Under the Influence: Laura Ingalls Wilder

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     Most of the great influences on my life and writing have been science, science fiction, and fantasy. I've been the quintessential "geek" since I was very little. But there was one set of books which were tremendously important to me and my family, the story of a world that seemed both familiar and alien, told through the eyes of a child who was roughly my age when they were first read to me: the "Little House" books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. (ONLY the books; the less said of the TV show, the better)

 

     Laura grew up in frontier America, just shortly after the end of the Civil War. The stories she told in these books – Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, Farmer Boy, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years – tell the story of the life of a pioneering family, and were drawn in great part from her own life experiences. To those who lived it, the life of her family no doubt seemed ordinary and commonplace, but from the vantage point of a hundred years and more later, her life took on the dimensions of adventure, a fairy-tale world that held even more wonder because that story (or something very like it) had really happened to a little girl, who ended up marrying a little boy who had once lived only a hundred miles or so from where I was living (Almanzo Wilder grew up near Malone, NY, near the Canadian border).

 

     Told through Laura's eyes, the world of the late 1800s was sketched out in detail so matter-of-fact that even a child of the 20th century could understand it… and realize how very different a world Laura had lived in. In Little House on the Prairie, it's mentioned that it is a few days' journey to the nearest settlement of any size, so far that the trip is dangerous and rarely worth taking. And that trip is forty miles.

 

     For someone whose father routinely commuted 20 miles to work, it was stunning to realize that not all that long ago, a trip of 40 miles was something to be contemplated with great trepidation. Equally hard to grasp was living without not merely electricity, but all the things we take for granted. Particularly startling for me was the realization that for most of the time we know them, the Ingalls family – who were not uneducated at all by the standards of their time – had apparently only three books in their house: the Bible, the novel Millbank, and a green-covered History of the Natural World. After realizing that, I glanced around our house, with rows upon rows of books, and realized that by their standards, our family would be wealthy indeed.

 

     Like the Oz books, the Little House series also focused on a young girl as the main character. I write books with female protagonists pretty much as often as I write male protagonists; I play female characters about as often as I do male. I have little doubt that part of the reason I do so equally is that several of my favorite authors and their characters taught me that women and men may have differences but are never unequal. Laura Ingalls certainly believed that, and she also seemed constantly willing to test the borders of the life she lived. Even as an author, Laura did not make herself even nearly perfect; Laura Ingalls is a generally good girl, but she's impulsive, stubborn, headstrong, and often gets herself in trouble because of that. At the same time, her stubbornness is used to help get her through some of the most difficult times of her life.

 

     The Little House books also conveyed to me the impression of the work and danger involved in a frontier life. Pa Ingalls builds entire houses from the ground up, using nothing but what he finds to hand. Lacking nails, he makes wooden pegs and matching holes; lacking hinges, he creates some with leather and wooden pins; lacking boards, he makes them, smoothing a floor with mere hand tools to a finish he can trust to not put splinters in bare feet.

 

A cow is a gift of wealth almost beyond imagining – one that means milk and butter for the family. Malaria ("fever and ague") strikes down families and is a mystery, blamed on "night air" or bad fruit. The most wonderful Christmas imaginable for Laura and Mary happens when they each receive their own cup for drinking, a piece of candy, and one whole shiny penny to call their own. All sorts of details in the books show how people not only survive, but find joy and happiness with what I would consider almost nothing.

 

There is a freedom to the world in the Little House books that is lacking today, and a longing for that freedom permeates the books; "Going West" is a whisper of adventure and discovery, one that ended within the real Laura's lifetime. Riding out to a new country, one your people have never seen, choosing a place to start a new life… and just starting it there, with no building regulations, no zoning, no permits. Pa Ingalls accepts the risks of being alone in exchange for the freedom to be a self-made man, "beholden to no one", and Laura is very much his daughter.

 

And, too, there is tragedy; when the family is struck by scarlet fever, Mary loses her sight. To give her a chance at college, Laura becomes a schoolteacher, something she had never intended to do, so that there will be enough money to send Mary to college. This also gives perspective on the shifting value of money; earning twenty or thirty dollars was enough to make the difference in keeping Mary at the College for the Blind, and even very well-off families, such as the Wilders in Farmer Boy, were nervous indeed at keeping even so much as two hundred dollars in the house rather than secured in a bank.

 

I loved these books then, and I love them today. Laura's voice is as clear and appealing now as it ever was, and all of my children have sat and listened as I read her story, from the Big Woods of Wisconsin all the way to her marriage to Almanzo Wilder.

 

Her story is fictionalized, of course; this much is well-known, and some of the changes and omissions made are also well-known; for example, "Nellie Olesen" was actually a composite character made from three separate people, and there was another Ingalls child born, a boy, who died within a few months of birth. The exact details, however, have never been fully known, but that is apparently about to change. The "Pioneer Girl Project" (http://pioneergirlproject.org/) is editing the original memoirs of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which she had titled "Pioneer Girl" prior to beginning the fictionalized child's version which became "Little House in the Big Woods". I look forward to seeing how much of the Laura I knew was real… and how much was only as real as the power of legend.

 

Comments

  1. Sitting on my daughter’s shelf is a very battered and be-damned boxed set of the Little House Books that my grandmother gave to me nearly 2 decades ago. I won’t be pulling them out for another year or so (the story of the panther attack in Big Woods scared her last time we tried) but I’m looking forward to sharing that world with her when she is ready.

    Thanks for the reminder of some good memories.

    • You’re welcome. And yes, the story of the Black Panther is pretty scary, although for me the really scary one was the one in Little House on the Prairie, when Pa came running home scared half to death.

  2. I agree with you completely about the show, although I think it would have bugged me less if they had named it after “On The Banks of Plum Creek,” since that’s the book it’s more based on than any of the others.

    • My problem with the TV show was that they got so many essential things wrong, ranging from a CLEAN SHAVEN Pa Ingalls (I mean, really, his beardedness was one of his defining traits) to use of language and behavior that simply was WRONG for the characters and time period.

      • Oh, I didn’t say it wouldn’t have bugged me at all with the name change, just that it would have bugged me less.

      • The language part, at least, is unavoidable. Historical novels may give some flavor of the language used at the time, but are never realistically true to life about it. After all, the same is true of novels set in foreign countries: when the people in Gorky Park talk, we know that they are talking Russian, though of course what we read is in English. Similarly, a novel written in 1920 and set in 1880 may be full of 1920isms, but who will notice, almost a century later?

  3. Stephen M. St. Onge says:

    I was introduced to the books in my late twenties. A girl friend who’d loved them as a child shared them with me.

    Only I didn’t just read them, she and I read them aloud to each other. So technically, I’ve read about half of each book, and listened to the other half.

    Great stories. For me, the best example of the extreme poverty of the time was Laura having a corncob for a doll, because they couldn’t afford a real rag doll. Now that’s poor.

  4. My sisters and I read these books as kids (although we watched the TV show, too — I basically just treated it as ‘inspired’ by) and I read the first few to my older two daughters but they got bored part way through On the Banks of Plum Creek. You hit most of the things I loved about the books.

Your comments or questions welcomed!