HomeBooks by AgeAges 4-8Lessons from Laura Ingalls Wilder

Lessons from Laura Ingalls Wilder

By Nicki Richesin, The Children’s Book Review
Published: October 7, 2011

75th Anniversary Edition

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 GlobeRedbookParenting, CosmopolitanBust,SalonDaily Candy, and Babble.

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Nicki Richesin is a freelance writer and editor based in San Francisco. She writes personal essays and pieces on lifestyle, parenting, and pop culture for Sunset, DuJour, 7×7, Daily Candy, and The Huffington Post. She is also the author and editor of The May Queen, Because I Love Her, What I Would Tell Her, and Crush. You can find her online at <a href="http://www.nickirichesin.com">http://www.nickirichesin.com</a>

Comments
  • I am so torn about how I feel about these books. I agree with Ms. Richesin in some ways , but I don’t feel that they are the best works of literature to teach children “to treat people right.” I wonder how one deals with the author’s racism towards the American Indians and the horrible rants and fear toward them that Laura’s mother exhibits Do you stop and explain or skip the chapter? . Any suggestions?

    I think books like Ann of Green Gables may teach the same values.

    October 7, 2011
  • I can see P. Vreeland’s point, and I always felt uncomfortable about, indeed hated and resented, Ma’s racism, too. But as I recall, Laura herself admired and even envied the Indians in many ways — she states, for instance, that she wishes she could run around like them, wild and free, without a sun bonnet or clothes, and the chapter “Indians ride away” is supremely poignant, showing real sorrow about the Indian’s forced move from their land. I’ll always remember how she describes her young self staring at the little native baby with his beautiful black eyes, and her complete passion for him. Not that I’m condoning white settlers taking over the Indians’ land and decimating the people, but I think Laura has a complex reaction to the situation.
    I think that you should read the book in its entirety to children, and open up a discussion about the parts which are not as exemplary.

    On another note, I always loved Laura’s appreciation for simple things — a tin cup, a stick of candy, a piece of calico. In an age in which we are awash in “stuff” her awe over the few “luxuries” in her life is refreshing! I love her appreciation for the natural world, too, and her tender descriptions of animals, from the little cat they adopted in “Little Town”, to the wild ponies, to the big eyed cows, and Black Susan, and Jack.She brings all these individual creatures lovingly to life.
    I would be quite a different person if I’d never read Laura Ingalls’ Wilders’ books! And the pictures still amaze me .

    October 7, 2011
    • I appreciate Ms Klevin’s comments. However, I simply feel that despite any “good” in these books, they are still quite racist. I am curious to know how one explains the “not so exemplary” Ma to a child in these discussions.

      Anyone interested in a Native American’s view of the LH books should do a search on:

      http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/

      October 9, 2011
      • In my opinion, it really comes down to what the individual parent feels comfortable discussing with their child. When reading chapter books to younger readers, I always recommend that parents do a solo first reading so that they have the opportunity to spot any potential morals or values that they feel their child may not be ready to understand, or, perhaps, the parent does not feel ready to discuss.

        According to civilrights.org, “Between five and eight, children are old enough to begin to think about social issues and young enough to remain flexible in their beliefs. By the fourth grade, children’s racial attitudes start to grow more rigid. Our guidance is especially crucial during this impressionable, turbulent time.”

        The same website also offers some guidelines to answering “Those Hard Questions:” http://www.civilrights.org/publications/reports/talking_to_our_children/

        Something I like to highlight to my own daughter when reading older literature is the progression of civilization. Older literature is full of “teachable moments” that we, as parents, can choose to embrace or decline.

        October 10, 2011
        • Thank you, Bianca. However, if it IS a relatively small window –only a few years– in which children are flexible in their beliefs, then parents & teachers should seize the opportunity to encourage them to remain open and compassionate. Reading books that are hurtful to others seems like a backwards way of teaching compassion. Consider how a Native American child would feel if asked to read these books in school. (Or African American for that matter –remember the minstrel show in Little Town?) Why not use American Indian literature to teach those same values that Laura and Pa seemed to admire in the Indians? Leave the rest to history class when they are old enough to truly comprehend it. (Sorry, but I don’t think a seven year old can grasp it.) There are plenty of other good works of literature out there. I think people just get nostalgic and lazy.

          October 12, 2011
  • There is so much more good than bad in the Little House books. Experts and parents underestimate children so much and so often. I would read those books to my child in a heartbeat and when we got to the thorny bits, have a discussion about them. Not didactical, but conversational. It would make the reading an even richer experience. But of course there should be other representations of the Native American experience than Little House. I admit to being nostalgic, but I am certainly not lazy when it comes to reading and literature.

    October 15, 2011
  • I am nearly through reading the Little House books for the first time, having loved the TV show as a child. Being British I don’t have the range of understanding of American history and culture that some people here may have, but I did trip up over the same issues.

    Ma’s attitude to the Native Americans literally had me stop reading for a moment. I had to really work at getting into her head, and that of course is what we should be doing. Her attitude jumps out as bigoted and damaging now, but she was a product of her time; a mother worrried about her children’s safety, fearful of an unknown culture. I can understand that. Plus, I clearly remember Laura questioning how the ‘Indians’ felt about being driven off their land. I was happy to read that part.

    The Minstrel show was equally shocking to me. But having grown up with similar shows on British TV – subsequently deservedly banned, I see this as another accurate representation of the time and place.

    The book group I attend recently read one of the Enid Blyton ‘Secret Seven’ books, written in the 1950s. This provoked similar emotions amongst readers – with its own version of racism, elitism and gender discrimination. I find it hard to believe that these still sell well to children in the 21st century! I must say that despite being weaned on her work I have grown into a tolerant and open minded adult.

    Books are a fabulous way to discuss social issues with children, and it wouldn’t occur to me to have a youngster read anything written so long ago without providing some context to place it in.

    October 16, 2011

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