© 1933 Laura Ingalls Wilder
I would say that Little House on the Prairie brings back fond memories, but in truth the volume I remember so happily was Little House in the Big Woods, which recounts author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s accounts of growing up in the Wisconsin wilderness in the 19th century. In Little House in the Prairie, little Laura and her family — Ma, Pa, big sister Mary and baby sister Carrie — leave the big woods behind. Wisconsin, once the frontier, is now brimming with people — and Pa has decided to move the family to Indian country, to the plains. Little House on the Prairie is the story of their journey westward, and of their first year among the wolves, wind, and natives.
Wilder’s account, partially based on her own childhood, is charming, beginning with its opening – “once upon a time, when all the grandparents were babies” — exciting, and educational. There’s no end to the dangers faced by the Wilders on the frontier; not only is the landscape rife with creatures that find humans edible, like wolves and panthers, but carving a house out of the wilderness is perilous work. Gas within the ground poisons men digging wells, the timbers of homes fall, and storms appear out of nowhere. And then there are the Indians, to whom the country belongs and who have a pretty good idea that the increasing appearance of white settlers within their territory isn’t a harbinger of peace. Published in 1933, this is not a book that would fare well among publishers today, given Ma Ingall’s outright loathing fear of the Indians, and the cheerful assertions that the white men have got to take the land in hand and make something of it, creating a civilization where these Indians have let the wilderness remain. The stories are lessons in history, as when Wilder describes Pa building the cabin in exact detail, or comments on how the settlers didn’t know that the disease that swept through their farms was malaria.
Long after publication, Little House on the Prairie remains a lovely story about American history, giving children an idea of what it was like to head into the wilderness and begin to make a home for themselves. Although today’s readers are more removed from Laura’s world than her initial audience, the Ingalls remain immanently relatable.