For several years when I was growing up, there were three authors of consequence. There was L.M. Montgomery, there was Madeleine L’Engle, and there was Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Honorable mention to Frances Hodgson Burnett.) I loved all three authors, and when I got a little older, L.M. Montgomery edged out into first place (I even named Peanut after one of her heroines). But for awhile there, it was all Laura, all the time.
I dreamed about riding in a covered wagon and living in a little house just like Laura’s, out on the wide expanse of prairie. I read book after book about the pioneers. I even convinced my grandma to sew me a “prairie girl” costume for Halloween and I wore it two years in a row. (I’d have worn it a third year, but I grew out of it.) I can’t even count how many times I read, re-read, and re-re-read the entire series of Little House books.
Last year, I bought the entire set in beautiful hardcover editions. My childhood copies were long since lost, and I wanted Peanut to have especially nice copies to enjoy when she is old enough. But first, I was going to enjoy them again. I’ve had them sitting in a pile ever since, waiting for me to get around to re-reading them again, for the first time as an adult. This month, I decided it was time and I dove in headfirst. I’ve just now come out of two-and-a-half weeks of living blissfully in Laura’s world once again.
When Laura’s story begins, with Little House in the Big Woods, Laura is just a very young, very small little girl living with her Ma and Pa, her older sister Mary, and Baby Carrie, in – you guessed it – a little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. Laura and Mary play amongst the trees outside their home, roast a pig’s tail, attend a “Sugaring-Off” dance at Grandpa’s house, and listen to their Pa spin yarns and sing along with his fiddle every night. But Pa is restless, and in the next book – Little House on the Prairie – the family packs up all their wordly possessions into a covered wagon and moves out to Indian Territory. The remainder of the series follows them from little house to little house – first on Plum Creek in Minnesota, then finally to Silver Lake and what becomes the town of De Smet in the Dakota Territory. There Laura finds herself a group of girlfriends, stands up to a mean girl, and meets Almanzo Wilder, the man who would become her husband.
There were a few scenes that I remembered vividly from my many readings of the Little House books as a child – the “Sugaring-Off” dance in Little House in the Big Woods, the exciting river crossing in Little House on the Prairie, the Ingalls family settling in town during The Long Winter, and blind sister Mary braiding her rugs using colored strips organized for her in separate boxes. But there was so much more that I discovered again – or maybe even for the first time – reading this series again as an adult.
When I first read the Little House books, I was most interested in Laura and, to a lesser extent, in Mary. (Most of my friends had little use for goody-two-shoes Mary, but as a people pleaser myself, I felt rather in sympathy with her.) As an adult, I still loved reading Laura’s story, but I also found riches in the books that I don’t remember being there the last time I read them. The descriptions of railway building work warmed my labor history-lovin’ heart. The scenes in which Pa deals with a mob of angry workmen, or joins a group in confronting a storekeeper who has raised his wheat prices above what anyone can afford to pay in a time when half the town was starving, were far more interesting (and nerve-wracking) because I was able to read through the lines and comprehend how dire those situations were and how easily they could have gone very, very badly for Pa (and consequently, for the whole Ingalls family), in a way I never could have understood as a child. And I loved, absolutely loved, watching the town of De Smet grow from just the Ingalls family to a thriving community in the Dakota territory.
I wish I hadn’t waited so long to re-read these books, which were such a big influence on me years ago. I found so much to love – again – in Laura’s pioneer story: her family, her relationship with Pa and with Mary, her explorations of her various prairie homes, her selfless determination to contribute to the family income (even through teaching, which she hated) so that Mary could go to college, her friendships with Mary Power, Minnie Johnson and Ida Brown, and her love story with Almanzo Wilder, and so much more. It may be awhile before I re-read the entire series, but I’ll be sure to re-visit my favorites (Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, The Long Winter and Little Town on the Prairie) much sooner.
Have you read the Little House books? Did you love them? Did you follow Pa’s instructions and build yourself a rocking chair?