Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What Would Laura Ingalls Wilder Do?

I referenced Little House on the Prairie in class the other day.

The majority of my student had neither read the books nor seen the TV series with Melissa Gilbert.

I was astonished.

Those books were my absolute favorite from first grade through fourth grade.  I had the whole series, which had previously been my Aunt Peggy's.  The front of each book had a book plate with a picture of a girl reading and the name "Peggy Vance" carefully labeled in my grandmother's printed hand.  I used to imagine that the girl reading looked just like my Aunt Peggy when she had read those books and I liked the idea of copying her.

I read and reread them, skipping Farmer Boy (because, really, who wants to read about a boy on the prairie?).  I marveled over all of the details that Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered from her childhood, and wondered about the things she discreetly left out (What was it like to go to the bathroom in an outhouse when it was cold and raining outside?).  The books made me want to eat rice pudding and drink buttermilk (neither of which were ever offered to me as a meal option by my mother, but which seemed to be real favorites in the Ingalls household.  I relished the meals when my mom served venison because Laura ate it!).

The books were the source of endless dress up games and play acting and fighting imaginary prairie fires in a gingham skirt and flowered sunbonnet that my mom or grandma made for me.  I think I spent as much time pretending to be Laura Ingalls as I did actually acting like myself for the entirety of 1987.

I never cared too much for the show because I didn't really think Pa had such luxurious curly hair as Charles Landon and frankly I felt that Melissa Gilbert had no business playing a part that was clearly meant for me (I felt the same way about the short-lived Ramona Quimby television series so clearly I missed my calling to be a child actor--you could be seeing me right now on that "Where Are They Now?" show that airs on E sometimes.).  I hadn't even fully realized what a huge part of my childhood these books were until I found myself gaping open-mouthed at a room full of students who had never read them.

The classroom reference occurred because we'd gotten to the part in Huck Finn where Jim misses his family and confesses to Huck how guilty he feels about an encounter with his young daughter.  She'd had scarlet fever but had recovered and one day shortly after, when she was up and about again, Jim told her to shut the door.  She ignored him.  He told her again.  No response.  He yelled at her and she did not do as she was told, so he hit her.  She was stunned at his reaction.  Jim puzzled over this, then tried an experiment in which he snuck up behind her and shouted as loud as he could.  No response.  He realized his little girl was deaf, and Jim felt miserable about the way he had treated her.

My students wanted to know how realistic this was--could scarlet fever really make one lose their hearing?

Immediately I said yes, it could have devastating consequences.  Remember Laura's sister Mary in the Little House books?  The well-behaved blond one?  She goes blind after she gets scarlet fever.

My students did not remember Mary and confessed their unfamiliarity with Little House on the Prairie.  I spared them the lecture and even managed to keep my reading recommendation to myself (we're tackling Lolita next week, so I really need their full attention on Nabokov).  But I couldn't help thinking about everything they were missing out on!  I must have read some of those books a dozen times.

But it has been ages since I've sat down with Laura and Mary On the Banks of Plum Creek or anywhere else.  I can't quite remember the last time I read them.  Middle school?  Maybe early high school?  One of these days I just might have to sit down with Little House in the Big Woods and see if I can rediscover some of that wonder and fascination that had me longing for the pioneer life.


  1. Brooke, do you remember visiting the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in Missouri around 1988? I was visiting you guys. I was amazed that they had the original manuscripts of the books and they were written in pencil on Big Chief tablets. I just thought they should be in a vault someplace! Peggy

  2. I'm not sure how I found this post, but I want to shout "Amen!" I love these books so much. In the late summer when I'm starting to pick foods from my garden my heart tickles to be just like Ma and store things away for the summer. I imagine over and over the attic full of pumpkins and peppers on strings. These were the first books I read and actually enjoyed. I absolutely adore them, but really, how did the Ingalls use the bathroom when they were snowbound? Did they use a type of toilet paper? Also, how did Ma keep getting pregnant when they all slept within 5 feet of each other?

  3. I found your blog after submitting a question via a Google search, and haven't even read the whole entry, after I learned that you hadn't read Farmer Boy at its writing. If you still haven't, I STRONGLY urge you to read it! It's absolutely delightful (and Laura herself wrote it, with her husband's help, no doubt!), all about Almanzo's boyhood on the family farm in Malone, New York (not on a prairie :)

    It's a very clear and detailed picture of one boyhood adventure after another, and shows why Almanzo had the values he did, that his sister Eliza Jane was bossy from a young age, that Almanzo and Alice were best sibling/friends, and lots of other really great stuff.

    You won't regret it!

    I'll read the rest of your entry now!

    Happy 2013!!!

    Mary Helen

  4. Glad to find someone else who loved these books as much as I did -- they're the books I learned to read with when I was five! I, on the other hand, loved Farmer Boy. It's not set on the prairie; it's about Laura's husband Almanzo's boyhood in upstate New York. Definitely worth the read.