You’d never guess it to talk to her, but Mrs.B grew up in a household without children’s books. Because there are few things I like to do better than to read books to children, we have undertaken to remedy this sad deficiency: right now, we are doing a readaloud of Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
I read it first I suppose 40 years ago when my own kids were coming on to the right age (come to think of it, Prairie wasn’t part of my own childhood, either). I liked it then, and I must say it holds up remarkably well today. You probably know the general outline: it is Laura’s account of her own childhood in “pioneer days” in the late 19th Century. Apparently there has long been an issue over authorship: Laura’s daughter,
I can’t comment intelligently on the particulars, but I have to say this much: in detail, this cannot be the work of a first-time author. Writing novels is a craft, just like building rocking chairs is a craft, and you wouldn’t expect to get either one right without practice. So somebody polished and sanded and morticed the joints.
But no matter: both in objective detail and in emotional nuance, the book bespeaks first-hand experience. Nobody could have packaged it so well without a core of authenticity.
The framework is that of a classic children’s story: Laura has adventures, but she knows she is well loved and that things will work out well in the end. The perspective is that of an adult, remembering his childhood self. Marcel Pagnol, introducing My Father’s Glory, explains the style:
In these Recollections, it is not myself of whom I speak, but of the child that I am no longer. It is a small person whom I knew, and who is rooted in the air of the times …
So, secure and reassuring: but on closer scrutiny, it is a pretty hair-raising tale. We have wolves, malaria, prairie fire and the real threat of Indian massacre. And the adult reader has to wonder at the wisdom of cheerful, ingenious Pa, who hauls these four females out into the middle of nowhere, and dismisses near-calamity by observing that “all’s well that ends well!” All’s well indeed, and Pa and Ma show formidable resourcefulness in meeting their challenges, but you’d Pa might have been better advised to leave this kind of challenge to bachelors like his neighbor, Mr. Edwards (indeed, I recall that in later books of the series, Laura comes to see her father with a maturing vision, and comes to understand that there is something problematic about living as near to the edge as they do).
They say that the cowboy story is the American epic. Maybe, but you could make a case for the pioneer tale. Adults have Willa Cather, and My Ántonia; for the rest of us, there is Laura Ingalls Wilder.