Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Every time I read a new Little House book, I think ‘this one is definitely my favourite’. Then the next one comes along, and I have to change my mind again! I thought The Long Winter was brilliant, but Little Town on the Prairie is even better! As Laura gets older and more permanent change starts to affect the little family, the tone is beginning to become sightly more melancholy and wistful. It perfectly captures those conflicting feelings we all have as we grow older and look forward to love, careers, homes of our own and independence, but also the sadness we feel at having to leave the warmth, comfort and familiarity of our childhood homes and the company of our parents and siblings in order to achieve those goals. As Ma says, there is no end without a beginning, and as the little family starts to go their separate ways, it is hard for them to let go of one another, but they embrace the changes the growing up of their girls brings as their horizons are widened and their dreams start to be fulfilled.

Little Town on the Prairie is lovely because it’s such a positive book where nothing dramatic or stressful happens. After the tension and worry of The Long Winter, it was reassuring to read that the family had a period of peace when they could enjoy prosperity and the passing of the seasons without being in fear of losing their crops or starving due to adverse weather conditions.

Little Town on the Prairie begins in the spring after The Long Winter, when the Ingalls family have relocated back to their claim. After two years in De Smet, the claim is now well established, far more so than those of their neighbours. The weather is pleasant, there is plenty to eat and Pa’s hard work on the land is finally bearing fruit. However, Pa still needs to work in town every day in order to make ends meet, and at the start of the book, he asks Laura whether she would like to work in town with him, helping a local woman with making shirts for all the men coming out to ‘bach’ on claims. Laura doesn’t really want to work in town, but she knows that if she does, it will help towards the cost of sending Mary to the college for the blind in Iowa, so she agrees to go along. By the end of spring, Laura and Pa have earned enough to send Mary to college, and mingled with their joy at the opportunities Mary will now have, there is much sadness as the little family is separated for the first time. The loss of Mary is felt keenly by everyone, especially Ma and Laura. Knowing that they won’t be able to afford to pay her train fare to come home for a visit for at least a year makes it harder to cope with her being away, and moving to town again for the winter provides a much needed distraction for everyone.

However, after a while, Laura begins to feel stifled. Pressured to do well at school because of her impending teaching exams, missing Mary and feeling trapped by the mapped out future she doesn’t want, she uncharacteristically lashes out at her parents one day. Pa, as always, comes up with the perfect solution. He gathers together the people of the town to create a Literary Society, and every Friday an evening of good old fashioned fun takes place in the church, providing much needed excitement and gossip for the town during the winter. Laura is also invited to her first grown up birthday party, and this increase in social activity as well as the friendships she has made at school start to make life much more joyful. By the end of the novel, Laura’s life has taken some unexpected twists and turns, and the dissatisfied girl she was in the Autumn is a thing of the past as an opportunity to leave the Little Town on the Prairie arises…

I loved how Laura Ingalls Wilder perfectly captures that restlessness of the teenage years in this book, and the pain of growing up, having things change and feeling that your life is outside of your own control. The limited opportunities available to Laura were clearly frustrating; I can’t imagine being 15 and having nothing to do and nowhere to go, stuck in a small town in the middle of literally nowhere, with nothing to look forward to but endless dreary days of the same activities and the same people. Growing up in London, there were always plenty of distractions and excitements for me, but I remember frequently feeling trapped and stifled as it was, so reading about Laura and her restricted life made me pity her dreadfully. This book demonstrates the narrow paths so many of the pioneer people had to go down; Laura is expected to become a teacher until she marries, and then when she marries she will be a housewife. There are no other choices. Life was small and it made me sad that someone as lively and intelligent as Laura had so little opportunity to make something of herself. Of course she did in later life through these very books that I have been reading, but still I wonder how many other women made do with a life that offered far less than they dreamed of, or were capable of achieving, out there on those barren prairies.

I want to say this, as well – these are not ‘just’ children’s books. They are not just comfort reads. They are valuable vessels of American social history and also beautifully depicted chronicles of life from a child’s and later a teenager’s perfectly rendered viewpoint. They can and should be appreciated by people of all ages. As I have read further and further through the series, I have become more and more enthralled by the hardships experienced by the pioneers and of their bravery, strength and community spirit. I have also been amazed at how timeless the emotions and rites of passage experienced by the characters are; Laura’s observations are so true and so relatable, even as I sit in modern day Manhattan, looking out at skyscrapers rather than at waving prairie grasses. Classifying these as books only for children means that many adults are missing out on a fulfilling and eye opening reading experience. I hope I have managed to convince some of you to pick these up once again, or even for the first time; I’d love to see more adults (re)discover these remarkable books.

26 comments

  1. I read these books every few years, and have a difficult time choosing a favorite, too! For a long time, it was Little Town on the Prairie, then it was These Happy Golden Years. I can’t wait to read what you think of that one.

  2. I first read these books when my family moved from Australia to Texas in the early 1990s. I was only about seven, but reading the series was a wonderful way to learn about American’s past and culture, and fostered an early love of history. Reading your reviews has made me want to dig them out and enjoy them all over again!

  3. You put it so well, Rachel. These are indeed valuable vessels of American History. I first read these books as a child and of course I didn’t understand how much they helped me go from childhood through girlhood to adulthood. The books gave me a love for the history and especially our pioneer past that no “Social Studies” textbook ever could. Please, adults out there, if you haven’t read them you are missing so much. You really should take the time. They are best, I believe if read in order so you can grow up with the Ingalls girls.

  4. I second Janet’s plea to adults to read these books!

    It has been so rewarding to read your impressions of these books, Rachel. I think I grew to love them even more as an adult, poring over them again and again. I’ve read, time and again, that it was really the women who tamed the prairies. They were the ones often left alone when their husbands left to find work; they helped plow the fields, milk the cows, do the housekeeping, and often held town the homestead in the bleakest of winters.

    Little Town on the Prairie has always seemed a relief to me after the long, hard winter, even though the girls are growing up and away and Mary leaves for school. Having just spent a year abroad yourself, can you imagine the strength it took for Mary to do this and for Ma and Pa to let her go? Especially with her loss of sight.

    I have always felt gratitude that these books were eventually written by Laura. They are, as you so wonderfully write, “able vessels of American social history and also beautifully depicted chronicles of life from a child’s and later a teenager’s perfectly rendered viewpoint”.

    1. Thank you so much, Penny – I’m so glad you have enjoyed my reviews so much. It has been such a pleasure to read them as an adult and learn about the historical context behind the stories at the same time – it’s really been an enlightening experience that has opened up a whole range of interests I never thought I would have.

      Yes – I so felt for them all when Mary left. Poor Ma really was lost without her, wasn’t she?

      I’m so grateful too – all this wonderful history would have been lost without her. What a legacy!

  5. One of the reasons I love these books is that they teach you so much about the way America developed the way it did.
    I like Little Town because it feels safe compared with the earlier books. I’ll be interested in your opinion of what Laura does next.

    1. Yes exactly – it’s living, entertaining history! That feeling of safety is what is so brilliant about this book -such a nice cosy read. The next review will be coming up very soon!

  6. The Little House books were my dtr’s favorite. I’m having a hard time getting my grandchildren into them. My dtr’s 96 yr old grandmother in law grew up on the Nebraska prairie–through dust bowl and all.
    You might enjoy My Antonia by Willa Cather. And for a more modern look at hard times on the prairie The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan.

    1. How lovely to have been able to share them with with your daughter, Barbara! It’s a shame your grandchildren aren’t as interested! What a fascinating family history – I’d love to have a pioneer in my family!

      I love My Antonia – but I hadn’t heard of the Timothy Egan so I will check that out, thank you.

  7. I adored the “Little House” books as a child, but haven’t re-read them in awhile. I agree with you that the reason I enjoyed Little Town on the Prairie so much is that there isn’t much conflict (especially after The Big Winter, which I found pretty scary as a kid). One thing that sticks with me from this book particularly is the description of the dress (suit?) they make Mary to go off to college. I loved the detail in the description, and the clearer sense it gave me of what they were wearing. These books really gave me a love for history of this era, not on the scale of wars and empires and politics, but on the scale of how people lived their lives and what they did with their time and how they talked and what they wore.

    1. Oh yes – I had forgotten that – the detail of the dresses was so wonderful and I was in awe at Ma’s sewing skill. Yes – personal history is what most fascinates me too. The stuff of real life – and this is what the Little House books do so well.

  8. I heartily agree that the Little House books are an American classic. This summer I have re-read all the books and have found that I learned more at my adult age than I did as a child. The most interesting things are how prairie women managed child care, sewing, washing, cooking, tending a garden, putting up food for the winter, and more without the luxury of electricity, telephones, and indoor plumbing. While the men worked hard the women made the houses homes in the true sense of the word.

    1. Brilliant Marilyn – I’m delighted that you still found so much to enjoy in them, and you’re quite right about the amazing way the women coped without any of the things we have today – though the character whose name I forget in These Happy Golden Years doesn’t cope very well does she?

  9. I can’t believe I have to finally admit this but…I’ve never actually read all of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books! I read Little House in the Big Woods a few times, but stopped after that. Having seen them all over the blogging world, recently though, I’ve set out to read them all! I really do agree with you about their being a snapshot of American life at a time when this snapshot – especially from the point of a girl – might not have been taken. I also think that they’re way more than children’s books – most children’s books usually are! I totally understand those teenage feelings and, as someone who just got engaged, especially that part about being split between being excited to grow up and sad/scared to leave what you had. Great review!

  10. I reread all LIW book’s last summer. Framer Boy is my favorite. I love Almanzo. He’s sweet and charming and mischievous. Laura must have adored hime. For a more critical view of the books, rea “The Wilder Side” by Wendy McClure.

    1. I loved Farmer Boy too, Michelle! It’s such a warm and cosy book! I look forward to rereading them already, even though I have only just finished! I have that book and will be reading it at some point – thanks for the reminder!!

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