I cannot review the Little House books without talking about this: these books are racist. I hope that teachers or parents who are introducing these books to children for the first time are having serious discussions with these kids about racism and colonialism, and how these attitudes influenced westward expansion. As I was rereading these books (which, by the way, I loved as a kid and reread many times), I couldn’t stop thinking about the word “pioneer,” which in this case is just a euphemism for “invader.” We all know the story of the pioneers and the Native Americans, but I don’t think it feels real for most of us who are not Native Americans. It’s a story you learn in elementary school, that it’s sad that the Native Americans had to leave, but it was necessary because the white folk needed their space. That narrative protects us from the uncomfortable truth that most of us here in the United States are living on land that really shouldn’t belong to us.
I think it’s important to revisit the books you loved as a child. I have put off rereading these ones because I knew that I would have to do some critical thinking that would not feel good. It’s hard to go back to the things we loved and realize they aren’t as wonderful as we’ve been remembering. I do think that the Little House books have some value. I think they present a common attitude among white people of the time period, which is important for us to acknowledge and examine, and to think about how those attitudes shaped the U.S. I think they’re a fascinating look at what life was like for the pioneers, and an accessible way to let children learn about life in other time periods. But the overt racism (including an episode of blackface that is played for laughs) cannot be allowed to pass by without discussion. I don’t think it’s okay to say, “Yes, they’re racist, but I loved them as a child/I have such good memories of reading them or watching the show. . .” They are racist. That is the end of the story. If you enjoy them, you must find a way to reconcile that with your beliefs about yourself. This is a difficult thing to think about, but so necessary if you want to be an active reader (or listener, or movie/TV show watcher) and be able to confront your own privilege.
Turning to the stories themselves, most of us are familiar with the general plot of the Little House books–they are the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood growing up on the frontier. The books are incredibly popular and have been turned into a TV show and movies, and have spawned a whole host of books written by other authors about the Ingalls family. They are simple stories, full of details about chores and activities that most of us never have to do: butcher a pig, sew a dress, go to school in a one-room schoolhouse, live through a bout of malaria, plant crops, and survive tragedies of near-Biblical proportions (hordes of grasshoppers eating the wheat crop, seven month long blizzards, having to put up with the insufferable Nellie Oleson). Laura starts off the series as a four-year-old in the Big Woods of Wisconsin (Little House in the Big Woods), and ends it in her early 20s, married to Almanzo Wilder and living in De Smet, South Dakota (The First Four Years). There’s also Farmer Boy, the second published in the series, which is the story of Almanzo’s childhood growing up on a farm in New York State.
Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy are different than the other books, I think–they’re much more innocent childhood stories. In Little House on the Prairie, the third book, things begin to take a dark turn. The Ingalls move to Kansas in a covered wagon, build a log cabin and start farming on what turns out to be Osage territory. They believe the government will let them keep the land, but eventually they realize they will have to leave. Meanwhile, they encounter Native Americans both friendly and unfriendly (and Laura’s Ma, otherwise portrayed as a kindly and gentle soul, utters the line, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”). There’s a bout of malaria, which they ascribe to eating watermelons that were grown incorrectly, and a scene that always perplexes me, where Laura throws a tantrum because she wants Pa to steal her a little baby Indian. This book, to me, is the most overtly racist of the series. This is followed by their move to Minnesota to live in a dugout house and try to start another farm, On the Banks of Plum Creek. As a child this was my favorite, and the most memorable, because this is the one where the grasshoppers come and eat their crops in a truly disgusting scene. Things are also fairly dark in the next book, By the Shores of Silver Lake, where it is revealed that Laura’s older sister Mary has been blinded by what they think was scarlet fever (historians now believe it was actually meningitis).
Starting with By the Shores of Silver Lake, all of the rest of the books take place in De Smet, South Dakota. The Ingalls have a homestead claim and Wilder describes the difficulties involved in “proving up” on such a claim to the U.S. government. They live through the winter of 1880-1881, one of the worst on record in South Dakota, and eventually Laura meets Almanzo and begins working as a schoolteacher.
For the most part, the books are interesting simply for their strangeness compared to our everyday lives. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that Laura traveled in a covered wagon, and her daughter was sent to Vietnam as a war correspondent. It’s amazing how fast things change in a single lifetime. Of course, I also couldn’t stop thinking about how much of these books are fictionalized. I know the people were real, but how could Laura, who wrote the books in her 60s, possibly remember so much about her early childhood? I’m only in my 30s but I have trouble remembering people I graduated high school with.
The Long Winter and The First Four Years are the two that point out just how much is fictionalized, I think, because these are the two that are the most true to life. The Long Winter is simply an account of living through a terrible winter where the entire town of De Smet almost stared to death. The First Four Years is a very basic account of the Wilders’ first four years of marriage, with hardly any narrative flourishes or anecdotes. Not by coincidence, these are also the two most boring books in the series. Wilder heavily embroidered her books to make them more interesting, and who can blame her? Frontier life sounds brutal, dull, and crushingly difficult even with all her added little details. A straightforward account of the life of a pioneer, to my mind, would never gain the type of following and classic status that the Little House series enjoys. Wilder had to pad out her books if she wanted anybody to read them. She even changed the order of her life events, as the things that happened in Little House on the Prairie actually occurred before Little House in the Big Woods.
The Little House books are an important part of American history, but I think that any reading of them must include an acknowledgement of their problems. Readers have a responsibility to examine our reactions to problematic books, and use these books as a way to explore our own attitudes. To read the Little House books with sentimentality rather than critical thought will do you no good.