Some time ago, as I was putting together the short story, Atalanta and the Erlking I was reminded yet again again of my own grade-school devotion to Laura Ingalls Wilders’ Little House books. My heroine is a thirteen-year-old girl, in the Texas Hill country during the Civil War, taking the first few steps toward being a responsible adult, in caring for her younger sister and friends, and bearing a warning to other households in the tiny settlement where she lives about the depredations of the ‘hanging band’, a pro-Confederate lynch mob. Much of the background activities in the story – cutting wood, making soap over an open fire – are all drawn from my memories of reading the Little House books. I have all of them, of course, from the hard-bound uniform editions that were published in the 1960ies, with Garth Williams’ illustrations. All of mine are sadly battered, and minus the dust jackets, but with flyleaf inscriptions in Mom’s handwriting; a present to me on my 8th birthday, a Christmas present in 1964, or 1965. Over five or six years, I acquired them one and two at a time, and read them avidly, often in one sitting. Little Town on the Prairie was the first, and is the most completely tattered. I think I got The Long Winter and These Happy Golden Years next, at one fell swoop for my birthday, and then Mom and Dad filled out the collection with Farmer Boy and the others.

Mom had also been a fan. The books were originally published when she was in grade school, and her class had written a group fan letter to Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was still then living, and she had sent them a very cordial reply, befitting a very proper Victorian school teacher. Later on, Mom tried emulating Ma, in being always calm and serene no matter what the situation, with mixed success as that degree of passive Victorian “Angel in the House” serenity was very much against her nature to begin with.

I read them out of sequence, as I received them as presents, and afterwards over and over and over again. I still hold the books (but not the TV series, which was marred by the constraints imposed by a weekly need for drama and irredeemable presentism) in considerable affection. Looking back now, though, one does wonder a little bit about Pa. Even allowing for Mrs. Wilder’s nostalgic affections, how on earth could a man make a bust of farming in Minnesota, for pete’s sake? And rushing out to stake a claim in a territory not yet open for settlement, and which turned out not to be, after all? It is not even certain that the books were entirely of her own writing, either. The Little House books are so different, much more immediate in the telling, and deft in the descriptions and characterization than those writings known absolutely to be by Mrs. Wilder. That was plain to me as soon as I had a chance to compare and contrast- say, by high school. As soon as the theory was raised by her biographer, I thought it quite likely that Rose Wilder Lane, a professional writer of long experience, had polished, added to and edited her mother’s memoir.

The books spoke to us, to Mom and I both. After all, when they were first published, the details of lives on the frontier in the 1870ies were in the living memory of grandparents, and even parents; Granny Jessie had been raised on a farm, where horses provided the main power, when pigs were slaughtered in the fall, for meat to last the winter, and it was expected that a housewife would make her own clothes and her own jam, and for the family to make their own music and entertainment of an evening. Wood burning stoves, kerosene lanterns and outhouses were, and are still a part of life in many parts of the country. My own Dad fixed things, and built things, just like Pa. Mom read to us, and made our clothes, and we sang long folksongs together – just like the Ingalls family did.

And even though they had lived in what was always seen as the Old West (and everything I ever knew about blizzards and the dangerous attraction of pump handles in mid-winter, I learned from the books) this was an Old West that was not the wild and wooly frontier of so much popular culture: although there were brief encounters with elements that are supposed to be typical (cattle drives, Indians, lawlessness and violence) most of the narrative is concerned with the prosaic business of making a life for a family, in the face of dangers more natural than man-made; blizzards, prairie fires, tornadoes, drought and plagues of grasshoppers, malaria and scarlet fever. Oh, and the problem of being snubbed at school by the girls with nicer clothes, and trying to keep a surprise Christmas present a secret, in a small house.

The Little House books still speak to us, because in that American way, they are profoundly optimistic. The common message running through all the books is that of being able to cope with whatever was set in your way, no matter how large or small: You yourself, your family, with your friends, and the community could do what needed to be done to resolve the problem, no matter if it was a bad-tempered teacher picking on your little sister, or the entire town snowed in and near starvation. There was a solution, sometimes a hard, and risky solution, requiring courage and daring –  but there was a solution, and it could be accomplished. This is a very empowering message, which I think explains the enduring appeal.

1 Comment

  1. It’s also possible that, while Wilder’s usual writing style was more formal, she took on more of a storytelling style in the books because she really was telling a story. If Lane acted as her amanuensis, as often happens in memoir situations, Wilder may have felt more free as a storyteller in the bosom of her family, also. Victorians often maintained strong differences of conduct and tone in different parts of their lives, to a degree that seems startling today. It was routine for someone who was stiff in public to be warm and open in the home.