First published in 1935, this is the third in a series of autobiographical novels known as the Little House series. I haven’t read the first two, but since this particular book is the most famous of the whole series, I decided to read it separately, as if it was a standalone novel.
Laura Ingalls was a small child when her parents, Charles and Caroline, left what she calls the Big Woods of Wisconsin in 1868 with herself, her older sister Mary and Baby Carrie. The first part of the novel covers their trek west through Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri to Kansas in search of good land to homestead. Their covered wagon carries a few necessities and they have their faithful bull mastiff, Jack, to help protect them.
After crossing the Verdigris River, they found a site nearby about 40 miles from the town of Independence, Kansas, and made it their home. Charles Ingalls was a man with many talents, not the least of which was woodworking, so he began to fell the trees in the bottomland and built them a log cabin and a stable for their horses. They made it through the summer with his hunting and making do with the supplies they bought and lived there until 1871.
Even though it is written in third person past voice, Dark-haired Laura is clearly the identity of the story. Her older sister Mary, a blond girl, seems less active and more centered in the home. When Ma needs to get something done, it is Mary who takes up Baby Carrie and cares for her. And during long, hot days, when Laura is out exploring, Mary prefers to be out of the sun in the cabin, doing needlework or helping their mother. Besides all of his skills in woodworking and hunting, Pa also plays the fiddle and both Pa and Ma sing at night.
This may have been what drew my own sisters so deeply into the book. Growing up in northwest Missouri, not far from the setting of this book, their home was also near a river bottom, in our case, the Missouri River. There were four sisters in my family, but like the Ingalls, my father played violin and both of our parents were singers. Like the Ingalls, they worked a farm for most of their lives. The Little House series has been a staple in our family, passed down among the generations of girls when they are all young and it means a great deal to the women in my family to be a part of that heritage. In fact, this book represents the strength and independence of American women and the pioneer spirit that built the west this country over the bones of Native Americans.
Indians play a big role in the book. In the beginning, when the Indians are away for their summer hunting, they represent the bogeyman, the menace that is never seen, but is somehow very close. Almost from the beginning, Laura wants to see a papoose and she asks about it over and over, but when the Indians return from their hunting and camp below the bluffs near the river, their first Indian visitor, when Pa is away, scares her silly. Quiet, tall, stately, he imposes himself on the household, eating the food Ma prepares for him and taking Pa’s tobacco.
While Laura is scared of Indians, Pa has a much more balanced view. He understands that this has been their land for generations and knows that he is an interloper. He tells Laura that the Indian was welcome to his tobacco and that if they should ever come again to let them have something as a way of keeping peace. Their homesteading neighbors are less sanguine and the phrase, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” appears several times. If it weren’t for Pa’s more respectful attitude, this book might find itself banned from libraries instead of being included in the Top 100 Children’s Books. However, even Pa with his liberal attitude believes that the land should belong to “those who will use it,” in other words, the white settlers. Throughout the book, there are rumors that Washington will make a treaty that will result in the homesteaders being ejected from their land, but Pa doesn’t believe it. He thinks that the federal government will keep pushing Indians west.
The Ingalls family faces a myriad of problems during the book, including a prairie fire, a prowling panther, the ever-present fear of Indians, the prospect of a Christmas with no gifts, and a cattle drive. It doesn’t ever feel like it’s building toward something, but it is and that building is so subtle that Laura isn’t even aware of it until near the end. The outward appearance of building–making the log cabin, obtaining a cow, building a stable, digging a well, plowing the ground–all show a growth in the Ingalls control over their land, but the real building occurs in the concern of the Indians over the control of that land. That is what brings things to a head and creates the conclusion of the book.
Wilder has written Little House on the Prairie in a very simple style and that is part of its great charm and why you will find it in the Children’s section of the library, rather than the adult, but make no mistake, it is very well written and equally serves adult readers as well. She has captured her memories of the prairie through nature. Meadowlarks and dickie birds are always singing as the high prairie grass waves in the wind. Deer run free and relax placidly in the river bottom, geese and ducks fly back and forth, north and south, as the seasons pass. Rabbits are everywhere and even snakes make their appearance from time to time. The meat that they eat comes from the world around them and the only work that is necessary is the work that concerns their own day to day lives. Unlike today’s workers, the Ingalls’ labor provided directly for their own survival, not for the benefit of others.
Her genius is surely evident in spare construction of the book, moving swiftly from one thing to another until suddenly the book is over and you wonder, how did that go so fast? It went so fast because it is spare, nearly perfect writing throughout, with engaging characters, a compelling drama, and a fascinating story.
Little House on the Prairie will always have a meaningful place in American literature and rightly so! Recommended for all ages.