For the past four days I’ve been rereading the Little House on the Prairie series. This has been the result of a “Whirl of Gaiety” in my non-reading life, to borrow the name of a book chapter. Since Friday I’ve attended an American Motown ball, a going away dinner and a themed birthday party called One Hundred Beers of Solitude (nobody was allowed to speak until 100 beers had collectively been consumed). WHEW. No wonder I needed something mellow, comforting and familiar to read while I recover from Socializing Overload, i.e. nasty hangovers. But to be honest, most of the time I feel like there’s nothing else in the world I’d rather read more.
Why am I so fascinated and intrigued by these books? Are they really (as I claim on my favorite books page) the Best Books Ever? Is my fondness merely the result of childhood nostalgia and the fact that Little House in the Big Woods is the first book I can remember reading by myself? I remember reading one sentence, “Supper was solemn,” taking it to my mother and asking what solemn was. In my head it was some kind of fish—not too bad; I guess I must have known what salmon was somehow (it was definitely not a dietary staple in Colombia). Fond childhood memories aside, why do I still dig these books now? I am almost TEN YEARS OLDER than Laura is in the last volume—let’s not go there.
I’d say the biggest reason to enjoy these books is the whole pioneer self-sufficiency thing. If I am really honest with myself, I tend to skim (and have always skimmed) the sections where Pa is making bullets, using a threshing machine to cut hay, building a house without nails, etc. But I approve in theory of these sections existing, as they’re a documentation of a time that no longer exists. These people were seriously hardcore and made EVERYTHING THEMSELVES. What I do love and never fail to read are the descriptions of preparing and serving food—Farmer Boy is particularly pornographic with this (maybe because it’s from a nine-year-old boy’s perspective? HA!).
There is also a weird 21-century part of me that loves the DIY character that these books embody. They bring back fond memories of Portland, the Burning Man culture that I so enjoyed but was never truly a part of, just hovering at the edges, observing. The kale gardens, the huge dirty houses filled with people with names like Unicorn who played the banjo, the non-profits that planted trees in sidewalk cracks. (It’s interesting to note that ‘Oregon’ is evoked throughout the LH series as the embodiment of the ultimate west, the last unsettled territory—my father likes to say that Oregon still embodies that character today). I would love to rewrite one of the Little House books, set it in a 22nd-century nuclear apocalyptic wasteland where all the crazy anarchists and permaculturists and hipster cheesmakers reign supreme, make it a real mad Philip K. Dick romp. Someday.
Another reason to appreciate the series is that each book has its own unique tone and theme, which makes them fun to read, because you are getting a different experience in each one. Little House in the Big Woods sets up the basic structure, a Black Swan Green-like description of a year, following the family throughout the seasons (when I was little I assigned a month to each of the thirteen chapters of Big Woods, September to September—this meant that spring didn’t happen till Chapter Nine in May, which made me NEVER want to live in Wisconsin, EVER. Imagine only getting four chapters worth of warm weather!!). The latter books follow this year-in-a-life format, with the exception of The Long Winter, which focuses on a season. The cool thing about this 12-month structure is that it means all the books have a Christmas chapter, which also fascinated me as a child—imagine being thrilled to get a PENNY and a piece of Christmas candy in your stocking! This was in contrast to the 20th-century My Little Pony and Barbie gluttonous capitalism that was my experience—for shame!
Another interesting tidbit I learned is that Little House on the Prairie was originally supposed to be called Little House in Indian Territory, according to the very helpful appendix and timeline in the back of my library copy. This book is probably the most problematic in terms of, you know, the whole racism and colonization thing. In one of the latter books (can’t remember which one), the appendix say that it used to contain the following sentence: “The land had no people, only animals and Indians.” In the 1940’s the editors decided to edit this out (with the author’s approval) because it was implying that Indians weren’t people (which obviously was what a lot of people believed—still believe today, even). So “people” was changed to “settlers.” I thought this fact was really interesting.
When I was little, my favorite books were one through four, obviously. Plum Creek might have been my favorite because it had lots of descriptions of going to school, to town, to birthday parties and playing in the creek, all of which I could relate to and found fascinating. I also remember being really traumatized by the idea of spending ALL DAY Sunday not moving or talking. How ‘bout that resilient pioneer character? I mean I spent my Sunday yesterday making Jamie Oliver’s chicken tikka masala, cooking quinoa and reading thousands of Hark! A Vagrant comics.
The books I like the best now are the Dakota ones. I was also impressed this time around with By the Shores of Silver Lake. To be honest, I think I’d never read this one in full, word to word, until now. It’s arguably a transitional novel, the one that carries us from the child’s perspective of Plum Creek to the more adult, mature point of view in The Long Winter (which is probably the strongest book in the series). I never dug Silver Creek as a child for maybe exactly that reason; the tone wasn’t as consistent as the others ones. But reading it in full for the first time, I really enjoyed it. The beginning is so dark, the darkest one of all the books. You are hit with triple whammies: Mary is BLIND and BALD, the family is as poor as heck and JACK THE LOYAL BULLDOG DIES! Man! And the book doesn’t even touch upon the fact that Laura had a baby brother that also died during that period.
The way that the books deal with dark and troubling aspects of pioneer life is also interesting to me. I wonder if some people would argue that the books “gloss” over the violent and disturbing realities of pioneer life. A good indicator of when the book is about to Go Somewhere Dark is when Ma says, “Charles,” in a pointed voice, and then Pa proceeds to give the girls a lecture. Don’t go near the railway camp where all the men are; they use rough language (is rough language code for they’ll rape you?). Don’t untie Jack the bulldog when the Indians come by; bad things will happen (like a complete MASSACRE). I guess from my very biased, Big Fan perspective, I would say that the books don’t gloss darkness over, but merely reveal it from a child’s perspective. We hear about crazy violent dangerous stuff the same way a pioneer child would: in tiny hints and glimpses, overheard fragments in conversations between the Grown-Ups. Another intriguing tidbit revealed by the appendix is the fact that one anecdote that is constantly referred to in Plum Creek was actually much darker and sinister in real life. The anecdote in question is a story Laura overhears about a group of four kids whose Pa and Ma don’t make it home from town because of a blizzard. In the book the kids end up burning all the furniture but surviving; in real life, the appendix claims, they all froze to death, one surviving with a gangrenous arm.
In summary, I would love to read a really dark pioneer life novel (I’m sure one is out there somewhere), but since these books were written for kids during the Great Depression, you can’t fault them for not doing something that they aren’t intended to do. Fortunately the books have just enough hints at darkness and death to make them deliciously intriguing to kids, without making them deeply disturbing (I don’t think I personally would have been disturbed by them as a kid; on the contrary I would have eaten it up—but c’est la vie).
What the books DO emphasize very well (and what makes their case for being the Best Books Ever) is their rhythm and consistency. Bad stuff is always happening, but as Almanzo says in the last book in the series, “The fly at the bottom of the wheel will one day be at the top.” (What is this fly? Who nailed it to the bottom of the wheel? WHO WOULD DO THAT?) There are grasshoppers, prairie fires, fever ‘n ague, blizzards, but then Ma always says “Mercy Charles!” or “All’s well that ends well,” and then Pa takes out his fiddle and plays. The winter is long, but spring always comes. There are ponies to ride and tame, infinite prairie land to explore, and if there’s just enough money and ways to make ends meet, just maybe there’ll be some calico for Christmas.
The other main reason that I enjoy reading these books and will definitely make my future-possible kids read them is that Laura herself is a great character, and that’s where the true story of the series lies: her transition from child to adult. She’s a great character for young girls to relate to because she’s naughty, she fidgets, she resents older sister Mary’s golden curls and goody-goody two-shoes nature, she does stupid things and gets into trouble, she’s headstrong and independent yet also shy and terrified. Good books result from good characters—I think that’s the one shared characteristic of any work of fiction vying to be considered the Best Book Ever.
The last thing I would like to say is that this time around when rereading, my favorite part was when Pa would shake his head and say “Tenderfeet!”, in reference to pioneers who like had no idea what they were doing. I like that word and am going to start using it more often in my own daily vocabulary. I have no idea when or in what context, but I just love the way it sounds: “Tenderfeet!”