Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Bedtime stories: the Little House series

For several years, a colleague has been recommending the Little House on the Prairie series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, to incoming graduate students in food policy. These true stories of frontier life from a young girl's perspective offer minute detail about every aspect of 19th century food and agriculture.

I have been reading a couple chapters nightly to my kids, who seem completely engaged. We are now on the third book, On the Banks of Plum Creek. Of course, the gritty and irrepressible main character of Laura provides much of the appeal for them. She tries half-heartedly to be an "angel" like her far less interesting sister Mary, but when pressed to the limit by the cruelty of a snobby girl in town, extracts a just revenge with the help of some bloodsucking leeches.

For my part, I want to sign up for Pa's fan club. What a man. On a patch of prairie in Indian Territory, after the family builds a perfect home and farm through a year of hard manual labor, simultaneously backbreaking and profoundly skilled, Pa bravely acknowledges defeat when the federal government, in a rare and temporary attack of honest dealing, forces the settlers to return to their home country. (The case of American frontier settlement suggests a new perspective on contemporary arguments about illegal immigration.) As the family leaves for its return trip, on the long trail by which it had arrived 12 months earlier, Pa observes wryly that at least they are returning with more than they came with. Ma is astonished at this comment, considering that they are sitting in the same covered wagon filled with exactly the same possessions as before. Sure, Pa points out, one of the two ponies pulling the wagon had given birth to a colt.

Will the family's next endeavor be more successful? In the book we are currently reading, after Pa takes on debt to build another perfect home on a Minnesota farmstead, and yet more backbreaking labor to plant a large wheat field, the grasshoppers arrive. Had enough, Pa? A chapter later, the grasshoppers lay eggs in such quantity to make the land useless for the next season also. And Pa must leave to walk several hundred miles on foot in search of several months of wage labor while Ma and the girls struggle to get by on the farm.

I haven't seen the TV show for years, but I certainly don't recall it having such guts. What a fine set of stories to entertain and inspire kids and adults together at reading time.


Anonymous said...


Those are some of my favorite books from childhood, and I still read them as an adult. There is so much authentic experience in them that they really capture the imagination.

The TV show was nothing but a pale imitation--we watched it, but even as a kid, I knew that it was more of a reflection of American attitudes of the time in which it was produced than it was an accurate reflection of the content of the books.

I can't wait to share the books with my new daughter after she is born and grows big enough to hear them being read!

Anonymous said...

You should also get the fabulous Little House Cookbook, which gives a lot of back story to the foods grown and prepared in the books. A completely readable food history, made all the more real by the connection to the stories.

Anonymous said...

I recently watched a couple of the TV episodes (on DVD) with my youngest son. One of the episodes we watched was a "crops destroyed by hail and Pa walks hundreds of miles for a job" (while the women folk decide to cooperatively harvest what little grain was left). But the other episode was rather sappy and insipid.