Rethinking A Classic

Right now, Alex and I are reading Little House on the Prairie. I haven’t read it since I was a kid myself, and I’m surprised by the depth in it. They are children’s books—yet Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t just write down her memories for children’s entertainment. Little House on the Prairie is a lesson in political history.

Big Woods was just a portrait of a year in frontier America, with no particular underlying plot. By contrast, Prairie is about the expansion into Indian territory, and although it’s told from a child’s point of view, all the adult angst and prejudice is there—the way that whites viewed the land as theirs to take. Even Charles Ingalls, who is indisputably a good guy, and far more open-minded than any other character in the book, believed himself to be entirely justified in settling in Indian territory. And the comments made by Caroline Ingalls are nothing short of racist.

All this Wilder puts in her book, using little Laura as a foil. Laura spends the whole book asking when she’s going to get to see a “papoose.” She’s scared of the Indians, but fascinated, too, and she shows a frank sympathy for them.

“Yes,” Pa said. “When white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on. … That’s why we’re here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick. Now do you understand?”

“Yes, Pa,” Laura said. “But Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won’t it make the Indians mad to have to—“

“No more questions, Laura,” Pa said, firmly.

Christian walked in as we read this passage two nights ago, and his eyebrows hit the ceiling. “Hm,” was his only comment.

The themes are deliberate, woven into the fabric of the story. Because Wilder wrote for children, she presented them without adding commentary, without overtly explaining her views. But the prevalence of the theme—Laura’s fascination with the natives, contrasted with the adults’ varying degrees of bigotry—tells me that she recognized her parents’ weaknesses, and wanted to point out the essential wrongness of what was going on. Quite sophisticated, for a children’s book. It’s very well done. I can’t wait to finish the series.