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Wednesday 26 April 2017

Book review - Little House on the Prairie

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic autobiographical children's novel (1935) has been in print since its first publication and it’s not difficult to see why. It is a simply told enchanting depiction of a time lost as seen through the eyes of a child, though revealed in the third person some sixty-odd years after the events depicted.

Note: I've read a number of reviewers who feel uncomfortable with some of the material in this book, even declaring it racist. I would suggest that if they bring their present-day consciences (and prejudices) to bear on a book written of its time, either leave their political correctness at the front cover or don't bother to read any 19th and early twentieth century literature.

Ma (Caroline) and Pa (Charles) Ingalls and their three children, Mary, baby Carrie and Laura are leaving behind the Big Woods of Wisconsin, intent on settling in Indian country. The family travels in a single wagon, accompanied by their dog, Jack. They come close to losing everything while crossing a high-water creek, but they survive and camp out on the prairie. All alone on the prairie. While the events of the true story took place about 1869-1870, this story can be taken as a microcosm of the mass migration of settlers moving West in the 1830s-1850s. Their bravery and steadfastness is taken for granted. It must have been a daunting undertaking. And at times the man of the family had to leave them to their own devices while he went hunting for food: ‘He went away. For a little while they could see the upper part of him above the tall grasses, going away and growing smaller. Then he went out of sight and the prairie was empty.’ (p27)

Eventually, they find a spot near Verdigris River where Pa will build their house on the prairie, using logs from the creek bottoms. They unloaded the wagon then dismantled it, using the wagon cover to protect their belongings; all that was left were the four wheels and the parts that connected them: ‘It was strange and frightening to be left without the wagon on the High Prairie. The land and the sky seemed too large, and Laura felt small. She wanted to hide and be still in the tall grass, like a little prairie chicken. But she didn’t. She helped Ma, while Mary sat on the grass and minded Baby Carrie.’(p34)

Once the house was built, the wagon was reconstructed. The wagon canvas served as a temporary roof; eventually, a wooden roof and floor would be installed. It would be needed to obtain supplies from the town of Independence some forty miles away. Pa also constructed a barn to protect their horses, for wolves roamed about: ‘There in the moonlight sat half a circle of wolves. They sat on their haunches and looked at Laura in the window, and she looked at them. She had never seen such big wolves…’ (p56)

Throughout we get atmospheric glimpses of nature: ‘Everything was silent, listening to the nightingale’s song. The bird sang on and on. The cool wind moved over the prairie and the song was round and clear above the grasses’ whispering. The sky was like a bowl of light overturned on the flat black land.’ (p41)

Another impression: ‘All along the road the wild larkspur was blossoming pink and blue and white, birds balanced on yellow plumes of goldenrod, and butterflies were fluttering. Starry daisies lighted the shadows under trees, squirrels chattered on branches overhead, white-tailed rabbits hopped along the road, and snakes wriggled quickly across it when they heard the wagon coming.’ (p66) ‘… and the ox-eyed daisies’ yellow petals hung down from the crown centres.’ (p102)

Life was simpler. They didn’t think of themselves as poor. They felt blessed, because they were a family, and loved. At Christmas, the girls were overjoyed to get from Santa a glittering new cup each, and sticks of candy, and heart-shaped cakes, and a bright new penny. ‘There never had been such a Christmas.’ (p143) ‘The ground was hot under their bare feet. The sunshine pierced through their faded dresses and tingled on their arms and backs. The air was really as hot as the air in an oven, and it smelled faintly like baking bread. Pa said the smell came from all the grass seeds parching in the heat.’ (p102)

Their first encounter with Indians is tense, during one of Pa’s hunting absences, but the incident was harmless enough, though a couple of these visitors stole Ma’s cornbread and Pa’s tobacco pouch. They almost took the bundle of furs (which were to be traded for seeds and a plough), but refrained. It did raise the thorny issue of settling in Indian country: ‘The government is going to move these Indians father west, any time now. That’s why we’re here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick. Now do you understand?’ Laura said, ‘Yes, Pa. But, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won’t it make the Indians made to have to…?’ Pa said, ‘No more questions, Laura. Go to sleep.’ (p136)

Their stay in the log cabin only amounted to about a year. Pa had wanderlust, and had heard that the army was intent on moving settlers east, over the territory border, since they’d mistakenly settled in Osage reservation land. So Pa upped sticks, left behind all that hard work, and lit out in the wagon with his family to Minnesota.

A poignant tale, possibly idealised, but well told.

The ‘Little House’ series consists of:
Little House in the Big Woods (1932)
Farmer Boy (1933)
Little House on the Prairie (1935)
On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937)
By the Shores of Silver Lake (1939)
The Long Winter (1940)
Little Town on the Prairie (1941)
These Happy Golden Years (1943)

Other authors have added to the series.

The TV series starring Michael Landon (1936-1991) ran from 1974 to 1982.

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