Revisiting "Little House on the Prairie"

Otherwise Entitled, The Post In Which I Use a Lot (And I Mean A LOT) of Parentheses. (See Below.)

I wish I could spend more time reading. I mean, don't we all? Sometimes I long for the carefree middle school days when I'd blow through 7-8 books a week... and when I do get time to read, I often feel obligated to read mind-improving books (particularly nonfiction, or fiction that I haven't read before). This leaves very little time for the nostalgic occupation of rereading childhood favorites, even though I want to.

But every week, I have at least two if not three hour-long commutes to church and school (that is to say, an hour to drive there and also an hour to drive back). It's a lot of time spent sitting in the car, and I get bored. (There's only so much eye-rolling at tailgaters and people who don't use their turn signal that a girl can do, after all. It gets depressing when it has no effect.)  A few months ago, I decided to start listening to audiobooks instead of just music while I drive, and it's been a fantastic experience!

I'm currently in the middle of listening to the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and it seemed a good subject for a series of blog posts. I have a long history with these books - my dad started reading them out loud to me when I was three and a half, and we have a picture in an old photo album of me sitting primly on the sofa listening to him reading on Thanksgiving morning 1998. (As I recall, I wanted the picture to be taken because I was wearing my favorite shoes and felt the moment should be documented.) Throughout my childhood, I read them several times - with my mom reading the series aloud in the car to me and my sisters, and under my own steam when I was probably supposed to be doing schoolwork. (Being homeschooled, I was a master in the art of sneaking "free reading" books into my desk and reading between subjects. It was virtuously referred to as an "earned break," but only in my head because my mom would not have approved.)

So, in no particular order, here are some thoughts that struck me while re-listening to Little House on the Prairie (hereafter referred to as LHOTP because I am a lazy typist). I'm hoping to make this into a full series as I listen to all the books (I skipped the Big Woods because I actually did read that one in the last year or so), and in order to make it coherent I shall try to emphasize one particular theme from each novel. We Shall See.

Laura Ingalls Wilder - let's establish this right now - is really, really funny. I don't think this is the adjective that first springs to mind when one things of the Little House books. Maybe they're called charming, or evocative of childhood, or nostalgic, or a cherished piece of Americana. They definitely are all of those things, but darn it, they're really hilarious too. Here are a few gems--

"I want to camp, now! I'm so tired," Laura said.
Then Ma said, "Laura." That was all, but it meant that Laura must not complain. So she did not complain any more out loud, but she was still naughty, inside. She sat and thought complaints to herself. (ch. 1, "Going West")
 (Laura's level of internal sass is not something I fully appreciated as a child.)
[Pa] held on to the canvas and fought it. Once it jerked so hard that Laura thought he must let go or sail into the air like a bird. But he held tight to the wall with his legs, and tight to the canvas with his hands, and he tied it down.
"There!" he said to it. "Stay where you are, and be--"
"Charles!" Ma said. She stood with her arms full of quilts and looked up at him reprovingly.
"--and be good," Pa said to the canvas. "Why, Caroline, what did you think I was going to say?"
"Oh, Charles!" Ma said. "You scalawag!" (ch. 6, "Moving In")
(Yeah, I didn't understand that one when I was five, that's for sure.)

(Also, the below is quite possibly the most relatable scene to my own childhood.

Laura stirred her beads with her finger and watched them sparkle and shine. "These are mine," she said.
Then Mary said, "Carrie can have mine."
Ma waited to hear what Laura would say. Laura didn't want to say anything. She wanted to keep those pretty beads. Her chest felt all hot inside, and she wished with all her might that Mary wouldn't always be such a good little girl. But she couldn't let Mary be better than she was.
So she said, slowly, "Carrie can have mine, too." (ch. 14, "Indian Camp")

(The sisterly competition to be The Good Girl is real, guys. And it hasn't changed in 150 years. More on that in a moment.)

After dinner [Pa] hitched Pet and Patty to the wagon and he hauled a tubful of water from the creek so that Ma could do the washing. "You could wash clothes in the creek," he told her. "Indian women do."
"If we wanted to live like Indians, you could make a hole in the roof to let the smoke out, and we'd have the fire on the floor inside the house," said Ma. "Indians do." (ch. 6, "Moving In")
(Ma is not a character known for sardonic replies, but this one - which, in particular, reminded me somehow of Marilla Cuthbert - definitely made me laugh.)

 In general, I find myself relating far more to Ma now that I'm older. I did a little research (i.e., I googled Caroline Quiner Ingalls) and when the Ingalls moved from Wisconsin to Kansas (Indian Territory at the time) in 1869, she would have been 30 years old. That's just seven years older than I am, and she had three small children and a homestead to keep in order on the wild prairies of the Midwest. Can you imagine?

(Incidentally, I also found this letter that may be of some interest to some of you - a scanned image of a letter Caroline Ingalls wrote to her sister Martha in 1861, before any of her children were born. There is also a text transcript in case you don't want to read the faded handwriting, but man, her penmanship is everything I want to be when I grow up. The disease she describes her mother having sounds absolutely dreadful, but I was definitely amused that she decided to tell her sister how much she weighed, which is now preserved for posterity. Judging from her height in photos, Caroline Ingalls wasn't anywhere near a size 0. Dispelling the everyone-was-smaller-back-then myth like so many others! Jennifer Rosbrugh wrote a good post about the waist myth, and there's another excellent article floating around on the Internet somewhere about how smaller garments have survived better than those that fit a larger number of people, thereby altering our perception of the average size in bygone eras, but I can't seem to find it now and I'm seriously digressing.)

That may have been what struck me the most: the reality of everything in this book. I know Laura dramatized some events, left a few out, and combined others to make her books more accessible to young readers and to avoid subjects that were painful to her, but these are true stories about real people, and people don't change. It's said so much as to be almost cliche, but I find myself still forgetting it. It's so easy to put our ancestors into a box of Back Then, to assume that their emotions and goals and dreams and challenges were tremendously different from ours, but to do so is to forget that we came from them. Sure, our lifestyles have changed and perhaps some of our priorities and values along the way (though I hope this hasn't been as drastic a change as some think) but people are still people. Sisters still argue and try to one-up each other. Mothers still tell their kids to be still and quiet. The most virtuous among us still have to watch what they say (and substitute family-friendly alternatives instead of whatever-else-they-were-going-to-call-that-canvas). And the most important parts of our lives - the providence of God, closeness of family, unselfish help and support of friends and neighbors, courage in the face of adversity - we still have these, too.

"The Little House books are stories of long ago," Laura wrote to a group of schoolchildren in 1947, in the midst of her books' wild popularity. "The way we live and your schools are much different now, so many changes have made living and learning easier. But the real things haven't changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong."


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