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Laura Ingalls Wilder: “Little House” Series

July 19, 2010

Once upon a time, when I was about ten, I discovered a book called Farmer Boy, which featured as its main character a boy called Almanzo Wilder. I loved it, firstly because the book was mostly about food, and secondly because I thought the bits about farming might come in useful if zombies took over the earth and I was forced to fend for myself.

Anyway, it turned out that this book was, if you like, the anomaly in a series of books that were actually mostly about a girl called Laura Ingalls. As a child, I only ever owned two of those books – Farmer Boy, of course, and Little Town on the Prarie. And because the series is nowhere near as well known in the UK as I assume it is in the USA, I didn’t realise until much later that it was a series. That was around the time that, due to some strange mix-up in Amazon’s warehouse, my flatmate had ended up with an extra box set of the books. So he gave them to me.

What can I say? It’s a series written for children by a woman, mainly about women, in the late 19th century USA, and so it fits my limited criteria for books-that-aren’t-chick-lit. When I was younger, I was intrigued by the practical things that were mentioned – the building work; the cleaning; the endless sewing – and those that weren’t – where, I wondered, did they put their toilet? Reading them now, from an adult perspective, it’s the snippets of conversation I find interesting – the discussions about the kind of work appropriate for a teenage girl; the allusions to womens’ rights; the all-pervasive Christianity. It’s worth noting, though, that the series has more than its fair share of racism, and that can detract from the reading experience. It’s presented in a matter-of-fact manner, without judgement either way – although perhaps that’s judgement enough. Still, it would hardly have been truthful to omit it, when one entire book focusses on the family’s move to “Indian Territory”, and their subsequent eviction.

I read them mainly as comfort books. They don’t take up any brain-space unless I want them to, which is perfect when I want something to relax with late at night. Since they’re aimed at children, they are never going to be stretching – at least not to an adult who already reads  – so if you need something to stop your brain mushing, these are certainly not the books to go to. On the other hand, as a sort of living history series, they’re perfect. (I recently read The Time-Traveller’s Guide to the Fourteenth Century, which does exactly what it says on the tin – it gives you a description of what to expect from the 14th century. The Little House series is much the same, except that the author actually was alive in the time period and places she was writing about.) This is certainly not an academic series, but were I studying that period, I’d probably read it anyway. And were I studying a different period, I’d probably read it for a bit of light relief.

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