A House divided: Little House on the Prairie and Birchbark House

Little House and the Prairie (by Laura Ingalls Wilder) and The Birchbark House (by Louise Erdrich) are both children’s books about relatively the same period of time, both with interactions between white settlers and Native American populations. Truly, different households though–one white and one Native! After visiting both, I end up feeling uneasy about the merits of a so-called American classic.

I understand the nostalgia surrounding Little House on the Prairie, but I don’t have it myself. I didn’t read the series as a child, nor did I watch the show. (The mall in my hometown did put up these great robotic displays of the Big Woods Ingalls family around Christmastime though.) Truthfully, the book made me really uncomfortable, even before I considered what the critics had to say. Manifest destiny and white imperialist attitudes really bother me anyway, and there were plenty of those in the book. (I also hate that this still goes on in our world… I’m sorry, but no, we don’t need to go out and tame the “heathens.” There is a fine line between service and imperialism). Yes, it seemed like when Ma and Pa shut Laura down as she was basically asked, “Isn’t it their land?” that it was an acknowledgement on Wilder’s part that even the characters knew their attitudes weren’t right.

The prejudice, fear and naïvety toward the Natives Americans was also a little much for me. It was undesirable to have Indian qualities: Ma didn’t want the girls to be “brown like an Indian” or “yell like an Indian.” The Indians that the Ingalls interact with “smell terrible,” steal and menace them. The diplomatic descriptions romanticized the Indians as “noble savages” (e.g. Laura’s “papoose” or Soldat du Chêne being “one good Indian”).

I don’t know why Huck Finn didn’t bother me the same way. Maybe the difference for me was that Little House was quite frankly written for a much younger audience and I wouldn’t expect the same level of critical thinking about these issues by elementary students. It feels a little too much like negative indoctrinating.

That said, the storyline was cute and I did enjoy the pioneer adventure. The idea of building everything from the ground up reminded me a little of wilderness camping and the kind of stuff my grandpa did/does out in the country on his farm.

As for Birchbark House, I don’t nearly have as much to say. I loved the story; it felt like I was looking in a window of another culture. I thought the story was masterful in that each character truly served the story and moved the plot forward. I had kind of forgotten about the introduction about Tallow and the “Girl from Spirit Island,” so that was a pleasant surprise. I read the book an early morning flight after an exhausting (but fun) trip, so I nodded off a few times, but I don’t think that had anything to do with the story quality.

Birchbark House isn’t as much of an adventure story though, so there was less action, but definitely more character development. I felt like I knew Omakayas and understood how she felt by the end. I didn’t feel this with Laura. I smiled when she was “naughty” (aw man, that part about wading in the stream and her “naughty foot”… that was the best!) but she seemed a little more robotic to me. I didn’t feel like I was walking in her shoes. I did want to know “what would happen next” more with Little House, and there was less of this for me with Birchbark House (with the exception of the smallpox).

I was satisfied when I finished Birchbark House; I felt like I had learned. I was a bit relieved at the end of Little House though; I definitely had mixed feelings. I was glad to have read it, but also glad that I hadn’t as a child.

2 Responses

  1. Mardi June 2, 2014 / 3:29 am

    Thank you for this comparison between these two books. Just what I have been after as I want to buy the Birchbark House series for my kids and my initial reading of the Little House book didn’t feel right for me. You confirmed my feelings when I am surrounded by a sea of people who love the Little House series over here. Thank you so much!

  2. hennebe June 2, 2014 / 9:35 am

    You’re welcome. Sentimentality (on the part of those around you) does not always equal merit. Props for responding to that uneasy feeling. I was reading something the other day about “the Long Tail” of literature and how there is really no canon of classic literature anymore. There are enough “Great Books” out there to meet individual tastes and with the internet and networking, we can find what we want. I love having the “cultural currency” to be able to understand cultural allusions to literature, but there isn’t a prescription for literary education.

    You know, even re-reading my reflections on LHP still bristles me. A couple days after writing this one, I wrote this one: http://liburiedalive.com/2014/02/23/what-do-we-do-with-little-house-on-the-prairie-now/.

    Don’t get me wrong–insensitive books can be still be read, but critically! I liked this article on the topic: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_really_read_racist_books_to_your_kids

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