Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2194

Wilder produced nine books in the Little House series. Eight of these were based on her experiences growing up in various places on the American frontier, and one, Farmer Boy (1933), tells of her husband, Almanzo’s, boyhood on a farm in New York State. Each novel can be understood without reading the others, but taken together they form a cyclical tale which follows the Ingalls family from Laura’s early childhood to her marriage.

In keeping with the development of Laura, the reading difficulty and sophistication of ideas increases with each book. All are narrated by Laura, but they are not first-person narratives, nor are they autobiographical. Wilder employs a limited omniscient point of view. In all the Little House books except Farmer Boy, this means Laura’s consciousness determines the tone of the story. Not writing in the first-person voice allows Wilder to use details freely. She is able to combine occurrences and relax the chronology to make her story stronger without worrying about the precise order in which events took place.

The series champions family life as the source of stability, encouragement, and safety on the frontier. The descriptions of daily work, physical challenges, shared meals, singing and storytelling on winter evenings, and dangers overcome together form the structure of the novels. Domestic rhythms are bolstered by the seasonal shifts in land and work which mark the completion of a year. Cyclical activities emphasize the relation of life inside the Ingallses’ cabin to life outside—-on the prairie, on a claim, or in town. The tension of completing harvesting, hunting, or building while the weather allowed these tasks stresses the urgency of each day’s work for pioneer families. Wilder’s coordination of outdoor work and family growth emphasizes the communal and environmental nature of life on the Ingalls homestead.

Wilder captures the essence of the pioneer spirit in her books, affirming the independent determination of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay “Self Reliance” by comments like Ma’s, that “a body makes his own luck” in These Happy Golden Years(1943). Pa’s determination to prove up on his claim in De Smet, Dakota Territory, after years of loss and relocation is a testimony to his unbreakable spirit, one that Laura emulates in her own endeavors.

Throughout the novels, the Ingallses and their neighbors display a sense of entitlement to land. They believe that they have the right to take land they can prove up on according to the terms of the Homestead Act of 1862. Their beliefs reflect the popular nineteenth century doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which asserted the United States’ right to settle all the land between the Atlantic and Pacific shores. This philosophy cast American Indians as a danger to settlers’ rights as well as their lives because both groups laid claim to the same land. The plight of American Indians is filtered through the fears of Laura as a child and her parents’ and their neighbors’ comments. Charles Ingalls and Laura recognize the inequity of what is being done, but Pa offers no alternative and continues to assert his right to the land he has settled.

Wilder also draws on the American pastoral tradition, which attributes soul-expanding power to the landscape. Throughout the series Laura glories in the outdoors. She remarks on the songs of dickey birds on the prairie when she first sees the wide open expanse. She longs to run in the sunshine during her housebound winter months. She wades in the creek and helps plant seeds and water the family’s gardens and fields.

The outdoors is not all wonder and allure. It contains danger and can menace the Ingalls family by drought or force. As a mature woman, Laura, on a buggy ride with Almanzo, watches the approach of a ferocious rainstorm which ravages farms for miles as well as the town of De Smet. Wilder captures the drama of rolling black clouds sweeping across the plains, sending down fingers to touch the ground as the storm roars past, leaving the joyriders untouched. In an early episode in Little House on the Prairie (1935), the new cabin, without windows or a solid door, is surrounded by a pack of wolves howling and snuffling at the cabin’s sides during the night. Wilder is not naïve. She expresses the complex relationship of frontier people to the land. It both nurtures and haunts them, offering grand, healing vistas and the sense of space and possibility, along with infinite chances for harm to crops, animals, or the settlers themselves.

Wilder’s declarative style suits the narrator and main character Laura’s young and developing personality perfectly. It translates her practical and spunky spirit and aptly describes the ordinary tasks, celebrations, and concerns that made up frontier life in the mid-to late nineteenth century. The author’s straightforward structure comes out of the Puritan emphasis on plain speaking, as does Laura’s introspection about her motives and desires. Wilder’s clear style epitomizes the Ingalls family’s no-nonsense approach to relationships and work and also allows for the lyrical descriptions of landscape throughout the works. Her coordination of style and subject make the Little House series a suite of books that transforms America’s westward expansion into a human drama. Laura and her family embody the sense of possibility which sparked migration to unsettled lands. Wilder’s tone rings democratic, celebratory, and serious—-a testimony to her commitment to passing along her pride and delight at being a pioneer who lived to tell her tale.

Little House in the Big Woods

First published: 1932

Type of work: Novel

The book relates a year of Charles and Caroline Ingalls’s life in a log cabin in the Wisconsin woods with daughters Mary, Laura, and Caroline.

“Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.” Thus begins the first of nine books based on the frontier existence of the Ingalls family, fixing the time at 1873 and introducing the main character of the series. The simplicity of presentation fixes Laura’s perspective as the lens for the story, and all facets of the tale remain true to a child’s point of view. Wilder’s use of capital letters heightens Laura’s wonder at her surroundings.

It is fall, and the snug Ingalls home bursts with harvest foods, colorfully cataloged. The themes of family safety and self-reliance emerge as central to this book and to the whole series. Complete but easy-to-understand descriptions of building a smokehouse and slaughtering a pig make it clear that even children knew the basics of preparation for winter. This recitation of essential frontier knowledge became one of the most valuable and interesting aspects of Wilder’s contribution to later understanding of pioneer life.

Small details deepen the sense of the cares and dangers of such a life, as well as Ma’s determination to create some beauty for her family:Ma sat in her rocking chair, sewing by the light of the lamp. The lamp was bright and shiny. There was salt in the bottom of its glass bowl with the kerosene, to keep the kerosene from exploding, and there were bits of red flannel among the salt to make it pretty. It was pretty.

Small touches which helped make life lovely are highlighted in this and all the following books.

Pa’s fiddling, singing, and storytelling on winter nights establish him as the reassuring center of folklore and continuity. A spring dance celebrating syrup-making at Laura’s grandparents’ home, summertime cheese-making, and honey collecting round out the year’s progress toward harvest and reinforce the satisfaction this family feels with their remote life in the woods. Without glossing over danger or hard work, Wilder has managed to portray frontier life appealingly, with warmth and confidence at its core.

Little House on the Prairie

First published: 1935

Type of work: Novel

The Ingalls family moves from Wisconsin to Indian Territory, settles on a claim, encounters Indians, and decides to move on when they believe the government will expel settlers.

As the second book of the series begins, Ma reluctantly agrees to leave the sheltering woods and house for the frontier. The family is to cross the Mississippi River in the cold, early spring, before the ice breaks. Despite her reservations, she nurtures her girls. “In firelight and candlelight she washed and combed them and dressed them warmly” for the trip. Family as the heart and source of security continues to anchor the story to come. After their wagon nearly capsizes crossing a stream, and their dog Jack is feared drowned, the isolation and vastness of the prairie emerges in stark contrast to the last safe morning at home. “Not even the faintest trace of wheels or tracks could be seen. That prairie looked as if no human eye had ever seen it before. Only the tall wild grass covered the endless empty land and a great empty sky arched over it.”

Chronologically, the prairie adventure covers a year, this time from spring to spring. However, the narrative relates far more strenuous activities, focusing on rudimentary survival. For the first five chapters, the Ingallses trek cross-country by wagon, camping. They live in a tent home while Pa builds their log house literally from the ground up. Before the house has a solid door or windows, a wolf pack surrounds the family on a full-moon night and howls and snuffles against the cabin walls until dawn. Pa digs a well so the family does not have to haul water from the creek.

In this book a neighbor joins the family circle, even walking into town in dangerous weather to make sure the girls have presents from Santa on their first prairie Christmas. Several episodes focus on encounters with Indians, whom Ma finds terrifying, Pa respects for their ability to live on the prairie, and Laura endlessly wonders about. The nearby Osage extend peaceful forbearance toward white settlers but appear and take whatever food and tobacco they can find from the Ingalls house several times when Pa is gone.

The prairie holds other terrors. The family barely survives malaria, called “fever ’n’ ague.” A scream in the night proves to be a panther Pa barely escapes as he searches for the terrified “woman” they thought they heard. As spring approaches, the Indians have what Pa calls a jamboree with a full week of drumming, dancing, and “chopping with their voices.” After sleepless nights for the Ingallses, the Indians disperse.

Following the jamboree, a prairie fire threatens the Ingalls home, and watching the last peaceful band of Osages file grimly out of sight leaves the family depressed and listless. The complicated mix of distrust, fear, and respect for Indians recurs throughout this book with no real answer as to the morality of white settlers usurping Indian land.

Finally, the disheartening rumor that soldiers may put the settlers off Indian land prompts Charles to load his family in the wagon again and head toward another new beginning. Laura still has hope. “They were all together, safe and comfortable under the starlit sky.” Pa’s strength, combined with Ma’s steadfastness, provides the central force that propels the family into their future. Laura remains its heart.

These Happy Golden Years

First published: 1943

Type of work: Novel

The book chronicles family life and Laura’s teaching career in three schools beginning in 1882 and culminates with her marrying Almanzo Wilder in 1885.

This book in the series chronicles Laura’s coming-of-age. She leaves her family to teach in a nearby settlement town, a dismal place with three claim shanties and only five students. The central motif for this book is Almanzo Wilder’s courtship of Laura, which begins immediately. Her first week of teaching goes well, but squalid lodgings in an unhappy home depress her. Almanzo prevents a wretched weekend by coming for her with his team and cutter. Throughout the novel, Almanzo and Laura ride out together. Their courtship jaunts have ups and downs and some wild rides behind unbroken colts, but they culminate in an engagement.

Laura teaches to help her family financially and proudly adds her first two salaries to the family coffer. Her third salary she divides, using part of it for fabric to sew the bed linens and clothes she needs as a new bride; the other is her final contribution to Ma and Pa. Her earnings help pay Mary’s expenses at a college for the blind and buy an organ for Mary to play when she returns home.

This book completes several series themes. Frontier isolation is reduced. The growing town of De Smet seems full of strangers and population shifts. The Ingalls family remains rooted there; within a year the homestead claim will be theirs for good. Laura works outside her home to support the family. Most strikingly, she leaves her childhood home, beginning her own circle with Almanzo. The final volume mentions events from earlier times, incorporating the past, and continues Laura’s compelling descriptions of landscape and sky which help explain the endless seduction of western lands despite the fact that, “everything changes.”

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