Revisiting the Prairie

half pintMy sister sent me the full collection of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series for my birthday. Diving back into the pioneer world of the Ingalls family has left me feeling a bit nostalgic and plenty grateful that I don’t have to churn my own butter. As an 8-year-old I was fascinated by the whole concept of pig bladder as balloon; as an adult it’s been an entirely different experience.

The writing is gorgeous. As a kid I was drawn into the adventure of pioneer living, the detail of day-to-day living, and of course the people who inhabited that world. As an adult I see how Laura Ingalls Wilder has crafted chapters filled with elegant prose and rich characterizations. The result is an experience that is every bit the page-turner it was as a kid.

But it’s also incredibly racist. From questionable song lyrics to Ma’s outright hatred of Native Americans, the books are a product of their time. I cheered out loud when Laura asked Ma rather pointedly, “This is Indian country, isn’t it? What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them?” Why indeed, Ma, why indeed.

Despite the controversy that surrounds them on this topic, I am not an advocate of revisionist history. The books stand as a reminder that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. I’m looking at you, Donald Trump.

I loathe Mary Ingalls. When it comes to big sisters named Mary, Mary Ingalls gives Lady Mary Crawley a run for her money in the bitch department. She teases Laura and then slips into passive aggressive princess mode while Pa whups Half-Pint’s butt. Bitch.

Oh, Pa. Maybe it’s because I didn’t know my father until later in life, but now as then I revel in the relationship between Pa and Laura. Putting aside the fact that he constantly put his family at needless risk to feed his adrenaline habit, Pa Ingalls was a Pa who was kind, loving, strict, and, yes, a bit of a feminist in his own Big Woods way. 40+ years on, I see him now as the Grandpa at the holiday dinner table who cautions you about the thugs in your transitional neighborhood while handing you a peppermint and daring your kids to light matches. Blindfolded.

The songs! Questionable lyrics aside, the books are rich with folk songs of the period and timeless hymns. Buffalo Gals, Oh Susannah, Old Dan Tucker, There is a Happy Land, The Old Chariot. Where’s my Little House mash-up?

Almanzo had it bad. I know a thing or two about being on the receiving end of spousal devotion, but Almanzo wins the prize – driving his sleigh miles and miles in the dead of winter every weekend to bring Laura home to her family because she’s miserable and homesick at her first teaching job. 😍

I’d last 10 minutes on the prairie. I like to think I have a good work ethic. But there is so much freaking effort that goes into, well, everything. Cooking, cleaning, shelter, even amusement. And let’s not get into the hot bath situation. I can’t imagine having to work that hard to merely survive.

Library of America has published a two-volume edition of the “Little House Books” available here

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