Say Little House on the Prairie and most people (well, those around my age anyway) will remember the NBC television series of the same name starring Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert.
Actually, Little House on the Prairie is the second of a series of three Little House books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It tells of the Ingalls’ pioneering journey from the Big Woods of Wisconsin to the huge prairie lands of Kansas, ending near to a town called Independence. Their journey is told in the third person but is a semi-autobiographical account of Laura and her family as they set off to “see the West”. Everything they own is packed into their covered wagon, crossing too many creeks to count and making camp at nightfall. Before noon one day, after travelling across the wide Kansas prairie, Pa stops the wagon. ”Here we are, Caroline!” said Pa. “Right here we’ll build our house.”
“All around them there was nothing but grassy prairie spreading to the edge of the sky”. The huge skies, the vastness of the prairie, the bright stars hanging so low Laura often felt she could reach out and touch them, are a constant backdrop. All the seasons of the prairie are vividly described – “the whole world was rippling green and gold under the blazing sky” (Midsummer); “the grasses were a dull colour under a dull sky. The winds wailed as if they were looking for something they could not find” (Autumn); “the days were short and grey now, the nights were very dark and cold. Clouds hung low above the little house and spread low and far over the bleak prairie…hard little bits of snow whirled in the air and scurried over the humped backs of miserable grasses” (Winter); “Spring had come. The warm winds smelled exciting, and all outdoors was large and bright and sweet. Big white shining clouds floated high up in the clear space”. (Spring).
The prairie was plentiful too - a source of food (rabbits, deer, Prairie chickens, wild blackberries), water and wood to build the family’s house and stable. And so the Ingalls were very optimistic about their choice of homeland. They worked hard to make a home for themselves, demonstrating perseverance and also gratitude for the help offered by other settlers and for the bounty offered up by nature. Particularly touching is the joyfulness that Laura and Mary feel when their neighbour delivers their Christmas presents on behalf of Santa Claus. The girls are overwhelmed by their very simple gifts – a new tin cup, one peppermint candy stick, striped red and white, a little heart-shaped cake (too pretty to eat) and a shining bright, new penny. What a striking contrast to today’s Christmasses!
Although the prairie stretched out as far as the eye could see, the Ingalls were, in fact, sharing it’s vastness and bounty with Indians because it was Indian Territory. The issue of white settlers and the rights of the Indians is woven throughout the book. Pa Ingalls seeks to reach out to the Indians but Ma Ingalls is much more cautious. A tension exists between the two communities until word comes to the family that politicians in Washington plan to send soldiers in to take all settlers out of Indian Territory. Having endured and enjoyed a year on the Kansas prairie it was time to leave and the very next morning the covered wagon was packed up again. ”The little log house and the little stable sat lonely in the stillness”.
My daughters and I have loved reading Laura’s account of her journey to the Kansas prairie and the year they spent there. We talked about the difficulties the family faced, the land issue between the white settlers and the Indians and even the role of children within family life. Although I’ve recommended this book particularly for girls, there is plenty in it to interest boys too. Pa Ingalls is a very strong figure in many ways – strong physically, mentally, morally. He works hard with his hands, is firm with his decisions and is not afraid to stand up for what he believes. I found the extended descriptions of how he built the log house, the stable, the door and the fireplace fascinating – a lot of detail is included.
Cornbread – a staple part of the Ingalls’ prairie diet
Cornbread formed a staple part of the Ingalls’ family meals so we decided to make some. The results were delicious! The Cornbread recipe we used probably has some added extras but it does share the same main ingredient – cornmeal (polenta) which I found at my local supermarket (world foods aisle, next to the large bags of rice).
Other activities related to Little House on the Prairie
- Why not trace the Ingalls’ journey from the Big Woods of Wisconsin to the Kansas prairie using an atlas? You’ll be amazed at the length of the journey and the landscapes they crossed.
- Have a discussion (in class, as a family) about the land issue between the white settlers and the Indians. The settlement of land is always a contentious issue and is being played out across many parts of the globe today.
- The role of children in family life. In the 1870s when the Ingalls family made their journey to Kansas, children were required to complete many chores and were expected to be dutiful at all times. Interestingly, throughout the book there are comments about how children should behave, for example, “Mary was always good; she never spoke with her mouth full”. Should children’s literature be used to inform children about behaviour?