The Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932)

Like almost every girl I have ever met, I read and loved all of the Little House on the Prairie books when I was young. My sisters and I had a complete set of all nine of the books narrated by our beloved Laura Ingalls. What drew me to these books — compared to my other preferred reading, which was notably more dramatic, such as Nancy Drew, the Babysitters Club, and Sweet Valley Twins — I never really stopped to consider as a child. As I read this book again yesterday, it occurred to me that some of it charm is just how foreign Laura and Mary’s life seems compared to my childhood and that of most American children in the twentieth (and now twenty-first) century. These books portray children who were a vital part of their families: they had important jobs to do and a role to play that was essential to the family’s survival. Compared to Laura and Mary’s life, my life of playing, reading, relaxing, and more playing seemed exorbitantly luxurious and easy beyond measure.

As I complete the novel several other things about this book came to mind. For Laura’s parents, there was a sense of risk in every single decision they made — should they move or stay, leave now or later, travel thousands of miles with two little girls and a small baby or wait until they children were older — was considered solemnly because every decision was almost completely irrevocable. What a stark contrast to today, when almost everything we take part in can be changed, often with little to no effort at all. To move across the country and pursue a new life in 2016, might involve some risk but should it go wrong we can move back, or try another city or job, or ask a parent for a loan to help out. That was absolutely not the case for the Ingalls’. Every act and every decision took so much effort, so much time, and carried with it so much risk that undoing it was impossible.

I was also struck at how alone the Ingalls’ are as they journey west and begin their new life in Kansas. It is not that there is no one whom they can rely on, but rather that there simply is no one else at all! There are no other travelers with them, they meet few on the journey west, even towns and settlers are extreme rarity as they travel. When they arrive, they are solely responsible for there survival: they must hunt and cook all their meals, build their own home, and get by with no new supplies and no access to more basic necessities. Living in such a solitary place has some advantages (plenty of game to hunt, plenty of timber for building) but it also means that the Ingalls’ must be entirely self-reliant: everyone — even the girls — must work hard, follow the rules without question, and never complain on how hard things are, for things are hard for all of the members of the family and it would be unkind and unfair to complain. How joyful they are when they meet a neighbor to help share the work, and who in return Pa can help with building and Ma with providing meals! What might have been weeks of work to build their cabin suddenly became days with a friend to help. Finding a neighbor meant safety: not only the quick building of a home and stable, but someone to help in a crisis. How different life is today, where we all live encapsulated in our own home, willfully ignorant of our neighbors and scarcely willing to help them at all.

With all of the hardships and challenges Laura and her family face, they are not unhappy: they do not complain, they do not wish for more, they find time for music and star-gazing, and they are endlessly thankful every single day for their continued good fortune and health. In fact, when Ma is injured helping build the cabin she is overwhelmingly thankful that her ankle is only sprained and she repeatedly says she feels blessed it was not a more serious injury.

Furthermore, the family are very proud of their new life. All of their new comforts — a home, furniture, food — are the results of their own hard work! They braved the harsh travel conditions, forded rivers, slept among the wolves, ate meager meals for months on end and survived. Not only survived by arrived healthy and hale and created a homestead for themselves. Their strength and perseverance was a huge source of pride — as it rightfully should be! — for them.

The Ingalls’ relocated from Wisconsin to Kansas was driven by a population increase in what were once empty woods near their home. Food, furs, timber, and resources had grown thin and Pa foresaw a future that was too meager for he and his growing family. The risk of moving west was tempered by the promise of more space and more resources than they could ever hope for. Their arrival in Kansas provided them a huge amount of freedom and abundance which made them all the more thankful for their good fortune. Their own land, filled with animals, trees, water, all for them!

I feel like here I must make a note about the land “belonging” to the Ingalls’. As is noted in the early chapters, the land is inhabited by Native Americans and the US government has only recently decided that white men can “rightfully” move there and build settlements. It is made clear that the Native Americans had not  agreed this new expansion policy. Much has been made of late about this book and its view towards Native Americans, mostly of Ma’s fear of them. It must be noted, however, that Native Americans posed a very real and very dangerous threat to settlers, especially to a young woman and her three young daughters. Ma had every reason to be scared of Native Americans, as conflict between them and settlers had been a concern in Wisconsin as well, throughout the west and Midwest conflicts between them and white settlers were violent and bloody on both sides and everyone lived together in a very uneasy peace. Whether or not the Ingalls’ had to right to call that patch of Kansas their own is debatable, but the danger posed by tension between settlers and Native Americans was a real and constant threat.  To those who claim children should no longer read this book because of the portrayal of Native Americans are being ridiculous…this is one family’s experience and reflects the accurate, historical tension that Westward expansion created. Children should read this book and talk to adults about the historical significance of western settlement on Native Americans.

Spoiler Alert: After all the hard work the Ingalls’ put into their little house on the prairie, I was just a little bit heart-broken when they are forced to abandon it and move on when the government cannot broker a truce between the Native American tribes and soldiers are sent in to relocate the white settlers to non-Native lands.

Even after almost 90 years, this book still has lessons to teach us — about perseverance, self-reliance, family, and thankfulness — and it was a pleasure to read it and reflect on how much our country has changed in less than 150 years.  For a wonderful comparison, read Michael Punke’s The Revenant, about Western expansion in the 1820’s. Find a review here:


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