Thursday, August 15, 2013

Where the Wilder Things Are

I cannot remember a time before Laura Ingalls Wilder. I was a baby and then I was a pioneer. I assume it all began with an elementary school teacher assigning Little House in the Big Woods as reading homework. What did I read before this? It doesn’t matter - because now I was traveling across vast spaces via covered wagon with Laura. I don’t mean for this to seem overly dramatic. I merely aim to illustrate my captivation with life on the prairie and why I believe the Little House series is such essential reading.

Let me take a step back. Laura Ingalls was born in 1867 in Pepin, Wisconsin (the Big Woods). Between the years 1868 and 1879 Laura moved thousands of miles across the western states with her family (Parents Charles and Caroline, and sisters Mary, Carrie, and Grace) before finally settling in De Smet, South Dakota. Her parents and her sister Mary would spend the rest of their lives in there, while Laura would eventually settle in Mansfield, Missouri with husband Almanzo Wilder.

It’s this time that would eventually become the basis for the enduring children’s series, Little House on the Prairie. Laura was in her sixties when she began writing the first entry, Little House in the Big Woods (1932). Originally intended to be a standalone book, its popularity was immediate and Laura was urged by publishers to write more. Big Woods was followed by Farmer Boy (1933, a book about Almanzo’s childhood in New York), 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), and These Happy Golden Years (1943). A final volume, The First Four Years was published posthumously in 1971 following her death in 1957.

Now, let me take a step forward. What makes a series of books that chronicles an obsolete way of living interesting to children? Especially the early books which, admittedly, read like a list of chores; essentially an expanded version of the old adage “Wash on Monday, iron on Tuesday…” To some extent, I believe there’s a certain curiosity to see how people got along without electricity and grocery stores. It’s entertaining to follow the process of Ma making butter or slaughtering a pig. But beyond the nitty-gritty of daily life, there’s a strong sense of family at the core of the series. No matter how many hard times the Ingalls fall on (and there are a lot of hard times), there’s nothing they can’t get through as long as they have each other and a bit of Pa’s fiddle music. That theme of togetherness in the face of adversity is timeless and an important lesson for kids.

Personally, I’ve always been besotted with the pioneer spirit. I find it to be a strange mix of stern practicality and wistful imagination. The physical work and know-how it takes to build a farm from nothing only to pack up and start over – that takes a certain kind of determination. I can’t fathom the mindset it would take to travel through uncharted lands. The Ingalls were some of the earliest settlers in the Dakota Territory and first family to spend winter in De Smet, when all others packed up and went back East for the cold months. Laura captures this adventurousness in her books and pairs it brilliantly with stories of the mean girl at school or a birthday party in town. So while we may never really know what it’s like to travel months in a covered wagon, we all know what it’s like to deal with a bully. It’s why these stories are so lasting – yes, times have changed, but not nearly as much as we think. And kids continue to respond to and engage with these books. 

That's me at Laura's Little House on the Prairie in Kansas
I found proof of it recently. Not long ago, I returned from a 10 day, 3,000+ mile road trip that followed in Laura’s steps. My goal was not only to see the sites, but also bring to life this pioneer girl I only knew from a book. I wanted to gain greater understanding of her life by participating in the most tactile way possible. And participate I did, from wading in Plum Creek near her dugout home in Minnesota, to walking through tall prairie grasses in Kansas, to pumping water on her South Dakota homestead, and picking up pebbles by Lake Pepin in Wisconsin (and no, I did not rip my pocket). At each stop my family and I made, there were kids. Mostly girls aged about 8 -12 and mostly dressed in some combination of braids, bonnets, and aprons. These are kids who were so drawn into a book, they wanted to physically be a part of it. I don’t really have an explanation as to how these books have managed to fascinate kids continually for over 80 years (they’ve never been out of print since their initial publication in the ’30s), but I’d like to think it has something to do with the level of independence and self-reliance that Laura demonstrates repeatedly throughout the series. She’s a true free spirit and her stories encourage young kids to get out, explore, and have fun. And honestly, I believe there’s no better message than that.
Interested in learning which parts of her books are true and which are altered? Donald Zochert’s biography Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder is absolutely essential. 
Want to read about someone else’s experience traveling the Laura trail? The Wilder Life chronicles author Wendy McClure’s journey.

Wait, wasn’t that a television show? Yes, yes it was and Alison Arngrim’s Confessions of a Prairie Bitch is a hilarious account of her time as Nellie Oleson. 

~Meredith T.


  1. We recently visited Sauder's Village which shows the early life in Ohio's Black Swamp. Of the six of us, four chose Sauder's as the best adventure of our three days, including the Toledo Zoo and the Air Dogs.
    Ask Amy about her trip to Assateague and Chincoteague Islands, the setting of Misty of Chincoteague.

  2. The Little House saga endures not only as magnet for young readers but as a political/philosophical touchstone in the modern arena of public opinion. See a new interpretation of the writing, its intent and the influence of Wilder's daughter Rose on the creation of the series here:

    I hate to see these books deconstructed into critical libertarian theory but you have to admire contemporary writers' enduring fascination with them. Like you, they read the series as children and the themes stayed with them into adulthood, illuminating their lives and informing their world views.

  3. So glad you are discovering the Little House Trail! In the summer of 1989 I camped my way along the same 3,000 mile journey in my "covered wagon" for the first time. (Yep, teacher credit helped, but I had wanted to make the Laura pilgrimage for 15 years before that.) Each Little House home site is unique and local folks continue to bring the Little House stories alive for young and old. I still am making little treks on the prairie and into the woods today, collecting a vast number of Laura-friends along the way.

    You articulated the best reasons why the Little House stories still engage kids: they are honest about the way things were, they tell how things worked (without electricity or iPhones or motors), they reveal human nature, joys, fears and relationships, and they are a glimpse into our American history through the eyes of a child who lived it.

    I invite you to read more up-to-date biographical books of Laura Ingalls Wilder that are written by the experts of all things Laura: William T. Anderson, John Miller and Pamela Smith Hill. The Little House TV world is also involved with the historic Laura: Dean "Almanzo" Butler has produced 3 biographical or music DVDs recently. Checkout the website "Beyond Little House" to see what is going on with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy & Research Association - and join our LauraPalooza conference in 2015.

    Happy Trails!