Top 100 Children's Novels #27: Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
#27 Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1935)
The summer before I entered fifth grade, thanks to my fourth grade teacher who read aloud Where the Red Fern Grows (which turned the key in the lock of my lifetime reading obsession), I zipped through this beloved series. – Tess Alfonsin
I credit these books with starting me on my reading path. My mother read this one out loud to me when I was about 5 or 6 and I could not wait until I had the reading skills to read the rest of the series for myself. I have such fond memories of sitting with my mom while she read aloud this book. This is the book that is responsible for my ‘series’ love. To this day, if I like a book in a series, I have to immediately read every book in the series, in the correct order. – Amy Miele
“The vast prairie was dark and still. Only the wind moved stealthily through the grass, and the large, low stars hung glittering from the sky. The campfire was cozy in the big dark stillness. …”
The synopsis from the publisher reads, “The adventures continue for Laura Ingalls and her family as they leave their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin and set out for Kansas. They travel for many days in their covered wagon until they find the best spot to build their little house on the prairie. Soon they are planting and plowing, hunting wild ducks and turkeys, and gathering grass for their cows. Sometimes pioneer life is hard, but Laura and her folks are always busy and happy in their new little house.”
New York Times book critic Eden Ross Lipson mentioned in Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book by Anita Silvey that the book that affected her the most as a kid was this one. Says Lipson, “This plain account focuses on ordinary lives, but that is why it is so thrilling and engrossing. The family’s ordinary lives are so far from our own, unimaginably remote to today’s children. But the lesson the books taught me, and still teach without comment, is that there is dignity, honor, and pleasure in work well done.”
This is the Little House book that perhaps draws the most controversy in the series. In article “Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve: Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Kansas Indians” (Great Plains Quarterly, Spring 2000), Fraces W. Kaye says of it, “I cannot honestly read Little House on the Prairie as anything other than apology for the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Great Plains. That her thought was unremarkable, perhaps even progressive, for the time in which she lived and wrote should not exempt her books from sending up red flags for contemporary critics who believe in diversity, multiculturalism, and human rights.” Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature also offered up a two part critique of the book (here and here) as well as here that are all well worth reading.
One racial element that doesn’t get a lot of discussion but is fairly fascinating is the appearance of Dr. Tan in this book. As Alison Wilson in Twentieth-Century American Western Writers: Third Series put it, “A serious health crisis threatens the entire family when they come down with the ‘ague’ (malaria). Fortunately, they are saved by a visit from a neighbor, Mrs. Scott, who brings Dr. Tan, a black physician, who prescribes a bitter powder–probably quinine–for them, then nurses them back to health. They had all been bitten many times by the swarms of mosquitoes that lived near the creek, but they do not connect the insects with their illness; in fact, Mrs. Scott is convinced it has come from eating watermelon!” For some reason Dr. Tan, whose role is quite small in the book, always struck me as the most interesting fellow in the story. Who was this guy? What was his life like? Where did he end up in the end?
Silvey mentions too that “When scholars go back to manuscripts of these books, it is clear that Wilder collaborated with her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, a ghostwriter by trade, to achieve a finished manuscript. Although we may never know what one wrote and the other changed, these books stand as one of the greatest mother/daughter collaborations of all times.” So much so there is an upcoming work of poetry by Jeannie Atkins coming out called Borrowed Names: Poems About Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C.J. Walker, Marie Curie, and Their Daughters. Keep an eye peeled for that one.
Read some of the book here.
- It is also very interesting to note that Little House on the Prairie is not listed amongst the other titles by Laura Ingalls Wilder at Little House Books.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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