Laura Ingalls Wilder Critical Essays


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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....

(The entire section is 2194 words.)