I received two beautiful hardback copies of Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie for Christmas, 1967. I would have been just short of my eighth birthday. I loved these books, with their beautiful illustrations. Over the next three years, I read the rest of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series: seven books about her own childhood in ‘pioneer country’ in the mid-19th century, and one, Farmer Boy, about her husband, Almanzo as he grew up on a prosperous farm in New York State. The books begin when Laura is about seven and they end with her marriage, at the age of about eighteen, to Almanzo Wilder – and, many would say, to his beautiful ‘matched pair’ of horses, Prince and Lady. The whole set shaped my imaginative world as a child. I created a dolls’ village, made of shoe boxes, modelled after the ‘Little Town’ of Little Town on the Prairie. Above all, providentially, it was Little House in the Big Woods which taught me to pray. Like many childhood readers, I emulated the heroines of my favorite books. Now Laura says before she goes to bed each night:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray thee Lord my soul to keep.
And if I die before I wake,
I pray thee Lord my soul to take.
I had never come across a prayer before, and any fool could see that this was not merely a prayer but a poem: it rhymes! So I imitated Laura: I said this prayer at night before I went to sleep. Not every night, certainly, but still often enough to call it a habit of my childhood, and a little piece of providence.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series follows Laura as she grows up, and likewise the books become progressively more difficult and attuned to an audience of older and older children. As the series begins, she is in the ‘Big Woods’ of Wisconsin. In the beginning of the second book, the family travel in a covered wagon to – where? I am not really sure. They live on a Prairie in a log cabin made by Pa. Or several of them, because they are forced to move on by the government after settling in land that had been designated as Indian territory. Fear of Indians, their nakedness and their scalp hunting propensities, is an important theme of the books. Laura is sometimes rebuked by Ma for looking like a little Indian, because she wants to go about bare foot and without her bonnet. It is in Little House on the Prairie that Indians come to the cabin when Pa is away and demand food from Ma; the family also witness a mass exodus by an Indian tribe, riding on horseback past their wooden domicile. One of the fascinating things about the books is that the family seem to make so many of their possessions. Ma sews their clothes while Pa fashions their houses. In the third book, which is perhaps my favorite, On the Banks of Plum Creek, the family are living in a mud ‘dug-out’ alongside a river. By now the family is Ma, Pa, Mary, the eldest, Laura, and baby Carrie. Pa is often absent, because their crops are eaten by grasshoppers, and he must go West to find work. There is a repeated drama of counting the days for Pa to return, through ice, sleet, and snow, to the dugout.
By the Shores of Silver Lake begins with what was, for my generation, perhaps the saddest scene in literature: the death of faithful Jack, the bull dog who has followed the wagon for hundreds of miles, and protected the womenfolk whenever Pa is away. At the beginning of By the Shores of Silver Lake, faithful Jack, who always turns around three times before he goes to sleep at night, dies of old age, but it happens when all the family are down with scarlet fever, and Laura has been too sick to care for him or even to notice that he is sick himself. Laura had forgotten to clean Jack’s bedding for weeks before he died and she bitterly rebukes herself with this when one day his body is found cold and dead. Jack’s death was, for me, much sadder and more heart-rending than the death of Beth in Little Women. If my generation disbelieved in hell and believed in animal immortality, Laura Ingalls Wilder must take some responsibility. Jack’s death taught even rational members of my generation that there is such a place as ‘The Happy Hunting Ground’ and it is not empty. After this sad beginning, the family take a train West and I cannot remember a single other thing that happens in the book. Very little happens in The Long Winter, because the family, bereft of Jack but now including baby Grace, spend most of the book holed up in their ‘town house’ trying not to freeze or starve to death through five months of brutal snow storms. It’s very memorable, especially the scenes where Pa tries, and sometimes fails, to play his omnipresent fiddle against the howling of the wind. In Little Town on the Prairie Laura has become a young lady of fifteen, and there are many scenes of fun and incipient romance: I loved this one for the ‘school’ scenes, and also for the detailed descriptions of Laura’s clothes. In These Happy Golden Years Laura becomes a school mistress and is courted and won by Almanzo, Prince and Lady.
Because the ‘Laura Ingalls Wilder’ books are so realistic and so carefully aimed not just at ‘children’ but at children in a specific age range, one seems less likely to read them again as adults. I have discovered that they have a ‘continuing adult’ fan club, but I myself find that a little odd, as I do, for instance, grown women who collect dolls or doll furniture. I mean less likely than, for instance, fantasy books with allegorical aims. It’s like dipping back into one’s childhood to read them again. I might have never looked at them again if, passing through London twenty five years ago, I had not found a biography of Laura in a friend’s guest room. I read it before I left in the morning. It told me two things I had not known. One is that it was commonly supposed that Laura’s only daughter, Rose, practically co-authored the books. Second, Laura ‘cleaned up’ and idealized the families travels: rather than heading out of Wisconsin and make a bee line for Dakota, where the ‘Little Town’ is, they meandered back and forth. And she left out some things: along with Jack, the other victim of the scarlet fever ‘by the banks of Plum Creek’ was a baby brother Charles. For a ‘Little House’ literalist it was interesting to learn, not that Laura ‘invented’ the story – because she did not, but that she condensed and clarified it rather a lot. During the harsh winter of 2014, I felt an impulse to re-read The Long Winter and bought a box set. I’ve re-read The Long Winter twice now – again in 2015! The box set contained one volume which was unknown to my childhood: The First Four Years, Laura’s failed attempt to write about the very hard first years of her marriage, in which she lost a baby son, Charles (named like her Pa and her lost brother). Overall I’ve come to realize that Laura’s life was much harsher than the image a child takes away from the novels. It not that she deliberately makes anything ‘rosier’ than she remembers: it’s that the books are the opposite of a ‘Misery Memoir’ and she gives the ‘truth’ of what she herself experienced as a happy childhood, whether it was ‘objectively’ a good childhood or not. After re-reading The Long Winter in 2014 I felt the urge to consume another Laura biography. This one rehabilitates Laura’s claim to have written the books with her name on them (even suggesting that Laura had more literary influence on her daughter Rose than vice versa). But in its own way it seems to ‘demythologize’ the ‘Laura legend.’ So for instance it begins with pages of statistics about the apparently large log industry in Wisconsin in the 1860s and 1870s. The point is to show that the picture Laura paints of being a child in ‘the big woods’ is legendary or mythological. This put my back up: the ‘truth’ of the books is that it felt to a five year old girl like their little house was isolated in the woods, with only bears and deer for companions. Laura is describing what her subjective ‘world’ was actually like to her, as a child; she is describing how she perceived her childhood world, not describing the ‘objective’ world of the statistician. Only a theologian would put it like this, but I’ve learned a fair amount about how ‘objective history’ relates to the gospel lives of Jesus from thinking about how the ‘real’ Laura of the biographers relates to the ‘Laura’ of the biographical book series. So I did not leave the books behind in my childhood after all.
The scarlet fever which strikes the family at Plum Creek takes away Laura’s sister Mary’s sight. Mary, the good, docile, well-behaved blonde older sister is a pivot of the books from the very start. The contrast between the brown-haired, strong-willed Laura and her more ‘lady like’ older sister is one of the things which ‘makes’ the books – giving them a creative tension. An episode which every reader will remember from Little House in the Big Woods is when Laura slaps Mary and, in response, Pa whips Laura. The scene was probably struck from the TV series (which I never saw). It is the only time in the books that we see Pa or Ma strike the children, though it is likely that they were disciplined more than once - Laura did not only make the books ‘rosier’ when she encapsulated her life story in this symbolic narrative! Laura’s being disciplined – no, one should be blunt and say whipped – by her beloved Pa for losing her cool and slapping is symbolic of the conflict between Laura’s relatively unruly, barely controlled emotions, and Mary’s more self-contained or ‘stoical’ front. After Mary goes blind, Laura becomes her ‘eyes,’ describing every scene to her. So the conflict abates, as Laura becomes ‘the strong one’: but the contrast is still there. Later, Laura’s school teaching, sewing, and sundry odd-jobbing in the ‘Little Town’ helps to pay for Mary to go away to a College for the Blind. There is a beautiful scene where Ma and Mary sew a blue cashmere-silk dress for Mary to take to College. The night before Mary leaves for College, she and Laura go out for a walk.
They went walking past the stable and up the low hill beyond. The sun was sinking to rest, like a king, Laura thought, drawing the gorgeous curtains of his great bed around him. But Mary was not pleased by such fancies. So Laura said, ‘The sun is sinking, Mary, into white downy clouds that spread to the edge of the world. All the tops of them are crimson, and streaming down from the top of the sky are great gorgeous curtains of rose and gold with pearly edges. They are a great canopy over the whole prairie. The little streaks of sky between them are clear, pure green.’ Mary stood still. ‘I’ll miss our walks,’ she said, her voice trembling a little. ‘So will I.’ Laura swallowed and said, ‘but only think, you are going to college.’”
—Little Town on the Prairie, pp. 110-111.
And then I stopped and read on, expecting the scene where Mary and Laura discuss their childhood rivalry and forgive one another. Of course I had misremembered and conflated several scenes. After a lot of searching, I found one of the passages I remember best in the books:
‘Sheep sorrel tastes like springtime.’ Laura said. ‘It really tastes a little like lemon flavoring, Laura,’ Mary gently corrected her. Before she ate sheep sorrel she always asked, ‘Did you look carefully? You’re sure there isn’t a bug on it?’ ‘There never are any bugs,’ Laura protested. ‘These prairies are so clean. There never was such a clean place.’ ‘You look, just the same,’ said Mary. ‘I don’t want to eat the only bug in the whole of Dakota territory.’ They laughed together. Mary was so light-hearted now that she often made such little jokes. Her face was so serene in her sunbonnet, her blue eyes were so clear and her voice so gay that she did not seem to be walking in darkness.
Mary had always been good. Sometimes she had been so good that Laura could hardly bear it. But now she seemed different. Once Laura asked her about it.
‘You used to try all the time to be good,’ Laura said. ‘And you always were good. It made me so mad sometimes, I wanted to slap you. But now you are good without even trying.’
Mary stopped still. ‘Oh Laura, how awful! Do you ever want to slap me now?’
‘No, never,’ Laura answered honestly.
‘You honestly don’t? You aren’t just being gentle me because I’m blind?’
‘No! Really and honestly …. I wish I could be like you. But I guess I never can be,’ Laura sighed. ‘I don’t know how you can be so good.’
‘I’m not really, Mary told her. I do try, but if you could see how rebellious and mean I feel sometimes, if you could see what I really am, inside, you wouldn’t want to be like me.’
‘I can see what you’re like inside,’ Laura contradicted. ‘It shows all the time. You’re always perfectly patient and never the least bit mean.’
‘I know why you wanted to slap me,’ Mary said. ‘It was because I was showing off. I wasn’t really wanting to be good. I was showing off to myself, what a good little girl I was, and being vain and proud and I deserved to be slapped for it.’
Laura was shocked. Then suddenly she felt that had known that, all the time. But, nevertheless, it was not true of Mary.
That is what I remember of the scene: the confession that all along, Mary had been, as Laura once puts it (of herself), like the cup which is clean on the outside and dirty within. Then Mary tells Laura that ‘We are all desperately wicked … But that doesn’t matter.’ How could it not matter? What matters, Mary explains, is
‘Just being sure of the goodness of God.’ Laura stood still, and so did Mary, because she dared not step without Laura’s arm in hers guiding her. There Mary stood in the green and flowery miles of grass rippling in the wind, under the great blue sky and white clouds sailing, and she could not see. Everyone knows that God is good. But it seemed to Laura that Mary must be sure of it in some special way.
‘You are sure, aren’t you?’ Laura asked.
‘Yes, I am sure of it now all the time,’ Mary answered. ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside the still waters. I think that’s the loveliest Psalm of all. Why are we stopping here? I don’t smell the violets.’”
--Little Town on the Prairie, pp. 10-13.
The religiosity of the Little House books is individualistic. Mary knows what she knows because she knows her Bible by heart. The family go to church when they can, and are very glad when a preacher settles where they are, and there is ‘church.’ Their Christianity comes over as individualistic because there does not seem to be anyone or anything organizing it over and above those local preachers, some crazy (like the adoptive father of Laura’s friend Ida) and others Godly. When Laura and Almanzo decide to get hitched, they tell Ida’s adoptive father, their minister, and shortly thereafter, he marries them (without using the word ‘obey’, which both he and Laura dislike). They roll up and get married with Ida as their witness. I must admit this non-sacramental and uncollectivist Christianity is very appealing to me.
When I look back over the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, I remember many touching scenes. There is the dreadful business in On the Banks of Plum Creek when Ma gives away Laura’s doll, to a neighbor’s spoilt little girl, thinking Laura too old to care about such things. Perhaps one has to read that the first time when one’s doll is still ‘a person’ to one to feel the drama of the loss and recovery of the doll. All the scenes where Laura has to fight for respect as a sixteen year old school teacher will etch themselves in a child’s memory. Her battles against Nellie Olsen, who really is everything Mary accuses herself to be, are likewise moments of great drama. Perhaps the most striking symbol in all the novels is Ma’s china doll. The china doll goes with the family in the covered wagon from Wisconsin, through all their journeys in dugouts, claim shanties and wooden cabins and ‘town houses.’ However bare the surroundings, the china doll is there, standing for the triumph of culture over nature.
—Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.