Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Little House on the Prairie is certainly the most iconic title in the series of Wilder’s books, and it includes many scenes that are still with me from childhood. But on this reading I began to think of it as being about a year in the life of the Ingalls family that didn’t really exist.

The family takes an unusual path in their travels. Starting out in Wisconsin in the Big Woods, they sell up and head south, to Indian Territory. They stop and set up shop about 40 miles from Independence, Missouri—the traditional jumping-off point for travelers on trails to the West. They aren’t really allowed to be there, but Pa is confident that the federal government will continue its policy of pushing the Indians west, and allowing settlers to remain on their land, however illegally acquired.

This doesn’t work out, though. The end of the book finds soldiers from a nearby fort allegedly ready to boot the settlers out, and Pa is going to leave before they have a chance. He packs up the family and goes; in the next volume they will reappear in Minnesota, practically where they started. It’s the year that never happened.

It should be devastating for a family, especially a poor one. They uproot their lives, must leave behind anything that can’t be carried in a wagon, and then do it all over again, negating the work the family has done to claim that little bit of prairie for their own. Because they only remain for a year, Pa doesn’t have time even to harvest a single crop; the family lives only on store-bought supplies, hunted meat, and caught fish. On the one hand, this means they lose less by leaving—they haven’t built up the farm enough to lose as much as they did back in Wisconsin. On the other, it contributes even more to the idea of a year that never was.

What kind of people can do all this, with a family to worry about? Ma and Pa and their knowledge and abilities come into a somewhat different light here than in the Big Woods. We see for the first time Pa building a house. Ma somehow knows how to fight a prairie fire. They are putting the first marks of agrarian civilization on the land:

There began to be a road where [Pa] drove back and forth to the creek bottoms. And at night on their picket-lines Pet and Patty ate the grass, till it was short and stubby all around the log-piles.

And the continual refrain among the two parents, “All’s well that ends well,” starts to seem almost scary. This used to be the ultimate in reassurance: the father you are in awe of telling you everything’s just fine. But in what is apparently my stodgy old age I find I just can’t believe the risks he took, and his willingness to brush them aside so lightly. The prairie is genuinely dangerous. As is picking up and moving your family all around the country, over and over. And it may be true—all’s well that ends well—but my taste for adventures of my own, at least along these lines, has lessened.

4 comments to Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

  • Wow, I didn’t remember that the plot of this book involves them settling illegally on Indian territory on the assumption that treaties will continue to be broken and the Indians will continue to be shunted west. That’s pretty dark, I have to say.

  • Yes, dark. It’s a book with a lot of darkness. The Sublime requires some real menace.

    I had considered, when I was writing about the book, getting at this theme by doing an entire post about the dog.

  • Ah yes, the poor missing dog, and those sinister Indians; I enjoyed reading this to my daughter a couple of years back, but it didn’t capture her attention.

  • Yes, it’s very dark! Very interesting, too, because if you play along with the novels, you must love Pa—not necessarily as much as Laura does, but you must get that impressed sense of him.

    But he still impressed me, because while the act of settling here is very questionable ethically, the way he comports himself as a settler is highly ethical. He chooses to have himself and his family interact very differently with Indians than anyone else, and his way is both more moral and more intelligent. He makes a gamble that he will be allowed to live in Indian Territory and he loses, but it probably wasn’t that crazy of a gamble to make.

    Anthony, that’s too bad about your daughter. My younger sister always found these terribly boring (as she does almost anything I like). At least you enjoyed it though!