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The Little House Books: Reading and rereading

Pa had tuned his fiddle and now he set it against his shoulder. Overhead the wind went wailing lonely in the cold dark. But in the dugout everything was snug and cosy.

Bits of firelight came through the seams of the stove and twinkled on Ma's steel knitting-needles and tried to catch Pa's elbow. In the shadows the bow was dancing, on the floor Pa's toe was tapping, and the merry music hid the lonely crying of the wind.

- Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek

In the latest, "Fall Books" issue of Commonweal, I review Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House Books"  -- recently published in a new, two-volume edition from the Library of America. This was a perfect excuse for me to revisit Wilder's series, which I loved as a girl, and try to separate it from my memories of the television series Little House on the Prairie (which I watched in reruns after school). The project left me with a lot more notes than I could fit into one essay, but hey, that's what the blog is for.

The main "argument" of the new edition, at least as I see it, is that Wilder is a real writer -- a fiction writer, an artist, and not just a glorified diarist -- and that her books are literature, not just amusements for children. I didn't need convincing, but I was still impressed as I read with just how talented a writer Laura Ingalls Wilder was. Passages like the one I quoted above took me by surprise with their homespun beauty: "Overhead the wind went wailing lonely in the cold dark" is as lovely a sentence as I hope to read in any book this year.

I note in my essay that "Wilder’s books are now historical documents twice over; today we are further removed from the time in which she wrote them than she was from the era she wrote about. " That means they've gone through several generations of readers, and parents today are revisiting them with their own children. The Little House books are a great choice for reading aloud, not least because one of Wilder's motivations in writing them was to pass along the captivating stories her father told her when she was a girl. So I want to hear your experiences with the books: did you read them as a kid, or as an adult, or both? Have you read them with your own children?

The Ingalls sistersI've got a set of kid-friendly paperbacks all ready for my own kids to enjoy, but having just reread the series, I'm determined not to rush through the books with my sons. It's an easy mistake to make -- when you get to know Laura, you want to know what happens next in her life. But while the earlier books are accessible for kids as young as 5 (Laura herself turns 5 during the first, Little House in the Big Woods), later installments are more challenging and mature, and I think they often go unread -- or get abandoned part of the way through -- for that reason. There's nothing "inappropriate" in any of Wilder's books (aside from some troubling race-related content, which I'll address in another post) -- she was careful to keep everything PG, knowing that kids were reading her stories in schools -- but they do get more mature and less episodic as they go along. (Library of America splits the volumes after the fourth book, so that Big Woods, Farmer Boy, Little House on the Prairie, and On the Banks of Plum Creek are in the first and By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years -- plus the posthumous The First Four Years -- are in the second. If I had to give a rule I'd say wait till your kids are past 10 to move on past that first volume's titles.)

According to the notes in the LOA edition (skillfully compiled by editor Caroline Fraser), Wilder's daughter Rose, who helped edit her manuscripts, encouraged her to write from points of view other than Laura's in the books that followed Little House in the Big Woods. She felt her mother should make Carrie (Laura's younger sister, on the left in the photo above) the main character in On the Shores of Silver Lake, and it's easy to see why -- Wilder wrote from the perspective of a very young child so well, and she was unquestionably successful at bringing young Almanzo Wilder to life in Farmer Boy. But Wilder wisely kept Laura front and center, and if the later books are less appropriate for first-graders, they all add up to a rich portrait of a young woman's coming-of-age.

A teenager, or someone who has been a teenager, will appreciate the skill with which Wilder recalls and depicts the social stresses of those years in Little Town on the Prairie. (Flirting, keeping up with the latest fashions and fads, dealing with mean girls at school: some things never change.) I stayed up late to keep reading about Laura's clashes with manipulative classmate Nellie and the easily manipulated schoolteacher Miss Wilder (the author's future sister-in-law, unflatteringly potrayed in fiction). I would say The Long Winter marks a decided shift to more "adult" writing -- Wilder's description of heavy storms and near-starvation conditions in that book is gripping but very bleak. But sensitive little ones may also find the locust storms in On the Banks of Plum Creek a bit too harrowing. So, if you're just getting started with your own kids, I advise taking it slow. Let them grow into the books as Laura grows up.

Now tell me: how did you read them? Have you reread them? Will you?

(Update: my post on Farmer Boy is here.)

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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Thanks, Mollie - my sister and i growing up in Denver were raised on this series.  Our catholic elementary school and the public library of Denver had significant summer programs and programs during the school year to read and discuss her books. 

As kids fresh from Texas and exposed to Colorado snow, cold, etc., her family stories resonated well.  (and for a while, we thought her stories and her farm was in Colorado)

They are great historical novels (?) and a great version of remembering and telling your family stories.  My wife and I, of course, introduced our daughter to this series which she still has.

We read them back then following the series and the discussions that were organized at the public library.  But, remember that my sister would often re-read a book before moving on to the next.  Years later my daughter did the same.

Yes, have at times reread sections but not the whole book or the whole series.

Great post, thanks.  I read them as a child and re-read them (some years ago) with our children.

In re-reading the books, I was struck by how dark they often are.  The family regularly picks up stakes and moves because they're broke, or otherwise without resources.  Laura's father struggles with depression and to keep a job...which means the rest of the family struggles to.  And there is, as you mention, the casual racism that appears periodically throughout the series.

The entire series made for many hours of bedtime reading aloud when our children were young and, when they were older, silent reading after the light was supposed to be turned off.

I went to parochial schools for twelve years and never heard of the Little House books until Michael Landon developed the series.  My grade school didn't even have a library, and my high school's books apparently were chosen mainly for their theological content.  Maybe if Laura Ingalls Wilder had been a Catholic...

I loved the Little House books as a child. I found them similar to the stories of pioneer life that I heard from my great-grandma.  For some reason my favorite of the books was "By The Shores of Silver Lake".  I am looking forward to sharing them with my granddaughters, who at ages 5 and 18 months are a little young for them yet.  My daughter- in- law grew up with the series, too, so she is a fan.  However my sons were definitely not fans.  And I have some advice to teachers who wish to use the books as a class assignment.  Please don't pick "The Hard Winter".  My oldest boy struggled through it like a dose of cod liver oil and refused to read any of the others. He found it unremittingly grim and devoid of any enjoyment.  I think I understand why his teacher chose that one.  She may have been trying to emphasize to the kids the hardships their ancestors had to endure to settle this country, and to try to get them to appreciate the advantages we have now. I think it would be better to let kids pick the one they want to read.  Maybe my boys would have liked "Farmer Boy" better, dealing as it did with Almanzo's childhood.

As a child, I couldn't stand "Little Women," and I think it was because it was viewed as a great story for Unitarian girls and pushed by our elders. I picked it up at 30 and loved it. 

I found the Wilder books less freighted with moral baggage, but at the time I was more interested in the accounts of pioneer life in the big woods and on the prairie than in the characters themselves, who struck me as rather flat. I'm sure, as with "Little Women," I missed a lot of nuances. Thanks for the post. Maybe at 60, I'll be "old enough" to appreciate these stories.

So I was actually here just three weekends ago:

I read all/most of the original series when I was in primary, and basically have no recollection of any of it (though I recall quite vividly that scene from the tv version when Isaiah gets mauled by a bear).

To be honest, it would be tough read them today without wanting to suss out of the Wilder libertarianism behind the scene.

I never read them as a kid or even heard of them until I was an adult.  I did read similar books, like Little Women, but I mostly read books about animals when I was a kid ... Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, The Wind in the Willows, etc.  :)

I took my family to the Little Town on the Prairie in DeSmet, South Dakota, a couple of years ago. I thought it was really cool: we saw the house on Silver Lake, and the home in town that Ma lived in when she was old,and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, and some kind of living history place.  I thought it was just great; my husband and kids were less excited but were good sports.  I talked them into staying two days- we stayed in a motel here most everyone else seemed to be natural gas and railroad workers.  We went there after visiting Wind Cave, but  before hitting  the Corn Palace. I would go back. 

But why would one want the series in two volumes? What's wrong with the 7 book set?


I liked the LIttle House  books growing up; and the Betsy-Tacy books, too.

Irene, I think that the LoA aims at building complete editions of the works of essential American authors, where the text would be authoritative, and the "hardware" high-quality. Apart from the recent Lovecraft collection, I almost never buy them. (The LoA was the brainchild of Edmund Wilson, and he hated Lovecraft, so that was extra-sweet).

Oh yes, read them all multiple times. For some reason I really liked "The Long Winter" -- it is very bleak, but I was always interested by all the ways they made do. My memory is not all that clear (it's been probably twenty years since I last read one) so I look forward to the post on race.

And Irene, I also loved the Betsy-Tacy books. I liked Alcott, too, although Little Women less than many of the others -- Eight Cousins and Little Men were both  favorites of mine. I suspect I'd like Little Women more now, as an adult who's much more interested in, for lack of a better word, womanhood, than I was when I was twelve.

If you really want moralistic children's lit of that period, though, Jean, you should have a look at Five Little Peppers and its sequels. I enjoyed them when I was a kid, but I ran across them in the library a few years ago, reread them all, and couldn't stop laughing. Kids are constantly doing something slightly wrong and then dissolving into tears of repentance. Alcott is a marvel of subtlety, really.

I read the Nancy Drew, Detective series, the original one, before she was toned down to became less outspoken. She was everything I wasn't.

I read books of the Cherry (short for Charity) Ames series about a nurse-detective who could outfox the doctors in solving cases. My sister read the series too and is a lot like Cherry Ames.

My father bought the series for us, his five daughters.  I wonder if he ever thought about what he was instilling.


I lived a block from a public library, so I read a lot.  Never the Little House books, although last weekend I read Allison Arngrim's excellent book, Prairie Bitch.

As a child, the books that made deep impressions on me and that I read over and over were:

New Worlds for Josie, by Kathryn Worth.  (It made me long to go to boarding school.)

Rufus M., The Middle Moffat, and The Moffats, by Eleanor Estes.  (Loved the Louis Slobodkin illustrations as well as the great characters created by Eleanor Estes.)


All of Noel Streatfeild's Shoes books, especially Ballet Shoes, Theatre Shoes, Circus Shoes, and Skating Shoes.  (Loved the Richard Floethe illustrations in the American editions and Streatfeild's wonderful characters and situations.)


So Dear To My Heart, by Sterling Heart.  (Love the Disney movie, too.)


The Bobbs-Merrill Childhood of Famous American books.  (Pre-1952.  The orange biographies.)

If you really want moralistic children's lit of that period, though, Jean, you should have a look at Five Little Peppers and its sequels.

Oh, Lord! I had a love-hate relationship with Polly, the eldest of the five. She got to be in charge all the time, and I was sort of drawn to their genteel poverty (she put a piece of toast on a special blue plate for Jem to make up for not having butter), but I guessed she'd turn out to be a drudge unless that rich kid Jasper married her, and he seemed like a big dope.

Decades ago, on a train from Edinburgh to London, I listened to a woman reading a story about the Bastable children to her kids. Before we disembarked, I confessed I was eavesdropping and told her how much I'd enjoyed her reading. She told me the book was by Edith Nesbitt. I later read all the Bastable novels and loved them. They built fires and baked potatoes, insulted each other, got in trouble, were loyal, and were always home in time for tea and cake. I learned that Edward Eager's stories were inspired by Nesbitt, and I read those to my son when he was seven or eight. Enjoyed those, too.

I just dowloaded Gerelyn's recommended "Prairie Bitch," because the Kindle version was only a couple of bucks, and it sounds interesting.



(Hope you like it, Jean.)

I haven't read Nesbitt's books, but I looked at web sites a few years ago where English women raved about the books they loved as girls:  those by Elsie Oxenham, Dorita Fairlie Bruce, Elinor Brent-Dyer (Chalet School books), Enid Blyton, and Angela Brazil.

Some of them seemed to love Brazil's books most of all.  Those are free for Kindle now.


I never read the "Little house" books but I watched the TV series every week.

I liked Frances Hodgson Burnett's books. My mother disapproved, because she found her books overly moralistic and insipid, but I enjoyed them very much.

I read Louisa May Alcott's books but didn't like them as much. I remember a scene about a recently married woman (one of the five from "Little women", after they've grown up) who tries to make jam, and two hours later when her husband comes back from work he finds her in tears of frustration in the middle of a messy kitchen.  Then the mother gives her the moral of the incident, something about keeping house and the importance of keeping her husband happy and being ready to show him a pretty face when he comes home. Even at 10 years old I found that offputting.





Claire, I got a different message about the jam. Meg was going for some kind of Martha Stewart Moment, imagining herself putting up perfect little jars of jam in a cute outfit. Her idyll fell apart when the jam didn't gel, and she overreacted and dragged everyone into her crying jag. The caution was about using self-control to maintain equanimity and harmony, a cardinal Unitarian virtue. There was also a secondary lesson about the dangers of romanticizing anything, whether it be jam or men, because you're bound to get disappointed.

FWIW, soupy jam makes mighty fine syrup for pancakes, waffles, or french toast. 

I didn't hear of the Little House books until I graduated from college and was a public librarian.  Even then they weren't popular -- I guess kids here don't identify with prairie life.  But I loved Little Women and like the other Alcott books.  It seems to me that in those days there were many more books for boys == Mark Twain, Stevenson and other adventure stories.  I read them, but wished there were more girls' books.  

Now there's loads of stuff for girls, but I don't know how good it is.  My grand-nieces read constantly, and sometimes I worry about it.  The 11-year-old loved The Hunger Games.  Ugh.  I do  wish there were more Alcotts for these kids, though I realize that they are facing an much more dangerous and in some ways uglier world than I did as a child, and they need to be sort of prepared for it, I guess.   But what a view of human nature they must be getting.

Mollie -- you ever think of writing for kids? I bet you'd be good at it.

Any young person who breaches a library has more and better options for reading than ever before; it's not as if all the old books were discarded to make way for the new.

I loved the Little House Books, especially the first. Remember the opening? It was hypnotic. But I absolutely agree with Jean about E. Nesbit. "The Bastable Children " was a delight.  Even better, in some ways. were Nesbit's "five children" series : "The Five Children and It", "The Phoenix and the Carpet," and "The Amulet."  Combining magic  that went wrong as often as right and everyday adventures, they were endlessly inventive. Edward Eager and C. S. Lewis tried to  imitate them, but lacked Nesbit's verve. As to "Little Women" it was my mother's favorite book, and she gave it to me when I was seven. But I was not ready to fall in love with it for a year or so. Then I was well and truly hooked. I lived in that book, and read it so often I could quote great patches of the dialogue from memory. When I was eleven, I was taken to see a production of a play based on the book at the old New York City Center Theatre. It was a thrill to see the book brought to life-- as other people saw it. And many years later I had the opportunity to research and write an article on the dramatic and illustration history of the book from 1868 to 1995. (You can imagine the thrill I had when, doing research at Harvard's Houghton library, I opened a first edition to find written on the flyleaf : "From Jo to Marmee" In Alcott's handwriting.)  

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