Remember the Little House on the Prairie series? It is a series of books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder about her childhood in a settler family, including her Pa and her Ma, her older sister Mary, and baby sister Carrie. If you don’t remember this book, or the television show based on it, then you are really very young. But are these classic books good to read to your own kids? Well, I just finished reading Little House on the Prairie (which is the title book in the series of the same name) to my two oldest daughters, who are seven and almost six, so allow me to tell you how that went.
First, I will start with the best and most important point: my daughters loved this book, and they loved The Little House in the Big Woods as well. My seven-year-old is constantly begging me to keep reading, remembering details that seem quite mundane, and asking intelligent questions about pioneer life. My almost-six-year-old loves them too, but needs to also be playing with something or moving around the room during some of the slower chapters. It is great for them both to learn about the real experiences of someone totally different from themselves and to have to think and talk about what Laura’s life was like. I don’t think that all kids would like these books as they are not always very exciting (my husband won’t read them because he thinks they are boring), but my kids sure enjoyed it.
I do want to say that that this book would be way more interesting to me if it were told from Ma’s perspective. Pa clearly makes the decisions for the whole family, and he seems to be a kind and compassionate man, so he’s not necessarily overbearing, thankfully, and Ma seems to be on board and up for adventure … but can you imagine living in a covered wagon for months on end, all alone with just your husband and three children, one of whom is a baby? (Side-note: Baby Carrie’s significance is regularly ignored in this book. We would often pause during a particular event in the story to say, “Where on earth Baby Carrie right now?” as we read.) At the very end of the book, they have to leave the house they spent a year building, and the huge garden they have just planted, with one day’s notice. And three children. And no iPads. I mean, kids are pretty resilient, but what is Ma thinking this whole time? Someone should write THAT novel!
But the negative aspect of this book that can’t be ignored is the way this book treats the Native Americans the Ingalls family encounters. Laura and her family, and the government at the time, did not treat the Indigenous people with respect or understanding, and this book absolutely reflects that bias. The Ingalls family moves into “Indian country,” and they periodically encounter several Indians (as they are regularly called in the book). Eventually they have to move away because of government interventions to keep them off the “wild” Indian land. This can be pretty uncomfortable to read, and there is far too much of it to simply and subtly skip those parts, like I would sometimes have preferred to do.
However, maybe it’s okay to have a natural way to bring up something that is still very much an issue in our culture, but that does not come up very often in our day-to-day lives. Throughout the book, I regularly paused to wonder aloud about these Big Questions. I asked how the Native people may have felt about Laura moving onto their land without asking, if it would have been better to ask them what they would prefer to be called instead of referring to them as Indians, if maybe the Native children are scared of Laura like she is sometimes scared of them, and how well Laura and Pa really understood the Native people or how they lived. I asked my kids if they thought Laura believed that the “papoose” baby she saw and wanted to keep for herself was as important a person as she or her sisters were, because she kind of behaves as though she thinks that that having an “Indian baby” would be kind of like having a pet.
My kids seemed to understand the fact that Laura and her beloved Pa — and even the book itself — were making some pretty big mistakes based on a severe lack of understanding and compassion. In the end, I’m hoping that I didn’t do more harm than good in presenting my kids with a true, difficult reality about our cultural history.
I’m still working on how, exactly, to connect that history to the fact that these problems are nowhere near over. Actually, maybe someone can recommend a good modern-day novel for me to read next, written from the perspective of a Native child?
So, should you pick this book up and read it to your own children? I think that if you’re not willing to ask tough questions while you read, you should probably not, frankly. There are lots of good books out there to read to this age group (Roald Dahl, anyone?), and they can learn about the life of the prairie settlers by playing Oregon Trail, like we did. But if you are willing to regularly interrupt yourself to take advantage of a “teachable moment” then you should give it a try! Let me know how it goes. Now … what should we read next?