Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie. Illus. Garth Williams. 1935. New York: Harper & Row, 1953. Print.
Laura and her family leave their cabin in the Big Woods of Wisconsin to settle out in Indian Territory. The family and their dog travel in a covered wagon with meager supplies before settling on the high prairie west of Independence, Missouri. For the next year, they build a house, a barn, a well, a hearth and furniture, while struggling with wild animals, Indian encounters, fires and malaria. It is the growing concern over the Indian presence and rumors of a federal government order for white settlers to leave the area that causes Pa to move his family. They pack up again, abandoning the homestead, and head back toward Independence to eventually start anew.
The high prairie of eastern Kansas near the Verdigris River, between 1869 and 1871
Point of View:
3rd person (Laura)
Pioneer spirit, self-sufficiency, family unity, contact between cultures
This book is third in what is considered a series based on the adventures of the Ingalls-Wilder family. The American Library Association recognized Laura Ingalls-Wilder’s contribution to children’s literature by naming an award after her to be given to authors or illustrators who have made similar long-lasting impacts. Little House on the Prairie is considered somewhat of an American classic. It is still in print and has been widely translated, also spawning a television series. It is perhaps the subject matter of a family’s pioneer spirit and nostalgia for a simpler life and time that has inspired such popularity.
The portrayals of the Native Americans in this book are often done from a white, imperialist point of view. Several characters believed that they had the right to the land and that the government should continue to displace Indians for white settlers. The encounters that the Ingalls family has with the Indians are often painted with fear, prejudice and naïvety. Indian qualities are undesirable: it is not good to be “brown like an Indian” nor “yell like an Indian,” and the Indians they do meet “smell terrible,” steal and want to attack. Even when the some of the characters discuss Indians in a more diplomatic light, they are depicted as romanticized “noble savages”—like Laura’s “papoose” and Soldat du Chêne as “one good Indian.” There also is little acknowledgement of Native culture, other than mention of abandoned Indian camps, found beads and their dress/appearance.
The book was written at a lower reading level and was likely aimed at upper elementary students (grade 3-5), though it could be appropriate as a read-aloud for younger students. The adventure story and the young, spunky protagonist who is sometimes “naughty” could also appeal to young readers. Even though there is a contrast in parent-child interactions between then and now, Laura is not a perfect child and has a wild side. However, I would encourage parents and teachers to read this book critically with children because of some of the problems with cultural authenticity.
I did not read this series as a child (nor did I watch the television series), so I had little attachment to the Little House books, other than these great automaton displays of the Ingalls family they would put up in the mall at Christmas-time. As I read this book for the first time as an adult, I was very uncomfortable with the attitudes toward and portrayals of the Native Americans, especially when the family spoke of their right to the best land. I realize that this was perhaps very realistic and common at the time for white settlers, but I was a bit relieved that I had not been exposed to the book when I was young and more impressionable, since I might not have recognized the “other side” of the story. However, I am glad to have finally experienced Ingalls-Wilder’s work and recognize her contribution to the canon of classic children’s literature. After all, the pioneer spirit that she writes about still sparks the imagination and creates nostalgia for the “good ole days” in many of us.