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.