On Re-Reading the Little House Books

Little House on the Prairie

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?

20 thoughts on “On Re-Reading the Little House Books

  1. I adored these books when I was a child, but I’ve had a harder time getting into them as an adult. My girls will listen to a chapter or two at a time, but there’s a whole lot of cooking and building and not a whole lot of action–which can make them less than ideal for reading aloud. Still, they will always have a special place in my heart from my own Laura years.

    • 🙂 I agree that the reading experience does change as an adult. I definitely found different things to love this time around, and was not as captivated by the aspects of the books that spoke more to me in childhood, but I think that’s as it should be. I agree with you that they might not be the best for reading aloud… but I still hope my Peanut lets me read them to her when she’s a little older!

  2. What a great post. I love the Little House books so much, and I’m rereading The Long Winter (again) right now. (It helps me survive the Northeastern winters.) So glad you got to immerse yourself in Laura’s world again.

  3. Yes, yes, and no to the rocking chair. I always liked “By The Shores of Silver Lake: and “These Happy Golden Years”.

    I wish Hallmark would make these books into a series. I know there was the 1970s-80s show with Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert, but it would be fun to have the entire series as good-quality movies.

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  5. I should probably re-read them, too! Your first two sentences made me laugh because the same is true for me! L.M. Montgomery also became my favorite of the three. I’m planning on reading Anne of Green Gables with my twins soon (right now, we’re reading book 1 of Harry Potter, but I want to read the Anne books before we continue with the Harry Potter series, which I think is too dark for my 6-year-olds).

    • Oooooh, I can’t wait to hear how your girls like Anne! (I hope they love her just as much as you do, and I do.)

      Funny that you mention worrying that HP is too dark for 6-year-olds; my husband and I were just discussing the very same topic the other day. I grew up in a house where my reading was not restricted at all. If I was capable of reading the words, I was allowed to read the book. In general, I think that’s a great thing and I certainly wouldn’t change my experience as a young reader. But in retrospect, it did result in me encountering material that, while I was technically able to read it, was beyond my ability to understand and comprehend at the time. (“Gone With the Wind” at age nine, for example.) So I was debating – with myself, aloud, while my husband laughed at me – will I let Peanut read anything she’s capable of reading, or will I be a mom who pre-screens her kids’ reading material and introduces books only when I think the kid is not only capable of actually reading the words, but also mature enough to understand and deal with the themes in the story? I don’t know right now… Part of me wants to take the same laissez-faire approach my mom took (because after all, I turned out okay) but part of me is worried about Peanut encountering adult themes or adult material before she is intellectually ready. I’m feeling a blog post coming on…

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