Diane's Reviews > Little House on the Prairie

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
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really liked it
bookshelves: childrens, midwest, racism, pioneers

I have mixed feelings about this book. My mother read the Laura Ingalls books with me when I was a little girl, and I'm rereading them for the first time in 30 years.

"Little House on the Prairie" is the story of the Ingalls family -- Pa and Ma, Laura, her sister Mary and her baby sister Carrie -- taking a covered wagon all the way from Wisconsin to Kansas at about 1870. The author is vague on the timing, such as exactly what year it was or how old she was, but it seems to be written from the perspective of a 6-year-old. I read in a biography that she played a little loose with the timeline.

Once they reach Kansas, which was still Indian Territory back then, the family finds a nice bit of prairie and builds a log cabin and starts growing crops. But after a year there, Pa gets upset at news that Washington has decided to move the white settlers out of Indian Territory, and the family abruptly packs up the wagon and leaves the cabin behind, heading back to Wisconsin.

I'll start with what I liked about the book, which is the story of the wagon trip and the actual homesteading. I have admiration for all the brave pioneers and immigrants and travelers of the world who set out with very few belongings and started a new life somewhere else, surviving on their wits and the kindness of strangers.

"'We're going to do well here, Caroline,' Pa said. 'This is great country. This is a country I'll be contented to stay in the rest of my life.'

'Even when it's settled up?' Ma asked.

'Even when it's settled up. No matter how thick and close the neighbors get, this country'll never feel crowded. Look at that sky!'"

There were some lovely heartwarming moments, such as the Christmas dinner that was saved with the help of a neighbor who met Santa and carried the children's gifts to them. Or their loyal dog Jack, who survived a near-fatal river crossing. The book is filled with charming illustrations, and I had a vivid memory of some of the pictures.

It was fascinating to see the series of steps that Pa and Ma took to frame a house, dig a well, build a barn, make a fireplace, save seeds to grow crops, etc. Each event was a big deal and was an adventure. For example, Pa and a neighbor nearly died while digging the well because some underground gas almost poisoned them. And the whole family got sick with malaria one summer, but luckily a doctor in the territory saved them in time. Then there was the day of a massive prairie fire and only quick thinking by Pa & Ma saved the house. Or the time there was a panther on the prairie who was tracking the family, but luckily an Indian killed it before it attacked anyone.

Which brings me to what I didn't like about the book, which was racism against the Indians. I honestly do not remember all the racist comments from my childhood reading. The line, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian," is mentioned several times. Or how Ma was constantly fretting about them, saying, "Land knows, they'd never do anything with this country themselves. All they do is roam around over it like wild animals. Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to folks that'll farm it. That's only common sense and justice." Did my mother skip those parts when she read these books with me? Or did it just not register? I understand it was the prevailing attitude of the whites at the time, but it was jarring to read it in a children's book, even one that was first published in 1935. I think this is important because if I were going to read this book with my niece, for example, I would edit out the racist parts, which is probably what my mom did. I don't see the need to plant the seeds of an old prejudice in a young child.

I struggled with whether to give this book a 3 or a 4, but I rounded up out of affection for the series as a whole. The first book in the series, "Little House in the Big Woods," has been my favorite so far. But I will continue to read these books and enjoy the stories of the early settlers.

I'll close with this nice thought from Laura toward the end of the book when the family is leaving the homestead behind: "Laura felt all excited inside. You never know what will happen next, nor where you'll be tomorrow, when you are traveling in a covered wagon."
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Reading Progress

September 10, 2013 – Started Reading
September 10, 2013 – Shelved
September 10, 2013 –
page 64
19.1% "I haven't read this book in 30 years, and I don't remember much of it, but my heart sank when Laura thought her dog drowned during a river crossing. I bet my 7-year-old self wept when I first read it."
September 14, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-17 of 17 (17 new)

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Diane Hi Nancy, I grew up in the Midwest and these books were fairly popular there. I was also a fan of the TV show starring Melissa Gilbert.

message 2: by Samadrita (new)

Samadrita "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" - That is a disturbing, hateful statement to make.
But great review, Diane. At least I am now aware of the pitfalls of this series and would like to steer clear of it.

Diane Hi Samadrita, I think this is the only volume that has such blatant racism in it. The other two books in the series that I've reread so far, "Little House in the Big Woods" and "Farmer Boy," were very charming. Obviously the Ingalls family shouldn't have tried to settle in Indian Territory in the first place, so it was their move to Kansas that highlighted the culture clash. But it was unsettling to learn that a childhood favorite was so tainted with racism.

Batgrl (Book Data Kept Elsewhere) I spent most of my younger growing-up years in Kansas and I think everyone almost had to read some of the books - because the Wilder books were often referenced in elementary school classes and sometimes read aloud. One of the big attractions was the attention to what women and girls did in the frontier - and that was something that you didn't see much of in books in the 1970s, especially books that were presented as completely true. (So it's not all 100% true and Laura's words, but that we learned later.) There was even a time when the prairie skirt was in fashion and wearing that and being into Wilder was a Thing - did girls get into that in your area of the midwest? It might have just been Kansas.

I don't remember all the racism clearly - but I definitely remember the Indians presented as "the other" and more like scary alien creatures than human beings. What's always sad about seeing this in books is when the authors are writing as if "of course this is how you look at this group of people" - assuming everyone must think of and see them that way. I find this a lot in various books of the 1800s where people have grown up with such racism that they don't even realize how ugly their descriptions and generalizations are.

That's not to excuse the racism - for me it's part of the sinking feeling I get when I read it, knowing that this is such an acceptable viewpoint that the author can be open and blunt about it, knowing none of the readers will criticize. Well, no one back then anyway.

Diane Hi Batgrl, your prairie skirt story is great! I grew up in Iowa and I don't remember anyone wearing those, so maybe it was a regional thing. You are so right about the importance of reading about what women did -- that's an important part of history that often gets overlooked. And yes, since the author grew up with the then-dominant view that the Indians should "move West" and that the "whites should settle the land," she was writing from that perspective. I was just so surprised by how pervasive it was in the book -- I had no memory of it.

message 6: by Jan-Maat (new)

Jan-Maat I don't know if you can edit out the racism since it is interwoven with the act of homesteading. The land wasn't empty, homesteading was just another form of conquest and domination that implies the unimportance of the indigenous inhabitants. "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" is pretty central underpinning the basic narrative.

I don't know how you get round it without somehow confronting the issue head on, which isn't necessarily fun if you're reading with children. Editing out the racism feels like white washing the landscape. It is a difficult heritage.

Diane Hi Jan-Maat, yes, it would be tricky. There are several stories and bits of dialogue that I would skip, however, if I were reading this to a child. I certainly wouldn't tell a young child the "dead Indian" line. They'll learn all about racism and genocide and slavery when they're older and take history classes -- they don't need to hear it when they're 5.

Miriam I agree with Jan-Maat that it would be dishonest to actual edit the racism out of the books (as is done increasingly often with older books). I would probably be tempted to skip over those parts when reading to a younger child, but on the other hand I can remember feeling confused and even angry when when I found out later that I hadn't gotten the "true" book. And it could be a good opportunity for discussion.

message 9: by Cheryl (last edited Sep 14, 2013 10:44AM) (new)

Cheryl Sounds to me, you were leaning towards a 3--I would have. Great review-posturing Diane! I'm all for books staying true to the times (and those were the times: the good and the bad) because how else does fiction inform if not by showcasing ignorance through characters? But to your point, there has to be a balanced approach that is not off-putting, shown through balanced character dialogue and not through blatant pronounciations that make certain authors deemed clever, look rather unlearned.

"I don't see the need to plant the seeds of an old prejudice in a young child."

I agree. I wouldn't read those lines you mentioned to ANY child!

Diane Thanks, Cheryl. You are probably right about the 3 rating. I'll revisit this after I've finished the whole series and see how it stacks up. I don't think history should be covered up, of course, but because this book is written for children, I think some sensitivity needs to be shown. Parents frequently edit what and how and when they tell children things. Here's a question: if someone were writing a kids' prairie story today, would they have put such blatant racism in it? I doubt it. I think they would have softened it. But this was written in 1935 -- views have changed a lot since then.

message 11: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl You're absolutely right, Diane. Children's books are sacred. I would even argue that sensitivity be shown in adult books as well when it comes to depicting racism, or sexism for that matter. Showing what people did during that time is one thing, subtleties that seem to favor it (even if the writer does not), another. The reading scope has changed and broadened, so I doubt that a book in these days, as you mentioned, will do that.

message 12: by David (new)

David I have never read the original Wilder books, though I did like the TV series. But I'd heard that they were pretty racist. It's always complicated when a book you like a lot turns out to be racist. I recently read Dr. Doolittle for the first time, and was shocked at how racist it was. Then there is Gone With the Wind, which is a great book, but even more horribly racist than the movie.

message 13: by [deleted user] (last edited Sep 16, 2013 05:03AM) (new)

Great review. This book held a big place in my childhood. I understand the nostalgia and affection that old books elicit.

message 14: by Batgrl (Book Data Kept Elsewhere) (last edited Sep 16, 2013 11:26AM) (new)

Batgrl (Book Data Kept Elsewhere) It's hard to read a lot of books from that time period and NOT find anything racist though - unless the book/story completely eliminates anyone of color. I'm a big one for teaching with the text as it is, no editing - and then balance it with examples from other material and lots of discussion. (But then, I can't think of a book read in class where there wasn't discussion - it's usually the reason you're reading something.) Most teachers make a point of going over "what's changed from now to then" - because perspectives on history do tend to change.

It was completely weird reading the Wilder books and then going out to some of the more rural areas of Kansas (some of which she referenced in the books) and thinking about living out there when there were few neighbors or towns. It made me extremely glad not to have had to live like that - which was why I didn't quite understand why other girls wanted to play "pretend Little House." Er, but then I did wear a prairie skirt or two, so I can't say I wasn't a part of the craze!

Meanwhile we also had school field trips to Cowtown:
Where you could all sit in the one room schoolhouse and hear how your schoolday would go if you'd lived back then. The more I think about all this the more it seems like you couldn't really avoid Wilder if you learned anything about state history.

Yes I'm babbling on, but that link has pdfs for teachers, and I'm beginning to see why some of us dressed up:
"CLOTHING: To enhance the sense of going back in time, we encourage students to dress as they did in the 1870s." (Also page 12 of that has more history of the town at that time. And page 13 assigns reading from On The Banks Of Plum Creek.)

Rebecca Going to "The author is vague on the timing, such as exactly what year it was or how old she was, but it seems to be written from the perspective of a 6-year-old. I read in a biography that she played a little loose with the timeline. "-- Yes, the books are not 100% accurate of her life. Her editors and publishers asked her to change things because they didn't think the audience would believe her memory of things that happened when she was 3 years old. The tv show is def fiction, and the books take some liberties. You might want to label them as "historical fiction" instead of autobiographies. If you think of them as historical fiction then they are much easier to swallow.

Cristina I think it's important to remain true to the text while ensuring that the disturbing language and attitudes open up a discussion with your child. How can we teach children history if we white wash everything? The history of this continent is messy, and many times ugly. And unfortunately some of these opinions about race are still held by people in our own society. If we're going to read to our kids about certain events we should be ready to have discussions with them about the choices people make and the opinions people held/hold.

Robert Stewart We only see the situation through Laura's eyes. I'm sure in the Indian camp there were children who heard their parents say "The only good white man is a dead one." Unfortunately, we can't change history. We have to accept that attitudes were different in the past and evolve over time. I'm sure that 100 years from now nobody will eat meat and will look back at our butcher shops and barbecues and say that we were barbarians.

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