Pondering the Enduring Pull of ‘Little House on the Prairie’

The ‘Little House’ books are more than a childhood diversion, for this calico-print-loving writer at least.

2017 marks 150 years since author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birth in Pepin County. The site, with a replica of the family’s cabin and a nearby museum, is the starting point of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway, which connects various notable locations across four states, including the real Plum Creek and the Ingalls’ De Smet, South Dakota, homestead. The fact of the highway’s existence tells me I’m far from alone in my perpetual love of Laura and her series of Little House books.

And what’s not to love? A headstrong girl and her sweeter, more boring sister? A loyal bulldog? Plagues of grasshoppers? A snooty blond villain who gets her comeuppance in the form of leeches?

Loving Little House is easy to understand. What is surprising, however, is the longevity of this devotion. By that I mean I’ve reread the entire series once a year, every year for as long as I can remember.

These days, my consumption of the books feels more meditative than anything else. I’ve passed the point of discovering new subtexts, I no longer cross-reference characters with Google image searches and I feel perfectly comfortable skipping sections that have not weathered the passage of time (Jeez, Ma, lay off the Native Americans, OK? You are squatting on their land, after all).

At the same time, I understand them in a way that continues to evolve. They offer me something – comfort in repetition, inspiration as a writer, wonderment at the thought of going anywhere without GPS, let alone crossing the country in a literal wagon – despite my having read them dozens of times.

I always read the series in order – beginning with Little House in the Big Woods and ending with These Happy Golden Years. I enjoy the fact that they move toward what is a generally positive conclusion, because the story of the Ingalls family is sort of a tough ride.

There’s financial instability, sure, but there’s also Mary’s bout with scarlet fever that results in her blindness, the threat of violence from other settlers (not to mention bears, wolves and that crab that terrorized Laura in Plum Creek), and perhaps scariest of all, the events of the sixth book in the series, The Long Winter. While my younger self found the plot – will the ever-resilient Ingalls family survive the blizzard of 1881-1881?? – thrilling, as an adult I have a greater understanding of the plain fact that this is the story of six people slowly starving to death in a freezing, one-room shack. It doesn’t get much bleaker than that.

Yes, there are plenty of delights to be had in the series, but the enduring quality of the books remains mysterious. In my case, I think it has to do with the passage of time. Getting older means coming to terms with change: changes in our relationships, changes in our priorities, changes to our bodies (good God, the changes to our bodies!).

But when I read the Little House books, though I may appreciate them a little differently now, I am also reminded of a fundamental me-ness that remains unchanged. As a child I devoured the passages about “women’s work” – cooking and embroidery and knitting and sewing – and in my career I’ve been a food editor, a crafter and a fashion writer. I dog-eared all the pages detailing the clothes Laura wore—and my closet today is filled with voluminous skirts and as many calico prints as I can find (Seriously, why don’t more brands use calico??). I even married a man with a Pa-worthy beard.

The books are a reminder that not everything changes. The things that nourished you as a child can be the things that nourish you as an adult. Now if only I can find a way to make bonnets cool. ◆

‘The Little House Rules’ appears in the July 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning July 3, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

Be the first to get every new issue. Subscribe.