I recently read the two early Laura Ingalls Wilder novels, Little House in the Big Woods (1932) and Little House on the Prairie (1935), a child’s view of life on the Midwestern frontier during the early 1870s. No children were involved in the reading of these novels – I read them for my own pleasure.
They’re both excellent, as I assume everyone knows. Little House on the Prairie is better, by which I mean nothing more than “more complex.” It might even be one of the 50 Greatest English-language Novels Written Since 1880, why not?
I want to write a post or two or three about these books, and for some reason I feel the need to reassure readers that I am not trying to damage their childhood memories. On the one hand, this is absurd. They’re fine books and I’m a gentle Appreciationist, and we are all adults. On the other hand, poking around Ye Olde Internet a bit for other blog writing about Wilder, I have discovered that those warm childhood feelings can be delicate, lacey things, torn to shreds by the slightest pressure. I encountered a surprising resentment of anything that made the novels interesting.
Those are the parts I want to write about, the interesting parts! I should stop here. Anything else I have to say will sound insulting. A warning, then: I am going to write about these novels as conscious works of art that employ concepts like irony and ambiguity. Anyone who fears for their childhood should rejoin Wuthering Expectations next week, when I will discuss – no, sorry, that’ll probably be John Henry Newman, so skip that. Coming up, maybe: a Thackeray novel few people should read. I mean, it’s brilliant, but who are we kidding? So that’s useless. Emily Dickinson, maybe come back for Emily Dickinson.
Should I reveal my own crushed memory? Actually, it was just slightly bent. Little House on the Prairie has a Christmas scene which had a powerful effect on me. On the Oklahoma prairie, forty miles from the nearest town, Laura and her sister Mary receive identical presents: a peppermint stick, a tin cup, a little heart-shaped cake made of white flour, and, what abundance, a penny!
They had never even thought of such a thing as having a penny. Think of having a whole penny for your very own. Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny. (Ch. 19)
Oh, I thought about it all right. I thought and thought, enough to memorize the list of gifts, although for some reason I had forgotten the cake (that's the bent memory). My conclusion, after all of that thought, was that regardless of virtues the author is trying to inculcate, that was a horrible Christmas. Laura Ingalls Wilder confirmed me in my selfish materialism. That penny was the crowning insult.
But Mary and Laura looked at their beautiful cakes and played with their pennies and drank water out of their new cups.
Drank – water. Played with their – pennies. Oh, no no no. At this point in my life, I have no interest whatsoever in receiving Christmas presents, and would be delighted to receive nothing more than, say, a single square of dark chocolate. Or two, so I can share. Perhaps this is the long-delayed influence of the asceticism of Laura Ingalls Wilder! Still, any kid who gets presents from me will be sure to receive at least two pennies and two tin cups and two peppermint sticks (and two cakes - forgot 'em again), for which he can thank Little House on the Prairie.
I think everything I just wrote is more or less true, except the word “asceticism” is a joke. To Laura, in the novel, that Christmas really is abundant. That might even be a theme of these wonderfully material books. Maybe I should write about that. There’s a lot a person could write about. These are complex books.