For those of you who missed reading this American children’s classic in your own youth, as I did, Little House on the Prairie is the second (or third, depending on whether you count Farmer Boy, apparently) in Ingalls’ multi-volume Little House set, after Little House in the Big Woods. It was my first foray in Ingalls’ works, and I don’t think I missed anything by starting out of order. The book kicks off with Pa Ingalls yearning for a place with less people (the Big Woods are feeling mighty crowded for him), and starting the preparations for the wagon journey west into Indian Territory (the book was written in the 1930s but set in the 1870s, before the western states were officially states). Plot-wise the book is fairly simple: the Ingalls travel west, find a spot to build a house, build a house, survive a winter on the prairie (including a bout of malaria), and then abandon their house to travel back east.
My favourite parts of this novel were the detailed descriptions of the more mundane and technical aspects of everyday life- how the journey was prepared for, the building of a log cabin, the building of a chimney, etc. There was a ‘How-It’s-Made’ pleasure for me in hearing all the details of things that no one I know actually does, especially in an age when those skills and knowledge would have meant survival. As far as young adult novels go, it reminded me in some ways of the Gary Paulsen novels where a kid has to survive in the woods (anyone else remember Hatchet?!).
My least favourite parts had to do with the novels’ treatment and description of first nations people (“Indians”) that occupy the edges of the novel, both literally in their camps near the Ingalls cabin and figuratively in their bogey-man status for the ‘intrepid pioneers’. In my daily life I practice aboriginal law, so I’m acutely aware of how the history that Ingalls describes- including being dispossessed from their lands by white settlers and broken government promises- have shaped the present day for the first nations people in the Western US/Canada. Aside from the explicit racism that bubbles up in Ingalls’ text (ie: anything Ma Ingalls says about the Indians), I was really frustrated with the less overt racism that underpins the whole adventure, namely the Ingalls’ attitude that they were entitled to illegally cross over into Indian Territory and claim it as their own land. At one point Ma comments that because the land wasn’t being used properly by the Indians, the government would surely give the land to people who used the land better (read: white people). My frustration was compounded by the plot twist at the end of the story- Ma and Pa grumble about having to abandon their house when the government in Washington is rumored to be enforcing its prohibition on white settlement in Indian Territory, so the family packs up before they can be evicted. At no point is there recognition of how Ma and Pa’s own errors and assumptions have played into this, nor about how their settlement in that location was illegal and violated the treaties that the government had made with the first nations. The sense of entitlement really grated on me, as did the fact that this very one-sided version of events (and assumptions underlying that version) have been ‘entertaining’ small children for nearly a century.
I’ve been sitting with this book for several weeks now and I’m still not sure how to feel about it. I like that it is a classic written by a woman, and I can appreciate why it is an American children’s classic- adventure and pioneers and the frontier!- but I still have issues with the assumptions (and omissions) that Ingalls makes. Rather than stopping reading this book in classrooms, I think what I’d like to see is it paired with a story from the perspective of a first nations child- that way you’re not ignoring history (including its problematic aspects) but showing how multi-sided it is. It reminds me of the John Berger line that Arundhati Roy quotes in The God of Small Things: “Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one.”