Happy Sunday! Today, L is for Laura Ingalls Wilder and her series of “Little House” books, which made generations of young girls yearn to harvest hay with Pa in the prairie and take a ride with Almanzo behind Prince and Lady in a buggy. Seriously, though, those books are great, and if you haven’t read them are YOU EVEN ALIVE?
I’ve just ordered the annotated autobiography of LIW, and am excited to start it, but first I thought I’d share five VERY IMPORTANT ADULT REFLECTIONS on Wilder’s series of children’s books now that I’ve re-read them. My main takeaway is, it’s crazy what you miss as a kid!
5. The sheer number of times they all definitely should have died is insane: As a kid (I read the books for the first time around age 8 or 9 I think), the adventures of Laura, Pa, and the fam were definitely exciting, but I don’t think I ever really understood how close they were to death on a daily effing basis. I know Wilder glossed over some of the tragedy her family did endure, but the stuff she felt she could include without giving kids chronic depression is remarkable–especially when you consider how FUN a lot of it seemed after the fact. Pa gets stuck in a snowdrift for three days with nothing to eat but Christmas candy? What a quaint story! The town’s on the brink of starvation and Alamanzo and Cap ride off into almost-certain death to get wheat to feed them? How cute and brave of them, lOL ALMANZO WILL U MARRY ME? Mary goes blind from fever? How…okay, um, that one’s not really funny, even if Mary is annoying.
4. Mary is annoying: Look, I do feel bad that this bitch was blinded, but COME ON, BE A HUMAN BEING THERE IS NO WAY YOU WERE EVER THAT PERFECT. I get that Laura obviously loved her sister fiercely, but I do not believe that she was this sainted perfect person that she’s made out to be in the books. I liked her better when she was off at blind college, tbh.
3. I completely forgot about those weird church revival meetings in Little Town on the Prairie and they are creepy: There’s a really weird passage int the book where DeSmet holds the equivalent of televangelist “I WILL HEAL YOUR SIN!” meetings in the church, and people flail and speak in tongues and do all sorts of crazy shit. How did I block this out? What I really liked upon re-reading is how Laura and Pa and the family are like, “Okay, we’ll go to these just to seem like we’re on board, but y’all are FUCKING CRAZY” and they try to make sure they’re the first ones out the door. It’s a nice, subtle commentary on how, even back in the days when nearly EVERYONE in the frontier identified as Christian, extremists were still seen by some (Pa and Ma and Laura, at least) for what they were–fucking nuts. Chilling stuff–though, on the bright side, those meetings are where Almanzo first asks Laura out (which is also kind of creepy as she’s just fifteen, but, hey, it was a different time; you had to have your babies before you died of dysentery at age 28!).
2. Holy Racism, Batman: I’d completely forgotten about how racist these books could be. I’d totally blocked out the minstrel show! Yes, there is a minstrel show in Little Town on the Prairie, and Pa is in it, and it’s appalling, but as a kid I was like, “Oh, cool, they put on their own entertainment, how ingenious!” What was I thinking? Well, I guess I was thinking what all little white idiot girls from New Hampshire thought in the early nineties, but I digress. The most disturbing part is that adult Laura, the narrator, obviously thought it was fine–she describes Pa’s blackface get-up like it’s super-clever and even transcribes the song he and his compatriots dance to in all its glory. I get that she was from a different era, but still, it offends modern sensibilities. And then, there’s the issue of the “Indians.” Sigh. Ma hates Indians and spends a good deal of energy saying awful shit about them, though Laura intimates that Pa didn’t always feel the same way about the Native Americans they encounter; he respects their knowledge of the prairie and even heeds their warnings about the Long Winter. There’s zero acknowledgment in the books, however, that the American government is basically stealing lands from their Native inhabitants. I guess Wilder would be biased given her experience, but still, it’s pretty gross in hindsight.
1. We are all noobs today: Look, obviously as a white family settling the Old West the Ingalls and the Wilders engaged in some problematic shit. However, they also traveled thousands of miles by carriage on practically non-existent roads, built their homes from scratch, raised their children on garden vegetables and luck, survived the ravages of disease and death and the elements, and then they fucking thrived. I loved to play dress-up as a Pioneer girl when I was ten, but if you actually put me in a hoop skirt and tossed me back to that time, I would be dead in, like, 48 hours. If disease or starvation or a tornado didn’t get me, I’d be burned as a witch by those freaks at the revival meetings, or at the very least thrown out of town after they caught me sampling whiskey at the saloon in a very unladylike manor. I guess I’m saying that, despite their faults, I raise my glass to Laura, Pa, Ma, Mary (ugh) and the rest: cheers, you crazy pioneers! I’m glad you made it, and my God am I glad to be alive now and not then! Also P.S. Almanzo ilu xoxo ❤
Now I’m off to Barnes & Noble to pick up Laura’s annotated autobiography. Have a great Sunday and please let me know your thoughts in the comments!