Friday, 21 June 2013

June 2013: Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Little House on the Prairie and our next meeting

This month we set off across the wide open spaces of the American mid-West to share Laura Ingalls Wilder's closely autobiographical story of the pioneer family trying to make a new life for themselves on the Kansas prairie during the 1870s.

The Little House on the Prairie (1935) was the second in a series of books that recalled the Ingalls family's 19th century adventures as they travelled in a covered wagon from Wisconsin to Kansas in search of a new life.  The ever-optimistic parents - a father who suffered from wanderlust, and a stoical mother - try to make a new home for the young family in Indian territory, where they have been told the land will soon be up for settlement, but they have no legal right to occupy their homestead and soon have to leave again in the face of native Osage Indian hostility.

Wilder's books resulted from a collaboration between Wilder and her daughter Rose who, while not named as co-author, was certainly responsible for the deft editing and promotion that helped to ensure these enduring tales of her mother's life - several of which won Newbery prizes  - were crafted to best advantage and continue to give much pleasure.  The stories are charming and engrossing, with fascinating and authentic period detail providing a real sense of American history.

The structure is formulaic and all the more enjoyable for that: the children are enveloped in a comfortable family with a protective and strong father and a warm, caring mother.  They are allowed to take risks but they can always return to the safety of the home.  There is a real sense of excitement as they leave their familiar surroundings and set off with their dog, Jack, in a covered wagon for an unknown future, crossing the Mississippi river and finding themselves in endless adventures.

Wilder's descriptions are beautiful but dense, and the story is seen entirely through young Laura's eyes, with limited narrative.  For modern readers, the author's attitudes to the native American Indians is unsettling, while entirely accurate from a historian's perspective.  The challenges of living without any of the social or physical structures that we are so used to these days are immense, but father and mother will always win through.

Wilder died in 1957 aged just 91 but 50 years later the Little House stories still endure, and there is now an enormous industry in the United States around her books, with museums in each of the main locations where the family lived.

The story of this endlessly self-sufficient family, getting by on limited resources and always surrounded by love, retains its charm and offers children today a real glimpse into a pioneering Victorian past.

Next month we are reading Geoffrey Trease's Cue for Treason (1940).

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