Lessons from Laura Ingalls Wilder
How could a heroine born in 1867 speak so intently to us over a century later? I suppose it all began with the first book in the “Big Woods” of Wisconsin and then for me, a child of the seventies, the wholesome television series produced by Michael Landon. I was delighted to return to the books again with my daughter to distinguish the stories from my memories of the dramatized television show. In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s cherished, award-winning Little House series, she conveyed hope when there seemed little left and deeply held values I would like to impart to my seven-year-old daughter, but that her stories make very easy for her to understand. In our modern era of constant technological bombardment, it was a welcome relief to escape for a few chapters each week to Laura’s family in their snug little cabin. She taught us how to slow down and show gratitude for our lives, just as the Ingalls family did.
Laura demonstrates how fulfilling it is to work hard to earn your way and contribute to your family. She knows what to do when Nellie Oleson bullies her and when she’s falsely accused by a teacher. Her parents Charles and Caroline Ingalls show compassion and kindness and teach us how to persevere even when the crops are destroyed by the blizzard, and even when they’re starving because the train hasn’t brought food supplies in months. They don’t wallow in self-pity, but pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get on with rebuilding their barn and replanting the seeds for the next harvest. Their strong connection to nature by working the land, paying close attention to the seasons and caring for animals instills a calm respect for the wonders of our world. The routine dailiness of Laura’s chores, like collecting eggs and helping Ma with housework, provides a structure and also a comfort and order to her days. I was astonished by her honesty. Even when Laura knows she will get into trouble, she confesses to Ma and Pa. The torment of not telling the truth was too great a burden for her to bear for long.
We learned about the pure joy of generosity. In Farmer Boy, a book dedicated to Laura’s husband Almanzo’s childhood growing up on his family’s farm in New York, she recounts how his loving parents sacrificed to give him a horse he desperately longed for and he worked hard to prove to his father that he deserved him. In Little Town on the Prairie, Laura struggles with her studies to become a teacher in order to help support her older sister Mary’s education at a school for the blind in Iowa. She shows true selflessness in the face of adverse circumstances on behalf of Mary. On her first teaching post in a small town, Laura boards with a family in which the depressed mother openly resents her presence, but she refuses to quit. At times, she doubts herself, but must find a way to teach her students (even the older ones) in the freezing one-room schoolhouse. Such determination to succeed, especially when she feels homesick and frightened, serves as a great example to us all.
Our nuclear families of today seem terribly isolated compared with the pioneer families’ overwhelming sense of community. Almanzo risks his life, when he journeys through a blizzard to bring back wheat to the starving townspeople. The nine-book series end with Laura happily married to Almanzo and living on their homestead in Missouri with their young daughter Rose. Their romance reminds readers of the importance of friendship and trust in a longtime companion. They lose an infant son to disease, their home to a fire, and many crops to biblical storms, but they have each other’s enduring love and support along the way. One day, perhaps we will have a chance to visit the museum in Missouri and see the land that Laura immortalized in her books. She preserved the beauty of the seasons with her lovely descriptions of the prairie roses abloom in spring and the birds heading south for winter, but stopping for a short while along the lakes on their way.
When I asked my daughter Olivia what she learned from Wilder’s books, she said, “how to be a good friend and to treat people right.” The Ingalls and Wilder families invariably show great affection and mutual respect for each other. They encourage their families to work together to solve their problems and their resourcefulness is an inspiration. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books speak to us of the courage and determination she felt as a young woman growing up on the frontier and we will treasure them for generations to come.
Nicki Richesin is the editor of four anthologies,What I Would Tell Her: 28 Devoted Dads on Bringing Up, Holding On To, and Letting Go of Their Daughters; Because I Love Her: 34 Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond; Crush: 26 Real-Life Tales of First Love; and The May Queen: Women on Life, Work, and Pulling it all Together in your Thirties. Her anthologies have been excerpted and praised in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle,The Boston Globe, Redbook, Parenting, Cosmopolitan, Bust,Salon, Daily Candy, and Babble.
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