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An image of the bookcover of The Little House on the Prairie


Little House on the Prairie
(1935)

The autobiographical underpinning of the
Little House Series

The 9 novels in the series trace the movement of the Wilder family as they travel across pioneer American, but it is a mistake to think that all details in the books are authentic.

For example, the family journey does not steadily progress towards the western frontier as is portrayed in the series. What Wilder tries to convey is the fundamental essence of the pioneer experience, so she refashioned autobiographical details to achieve this goal.

Wilder has said about the books, “I wanted the children now to understand more about the beginning of things, to know what is behind the things they see – what it is that made America as they know it.”1

Laura’s daughter, Rose, worked for a San Francisco paper, and wrote for a variety of journals. When Laura decided to tell her story, Rose helped by giving advice and editing the novels.

Introduction to the series (1932-71)

After publishing Little House in the Big Woods, Wilder was amazed to find herself an overnight success. She initially planned to write one novel but children begged her to write more. All 9 novels were highly popular; five of them won Newbery Honour awards:

  • On the Banks of Plum Creek
  • By the Shores of Silver Lake
  • The Long Winter
  • Little Town on the Prairie
  • These Happy Golden Years

The Association for Library Services created a children’s literature award for lifetime achievement which was named in her honor. Wilder was the first recipient of the distinguished “The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award.”

The novels trace the American pioneer experience during the 1870s and 1880s. Like the ever-widening setting of the farm, town, and island in Montgomery’s Anne series, Wilder’s novels also expand their geographical horizons as the series progresses.

In almost every novel, the family moves to a new house, usually in a different state. The books depict Laura’s development as she interacts with and responds to the pioneer landscape.

In a 1937 speech, Wilder said, “I realized that I had seen and lived it all – all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers, and the towns.  Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American History.”2 Laura’s personal development reflects the larger historical development.

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Style of the novels

One of the amazing feats in the series, as Mackey points out, is the way each novel is written to reflect the age of the protagonist.3 For example, in Little House in the Big Woods, Laura is 4 years old; the novel is written with a corresponding simplicity. As Laura grows up, the style of each book becomes more sophisticated, reflecting each successive stage of her development.

The story of the novel

Laura and her family set out for Kansas in a covered wagon after leaving their little house in Wisconsin. Pa builds a house on the prairies and the family faces a series of threats to their survival.

Organizing patterns in the novel

1. Home and threats to it

The book is organized around the building of a new home and the subsequent threats to it. The natives, fire, wolves, and a panther all try to enter the house.

Three fires occur at regular intervals throughout the novel and help unify the book. Natives similarly threaten the house at three points during the story.

2. Cyclical patterns

The book ends as it began with the family moving to a new home.

The book also contains a number of circular images. When the family travels across the prairie, they see nothing but the grass and sky: “In a perfect circle the sky curved down to the level land, and the wagon was in the circle’s exact middle.”4

This novel, like many children’s classics, traces the calendar year from spring to spring, reflecting the fact that the seasonal cycle governs the lives of the characters.

Books spanning the calendar year call attention to the importance of cyclical patterns in general and the seasonal cycle in particular in children’s lives. “One reason beginnings come full circle,” argues Sonia Landes,

is that this completes the logic. A good story is a tight story, which begins with a problem and derives the resolution from it. . . . The classic, archetypal closure theme is the quest – home-adventure-home. Schoolchildren understand this sequence almost instinctively. It is the story of their lives, the essence of growing up. The child’s quest consists of repeated sorties from the love and safety of the home into the uncertainty of the outside world. Going to school is part of this quest; the child returns each time to the safety of home, a bit wiser and better prepared for the next encounter.5

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The novel as pastoral

Wilder emphasizes the theme of finding joy in simple things, a characteristic theme in pastoral novels. The characters live close to nature in what seems like a more authentic existence, an existence that is harder to achieve in more complex urban environments.

Laura and the prairies

Despite the fact that Laura is initially apprehensive about this new landscape, she develops a deep affinity for it: “She liked the enormous sky and the winds, and the land that you couldn’t see to the end of.  Everything was so fresh and clean and big and splendid.”6

Janet Spaeth points out that Laura’s universe, “with her acceptance of the prairie world, has expanded to include even that which she does not know and has not seen. The growth from the cosy closed scene of Little House in the Big Woods to the open, expansive scene of Little House on the Prairie echoes that expansion and that vision.”7

Ma and Pa: East and west

One of the most effective parts of the novel is the way Wilder uses Ma and Pa to suggest different responses to the pioneer experience. Ma comes from the Eastern U.S., and is associated with the indoor world of culture, education, and religion.

The West, on the other hand, is connected with the greater freedom and larger spaces of the outdoor world but also with its wilder conditions and lawlessness. This is the world that Pa loves, and increasingly the one that Laura prefers. Pa and Laura are happiest moving further and further west. They represent the creed of the pioneer – “it is better farther on.”8 The dichotomy between Ma and Pa is replicated in the next generation with Mary and Laura.

Notes

1. Quoted in Janet Spaeth, Laura Ingalls Wilder (New York, Twayne, 1997), 1.

2. Quoted in Suzanne Rahn, “What Really Happens in the Little Town on the Prairie,” Children’s Literature 24 (1996): 122.

3. See Margaret Mackey, “Growing with Laura: Time, Space, and the Reader in the ‘Little House’ Books,” Children’s Literature in Education 23, no. 2 (1992): 59-74.

4. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie (1935; New York: Scholastic, 1963), 13.

5. Sonia Landes, “Picture Books as Literature,” in Innocence and Experience: Essays and Conversations on Children's Literature, comp. and ed. Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maguire, 319 (New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1987).

6. Wilder, Little House on the Prairie, 175.

7. Spaeth, Laura Ingalls Wilder, 51.

8. Laura Ingalls Wilder, The First Four Years (New York: Scholastic, 1971), 134.