‘Little House on the Prairie’: Literary Overview (Part Two)

The scene in ‘Little House in the Big Woods,’ when Laura hears the wolves howling outside and Pa takes her to the window to look at them as Jack paced up and down before door growling, the hair stood up along his back, and he showed his sharp, fierce teeth to the wolves? This episode, according to ‘Pioneer Girl,’ happened in Indian Territory, not in the Big Woods, and may have been one of Wilder’s earliest memories. Wilder had to manipulate her memories and her personal history to fit into a new and different fictional chronology. The beginning also was critical because it had to transition away from the ensemble cast of ‘Little House in the Big Woods’ toward an emerging and more distinct main character in the new manuscript. So, ‘Indian Country’ refers to Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie in its opening lines, but quickly establishes Laura as its main character, with a distinct story arc all her own. “Pa promised that when they came to the West, Laura should see a papoose. ‘What is a papoose?’ she asked him, and he said, ‘A papoose is a little brown Indian baby.'” This simple exchange signals a shift in Wilder’s creative vision for her fiction, and corresponds to the direction she took in ‘Farmer Boy.’ Just as Almanzo’s desire to gentle a colt in ‘Farmer Boy’ propelled the forward action of the novel, Laura’s desire to see a papoose drives and unites the action in ‘Indian Country,’ the manuscript that would eventually become ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ So this book, like ‘Farmer Boy,’ is a transitional novel in Wilder’s literary career. It marks the clear emergence of Laura as a main character, although it continues to depict how pioneers from Wilder’s childhood did things. But in this manuscript, the how-tos of pioneer life have less emphasis than they did in ‘Little House in the Big Woods.’ Character, plot, and theme take center stage in this book. Notice too that most of the scenes that deal with pioneers crafts in this book relate specifically to making a home, to creating a safe, sturdy shelter on the frontier. The pioneer crafts in ‘Little House on the Prairie’ directly reinforce the books’ principal themes: moving west, frontier, self-reliance, and cooperation, and the dangers of frontier life. Let’s briefly look at a few scenes that reinforce these themes, starting with moving west. ‘Little House on the Prairie’s very first chapter is entitled “Going West.” This literally establishes the direction not just for the novel, but for the remaining ‘Little House’ books. On page two of the novel, Wilder defines the West as Pa sees it. “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.” The plot and central conflict of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ deals with the family’s efforts to find their place in this world. They don’t succeed–through no fault of their own–and their quest continues in the book’s final chapter entitled “Going Out.” Westward movement frames ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ “Everything was just as it used to be before they built the house. Pa and Ma and Carrie were on the wagon seat. Laura and Mary sat on the wagon tongue. They ate the good supper hot from the campfire. Pet and Patty and Bunny munched the good grass, and Laura saved bits for Jack. Then the sun went down far away in the west.” Again, we have an archetypal image in this book, but this time the image is of a rootless pioneer family going West and going out, defined by a restless American spirit that sends them searching over endless waves of prairie grasses for a home that measures up to their dreams. This image of the pioneer family has come to define Wilder’s literary legacy and it actually begins in this book, the third book in her series. Now, to the other themes in this book, which support the main one. The Ingalls family begins this journey alone on the prairie, and Charles Ingalls built most of the little house on the prairie by himself, but the pioneer experience is at once self-reliant and dependent. Pa engages the assistance of Mr.Edwards to help complete the house, and they eventually come to depend on each other in a uniquely independent frontier kind of way. Neighbors look out for each other in times of need and crisis. Mrs.Scott and Dr.Tan, whom we’ll discuss in the next lecture, tend the Ingalls family when illness strikes. Pa dashes off in the middle of the night when he hears a scream coming from the Scott’s place. This is a theme Wilder returns to again and again. While most readers think of Ingalls the family as being completely self-reliant, they are also part of an extended and loosely formed community of pioneers who come together to assist, support, and protect each other in times of need But this is not a sentimental group. They are independent to the core. Toward the end of the novel, when the Ingalls, Scotts, and Mr. Edwards realize they must leave Indian Territory, their farewells are sensible, direct, and unsentimental. ‘”You’ve been a good neighbor, Scott, and I’m sorry to leave you. But we’re going out in the morning.'” Mr. Edwards said that he would be too busy to see them again. He shakes hands with Ma and Pa. Mary says a polite goodbye. Only Laura breaks ranks here and reveals her deeper feelings, another indication that this is really Laura’s story, that she is the center of this fictional world. “But Laura forgot to be polite. She said, ‘Oh Mr.Edwards, I wish you wouldn’t go away.'” Mr.Edwards, however, demonstrates suitable pioneer restraint. “Mr. Edwards’ eyes shone very bright, and he went away without saying another word.” And one last theme to discuss, briefly: the dangers of pioneer life. Again, Wilder depicts the West as being a dangerous place. Wolves, panthers, and a new threat: American Indians. We’ll discuss this aspect of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ in our next lecture. But for now, let’s look at this one passage, which once again reinforces both the thematic sense of frontier danger, and Laura’s primary role in this book. When two American Indian men enter the Ingalls’ home while Pa is away, both Laura and Mary are terrifically frightened, and can’t decide what to do. “‘We mustn’t leave Ma in there alone,’ Mary whispered. She stood still and trembled. Mary never could move when she was frightened. Laura hid her face against Jack and held onto him tightly, then she made her arms let go. Her hands balled into fists, and her eyes shut tight, and she ran toward the house as fast as she could.” Laura is the first to act, to overcome her fear and run to help Ma. And from this point on, readers view and experience the scene from inside the cabin, from Laura’s unique perspective. One last point about this book in today’s lecture. ‘Little House on the Prairie’ established Wilder’s unique storytelling voice. It is childlike, intimate and personal, but never sentimental or immature. Lane probably played an instrumental role in helping Wilder find this voice. Let’s look at one masterful scene where Wilder’s narrative voice reaches perfection. It gives nothing away to young readers while it simultaneously delights older ones: the Santa Claus chapter in this book. I won’t read the entire scene; I urge you to go back and reread it yourself, but in this passage Wilder walks that thin line between belief and disbelief, and presents an unforgettable image of a frontier Santa Claus. “So Mr.Edwards had walked to Independence. ‘In the rain?’ Mary asked. Mr.Edwards said he wore his rubber coat. And there, coming down the street in Independence, he had met Santa Claus. ‘In the daytime?’ Laura asked. She hadn’t thought that anyone could see Santa Claus in the daytime. ‘No,’ Mr.Edwards said. It was night. But light shone out across the street from the saloon. ‘Well, the first thing Santa Claus said was ‘Hello, Edwards.’ ‘Did he know you?’ Mary asked. And Laura asked, ‘How did you know he was really Santa Clause?’ Mr.Edwards said that Santa Claus knew everybody, and he had recognized Santa at once by his whiskers. Santa Claus had the longest, thickest, whitest set of whiskers west of the Mississippi.” And then this one last description of Santa Claus in the West, a perfect image relayed in a perfect narrative voice. “Then he shook hands with Mr.Edwards and he swung up on his fine bay horse. Santa Claus rode well for a man of his weight and build, and he tucked of long white whiskers under his bandanna. ‘So long, Edwards,’ he said, and he rode away on the Fort Dodge trail, leading his pack mule and whistling.” A nod, of course, to Clement Moore’s ‘The Night Before Christmas.’ What Wilder gives us in this passage is layer upon layer of voice. Her direct and charming third person narrative, which relays Mr.Edward’s voice indirectly, interspersed with dialogue from Mary and Laura. This is masterful. ‘Little House on the Prairie’ was published in 1935. Reviews were very good and sales were brisk. There was no question in anyone’s mind that Wilder was now writing a series of books that will continue to follow Laura Ingalls and her family as they moved west in search of a home. Wilder’s editor, Louise Raymond at Harper’s, urged her to let the next book take shape in her mind, and in 1937, the year her next book was published, Wilder had emerged as something of a children’s book celebrity. She was invited to deliver a keynote speech at the Detroit book fair. ‘Little House on the Prairie’ was the transitional book that launched the ‘Little House’ series as we know it now, and Wilder’s reputation as one of the leading children’s book authors of the 20th century. But over time, ‘Little House on the Prairie’ also became her most controversial novel. As one member of the Osage tribe observes, the Ingalls family were illegal squatters on Osage land. Wilder left that detail out of ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ as well as any mention of ongoing outrages, including killings burnings, beatings, horse theft, and grave robberies committed by white settlers such as Charles Ingalls. We’ll discuss this and other historical issues in the next lecture.

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