Finishing the Little House books

I finished the Little House on the Prairie books a couple weeks ago, shortly after the hurricane craziness (it was comforting, somehow, reading The Long Winter during the power outage, because even though our lives had been thoroughly disrupted by bad weather, it was nothing like what the Ingalls family experienced. We weren’t in danger of starving!). I like the early books in the series, but I love the later ones, and those are the ones I reread most often as a kid. Laura gets more interesting as she gets older and starts to grow up. Now she has to confront the fact that she can’t do whatever she likes with her life; instead, she has to become a school teacher in order to put her sister Mary through college. She takes on sewing jobs that she doesn’t like. She deals with social difficulties such as Nellie Oleson’s competitiveness and general nastiness. Since Mary became blind, Laura has been responsible for “seeing” the world for her, and she has taken on the responsibilities and worries of the oldest child. She is still energetic and high-spirited, but she must hold these spirits in check because young ladies are not supposed to do things like play with the boys at recess. She has to fit the code of femininity that she does not like and that feels uncomfortable to her. Things are not as simple as they once were, and the stories become richer as Laura figures out how to negotiate the changes.

Reading the Wilder books was a whole lot of fun, but reading about the Wilder books in Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow has been much more complicated. Fellman’s book, which I am about halfway through, is very good; it’s an academic book, but one that is jargon-free and extremely accessible to general readers. I find the ideas in it fascinating and the arguments convincing. But it’s uncomfortably self-revelatory. I’m seeing now just how influential Wilder really was for me and how much I learned from those books as a young person, without meaning to learn anything. I recognized some of these things as I was reading Wilder herself this most recent time, but it took a critical perspective for some of it to really sink in.

There’s the matter of being uncomfortable with femininity, for example. Laura was expected to be docile and quiet in a way I never was, but I still knew how she felt when she longed to be out playing in the sunshine rather than sitting quietly with the other girls during recess. I hated the thought of having to fit someone else’s expectations of proper feminine behavior. I also identified with her longing to be like Pa and keep traveling westward. Ma and Mary both wanted to settle down near a town and school, but Laura knew what Pa felt when he looked longingly west and wished he could have more adventures on the frontier. I thought I knew what that felt like too.

But more significant than those things is the description of the relationships among the family members. Members of the family obviously felt warmly toward each other and it’s clear that they loved and felt loyal to each other, but they are not verbal about their feelings. They don’t hug or say “I love you” or share many of their innermost thoughts. They are all very stoic; they keep their thoughts and worries to themselves for the most part, and they try not to show it if they are scared or angry. When Laura does show strong emotion, she gets reprimanded for it. And, interestingly, she reprimands her little sister Grace for showing emotion when Mary leaves to go to college. It’s startling the way she keeps repeating “for shame! for shame!” to poor Grace as she very understandably cries at losing her oldest sister. Fellman describes the difficult relationship Laura had with her daughter Rose, and part of the problem was Laura’s refusal or inability to show affection toward her daughter.

So, yes, all of this reminded me of my family very much, both strong the sense of loyalty and love and the fact that it was rarely acknowledged. And then there’s the extreme individualism that runs strong throughout the novels. This is really the subject of Fellman’s book, which argues that the Little House books and their conservative ideology were powerful although largely unrecognized influences on American conservatism of the 80s and onwards. The Ingalls family take care of everything on their own, thank you very much; they rely on each other and occasionally are helped out by friends and neighbors (and they help others), but they don’t need a community or a government to take care of them. They create who they are and are responsible to no one but themselves. As a young person, this appealed to me very much, as, I would guess, it probably appeals to many young people. I had an (exaggerated) sense of my own strength and independence and a reluctance to trust or rely on anyone else. Independence and self-sufficiency are certainly not bad things, but Fellman points out how Wilder and her daughter (who heavily edited the books) leave out details that show the importance of community in their lives. She argues that the two of them regularly exaggerated the isolation of the family in order to make them seem more self-sufficient than they actually were.

There are more examples, but I think I’ve given plenty to show just how much these books have made me think. I’m left wondering how much the books taught me vs. how much I loved them for reflecting what I already felt, or how these two possibilities worked together. I’m not entirely sure, but I have learned that rereading childhood favorites can be dangerous, so watch out!


Filed under Books, Fiction

17 responses to “Finishing the Little House books

  1. I still haven’t read Little House, Long Shadow, so I can’t properly respond to its arguments, but my sense based on everything I’ve read about it so far is that it just doesn’t comport with the Little House book I read—especially as an adult. When I wrote about The Long Winter, one thing I noted was how much the books do revolve around and depend on community. Sometimes that community is larger or smaller, but it’s always there; the family is never actually alone, and they unfailingly exhibit a strong sense of social responsibility.

    Now, those communitarian feelings may not extend to government, but I think that’s a very different matter. And personal responsibility may come first, followed by family responsibility, followed by the nearby community, etc. etc. moving outwards, but again, it’s not the same as total isolationism. And it doesn’t seem radical at all.


  2. Nice post and a great blog, I’m glad I stumbled across it. I haven’t read the Little House books or any of the other stuff I read about on your blog but enjoy your writing tremendously. The show I grew up on and never considered its influence on 80s conservatism but it makes since. Well thanks for posting and congratulations on moving away from the pseudonym. Sometimes I self censor and sometimes I get a little social flack but overall the purpose of blogging is to open up in public. I feel obligated to mention that I have been reading The Origins of Intelligence, A Guide to Clinical Hypnosis for Habit Control, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Prince Otto which is really charming. I have not been riding my bicycle any where near enough.


  3. I’ve been wanting to read the Fellman book for a long time, and much of what you say here rings true to me. The ethos of toughness and individualism depicted in the books certainly had (and has) a lot of appeal for me. But it’s also interesting that in the later books, which are the ones I love the best, also draw in the community more. Is that something Fellman talks about?

    I’m also very interested in the relationship between Wilder and her daughter. I read a book about each of them several years ago, and Rose struck me as a fascinating woman in her own right.


  4. Does Fellman accept that these are novels, works of art, something other than botched (“exaggerated”!) autobiography? Based on your description and janegs’s, the answer is no, in which case she is deliberately abandoning a substantial part of the book.

    Community and isolation are themes that are developed, not agendas that are promulgated, beginning with the first novel. The stark isolation of Little House on the Prairie allows a clear frame for these ideas. Who saves the family from malaria? Who saves them from slaughter by the Osage?


  5. I shudder to think what I learned from voracious reading of Enid Blyton as a child. But she definitely had that stoic vibe going good and strong. Why do we insist on children hiding their feelings? What good can it possibly do? And yet I even find myself wanting to shush or calm my son when he gets agitated. I sort of resist it, mostly… I wonder how much it’s a generational thing, as my parents never have what I would call a real, honest conversation. Those generations who grew up through the war must have clung to silence and denial to get through, I guess.


  6. I wonder (as you ask about yourself) whether these books influenced 80’s conservatism or whether they were taken up because they reflected it. I also loved books that celebrated individualism when I was a kid into my early adulthood. But all my own books, written in my late 30’s and onward, celebrate community.


  7. Heh, my Dad and his side of the family have that stoic thing going on too but they are all (now former) farmers from Minnesota so reading these books as a kid I loved them because of Laura but also because I felt like they gave me a peep into what life was like for my Dad’s family. That’s interesting about 80s conservatism and LH connection. But I wonder how strong it is? This country has a mythos of rugged individualism and pioneering and self-sufficiency. The Little House books certainly play into that mythos but I’m not sure they can be credited with so much influence as Fellman seems to give them.


  8. Haven’t read Fellman but I sympathize with your reactions to it, and certainly seem to have shared a lot of your reactions to the series. I especially like your comment that the books get more interesting as Laura grows up and has to deal with various difficulties. Nice post. I’m always happy to be reminded of the Little House series; I loved them so much.


  9. Interesting post (as always!) and interesting comments. Now I want to reread the books even more. I think I have stronger memories now of the TV show, but I think they must have stayed somewhat true to the books? I hadn’t thought of or even realized the connection between the self-sufficiency of the family and conservatism–what other choice did they really have out on the prairie, though? It sounds like this was a good reading experience and an enlightening one, too. It’s easy to forget sometimes with kid’s books that they can shape us as much as entertain!


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  11. Eva

    I loved reading this post! The Little House books weren’t a huge part of my childhood reading: I received the set my mom had as a little girl, and read them once and enjoyed them, but didn’t return to them the way that I did with my favourites, so they’re just a vague memory. Anyway, I found your thoughts just fascinating, and I’m quite curious to read that Fellman book now. The Magician’s Book was such an excellent treatment of Narnia, it’s made me eager to read more books about children’s classics!


  12. Jillian ♣

    Oh, how interesting! I must find a copy of Fellman’s book. I just ordered a biography on Wilder (a couple days ago.) I’m finding myself curious about who she really was. But whoever that turns out to be, I believe I’ll always treasure her books.


  13. I’m reading them for the first time as an adult and I have mixed feelings about the books. I’m about half way through. Long winter is next up.

    I’d like to think that I’m much more like the Family of Farmer Boy, where we stay put and build on a strong foundation of work. The thought of having to start over every couple of years just seems like such a waste of energy. The wanderlust pa has is really costly. He’s never satisfied with where he’s at and is always searching for nirvana. We’ll see how it ends up in the later books .


  14. Nicole — it’s interesting you bring up The Long Winter, because she uses that book to help make her point. She says that while yes, community is important, Wilder/Lane left out many examples of how the real-life community worked in order to make the family seem more isolated than they actually were. Which, since readers presumably don’t know the real-life story in detail, may not make much effect on the reader’s experience of the book, but the community could realistically have been even stronger.

    Multiconstruct — thank you! Fellman makes a big deal out of the fact that the books (she doesn’t consider the TV show much) aren’t overtly political at all, which might make their effect on political thinking even more influential, since it is subtle. Interesting, right?

    Teresa — Rose is definitely fascinating in her own right, and Fellman has a lot of interesting information about her. She does talk about the growing importance of community in the books, but it’s something the books are ambivalent about: Pa and sometimes Laura want to leave the community behind, while Ma wants to stay. So they are drawn in, but it’s a mixed blessing.

    Amateur Reader — she does discuss the fact that the books are art and acknowledges that many of the changes Wilder brought into the story are done for artistic reasons — to simplify and clarify the story, make the narrative more coherent, build tension, etc. But she also argues that these changes also contribute to the political ideas developed in the book. My guess is that she does not acknowledge the artistry of the books as much as you might like, but she doesn’t merely think of them as botched autobiographies, either.

    Litlove — I’d guess it is a generational thing — and maybe regional too? But not merely regional, since we are both discussing it! In the Wilder books, you aren’t really grown up unless you can control your feelings; I guess people worried that society would fall apart somehow if we let everything out. Or life required strength, as you say, and somehow expressing one’s feelings doesn’t require strength.

    Lilian — I was thinking as I wrote the post that young people tend to think they are immortal and can do anything — so why would they need other people? It’s a kind of arrogance that gets knocked out of us, I suppose. Although perhaps the young people today aren’t like that??

    Stefanie — how interesting that you have a family connection! I would have loved it if I had family members who lived where Laura had lived! Fellman hedges her claims quite a bit — they didn’t bring about changes single-handedly, but may have influenced part of the cultural shift. She says we can’t really know how much influence they had, but she does trace parallels pretty well.


  15. Pagesofjulia — I’m so glad you are as fond of them as I am! It’s been so fun to reread them, and I highly recommend it. I’ve had a great time reading them and reading about them.

    Danielle — the TV series is quite different from the books, which can be good or bad, depending on your perspective! The TV series is much more melodramatic and action-packed than the books. I liked them both, but I never took the TV series all that seriously. You’re so right about how kids books can shape us; that’s part of Fellman’s point, that the books can affect us without us really knowing it.

    Eva — thank you! Fellman’s book is much less personal and more academic than Miller’s book was, but it’s still quite good. It’s only partly a reading of the books themselves; there’s a lot in there about their context, reception, treatment in schools, etc. Wendy McClure’s book The Wilder Life is also quite good.

    Jillian — I agree. I’m not at all turned off from the books because of Fellman’s book; I can enjoy them for what they are just fine! It’s really great to learn more about Wilder, I agree. I hope you enjoy your biography of her!

    First Gen American — interesting! I had much more negative feelings about Pa this time around than before; I still liked his character, but I was aware of the difficult things he put his family through. You are right that there’s a high cost to his actions, and he is unlikely to find what he really wants.


  16. “I’m not entirely sure, but I have learned that rereading childhood favorites can be dangerous, so watch out!”

    Heh. Agreed! I had a similar feeling when I finished my summer of re-reading. I’m still sorting it all out. (And have continued by re-reading Gone With the Wind, which I haven’t read since I was 16, and which I seem to see completely differently now, even though it, too, informed me in ways that I didn’t recognize at the time.) But the relationship between reader and book is ever fascinating…


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