Little House on the Prairie

by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 648

So they all went away from the little log house. The shutters were over the windows, so the little house could not see them go. It stayed there inside the log fence, behind the two big oak trees that in the summertime had made green roofs for Mary and Laura to play under.

The book opens with a nostalgic look back at the little log cabin in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, subject of the series's first book. In most classic pioneer fashion, the family leaves in a covered wagon to head west toward "untamed" territory. The above quote characterizes the nostalgia (longing and idealization of times past) that permeate all the novels. They are told in the present tense through the eyes of young child, but they are saturated with Wilder's adult consciousness that what she describes is gone forever.

In the West the land was level, and there were no trees. The grass grew thick and high. There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no settlers. Only Indians lived there.

This is an infamous quote: it first said (as discussed, among other works, in Pioneer Girl Perspectives, edited by Nancy Tystad Koupel), "there were no people" until a reader pointed out that the Indians were people. Leaving that issue aside, this passage is typical of the simple and compelling nature observations Wilder provides through the perspective of a five-year-old girl. Laura—the character and the writer—is endlessly drawn to and fascinated by the lands her family settled, capturing a sense of wonder about an unexplored continent that was no longer "wild" by the time Wilder was writing the books in the 1930s.

These little creatures looked soft as velvet. They had bright round eyes and crinkling noses and wee paws. They popped out of holes in the ground, and stood up to look at Mary and Laura. Their hind legs folded under their haunches, their little paws folded tight to their chests, and they looked exactly like bits of dead wood sticking out of the ground. Only their bright eyes glittered.

This is another passage of nature description that conveys the wonder of being on the unspoiled prairie. Here, we get a detailed view of prairie dogs from little Laura's bird's-eye view. The prairie dogs were everywhere, perfectly adapted to the prairie habitat that would soon be gone and regarded with sympathy by this young child.

Pa promised that when they came to the West, Laura should see a papoose.

This sets up a theme that runs throughout the book: Laura's desire to see a papoose, a Native American baby carried on its mother's back. This symbolizes Laura's identification with the Native Americans (she herself wouldn't have minded running around in animal pelts) and the inchoate desires that rise up in her young heart. At the end of the book, as the Osage Native Americans are processing off of their lands, Laura spots her coveted papoose and cries bitterly because she cannot have it.

"This is Indian country, isn’t it?" Laura said. "What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them?"

As is often the case, it takes a child's innocent mind to get to the heart of a matter. As adult worries about the Indians grow and her parents and the neighboring Scotts begin to speculate about what the Osage might do, Laura asks a pointed question about why the whites are there if they fear and loathe their neighbors. The book is interesting, as the overtly racist and dehumanizing sentiments the adults articulate about the Native Americans are undercut by a child's fascinated and far less fearless viewpoint. To Laura, the Osage she sees are human beings, even if this is not the message communicated by her parents.

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