What Laura Ingalls can teach our children and us

I loved the Little House series when I was a girl, reading through the entire series of nine books at least twice. I also watched reruns of the long-running TV show, based on the books, every day after school; I’m sure I’ve seen every episode at least once.

The books and TV show are about an American pioneer girl and her family, and is based upon the author, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s, childhood, first in the Wisconsin woods, then on Indian Territory prairies, and finally on Midwestern plains. Later books portray Laura’s life as a young teacher, wife and mother.

Last winter, I started reading the first book, Little House in the Big Woods, to my sons, who were barely 4 and almost 6, roughly the age of Laura and her older sister Mary at the time.

I was excited to reread the books and share them with my sons, but wasn’t sure if my children were old enough to get it or if the books would hold their interest; and because the books are about girls, I wasn’t sure how much the boys would like it.

I needn’t have worried: They love, it, even the younger one. Six months of reading roughly a chapter a night, we’re now on book four, On the Banks of Plum Creek. Every night they beg for more chapters about “Laura.” And often I’ll give in and read an extra chapter because I, too, want to keep reading. We’ve also reread certain chapters they particularly liked or they have had their dad reread it to them.

I think the books are so enduring and appeal to such a broad audience, boys and girls, young and old, because they are so many things at once:

They are adventure stories about pioneers settling the final frontiers; Indians who wear scalps on their belts; prowling and pouncing wolves and panthers and bears; high creek water that can sweep you away.

The stories are riveting and exciting and make you want to cheer for the protagonists; they’re certainly not just “girl” stories, even though all the books, with the exception of Farmer Boy, which is about Laura’s future husband as a boy, is told from the perspective of a girl.

They offer valuable history lessons, both within the greater historical context of the settlement of the American frontier and in terms of the everyday tasks and struggles of farmers and pioneering families a mere 150 years ago, what seems a lifetime ago when you consider the leaps and developments in modern technology that has taken place since then.

For example, we learn about the delicate balance between the settlers, the Native Americans whose land it belonged to, and the American government’s bid for Manifest Destiny, told from the perspective of a young child who lived through it in Little House on the Prairie. We also watch with Laura as she sees a machine for the first time, a wheat separator hooked up to four pairs of horses that went around in a circle — an eight horsepower machine.

The books are a peek into a certain time and place that’s long gone, when one must live off the land and hunt, make, grow, gather or barter for practically everything.

We get descriptions about how Pa makes his own bullets, hunts game, sets bear traps, smokes meat, taps maple trees for syrup and collects honey. We also learn how Ma makes butter and cheese and straw hats. And that’s just in the first book. This is especially fascinating for today’s children, who can’t fathom not having modern conveniences or being able to buy everything at a store. We also get to witness, like Laura does, her father building a log cabin.

The books are about basic values. A lot of the chapters and stories have a moral, one in which common decency, family, neighborly helpfulness, and good, honest hard work is prized. We also see examples of simple pleasures: a cosy evening at home with Pa’s fiddle as entertainment, the first taste of a seasonal produce, a small gift. Both the lessons and an appreciation of little things are good reminders for us and our children in our fast-paced, self-centered, technology-dominated, more-and-now-oriented lives.

They are about hardship and struggle. The Ingalls family has their share of bad luck, with having to leave land they’ve settled after only a year, or having their already-bartered-away wheat crop get completely demolished by a fluke invasion of grasshoppers. Laura’s older sister Mary becomes blind from scarlet fever. There’s not always a clear cut good guy or bad guy. There’s not always a happily ever after. And for kids who are used to cartoons and superhero action movies and sugar-coated, feel-good stories, it’s not a bad thing to get a dose of realism and see real people in unhappy circumstances and learn from them how to bounce back and be resilient and carry on.

The stories are filled with human emotions, good and bad, something that is universal. We witness and can empathize with Laura’s inner struggles with feelings like greediness, jealousy, vanity and guilt. She has her flaws, and we can admire her efforts to be better behaved and realize it’s okay if she is not always “good,” and love her the more for it because she is human and imperfect.

They make us think and ponder the differences between our lives now and their lives then, and helps us appreciate how good we have it.

They provide fodder for conversations for my children and I. Often at the end of a chapter, we talk about something that happened in the chapter or what we’ve learned from the chapter. I’ve explained certain things and pointed out other things to them to supplement the writing.

Finally, the stories create a bond. I loved them, love that I’m getting to reread them now, and my children love them, too. And it’s something we do together nearly every day that we enjoy and can look forward to. I’m sure our months of reading the Little House books together will inspire my children to read the books by themselves when they’re a bit older and will make them think of me and look back on this time fondly.

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