Monday, July 23, 2018

'Little Town on the Prairie' by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This year, I'm hosting a read-along of all of the Little House on the Prairie Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which you'll find here. We'd love you to read along and share your thoughts, if you feel so inclined.

The long winter is finally over, and with spring comes a new job for Laura, town parties, and more time to spend with Almanzo Wilder. Laura also tries to help Pa and Ma save money for Mary to go to college.

It doesn't take long to find out why this title is so apt. There's far more of a social, community focus than all that's come before. Previously through the series, the Ingalls' were often living in isolation for various reasons. Now they're in the heart of lively De Smet, with opportunities to enjoy all sorts of activities including socials, a literary society, special holiday events and parties. It must have been a nice environment, back in the days when a whole town's population would show up to support the local teacher as he showcases his students' achievements in an exhibition. Would that ever happen in the closest knit town of our modern era, with so many competing calls from the internet and other forms of digital entertainment?

It's a story that highlights duty over pleasure, something that might have lost a bit of popularity in recent years. In our era, young adults are inspired to be ambitious and dream big for self-actualisation. It's all about finding our passion and doing what makes us happy. But all through this story we see poor Laura working hard to achieve a goal she's dreading, which is teaching school. She's experienced more about self-denial and a servant's heart than many current teens, although you can't blame them, because entitlement is wound so tightly in our modern western system of values, we get infected without even realising. A story like this pulls the blinkers away from our eyes for a moment, which surely must do us good.

 Laura's motivation for slogging on with something that doesn't light her spark is one of the very best. I wonder, when it comes to altruism and kindness, if our generation is primed to think more lavishly and globally than our ancestors. Maybe it's because we have more resources at our fingertips to affect large or faraway groups of needy people. For Laura and her family, all the hard work and sacrifice is concentrated on just one single person. They want to enroll and keep Mary in the College for the blind in Iowa. Sometimes in our century, with so many celebrities getting loud public accolades, it's easy to forget that making a difference in the life of somebody close to home is equally noble. The love and sacrifice the Ingalls family show for their beloved eldest girl is one of the most stirring parts of the story for me. There must be similar examples of quiet, humble heroism in every modern family too, yet they're drowned out by the in-your-face clamour of the media.

Talking about the media, although they didn't have the monster we know, they still had a subtle version of their own. Even without on-line pressure to conform to certain standards, the girls of De Smet still had their fingers on the pulse of what's 'in' as opposed to what's dated and pathetic. The autograph albums, name cards and hoop skirts are all prime examples. And every generation has its girls like Nellie Oleson, ready to rub people's noses in the slightest fashion faux pas. That girl is an expert at sour grapes. She's very quick to stick up her nose and scorn something she secretly wants but can't have. And even though specific examples change, each generation has its own ridiculous fashion fads. Yesterday's hoop skirts are today's ripped jeans.

There's a cute sort of Cinderella sub-plot happening. Nellie is the disdainful princess who is scheming to get to know the charming guy. Almanzo has a horse called 'Prince' and the girls all seem to regard his horses as extensions of him anyway. Of course it's modest Laura, who's convinced herself that she's as round and dumpy as a little French horse, who is invited for a ride.
The Ingalls family were all products of their time, and as such, I think they each have some attributes we'd do well to take on board (like the self-sacrifice), and others we can be more than happy to drop.

Mary goes off to college with a new attitude that suits her. She admits that her perfect childhood behaviour was really an ongoing effort to perform for pats on the back, but the smug, goody-Two-Shoes stuff is all behind her now. She's decided that instead of getting hung up about our own merit, we should just trust the goodness of God. Bravo Mary. Still, one thing that never changes is her total pragmatism. Laura says, 'This sheep sorrel smells like springtime,' and Mary replies, 'It really smells like lemon flavouring.' Gotta love her.

Good old Ma is always using her domestic imagination to make life more comfortable. Some of her advice is excellent, and other bits not so great. There's the time she says, 'This earthly life is a battle. If it isn't one thing to contend with, it's another. It has always has been so and always will be. The sooner you make your mind up to that, the better off you are, and the more thankful for your pleasures.' That comes from the same lady who says just a few pages on, 'You should always wear your corsets to bed. What your figure will be, goodness knows.' Lol, let's be selective in sifting through what Ma says, because her best lines are spot-on.

I'm glad the whole 'teacher knows best' attitude is a relic from the past. I wish Pa and Ma had gone in like a shot to complain to Miss Wilder about the incident with Carrie and the rocking desk, as I would have done. But no, it's, 'Miss Wilder might have been wrong, but she is the teacher.' Giving unfair people complete carte blanche because of their position was not the best of the era. Bad school punishments are just the start. I wish we could've seen what the big boys made of Miss Wilder, but the staff turnover was quicker than a Hogwarts DADA teacher. Contracts were term by term, and many people clearly used teaching as stepping stone and stop-gap, rather than a career as we know it.
Laura's the heroine, and extremely likable and easy to relate to, but does she have any blind spots of her own? Well yeah, I actually think she takes way too much responsibility on her own shoulders, which sets her up for nasty hang-ups like perfectionism and an over-active guilt complex. As an example, surely those young boys would have kept their mischief  in school going without her two grins of approval, yet she seems to blame herself entirely for the ruckus that follows. Later she kicks herself when she gets the occasional 92 grade, instead of straight 100's. And by the night of the school exhibition, she notices that Carrie has done her buttons up inside out, and immediately starts her inner bully scolding again! ('Laura should have thought to button her up, but no, she had left poor little Carrie to do the best she could alone.') Come on Laura, you were preoccupied with your own jittery nerves! And why couldn't Ma have done it anyway? By then I'd had enough of Laura's finely-tuned conscience. An Atlas complex is not only heavy to deal with, but sort of smacks of self-importance too. So this book is a bit of a worry in a way. I honestly wouldn't want my own kids to take her attitude on board to the same extent, yet it's so easy to pick up subtle cues from a main character you love. 

I intended to take a half star off because Laura wouldn't give herself a break, but couldn't bring myself to do it. It's still a beautiful book, and maybe Pa boosts it up again. He comes across so cool in this book, with his humorous comments, enjoyment of life, and some of the funny things that happen to him, such as having a hunk of his hair chewed off by a mouse in the night. He doesn't have any sons to help him out, like many others who keep their older boys out of school during busy farming seasons, but still keeps plodding along by himself. And I love a comment of Laura's which sums up the tone of their lives at this stage, and might do us good too if we can take it on board. That is, 'Perhaps the best was knowing that tomorrow would be like today, the same and yet a little different from all other days, as this day had been.' Maybe life hasn't changed much in that respect.

Next up will be These Happy Golden Years.



  1. Beautifully said, and glad you pointed out the family loyalty and love.

    Laura was a worry wort; even Pa commented at one point, that he didn't know she was old enough "to worry." I do think, however, that her obsessive-compulsive self-blame disorder was based on her parents' upbringing to raise their girls to race to adulthood and take full responsibility, regardless. It's what leaders do. Hence, I think there was more encouragement and expectation in Laura's time for mature, fearless leaders than there is today. In a way, that is why we have a difficult time reading Laura's side of the story (what went on in the classroom) and consider how much different we would have handled Ms. Wilder!

    1. That's very true, poor Laura. They were different times indeed, which probably required more of a sense of self-accountability than expectations of our era. And as we know, her rigid attitude probably stood her in good stead for the next book, and her rough experiences with the Brewster family, when many would have just left. Looking ahead but anxious to get on with it 😊

      In our household, we've been arguing over whether to purchase a pet cat, and I love how Pa pays big money for a scarce kitten, before she's even old enough to leave her mother.

    2. Yes, speaking of the next situation...the Brewsters...for one, I don't know what I would have done to keep my own mouth shut (thinking as an adult in a hostile situation w/ a hurting woman -- I do have empathy for that poor woman, but that's another story). But at 15...I think Laura was...I would have not been able to keep that to myself; my parents would have removed me from that situation. That's just the way it was (in the 70s).

    3. It was what we might call an awkward situation at the start but went far beyond! People of our era would be encouraged to speak up and not just keep our mouths shut. We have Mrs Brewster's deep depression, the threat of domestic violence, and the little boy Johnny being in the middle of it all. I can remember as a kid thinking Mrs B was terrible, but as you say, we can't help feeling differently now. I can see there'll be a lot to mention in next month's review πŸ˜‰ Thanks for your comments, Ruth.