Little House


As I mentioned, I am re-reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series. The idea to do so came to me a while ago. One of the places I hang out online is a very popular "natural parenting" board. I stumbled upon a conversation about these books there one day, and was surprised to read that many of the folks there wouldn't read these to their kids or let their kids read them, due to their "racism" and "violence." These were my absolute favorite as a small child (my mom read them to me, then I read them myself when I was old enough, and I always play-acted my favorite scenes), so I was really surprised. However, what you see as an adult and what you remember from childhood are different things.

Then along came a full, new set at the Goodwill, for just two bucks. I couldn't resist. Then came sickness, and that always makes me want to read kids books.

And now I am most of the way through The Banks of Plum Creek (though I admit I skipped Farmer Boy--who wants to read a book about a boy?). Though I am not yet finished, I would definitely let my kid read these books.

Are they racist? Yep. The phrase "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" is repeated more than once in Little House on the Prairie. However, given the context (settlers in Kansas in the 1870s), historical accuracy seems to fall on the side of racism. And in general the Indians in the book are portrayed as some good, some bad, just like people in general. They are definitely seen as a different "species," as was the common thought at the time, but the actual hatred is kept to a minimum. As for African American characters, the only one that has surfaced so far is the Black doctor who saved the Ingalls' from all dying when they had malaria.

And violent? I'm not really sure what that means in this context. Perhaps that the kids get spanked ("whipped")? Well, again, look at the norms for the time. Or that they hunt and kill animals, and do things like play kickball with an inflated pig's bladder? Frankly, if that bothers you so much, your position of privilege is such that I'm going to have a hard time taking your problems with these books very seriously. Subsistence farmers/hunters in the 19th century, folks--they're not likely to be vegetarians. And they have to take their toys where they get them, too.

I'm really enjoying reading them, and given the amount of perspective they are giving me on things like overconsumption as an adult, I'd think they must have done me good as a poor rural kid.

There are definitely things that are sticking out, though, that I hadn't noticed previously. For one thing, what is up with Pa? He always seemed like such a pleasant character when I was little (and I was getting that from the books, too--I wasn't watching Michael Landon on TV), but he kind of creeps me out now. Why can't he stay in one place for more than a year? What kind of a father takes his wife and three little girls out of their safe and comfortable house in the Big Woods (first book) and drags them across the country in a covered wagon just because Wisconsin is "getting too crowded"? Seems strange. I wonder if there is a historical account of all of this, and how it differs from Laura's idealized memories?

So, my feeling of outrage at having such a pillar of my childhood maligned remains.


I've read the series to John and am working on it with Maia. I love rereading them as an adult and seeing the stories behind the stories -- what Ma must have been going through, what the hell Pa's deal was, etc.

The reason you're missing the violence is because you've skipped Farmer Boy. The story opens with the children walking to school, worried about when the "big boys" (16-year-olds) are going to come and thrash the teacher to break up the school; the last teacher they thrashed died.

And I read that one to the kids, too.

Farmer Boy is actually very interesting to read because Almanzo came from a rich farmer's family. He had a very different upbringing than Laura.

Everyone remembers the popcorn and milk part. And then everyone tries it!

re: racism - there's also an actual minstrel show, complete with blackface, in one of the later books.

As to why Pa was always moving around, I think it's pretty clear from the text - they had a run of serious bad luck with farming. Farming in Wisconsin was tough- all the trees, and when the woods get crowded it means less hunting and trapping, which they seem to depend on. They get booted out of Kansas, and on Plum Creek they build their house on borrowed money, then lose the wheat crop to the grasshoppers. They stay on the first farm where disaster doesn't occur within the first few years.

I recently reread these also, and then picked up a couple of adult biographies of Laura, which give a lot more context.

My students love them - they get excerpted in a lot of textbooks and the kids almost always end up checking the full book out of the library.

I haven't reread one in awhile. Perhaps that might be a good project, though I don't think our library has all of them.

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April 2012

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