Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Jul 28, 2014

For so many years, I have heard friends and strangers alike express tender fondness for the Little House on the Prairie series.

Having not grown up on the series, I didn't think I would ever express similar sentiments, especially since, when I finally did read them, I didn't particularly love the first two books. I began the series more because I thought it was an iconic piece of American literature I should be familiar with and less because I had any real interest in the Ingalls family's homesteading adventures.

But I have done an about face. A complete 180. Somewhere along the way, I went from enduring to adoring. I now feel like I'm on a mission to convert as many readers as I can, especially if their initial response, like mine, was unenthusiastic.

When this book begins, Laura and her family are back out on their claim after the long, hard winter. One evening Pa comes home with news about an opportunity for Laura to earn some money helping Mrs. Clancy make shirts. It's not what Laura would choose to do, but she wants to help Mary go to college as soon as possible, so she accepts the offer. She earns nine dollars, and it is enough to outfit Mary for her first year of school in Iowa. There is a sad emptiness in the family after Mary's departure, but Laura is soon busy studying for exams, participating in the Friday Night Literaries, and trying to understand Miss Wilder's dislike for her. Beneath it all is Laura's desire to get her teacher's certificate when she turns sixteen so she can continue to help keep Mary in college.

One thing that continues to impress me with these stories is the strong work ethic of the Ingalls family. It's not just the obvious things (Laura taking on a job she doesn't like or Ma and the girls tirelessly chasing away a swarm of blackbirds), but the details that are mentioned in passing, so small that they might go unnoticed if they were not so different from today's attitude. For example, one afternoon as Mary and Laura return from picking violets, they come upon Pa planting corn. "'Had a nice walk, girls?' he smiled at them, but he did not stop working." For some reason, that statement, "but he did not stop working," stood out to me, perhaps because without it, I think we might mistakenly assume that Pa would take the opportunity to catch his breath and relax his muscles for a moment.

Contrast that with this quote from when Pa is expanding the claim shanty and making it into a real house: "Laura helped him all the time, Carrie and Grace watched, and picked up every nail that Pa dropped by mistake. Even Ma often spent minutes in idleness, looking on." It is so unusual for Ma to be idle that the reader has to be informed about this occurrence. It makes the transformation of the shanty even more exciting because we see that even Ma can't help but stop her work in order to watch the progress.

I'm also marveling at the perfectly placed details, which are often so simplistic, you wouldn't think they'd be all that memorable. But they're often brought back at just the right moment to deliver a heartrending punch. For example, early in the book, it's mentioned that Carries does the buttons on her dress outside in because she can't reach to do it the other way. At the time, I just thought it was a cute little tidbit about Carrie. But then later in the book, it comes back when Laura and Carrie participate in the school exhibition: "Carrie's thin face was strained and pale as she made her way to the aisle. All the buttons up the back of her plaid dress were buttoned outside-in. Laura should have thought to button her up; but no, she had left poor little Carrie to do the best she could, alone." Carrie's fright that could have been lessened by Laura's attention and Laura's guilt that would have been absolved if she'd only noticed little Carrie are both perfectly summed up with those outside-in buttons.

Throughout the books, Ma often chides her girls with being too vain, so then I had to laugh when she tells Laura she will ruin her figure if she doesn't wear her corset to bed (yes, that's if she doesn't, not if she does). Ma reminisces that when she got married, Pa could circle her waist with his two hands. Ma is also quite worried about Mary being dressed in all the latest fashions when she goes to school (and one has to wonder how many people will even see Mary's clothes since she is, after all, going to a school for the blind). She even makes sure that Mary's dresses can accommodate hoops just in case they find that hoops are in style when they get to Iowa. It seems that even Ma might need to guard against vanity.

I don't know if I've mentioned before that I've been listening to the audio of all of these books. They are narrated by Cherry Jones. I remember listening to the first chapter of Little House in the Big Woods and wondering if I would be able to stand her voice. I laugh whenever I remember I thought that because I now love her voice so much. It has a gentle roughness about it that is just perfect for these stories. Plus, she is just brilliant with interpretation and can pack so much emotion into one simple sentence. One of my favorite listening moments from this book was when Laura and Carrie were getting ready for the school exhibition: "Then Carrie's hair was perfectly sleek from the middle parting to the two stiff braids hanging down her back. 'There, now you look just right!' Laura said. [Obviously she didn't look at Carrie's buttons.] 'Your new plaid dress is beautiful.'" The way Cherry Jones spoke those words, it didn't even sound like Laura. She sounded too gentle, too much like Ma. But then these words followed, "Her voice did not seem to be hers, it was so serene." And I thought, If Cherry Jones can convey that nuance without me even hearing the explanation, then she is truly a master.

There was more to love about this book (the darling name cards (all the latest rage) and Almonzo's shy requests to escort Laura home and Nellie's wretched ego), but I must end this before it gets any longer. Just know that I could turn around and read this book again, I loved it that much.

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