Little house on the prairie* was written by Laura Ingalls Wilder with the help of her daughter Rose. It was published in 1935 and is the third of nine novels known collectively as The Little House books. These books are loosely based on the life of the author, apart from the second book, Farmer Boy, which is about Almanzo Wilder, who she married. The first in the series was entitled Little House in the Big Woods. Little House on the Prairie follows chronologically from this book as the Ingalls family leave Big Woods to settle on the prairie.
I first came across this book as a seven year old in infants school when the teacher read it to us in class. It is a book which readily captures the imagination of a child. The title itself is evocative. What is a prairie? There are no prairies in Britain and as children we had no experience of what a prairie might be like. However, the title gives a clue because, whatever the prairie is, the house is little by comparison. And there is no mention of other houses. It is a little house on its own in what sounds like a big place. From the outset the prairie looms large in the imagination.
The Wilder family consists of Charles and Caroline, usually referred to as Pa and Ma, and their three children, Laura, Mary and baby Carrie. Laura is around six or seven years old and the story is told, in the third person, through her eyes. Wilder is very disciplined in this respect. For example, after Laura and Mary have acquired beads from a deserted Indian camp, Mary says they should give them to Carrie, but Laura wishes to keep the beads for herself: ‘They didn’t say anything. Perhaps Mary felt sweet and good inside, but Laura didn’t. When she looked at Mary she wanted to slap her’ (p. 113). Mary does not express her feelings and Laura could not have known for sure how Mary felt. So her suggested feelings are qualified by ‘Perhaps’. But as the story is being told through Laura we are privy to her feelings and so Wilder states, in no uncertain terms, how Laura felt.
The journey begins in a claustrophobic, dark, cold wood leaving behind a house amongst the trees. But as they travel west, they reach the open spaces of the prairie: ‘Day after day they travelled in Kansas, and saw nothing but the rippling grass and the enormous sky. In a perfect circle the sky curved down to the level land, and the wagon was in the circle’s exact middle’ (pp. 7,8). The epic nature of their journey is given cosmic overtones by Laura’s observations of the night sky. On one occasion, she is convinced a star has winked at her and on another occasion the fiddle playing of her father merges with the night so that Laura thought some of the music, ‘came from the great, bright stars swinging so low above the prairie’ (p. 32). However, what becomes apparent as the story unfolds is that, to a certain extent, the depiction of the prairie as a seemingly boundless landscape is an idealised view which runs alongside a more pragmatic depiction of what the prairie was really like.
When they arrive at the place where Pa decides to build the house, Wilder writes: ‘All around them there was nothing but grassy prairie spreading to the edge of the sky’ (p. 33). But then we learn, in the very next paragraph, that there are creeks ‘quite near them’ and in fact tree-tops could be seen. Furthermore, different shades of green in the east indicate, as Pa states, the presence of a river. And it soon becomes apparent that other settlers live not far away. Wilder’s descriptions of the prairie as a grassy expanse bounded only by the sky can be seen as idealised descriptions, in which creeks, trees, rivers and settlements are mere detail. Or perhaps these descriptions represents the view of Laura who normally would not see beyond the tall grass in the immediate environs of the house. But at the heart of the contradiction is the reality of compromise. Before they set off, Pa spoke of how that ‘In the West the land was level and there were no trees’ and there were ‘no settlers’ (p. 2). But they would need trees to build their house and settlers to help them.
Wilder describes the building of the house in great detail. For example, over a page is taken up explaining how the logs were cut and fitted together. The construction of different parts of the house are dealt with in different chapters interweaved with other themes and storylines. This helps ensure the detailed descriptions are never boring. The detail instead serves instead to immerse the reader in the hard way of life.
Throughout the book, danger and threat are always near. The journey itself is not without its peril. It is a race to cross the Mississippi before the ice breaks and they only just manage to ford a creek as the waters rise. And when they set off, ‘Pa hung his gun to the wagon bows inside the canvas top, where he could reach it quickly …’ (p. 3). The chief source of danger are wild animals. One chapter is devoted to wolves which, for a while, follow Pa on his horse and then come and surround the house during the night. And later on a panther roams into the area and has to be hunted down. The threat of danger adds to the excitement for the young reader without the descriptions being too gruesome. But there is another potential threat which looms large over the story and is an important theme in its own right; for the prairie is Indian country.
Wilder uses the characters in the families to portray distinct views concerning the American Indian. Ma’s view is unequivocal, ‘I just don’t like them,’ (p. 29) she tells Laura, when pressed on the issue. Pa is wary, but has an underlying respect for them. He is frustrated that he cannot speak French, the language of some of the Indians, and, although Pa hunts the panther, in the end, it is an Indian who kills it. When recounting how one particular Indian, Soldat du Chêne, had persuaded his tribe not to attack settlers, Pa comments, ‘That’s one good Indian!’ And as the Indians file past the house as they move out of the area following internal quarrels between the tribes, Pa lifts `his hand in salute’ (p. 191) as Du Chêne rides by. But the most interesting perspective is that of Laura herself.
As an incentive to Laura prior to their journey, Pa promises her that she would see a papoose, that is, an Indian baby. From then on, Laura has an almost obsessive desire to see one. This in turn fuels an intense curiosity and fascination with the Indians in general. Once the house has been built the Indians sometimes come inside without invitation. They cause no harm, but they take what they want and leave the family terrified. Yet this does not diminish the fascination which Laura has for them and this is given full vent when Pa asks Laura and Mary if they would like to visit a deserted Indian camp. Laura dances and claps in delight at the prospect. When they arrive at the camp, at first it seems there is little to see; just the remains of camp fires, holes where tent poles had been, and tracks. But Wilder brings the camp to life as Pa describes what each track meant, even identifying the marks made by the fringes of skirts worn by the women. Laura’s fascination for the Indians is akin to the fascination and romantic view of the East held by Westerners as argued in Edward Said’s Orientalism. From a child’s perspective, Wilder enables the young reader to make an informed view of the Indians and the various attitudes shown towards them. It is not the only theme of the book, but it is an important one and has a direct bearing on how the story ends.
Little House on the Prairie has held children spellbound for generations and gives a vivid insight into frontier life in the nineteenth century. The prairie functions as an open space to be filled by the imagination of the child, with plenty of help from Wilder.
* L. Ingalls Wilder, Little house on the prairie. (London: Egmont, 2009).