Monday, March 3, 2014

The “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Review

Well here it is, the dawn of a new month! And, at least where I live, no sign of spring in sight. This winter has been brutal, either sunny and the bitterest of colds or snowing copiously. It’s the kind of winter where you want to just curl up beside a fire and read a long novel from the 1800’s. It’s basically the human form of hibernation.

Or, rather than just one book, you could probably tuck in a whole series of them. Yep, in honor of this Long Winter, today I’m going to talk about Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose “Little House” books contain quite a few wintery doozies themselves. 

First, to reminisce on my first exposure to these books.  I remember them being the one of the first Read-Alouds my mom did when she started home-schooling me in the first grade.  She got me to sit still because the main character’s name was Laura.  To six-year-old me, anyone named “Laura” was bound to be awesome.  It didn’t hurt that this was about the time the Little House on the Prairie television show was still in regular circulation, along with Doctor Quinn: Medicine Woman.  Pioneer stuff was “in”—and I was the perfect age to have a “Pioneer Girl” phase (as I’ve found with other little girls about that same age, even recently). 

For those who might not know, Wilder’s books, starting with Little House in the Big Woods and ending with The First Four Years, chronicle her young life from ages four to twenty.  Mostly episodic, she relates the detailed procedure the pioneers had to get the simplest things, like smoking meat, making bullets, weaving hats, building log cabins…the list goes on and on. She tells of the hardships her family goes through: fires and drought and sickness and being lost in snowstorms…even moving was a titanic undertaking at that time, and the Ingalls family moved a lot. With the ability to mold words to shape an exact and vivid picture of time and place, Wilder describes a wildly beautiful, often dangerous America and the people who ventured out into that unknown. 

Maybe because of this initial connection to Laura Ingalls Wilder, I’ve found myself repeatedly drawn back to these books, reading them in every imaginable order, scouring their pages to look for little clues as to who Laura Ingalls really was. I relate to her competitive nature, her perfectionism, her always striving to be the best. I relate to her being a tomboy, fierce independence, and even her hot temper. Yet even with all these relatable aspects, I find myself wondering what she was really like. I constantly wonder at her self-discipline, her contentment, and I try to read between the lines of what she says in the books to try to discern how she really felt

Because although these books are filled with details of her true life—startlingly so for the first few volumes, since her memory of those years was so thorough even fifty or sixty years later—Wilder did make some changes and omissions. She alters her age in the first book, maybe because she didn’t think a publisher would believe she could remember such details from when she was three years old, maybe also because it helped close the ten-year age difference between her and her future husband Almanzo. She skips over her sister Mary’s battle with scarlet fever to the end result: that her sister is blind. By skipping over scarlet fever altogether, she skips over the death of an infant brother (who isn’t mentioned in any of the books). The dreaded villainess of the books, Nellie Olsen, is a composite of seemingly every girl Wilder ever disliked.  A second sister of Almanzo Wilder, also named Laura, was cut out for clarity’s sake. 

Yet with all these alterations, made for pacing and plot reasons as well as “the names were changed to protect the innocent,” there is an undeniable smack of reality to these stories. See, I don’t reread these books just to play detective and find the “real Laura Ingalls Wilder.” I also read them because they’re good stories, and the things they teach me are truer than the incidents themselves. These books taught me, even as a young girl, about the love and sacrifice of family, the sweetness of simple gifts we give each other, the rewards and satisfaction that come from hard work and dedication. 

Through these books I’ve experienced a wide range of emotion, from the fear when the entire family falls sick with Fever’n’Ague, to the joys of Christmas (especially when Mr. Edwards meets Santa Claus and agrees to help him bring the Ingalls family their gifts by swimming a flooded river with the gifts bundled onto his head!), to anger when Laura’s little sister Carrie is bullied by their teacher, to the sorrow of the death of their loyal dog Jack, to gratitude when their Pa is restored to them after being lost in a blizzard (he fell under the snow, and survived on the Christmas candy he was bringing them from town). 

I may never figure out how that Laura felt going through all those things. But I sure know how this Laura feels reading them.

Recommended Reading Age: My mom read these to me starting at age six, and I did the same with my little sister.  They take quite a while to read, so by the time one gets to the mushy romance stuff of These Happy Golden Years one has pretty much grown into it. 

Parental Notes: These books are clean and wholesome, with the main issue arising in Little House on the Prairie: the issue of racism against Native Americans, an issue I think is treated in a way that would prompt even young children to start thinking about issues of prejudice and intolerance.

Availability: The books are, in chronological order, Little House in the Big Woods
The First Four Years. All are available in hardcover and illustrated by Garth Brooks via Amazon, and you can also get a library omnibus , and the books are popular enough that you can get paperback copies at pretty much any well-stocked bookstore or library book-sale.

Adaptations: In addition to the famous Michael Landon adaptation, there was also a TV movie.  I remember seeing ads for the movie, but not the movie itself. As for the TV series, I was a preteen book purist and only saw the episode where Ma gets lockjaw from a piece of rusted metal (which didn’t happen in the books, as I loudly pointed out at the slumber-party where I saw it, and was immediately told to put a sock in it by everyone including my ten-year-old hostess. Come to think of it that was the last sleepover I was ever invited to.  Probably no connection there, however.)

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