Toward The Little House

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By the mid-1950s the Little House books were considered classics. I doubt, though, that my own mother knew what she was starting in me when she read me Little House in the Big Woods . Before I was five we had raced through all the books. When I learned to read, I went back to them again and again. At first I simply found the stories exciting. The experiences of the Ingalls sisters presented an intriguing contrast with my own childhood in the suburban New Jersey of the 1950s and 1960s. I might worry abstractly about the atom bomb; the Ingallses had to fight prairie fires.

Later I enjoyed just being with Pa, Ma, and the girls. Jolly, generous Pa had two desires: to do what was best for the family and to push farther and farther into unsettled territory. Only slowly did he realize he could not do both. Ma could make a cultured home anywhere, be it in a covered wagon, dugout, or shanty. She was a traditional woman—but only on the surface. Each daughter made her own distinctive contributions to the family too.

In high school I decided to see what else I could learn about the Ingallses. I wrote to the various Laura Ingalls Memorial Societies that had formed during the decade after she died, at ninety, in 1957. They sent me pictures and pamphlets. Research into the background of the Little House books at that time mainly centered on verifying the routes of the actual family’s travels. The result was the discovery that the Ingallses had been to places not mentioned in the books.

I was disconcerted to learn that there was a story behind the story. Why hadn’t Laura written of her parents’ attempt to run a hotel in Iowa? How could she have failed to mention her brother, Freddie, who had lived only nine months? However, my eagerness to know more only increased. I read newspaper clippings and got copies of deeds and census records. I wrote a letter to “Any Stepchild of Carrie Ingalls Swanzey, Keystone, SD” and was answered warmly by Carrie’s stepdaughter, Mary Harris.

I put my interest in the Ingallses aside in college and law school, although I sometimes read the books on the sly. After I started working, I from time to time came across new material on Laura Ingalls Wilder. People by now recognized that the series could be read as an adult work, with Laura’s parents as the focal point. Scholars were studying both the historical roots of the books and the fascinating process by which they had been written. When I read something that interested me about them, I wrote to its author, and he or she invariably wrote back, often referring me to other articles. Suddenly I found myself sucked back in. As one history professor told me, “I never intended to get into it this far, but now there’s no turning back.”

Obtaining reams of photocopies from Midwestern libraries, I read two versions of the coarse and chaotic “Pioneer Girl.” Then I started in on Laura’s correspondence with Rose.

Some people collect stamps. Learning about the Ingallses and the nature of Wilder’s literary endeavors is what I do. This is something entirely separate from my job as a lawyer for an insurance company and my freelance writing on disability issues. It allows me occasionally to have a different persona and to think about issues that I would not ordinarily think about—issues as diverse as whether sex roles were less confining in the West than in the East in the late nineteenth century and whether fiction can reveal more about a writer than autobiography.

I have followed the controversy over whether Little House on the Prairie , which concerns the Ingallses’ misguided attempt to settle in Indian Territory (now southern Kansas), should be read at all by young people today. Individual Indians are described respectfully in the book, but remarks about Native Americans in general reflect the racism that existed both when the events occurred and when the book was written. (I think the solution is not to remove the book from library shelves, as some communities have done, but to give the children the tools they need to identify the racial bias and not be influenced by it.)

DURING ITS FIRST FEW YEARS De Smet had been a collection of shacks, shanties, and stores with false fronts.

By 1993 I was contacting scholars to discuss my own views and not just ask for information. It occurred to me then that I should write something myself. I knew, though, that first I needed a sense of place.

The prairie was the dominant landscape of Laura’s childhood. The word prairie is in the title of two of the books. Indeed, Laura mentioned the prairie so often that it almost seemed to be a family member, if a mercurial one. Of her first view of the Kansas plains, she wrote: “In a perfect circle, the sky curved down to the level land and the wagon was in the circle’s exact middle. ... There was only the enormous, empty prairie with grasses blowing in waves of light and shadow across it, and the great blue sky above it, and birds flying up from it and singing with joy because the sun was rising.”