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December, 2020: The media has finally caught on to the love we have for the Little House series and has announced that a reboot of the T.V. show is being planned. I’m excited by the news that this go round seems slated to be more authentic than the T.V. show I grew up with. Here is a shout out to those who have never let the “Little House” flag drop.
The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure
I think I’ve pretty much read all of the major criticism on the Little House books. Say what you will about the professional relationship and possible the world’s most complicate personal relationship between Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, not to mention their political views, particularly those of Lane, between the two of them they turned out a series of books that deserve the classic status they have earned. Not only do they provide a snapshot of an important aspect of 19th century American history, they also offer a vision of the philosophy…mistaken or otherwise…that carried the settlers through their struggles and continue to inform the American point of view, one that I think is hard for non Americans, and even many Americans, to understand sometimes.
In addition to the Little House fans who grew up to be literary scholars and write about the books from that point of view, there are many people who love the books for many reasons that they want to continue to express in different ways.
The most comprehensive look at the Wilder phenomenon that I’ve found is The Wilder Life, by Wendy McClure. McClure takes her life long passion for the series to a new level when she decides to visit all of the Little House sites. She is certainly not the first person to do this: it isn’t hard to find out where they are, and more than one family has made this pilgrimage their summer vacation. But I have to admit, I thoroughly enjoyed McClure’s travelogue version of the trip.
Since she was based in Chicago when she wrote this book, she didn’t recreate the Ingalls’ family’s odyssey in the order that they lived it; instead, she did it through several overnight and other relatively short trips, grouping her travel by proximity to each other and Chicago rather than by the Ingalls’/Wilder’s chronology. She gets extra points for her thoroughness too, since she visited places that Laura Ingalls Wilder lived both as a child and as an adult that were not included in final fictionalized series.
And what is almost as interesting to me as the sites she visited…and at times, I wish she had included more of…are her observations of the people who visit the sites. These people fall into several rough groups: the fangirls (and their families), the homeschoolers, which overlaps with the religious conservatives, who are fans of the Ingalls’ faith, and hippie/environmentalists, who admire their self sufficient lifestyle (which note was often portrayed in the books as much more self sufficient than it actually was).
As for me, I think I’m a fan of the books because I like history, and the Little House series taught me that in a way that was accessible to me, even at age 7 or so, when I first read Little House in the Big Woods. I remember having the other books for a while until I read them…I probably had them before I was actually ready to read them because of the shifts in the style as Laura gets older. I remember identifying with Laura’s sibling rivalry with her sister, even though I had a younger brother rather than an older sister. Like Laura, I was and still am a strong willed little thing although I was never as outdoorsy as Laura was.
It’s funny that I never thought of the Ingalls as actually poor until I started reading biography and nonfiction about the series. Of course, Wilder softened reality quite a bit, and cut the seamier episodes in her life story, but I was always left with the impression that they had what they needed even if they did worry about money, which was frankly the way that my family grew up and they way I assume that most middle class people do.
If you are a Little House fan and you grow up to love the series so much you want to write about it, there is yet another point of view you can take: write young adult fiction about it.
If You Want to Make Your Own Little House Pilgrimage
Although the various sites of the Little House books are run by separate entities, it isn’t too hard to figure out a route for a trip using the Internet. Of course, you have to figure out how you want to make your trip…follow the path of the novels? The real Ingalls family (which actually involves more zigzagging than you might guess)? Limit yourself to the Ingalls, or add the Wilder’s pilgrimages as well?
Only you can decide.
Here are some books to help you.
For more from The Lois Level on Laura Ingalls Wilder:
21st Century Young Adult Fiction for the Little House Fan
So far, I have read two YA books that use the Little House books as a jumping off point.
Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life by Shelley Tougas
Laura Ingalls is Ruining my Life is my favorite, and it makes a great paired reading with any of the Little House books, especially On the Banks of Plum Creek and The Long Winter. All of the other books are at least mentioned, except the last two, Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years.
The surface connection to the Little House books is that a family consisting of a mom and three children move to Walnut Grove, MN, the setting of On the Banks of Plum Creek, because the mom loves Laura Ingalls and wants to channel her while she writes her own children’s novel set on the prairie. The plot of the novel, however, centers on the adjustment of the three children to their new home, which is only one of the numerous cities where the family has lived.
The writing itself is good, but not great. The best children’s/young adult novels are the ones in which the adult reader loses sight of the fact that the book is supposed to be writing for children or adolescents while the child/adolescent reader also connects and is engaged.
The gradual realization that the family is more like the Ingalls family than I first realized gradually drew ME in…I realized that many of the reactions that Charlotte, the protagonist, her twin Freddie, and younger half sister Rose have to their vagabond lifestyle are similar to what the Ingalls children might have felt, with the key difference being that the Ingalls family nearly always moved to remote locations, while this family had previously lived in at least medium sized cities.
The way that the family learns to quickly adjust to the vagaries of small town life, especially the idea that everyone knows everyone else’s business, almost instantly, is pretty amusing. Even Charlotte, who has the hardest adjustment, learns to “work the grapevine” very quickly.
I also appreciated the author’s focus on the winter. As an adult, I find the California comprehension of “winter”, as depicted by Michael Landon, the predominant creative behind the television show, annoying. In Landon’s Walnut Grove, it seems it only snows at Christmas and when they want a good survival plot. This family, however, encounters both the joys and difficulty of winters on the plains, and that is with 21st century winter gear.
The author also takes a balanced view towards the myth of “settlement” and “pioneers” and the real forces that both manipulated and enabled families like the Ingalls.
Some of the connections to the Little House books are obvious, such as Charlotte’s volunteer work for the museum, and others are more subtle…most people will get why the family’s dog is Jack, but it takes a true Wilder fan to know the significance of Charlotte, Rose, and Freddie’s names.
Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town by Leslie Tall Manning
I have to give good marks to the second, Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town, for its catchy title. I enjoy saying it, and I enjoy writing it.
The book itself is not the best written book I have ever read. I have the impression, but not the proof, that it started out as an independently published book (that means that the author paid to have it published and also either did all the prepublication work herself or hired and paid someone to do it herself).
One of the things that is a bit weird about the book is that it references Laura Ingalls, but the book is set in the backwoods of North Carolina. Slavery and the Civil War figure heavily in the book as the protagonist is cast to participate in a reality show in which the characters live as they did in “Laura Ingalls’ time”, except that for some reason the show is set in North Carolina (the closest the Ingalls’ ever came to North Carolina is Kansas), and is very specifically set in 1861 to capture the end of slavery and the beginning of the Civil War. That’s important to North Carolina, for sure, but Laura Ingalls was born, as all Wilder fans know, in 1867. And in Wisconsin, which in case you are confused, is in the NORTH.
So why would a television show reference Laura Ingalls and then go to North Carolina? Makes no sense, right?
If you accept that this is realistic, however, the plot is pretty good, but a lot of it is about the meaning of “reality” and the ethics of reality television than it is about anything else. The protagonist does learn about self reliance, which is very “Little House”, and the reader learns a lot about what living in pre-Civil War south was like for most people, who were not rich at all and were often “dirt poor”…and were perhaps worse off in many tangible ways than many enslaved people, with the point being that the rich were getting rich off both White and Black people by oppressing them in different ways.
On a side note, the title character hails from the small city of New Bern. While the author misses a lot of historical opportunities with New Bern itself, which was the colonial capital of North Carolina (think North Carolinian Williamsburg), the author gets the details of the city dead on…my in-laws live there, and I’ve been to nearly all of the local spots she mentions. So I enjoyed that.