I discovered Laura Ingalls in Ms. Spivey’s third grade class. She would read a chapter or two from Little House in the Big Woods every afternoon. It was all detailed, vivid description about homesteading in the nineteenth century. Housework, farming, maple syrup candy, butter-churning and smoked venison. And it was absolutely fascinating. I think it’s the starting point for what has turned out to be a thus-far life-long love of historical non-fiction.
Laura Ingalls is very much in the same vein as Jo March. She’s a bright, spirited tomboy and often unfavorably compared to her older sister Mary. While Mary was content to quietly practice her tiny, neat stitches with Ma, Laura was more often helping Pa with the horses or splashing in Plum Creek with Jack the bulldog. But if the Little House books are about anything, they’re about family. Laura is hard-headed and has a lot of impulses to resist, but in the end she’ll always do what’s best for the people she loves.
Then Pa looked straight at Laura and said, “You girls keep away from the camp. When you go walking. don’t go near where the men are working, and you be sure you’re back here before they come in for the night. There’s all kinds of rough men working on the grade and using rough language, and the less you see and hear of them the better. Now remember, Laura. And you too, Carrie.” Pa’s face was very serious.
“Yes, Pa” Laura promised, and Carrie almost whispered, “Yes, Pa.” Carrie’s eyes were large and frightened. She did not want to hear rough language, whatever rough language might be. Laura would have liked to hear some, just once, but of course she must obey Pa.
My favorite books in the Little House series are actually the later ones, after the family does some moving around and finally settles in Dakota Territory near the town of De Smet. By the time I got to these books, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years, I was in the fifth grade. At this point in the stories, Laura’s a young woman. (And the summer between fifth and sixth grades, I was convinced I was too.) She’s still fiercely independent and stubborn but she’s also starting to shoulder a lot of responsibility in her family.
The Long Winter is a pretty harrowing story of a winter so severe, trains stopped running to De Smet. Blizzards became so frequent, Laura and Carrie were unable to walk to school. Food supplies were running low and Laura helped Pa twist hay into tight bundles to use a fuel. The town was saved from starvation by a dashing bachelor farmer named Almanzo Wilder, who risked his own life to bring a delivery of wheat into the town. (Hint: This guy becomes important later.)
In Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years, Laura begins working so that her family can afford to send Mary, who had long since lost her sight to scarlet fever, to a school for the blind. Laura’s first job as a seamstress is less than ideal. Mary was the one with tiny, neat stitches after all. Not Laura. Her next job is even harder. At only 15, she takes a job teaching at a settlement miles away from home. She battles homesickness and a class full of students, some even older than she is, who are determined to test her. She stays with a very unhappy family that provides a stark contrast to her own.
A small ray of sunshine is that handsome homesteader, Almanzo Wilder. He travels every weekend to bring Laura back home and to the school again so she can see her family. Laura eventually grows more confident in the classroom and completes her two terms… and hands every bit of the money over to Pa, for Mary’s schooling.
I’ll admit, my favorite part of these books is the Laura and Almanzo’s three-year courtship. They initially bond over Almanzo’s pair of Morgan horses and go for carriage rides every Sunday. He eventually proposes to her in what I consider, to this day, to be the most romantic bit of prose I have ever read:
“I was wondering . . .” Almanzo paused. Then he picked up Laura’s hand that shone white in the starlight, and his sun-browned hand closed gently over it. He had never done that before. “Your hand is so small,” he said. Another pause. Then quickly, “I was wondering if you would like an engagement ring.”
“That would depend on who offered it to me,” Laura told him.
“If I should?” Almanzo asked.
“Then it would depend on the ring,” Laura answered and drew her hand away.
The next week, he brings her a garnet and pearl ring. And she says she would like to have it. Of course the ring itself didn’t matter. That’s just Laura Ingalls being Laura Ingalls. When he brought her home, she let him kiss her for the first time. (No, really. She said, “You may kiss me good night.”) Eleven-year-old me swooned. Even my own proposal twenty years later only barely outclassed this.
In preparation for writing this post, I did a little bit of reading on what other people think about Laura and whether or not she was a feminist. I think she absolutely was. Her relationship with Almanzo is probably the most clear illustration of this.
Laura was silent again. Then she summoned all her courage and said, “Almanzo, I must ask you something.
Do you want me to promise to obey you?”
Soberly he answered, “Of course not. I know it is in the wedding ceremony, but it is only something that women say. I never knew one that did it, nor any decent man that wanted her to.”
“Well, I am not going to say I will obey you,” said Laura.
“Are you for woman’s rights, like Eliza?” Almanzo asked in surprise.
“No,” Laura replied. “I do not want to vote. But I cannot make a promise that I will not keep, and, Almanzo, even if I tried, I do not think I could obey anybody against my better judgement.”
Heck, Almanzo might be a little bit of a feminist here too. (Or perhaps just a realist. You don’t date Laura Ingalls for three years and think she’s ever going to “obey” you without question.) Laura’s not a suffragette, but she’s clearly looking for equality in her marriage. I really think the only reason Laura wasn’t concerned about getting the vote is because, frankly, it wasn’t a priority. At only 18, she’d experienced severe illness, near starvation and failing crops. The life of a woman on the frontier was hard. Laura’s stubbornness might have kept her at odds with Nellie Oleson, but it probably also helped keep her family going. Who has time for politics when there’s cabins to build, pigs to butcher and crops to bring in? I think maybe if Laura had been born to a wealthy family in an urban area, she might actually have gotten involved in the women’s rights movement.
Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, took after her mother. She was bright and independent and became a journalist, writer and political theorist. There’s some debate over how much of the Little House series was ghostwritten by Rose. Most tend to think it was a fairly even collaboration… which I like. A mother and daughter creating one of the most beloved series of children’s books ever. Pretty cool.