Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Re-reading: Little House on the Prairie

I was discussing classic children's books with a friend the other day, and got to thinking about Laura Ingalls Wilder's books. I haven't read them since I was child. I was really curious how they'd stack up against modern children's literature, if they would still have the power to fascinate and transport me as a reader. And even if they did, would they offend me? As an adult, I've heard educators rail against their stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans. In re-reading them, would I find the stories that have influenced generations of readers? Or an offensive mess? Both? I was really curious.

I have to say, Little House on the Prairie started off really slowly. Quite a change from Harry Potter! The driving plot and conflict of the story was the family adjusting to a new life on the prairie. There were no debilitating internal conflicts, other than Laura never being quite as "good" as her sister. No cutting, for example. That's a joke.

The writing was slow, episodic, and detailed enough that I could've almost built a log cabin myself.

And unlike modern children's literature, the story's action was very adult-centric. It was all told through little Laura's eyes, but it was about Pa building their house, killing a panther, taking them to see the empty Indian camp.

And over and over, the message that to be safe, a little girl only needed to trust Pa: "You girls remember this: you do as you're told, no matter what happens... you do as you're told and no harm will come to you."

Yet, for all that, I gradually became absorbed in the story. The writing was slow, but the language was beautiful, the setting soothing.

Actually, more than that... when I finally finished the story, my mind was racing. It's got such a bizarre ending. Do you remember? Pa discovers that for the time being the government isn't going to support the white settlers in Indian territory. So after a full of year of building their lives, Pa decides they should leave.

I have to say, it had personal ramifications with my own life of late, living on a temporary visa in the UK, unsure what's next.

But more than that, it was such an unsettling ending, bizarre and unexpected, it made me start asking questions.

Like, is Pa really the hero of the story? If so, how come, more than anything, he reminds me of the father in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver?
According to Laura he doesn't make mistakes, yet he lets the family dog nearly drown, and later almost shoots it. In the scene I quoted from above, Pa is admonishing the girls for considering letting the dog off leash when dangerous Indians approached the house. The girls feel guilty that they had even thought of disobeying Pa, and he had a good point about not antagonizing the local Indians. But what if the girls really were in danger? And of course, at the end of the story, Pa's sudden decision to leave makes even the perfect Ma sigh and remark, "A whole year gone, Charles."

Further, while Laura could never be as "good" as her sister or as Ma expected her to be, she has the exalted position not only as the story's eyes & ears, but its author. So is she sincere when she quotes Pa that little girls should be seen, but not heard?

The portrayal of the Native Americans was offensive and stereotypical. Their eyes were always black and terrible, they stole from the Ingalls, and in one particularly awful scene it's implied they don't even know how to skin a skunk properly, or have any sense of human decorum, because the furs they're wearing stink with the skunk's spray.

Yet again, it wasn't completely straightforward. At the end, one set of Indians save the Ingalls, then the whole family is entranced by their passing, and spend most of a day watching them, feeling empty and restless afterwards. The novel's very much a product of its time, but I wondered if Laura Ingalls Wilder was trying to say more, or ask if the manifest destiny that drives the book was even right. Many times Laura, with her child's voice, tries to ask these questions:

"But, Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won't it make the Indians mad to have to--"

"No more questions, Laura," Pa said firmly. "Go to sleep."

And of course, at the end, the family leaves. One review I read online suggested it was because Pa finally acknowledged his mistake, and they left out of guilt (though again, the text never says this).

So strangely, much like Harry Potter, I spent several days after finishing Little House on the Prairie thinking about it. And I fully intend to re-read the others, too (Little House in the Big Woods and On the Banks of Plum Creek). It was a fascinating portrayal of a particular time in history (maybe two times in history, the 1870s when the books are set, and the time of Laura Ingalls Wilder's writing in the 1930s). And, whatever meanings may or may not be there, a complex, beautiful, and absorbing read.

What do you remember of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books? Did you grow up on them? Have you re-read them recently? Did you have any of the same questions I did?

7 comments:

  1. I LIVED in those books and reread them many times until I was in high school. I begged for my own copies but was told they cost too much! I remember telling my grandfather (your great-grandfather) all of the plots because I thought he would be able to relate to them. (I was secretly disappointed that he didn’t want to read the books himself.)
    It doesn’t surprise me that they are unsettling to read in 2011. You might find that the later books will sit with you a little better; it seems that Laura comes into herself more as time goes on. I love your comparison of Wilder’s PA with the father in Posionwood Bible. It seems more of an archetype of authority than an actual character.
    I look forward to rereading the books myself and discussing them with you further sometime soon.

    Janet

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  2. Janet: Wow, I love all those memories you have of Wilder's books. Thanks so much for sharing them. Books can be so powerful, especially for kids. And of COURSE you were disappointed that your grandpa (my great-grandpa!) wouldn't read them--I can totally imagine feeling the same way! I will definitely seek out the others to read, and would love to hear what you think of re-reading them, too. Maybe you should treat yourself and buy the complete set?! =)

    Have you heard about this book? http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/8619825-the-wilder-life
    Sounds like a fascinating read, too.

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  3. I loved the books when I was young, so I also went through the odd experience of re-reading them as an adult. What I loved about them when I was young--and what I still really appreciate about them--is how they transport readers to a different time and place. I remember almost reading the books like fantasy novels when I was young because they were so different from the things I knew.

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  4. True confession time: As voraciously as I read as I child, I never read them! I grew up with the TV adaptation (which departed quite a bit from the books in later seasons - all to do with behind-the-scenes stuff on the show).

    I read an interesting article a few months ago that said that it was Laura's daughter (a journalist by profession, I believe) that actually polished the books into their readable form, even though her mother has the credit. As an adult, I found reading about the authors of the books almost more fascinating than the books themselves.

    I find it interesting in general to go back and re-read the "classics" of my childhood, to see how they hold up to me 1/ as an adult and 2/ in light of the modern changes to our expectations re: pacing and plot, as well as the portrayals on social issues.

    I also find it fascinating to see what the Kidlet's response is to the classics I loved as a kid. The Wind in the Willows doesn't engage her as it did me, but she really likes some of the Beatrix Potter stories, and Winnie the Pooh doesn't engage her much *at all.* It will be interesting to continue to see what she thinks of "classics" as she grows.

    Fascinating post!

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  5. Anna: Yes, I think I appreciate them in the same way, that ability to transport the reader into an entirely different world. And it's such a beautiful, and for the most part, a simple one. I think it's such an interesting experience to re-read books that have had such an impact on us when we were kids, and to remember what was so important to us then (and may still be important to kid readers today!).

    Elisabeth: Thanks! How funny, I never read Wind in the Willows as a kid, so, since I'm living in England now, I figured I had to read it last year. I didn't care for it at all! So definitely agree with the kidlet about that one! =)

    It must be such an experience (both as a reader and a writer!) to see these books through your daughter's eyes.

    I can't imagine how LHOTP passed you by as a kid! But I think you're right, a fascinating story about how the books came to be as well.

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  6. Last month I read the book that the article fictionforge mentions was based on (after Marissa Doyle mentioned reading the book). It's The Ghost in the Little House, by William Holtz.

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