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I note in my essay that "Wilder’s books are now historical documents twice over; today we are further removed from the time in which she wrote them than she was from the era she wrote about.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.)

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

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