebration and is basically the idea that Americans are free, but that real freedom isn’t the same as license to do whatever they please; rather it means that they must make themselves be good rather than having an outside entity make them, as a parent does a child. This idea is echoed in another book, Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. I think this concept is very important in considering what Christians mean by freedom: Freedom as license, without a governing value system, is destructive rather than emancipating. In addition, as an adult in the modern world as well as on the frontier, freedom is a very frightening and dangerous thing without a strong value system, strong relationships, and reliance on and trust in God, which enable one to conquer the tendency to despair and instead make something positive out of it.

4 Responses to “little house”

  1. Trena says:

    Thanks for the web link and the trip down memory lane along with your adult observations. There is a very special something about Laura’s writing that makes both children and adults respond. That era has always fascinated me, but as an adult, I have often wondered how the people possibly survived.
    I read the books, most of my own children did, and I promote them in my library now. Our family was able to stop at two of the Laura sites–Burr Oak, IA and Mansfield, MO. Both are very interesting. I’d love to take in a few others some day.

  2. michele says:

    Thank you for the note! My family went to the South Dakota home when I was a kid, it was very enjoyable. Now that we are sort of close to Wisconsin, it’s tempting to travel to Pepin some time. Meanwhile, I’ll keep making my way through the series.

  3. JAJA says:


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