Plain Influences – Laura Ingalls Wilder

First edition, 1935

I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder series of books based on her childhood and young married life when I was about ten years old. A friend had them. Oddly, I don’t think my mother had read them when she was a girl, although they would have been contemporaneous with her childhood. I wished my parents would move West, build a log cabin, and settle down in the Big Woods (which I much prefered to the prairie.)

We must be into the fourth generation to read these wonderful books. My grandson would be the right age for them, although most boys even today would see them as “girls'” books, which might be one reason women have been more influenced by them than men.

the Banks of Plum Creek, Hebrew edition

The books have been translated into many languages, and the television show was very popular in Europe for years. While I found many images from the series, most of them seem to be under copyright, and I didn’t want to steal anyone’s intellectual property. I did find this trading card, though, from what was probably a publicity still. It is in Swedish.

yes, it says little house on the prairie

 While the Ingalls family was not Plain, they lived a very basic life for many years, as they moved West and finally settled. They were one of many families leaving the Eastern states, looking to stake a claim on some farmland. They were real homesteaders, taking advantage of the Homestead Act first passed in 1862 (after the South seceded and could no longer block its passage). The Homestead Act was intended to let people without capital start a farm, partly to keep Southern plantations from expanding West and enlarging the number of slave-owning territories, and to populate the wild lands recently cleared of Native Americans, who were being pushed onto reservation land, mostly poor quality, near-desert public holdings. Although only 40% of the homesteaders ever filed for their deed, eventually 10% of the land in the United States was claimed under the Homestead Acts. The last claim was, I believe, in 1976, in Alaska, and the deed filed in 1988. (Wikipedia article was the source for most of this information.)

It’s one of the reasons I have trouble with the word “homesteading” for living off the grid. It’s not just that one can’t file a homestead claim, but that the intention of the Homestead Act, in part, was genocide by overcrowding and starvation. (Infected blankets from Civil War hospitals were sent to the reservations to spread smallpox. That was deliberate.) The Ingalls family had some encounters with their Native American neighbours, and while those contacts were nonviolent, the family was wary of the natives. Epidemic, lack of supplies and bitter cold were their real enemies, and it is a tribute to Pa Ingall’s skills and resourcefulness, and Ma’s good management, that they survived.

I didn’t watch much of the television series. I can’t say how authentic they kept details, but the clothing and houses seemed  to be in keeping with the era. (I didn’t like it that Michael Landon never grow Pa’s legendary beard.) I was certainly fond of the long dresses, aprons and sunbonnets the Ingalls girls wore, though.

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14 thoughts on “Plain Influences – Laura Ingalls Wilder

  1. I love the Little House books and I can’t wait till Ella is old enough for the original books. The series was pretty good. The costumes were period-ish, as seen through 1980’s eyes. I never really missed the beard.

  2. I enjoyed the Little House books as a child but I am wary of them now because of the racism and distortions to do with Native Americans. I think it is very important that we encourage each other to notice racism and work against it. I’m glad there are other simple lives to be found in literature.

    Here’s a guide to evaluating texts for racist tropes to do with Native Americans, if it’s of interest, and Native scholar Debbie Reese’s thoughts about various aspects of the Little House writings.

    • I would still have my grandchildren read them, but with a little explanation that people then felt differently about other cultures. It’s the same with Mark Twain. Today we have a hard time getting through the stereotypical portrayals of minorities in the literature of past times, but that does not mean there aren’t valuable lessons to be learned.

  3. I loved the books and the TV-series too. I remember running home from school when I was about 9 or 10 to watch the program. I loved any historical books as a child and I still like that genre but now I think I have higher demands on accuracy (as I have studied history at university) than I had then.

    I would definitely not discourage children of today to read these books, it is better for parents/teachers to explain the feelings of the characters regarding Native Americans and so on just like other changes in views. Then you can give your children mental history, a picture of the ideas of different times.

    • I was already away from home when the series started, but my mother and my younger sisters loved it. Items from the set are for sale now on eBay, but I have no idea how you would know they were the exact item and not just one that looked like it. In Canada we had several series set in about the same time period, the most popular being Anne of Green Gables. There was also another Lucy Maud Montgomery series called Emily of New Moon. We accidentally drove onto their set while visiting a park on Prince Edward Island. The Anne series bcame (I think) The Road to Avalon after Anen grew up and went away. There was also a costume drama called Pit Pony, about mining families on Nova Scotia. CBC produced a good drama series called Wind at My Back, which was about a small town on the Prairies during the Depression. A series about the early days of ranching in Birtish Columbia was called Nothing’s Too Good for a Cowboy, also based on a book.

  4. I read several of them aloud last year with my kids. My son loved them too. We have several DVD of the Little House series. It doesn’t keep very well with the books sometimes, but does a fair job of keeping with the time setting in general.

    I don’t have a problem with racism in the texts or Twain because that was the attitude at the time it was set. We need to view them as such, not through a modern sterilizing. Great lessons there.

    There was actually active homesteading in 2007 here in Alaska. The town of Anderson gave away land providing the people could meet minimum improvements in a set amount of time. Unfortunately, their minimum standards were pretty absurd like must have minimum of 1000 sq ft of living area totally completed in 2 years but restrictions on type of home to build. Some people never even actually took possession. The town wound up foreclosing on 18 of the 26 homesteads.

    • It would be difficult to get a house that size built in two years if you are truly homesteading and doing it yourself. Either you would use up all your resources putting up a house, or you would have a hard time meeting the standards. Most of us are more concerned about clearing land and getting some crops in than building the standard suburban home. As you pronbably know, may homesteaders start with a Mobile home or some other easily assembled shelter.

  5. Magdalena,

    I read these as a schoolgirl in 1979-1980; they were part of our curriculum here in New South Wales, Australia.

    I’ve heard many voice concerns re what are now thought of as racist undertones in these books;

    As any serious student of history learns when embarking on their course, ALL must be viewed through the lens of Sitzen Leben (excuse spelling); the culture and metanarrative of the era in question. That’s not to say ‘right is wrong and wrong is riht’, by no means. It does, however give us a greater appreciation and understanding of viewpoints of the times. People avoid this type of book because they do not exercise Sitzen Leben; to their detriment.

    As you, the first book ‘Little House in the Big Woods’ was my absolute favourite. I would also have loved to read the later book dedicated to Mary’s education once blinded due to Scarlet Fever; ‘Pa’ sought out the best for his daughter and if memory serves me correctly, ensured she received an education – comparitively rare for many in this period, even though formal education for the blind had existed in the East since the late 1830’s (Perkins school for the blind) today, perkins Institute, still out there, serving children and adults alike with vision impairment.

    Perhaps these books also planted the ‘plainesque’ seeds even though I read these 30 years ago now – still love callico dresses and own too many of them!!

    Blessings,

    Sarah.,
    Sydney,
    Australia.

    • I’ve read the one about Mary going away to school and learning braille. Gallaudet is another old, established school for children and adults, focussing on the severely hearing impaired. I used to run into groups of Gallaudet students at museums and theatres. Deaf people, cut off from the usual forms of communication, love to “talk” once they learn ASL. It looks like some form of modern dance when they are all chatting away. I have not learned ASL, but I should.

  6. The show was about as historically correct as Gone with the Wind was. Much of the clothing was the romanticized version of what one imagines a girl on the prairie would have worn. But if you look at the few photos of her as a girl and young woman, she wore what was standard for the time the photo was taken. Comparing the photos to the show gives you an idea of how not historical it was. She may have grown up on the prairie but Caroline and later Laura herself still sewed clothing that would have been as fashionable as they could have.

    All that said, I loved watching this show growing up. Glaring differences from the book aside, it was something I could imagine myself living like. I still enjoy the show but also see how cheesy it was at times. Much like old movies and tv shows. And that’s part of their endearing quality, they’re simpler than tv and movies are today.

    • While not historically correct, it captured the imagination of many young women. I don’t think I saw more than one or two episodes, but the influence was much greater than the merits of the production.

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