Little House on the Prairie

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Little House on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder


(Full name Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder) American novelist, short-story writer, poet, and author of juvenile historical fiction.

The following entry presents commentary on Wilder's novel Little House on the Prairie (1935) through 2000.


Part of the broader "Little House" series of novels, Wilder's Little House on the Prairie (1935) is an autobiographical account of her own childhood that has become enshrined as one of the preeminent pieces of American juvenile fiction. The third installment of Wilder's eight novel series about her family's struggle to build a meager life on the American frontier in the late nineteenth century, Little House on the Prairie is generally considered to be Wilder's strongest work. Chronicling her family's journey and eventual travails in the rough wilds during the early colonization of America's Midwest, Little House on the Prairie specifically captures the years of 1873 and 1874, a period when Wilder's family left their compound in Pepin, Wisconsin, to settle near Independence, Kansas, in the remains of the Osage Diminished Reserve. Touching upon issues of family, race, and the vast emptiness of the Kansas prairie, Wilder captures the vanished lifestyle of the American frontiersman through the voice of her young narrator, Laura. While largely autobiographical, the "Little House" series has been generally classified as historical fiction, due in part to mild embellishments on the part of Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who officially served as her mother's co-collaborator and editor—although the extent of her assistance remains unclear and subject to debate. Though it has remained eminently popular since its first publication, the novel saw its profile reach new heights with the 1974 Little House on the Prairie television series, starring Melissa Gilbert and Michael Landon, which sparked renewed interest in Wilder's "Little House" series as a whole.


Despite the official classification of Wilder's books as works of historical fiction, scholars have argued that the novels present a more or less accurate portrayal of Wilder's early life. Born February 7, 1867, in Pepin, Wisconsin, Wilder was the second daughter of Charles and Caroline Ingalls. In 1868 her parents moved Laura and her three-year-old sister Mary to Chariton County, Missouri. Shortly after their arrival, Charles learned of the expansionist initiative, known as the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered 160 acres of free land to any settlers willing to move to the newly opened lands of Kansas' vast prairie. The Act required potential families to farm and live on their plot for five years before they would receive the deed to the land. Relocating to a desolate area twelve miles north of Independence, the Ingalls clan began farming their claim. It is this period that is recounted in Little House on the Prairie. In the summer of 1870, the entire family contracted malaria and only survived thanks to the timely assistance of Dr. George Tan, an African American doctor who was the primary physician to the nearby Osage Indians. In the fall of 1871, shortly after the birth of the Ingalls' third daughter Carrie, Charles began to hear rumors that the government sought to renege on the terms of the Homestead Act and decided to pull up stakes. The Ingalls returned to Pepin for several years before venturing to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where Charles set up a new farm. In 1875 the Ingalls welcomed their only son, Charles Frederick, who was named after his father. After locusts destroyed their crops for two consecutive years, the Ingalls moved to eastern Minnesota, where Charles helped out on various harvests. Sadly, the Ingalls' son—nicknamed Freddie—would succumb to an undetermined illness in August of 1876. After the dual losses of child and crop, the Ingalls decided to get a fresh start in Burr Oak, Iowa—their seventh move in eight years. Living and working in a friend's hotel, the family soon realized they missed the Walnut Grove community. In early 1877 they moved back to Minnesota shortly after the birth of their fourth daughter Grace. However, in 1879, Wilder's sister Mary suffered a stroke that caused her to lose her eyesight. Later that year, Charles sister, Docia Woldvogel Forbes, visited the family and offered Charles a job with her husband's railroad in the Dakota Territories. Charles uprooted his family once again, promising Caroline that this would be their last move. Settling by the shores of Silver Lake, they were one of two families to settle in the brand-new town of De Smet, South Dakota. After several hard winters in De Smet, Wilder—an excellent student—offered to get her teaching certificate to help support the family. The fifteen-year-old Wilder quickly found work at the nearby Bouchie School and boarded with the owners of the school. While at Bouchie, she met a local farmer ten years her elder, Almanzo Wilder, whom she married in 1885, with their only daughter Rose following in the December of that same year. The Wilders faced much adversity during their first years of marriage—such as frequent moves, a crippling bout of diphtheria, and a son who died soon after childbirth—but they finally found some success and stability in 1894 at a Mansfield, Missouri farm they called Rocky Ridge.

In 1911 Wilder was asked to submit an article on farming issues to the Missouri Ruralist, a local paper. The article met with a great deal of appreciation, and she was asked to write a regular column for the paper, a position she held until 1925. Meanwhile, Wilder's daughter Rose had become a respected journalist, earning a growing reputation as a writer. In 1915, after Rose and her husband separated, Wilder visited her daughter in San Francisco, where Rose offered her mother advice on starting a writing career. Back in Mansfield, Wilder began to sketch out her childhood reminiscences. By 1924 Rose returned to Mansfield, settling into a cottage near her parents' home where she would eventually review her mother's early drafts of the "Little House" series. Rose encouraged her mother to write full-time and submitted several of her mother's short Ruralist articles to larger publications, though they were often heavily edited by Rose. Thus began a collaborative effort between mother and daughter, the extent of which is unknown. Rose claimed to be her mother's "editor," though the details of how much of Wilder's subsequent books were altered or even possibly written by Rose remains a point of debate for Wilder scholars. After the stock market crash of 1929, the Wilders lost the bulk of their savings and had to depend heavily on Rose's income as a freelance author. Around this period, Wilder revised her first autobiographical manuscript—originally titled Pioneer Girl—and Rose used her literary connections to get the volume published under the title Little House in the Big Woods (1932). The novel was a runaway success, and Wilder soon became one of the best-known American authors of the period. While Wilder's literary reputation quickly overshadowed her daughter's, Rose continued to help her mother edit her "Little House" novels, which would become an eight book series released between 1932 and 1943. Rose eventually moved to Connecticut, where she became a noted early libertarian and speaker. Almanzo Wilder died in 1949 at the age of ninety-two, and Rose often came back to Missouri to help look after her mother. On February 10, 1957, Wilder died after a series of heart attacks. After the death of her mother, Rose returned to Connecticut, leaving the family farm house and cottage in Mansfield to the Laura Ingalls Wilder/Rose Wilder Lane Home Association. It has since been honored as a National Historic Landmark.


While Little House on the Prairie is regarded as a work of historical fiction, most of the events are based on Wilder's own life. It is not considered pure biography due to Wilder's sometimes hazy recollections of her childhood and the fictionalization of certain events. Many characters—such as Nellie Oleson, who appears in later "Little House" books—are com-posites of several people rolled into one character for the sake of plot simplification. Other characters, like Mr. Edwards of Little House on the Prairie, probably had their basis in reality, however, there is no historical documentation of their existence, suggesting that either Wilder was not able to recall a proper name or they may be insertions of fictional characters into true events. Regardless, Wilder's stories represent a rare glimpse into a sparsely documented facet of American history. There are few accounts of frontier life rooted in realism and fewer still from the perspective of a woman. Little House on the Prairie records the Ingalls clan's travels from their home in Pepin, Wisconsin, to Chariton County, Missouri, and eventually to Independence, Kansas, where the bulk of the story takes place. Chronicling events during 1873 and 1874, the novel is told in the third person, though the Ingalls' youngest daughter Laura is clearly intended as the main protagonist. While the story lacks the traditional first-hand perspective of an autobiography, readers are given clear insights into Laura's views about her family's settlement on the frontier. An energetic child, Laura Ingalls falls in love with the isolation, vastness, and potential dangers of the Kansas frontier, embracing the very traits that terrify her mother about their new home. The Ingalls family is made up of Laura's adored father, Charles, whom she simply refers to as "Pa," her putupon and anxious mother, Caroline (or "Ma"), and her older sister, Mary. But Laura clearly resembles her father in terms of her adventurous spirit and desire to see justice triumph. This latter trait is on particular display when she learns of the plight of the Native Americans whom settlers are displacing across the frontier. Facing terrible weather, tense Natives, disease, and fire among a host of other troubles, the Ingalls demonstrate the power of family and their innate faith in one another as they strive to turn the wild Kansas terrain into a home. Eventually, Laura's younger sister, Carrie, joins the family and, shortly thereafter, Charles hears that the U.S. Government may revoke their Homesteader claim to the land. Rather than face a battalion of approaching soldiers whom he believes will evict his family, Charles decides to pull up their tenuous roots in Kansas and return the family to Wisconsin, where the story picks up in On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937), the fourth book in the "Little House" series.


Part of a larger collection of narratives told from a little girl's perspective—among them L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking, Frances Hodgson Burnett's Secret Garden, and Eleanor H. Porter's Pollyanna—Little House on the Prairie reflects a trend in early twentieth-century children's literature of strong female characters whom share a central credo of positivism and finding joy amid the most dire circumstances. Like the protagonists of those earlier works, Laura perseveres through tragedy, demonstrating the power of optimism, although Little House breaks from the traditional orphan narrative in its more realistic portrayal of a tight-knit family structure. Wilder's novel takes a greater look at functional family bonds rather than the damaged relationships that characterized many similar works of the era. Further, the women of Little House represent a new presentation of female roles, detailing the necessity of frontier children to assume stances of strength, particularly in families like Laura's without a son to undertake traditionally masculine duties. More than simply a "girl," Laura embraces a heroic stance when she helps save her sisters from a fire. Further, she rejects the retiring style and simple politeness that her sister Mary and her mother seem to embody. She is a budding independent, even despite her age, and recognizes and speaks out against injustice, particularly with regards to the double standards she sees being forced upon Native American tribes. Little House's recognition of the plight of indigenous Americans as well as the heroism of Dr. Tan, an African American doctor, are displays of a rare multiculturalism for books of this period. However, Wilder's depictions of Native Americans have come under increased scrutiny recently, with several critics suggesting her portrayal of the Indian natives borders on racist stereotypes. Thematically, Little House is also characterized by its unusual depictions of open spaces. Hamida Bosmajian notes that the story "abounds with images of immensity and intimacy that evoke in the adult reader the feelings aligned with the sublime." Wilder imbues her novel with the dichotomous intertwining of unceasing horizons contrasted against the tight bonds of the Ingalls family. Further, Little House argues for a harmonization of man and nature which Jan Susina suggests as being the utilization of "the intimate circles of civilization within the vast open space of the prairie to create a sense of security and a synthesis with nature."


Among the most popular children's books of the twentieth century, Little House on the Prairie has been consistently recognized as a superior work of juvenile historical fiction. Even so, the novel has elicited some mild controversy, with classrooms in Minnesota and South Dakota removing Wilder's text for its ostensibly racist portrayals of Native Americans. Author and critic Michael Dorris has argued that the book depicted "unreconstructed" bigotry, particularly as presented by the otherwise likable character of Ma. Others have lamented the novel's potential influence on young readers, with Frances W. Kaye professing that, "I cannot honestly read Little House on the Prairie as anything other than apology for the 'ethnic cleansing' of the Great Plains. That her thought was unremarkable, perhaps even progressive, for the time in which she lived and wrote should not exempt her books from sending up red flags for contemporary critics who believe in diversity, multiculturalism, and human rights." However, many critics have suggested taking a broader view of Little House, with Philip Heldrich noting that, "the text's portrayals of both the Ingallses and the Indians belie any easy assessment of the book and its various characterizations." This recent controversy notwithstanding, Little House on the Prairie has become a beloved icon of American literature, with critical appraisals generally hailing its gentle prose and profound messages of family and endurance. Ann Romines has asserted that, "Beginning with Little House on the Prairie Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Lane Wilder began to propose some of the hardest and most persistent questions for an emigrant nation: questions of possible cultural interaction, cultural collision. and a potentially multicultural life." Hamida Bosmajian has found Little House to be even more thematically dense, theorizing that, "In her ultimately civilizing work, Ingalls Wilder prepares the child-reader for transitoriness, for separation, for the need to control the id, for the necessity of civilizations, for historical guilt, and for the constant urgency of dreams that drives us westward."


Children's Works

Little House in the Big Woods [illustrations by Helen Sewell] (juvenile historical fiction) 1932
Farmer Boy [illustrations by Helen Sewell] (juvenile historical fiction) 1933
Little House on the Prairie [illustrations by Helen Sewell] (juvenile historical fiction) 1935; revised edition, illustrations by Garth Williams, 1953
On the Banks of Plum Creek [illustrations by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle] (juvenile historical fiction) 1937
By the Shores of Silver Lake [illustrations by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle] (juvenile historical fiction) 1939
The Long Winter [illustrations by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle] (juvenile historical fiction) 1940
Little Town on the Prairie [illustrations by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle] (juvenile historical fiction) 1941
These Happy Golden Years [illustrations by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle] (juvenile historical fiction) 1943
The First Four Years [edited by Roger Lea MacBride; illustrations by Garth Williams] (juvenile historical fiction) 1971

Other Works

On the Way Home: The Diary of a Trip from South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri, in 1894 [edited by Rose Wilder Lane; illustrations by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle] (diaries) 1962
West from Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, San Francisco, 1915 [edited by Roger Lea MacBride] (correspondence) 1974
A Little House Sampler [with Rose Wilder Lane; edited by William Anderson] (short stories) 1988
Little House in the Ozarks: The Rediscovered Writings [edited by Stephen W. Hines] (short stories) 1991
Laura Ingalls Wilder's Fairy Poems [edited by Stephen W. Hines; illustrations by Richard Hull] (poetry) 1998
A Little House Reader: A Collection of Writings by Laura Ingalls Wilder [edited by William Anderson] (short stories) 1998


Hamida Bosmajian (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Bosmajian, Hamida. "Vastness and Contraction of Space in Little House on the Prairie." Children's Literature 11 (1983): 49-63.

[In the following essay, Bosmajian portrays Little House on the Prairie as a book aware of its use of "felicitous space," simultaneously depicting the American prairie as both vast and intimate.]

     To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee.
     One clover, and a bee

     And reverie
     And reverie alone will do
     If bees are few.
                               —Emily Dickinson

Although she lived in circumscribed territory, Emily Dickinson realized that sheer reverie allows an expansion of the imagination independent of the particularity of the images. Such images can either whirl the imagination into an open-ended reverie or particularize it within the concreteness of the text, from which the creative reader generates yet another reverie. Laura Ingalls Wilder writes in Little House on the Prairie, "The vast prairie was dark and still. Only the wind moved stealthily through the grass, and the large, low stars hung glittering from the sky. The campfire was cozy in the big dark stillness…."1 Her depiction of Laura in house and prairie is an indissoluble interrelation of memory and imagination, which, to use Gaston Bachelard's words, "give us back the images which pertain to our lives."2 Bachelard finds the origin of reverie and oneiric images in childhood. "When the human world leaves him in peace, the child feels like a son of the cosmos. And thus, in his solitudes, from the moment he is master of his reveries, the child knows the happiness of dreaming which will later be the happiness of the poets" (PR [The Poetics of Reverie], p. 99).

When we as adult readers of children's literature encounter a certain image, we become suddenly aware that the image has "touched the depth before it stirs the surface."3 Intentionality, reason, and consciousness of specifics are slackened as our eyes wander off the page and "stare into the blue." Children's literature, especially fairy tales, often projects such singular images seemingly free of traditional meanings, but rather of such luminousness that they are retained in the memory as a kind of concrete metaphysics. The authenticity of such images attracts the phenomenologist. Furthermore, the double audience of children's literature, child and adult, urges the critic toward a phenomenological perception of the text and at the same time reveals the problems intrinsic to that kind of interpretation. As a phenomenon, the image appears to the child-perceiver with an autonomy that the adult reader rediscovers rarely, for the adult reader perceives the image with presuppositions and existential projections and can return to the being of the image only after laborious sublimation of knowledge. The adult reader is inclined to perceive the image as a symptom that transmits the values of culture and civilization. Such a reader extracts meaning from the image, robs it of its value, and relegates the creative imagination to a secondary position by assuming that the poet's imagination simply hides personal and cultural problems in the material of the image.

There is thus an inherent contradiction in critical analysis from a phenomenological perspective, for criticism traditionally claims objectivity whereas the phenomenological critic attempts to communicate a subjective response to the text. Therefore, we often find that when the phenomenological critic is most phenomenological, he or she becomes poetic, Bachelard being a prime example. It cannot really be otherwise, for the phenomenological critic who applies the concepts of phenomenology must overcome the subject-object dichotomy by describing and explaining the image in such a way that the image is constituted only in its intentional relationship with the perceiving subject.

The question of the objective reality of the image, its historical, cultural, or psychological validity, is usually bracketed by the phenomenologist. Phenomenological criticism, in contrast, presents illuminating descriptions of the correlative relation between the perceiving subject and the phenomenon of the text. In this way, as Wolfgang Iser argues, the images of a text are not used up in a kind of literary consumerism, for the vital feature of a text is retained: it does not lose the ability to communicate even after overt messages are decoded.4

I agree with Iser that all interpretation, including phenomenological interpretation, involves a frame of reference; in addition, each frame deepens the text. Therefore, Little House on the Prairie gains dimension as it is seen in terms of the creative process that went into its shaping, its "unflinching assessment of repressive gentility and racial superiority," its autobiographical and fictionalizing memory, and its projection of the American pioneer spirit.5 A phenomenological perception of the book involves a sophisticated primitiveness that both approximates the child's perception and recognizes the absorption of the oneiric value of images as they are perceived in reverie.

Bachelard attempts to communicate that value and yet his critical theory and practice reveal also the problems inherent in the phenomenological approach. He synthesizes C. G. Jung's concepts of the active imagination, which creates images as a sublimation of unconscious content, with phenomenology, which accepts the literary sign-image as a linguistic sublimation appearing autonomously to the experiential actuality of the reader, who then must complete the meaning of the image. While Bachelard, especially in The Poetics of Space, insists on the autonomy of the image and attempts to sublimate his vast learning in order to be "perceptive to the image the moment it appears" (PS [The Poetics of Space], p. xi), his discussions demonstrate that he is unable to maintain such an authentic and sheer response. Only a child would be able to do this, but then ironically the child would not be able to discourse about it.

Given the origin of truly oneiric images in childhood and the fact that reverie, unlike the nightdream, is always desirable, Bachelard intends to focus on the spaces that we love, on "simple images of felicitous space" (PS, p. xxxi). But the reader soon becomes aware, as does Bachelard, that felicitous space can metamorphose into sinister, threatening, and even demonic space. There is irony beneath and within happy space, and with irony we move from oneiric existence to knowledge of the fallen world. It is with these ambiguities in mind that I have approached the depth and dimension of Little House on the Prairie, a book that reveals an awareness of historical and cultural discontents and at the same time reverberates with the contentment of felicitous space where one's being is housed and with the excitement of vast space wherein one's being expands.

The storyteller begins with an expansion of memory, "A long time ago," and closes with a lyrical anticipation of future possibilities, "Daily and nightly I wander with thee." The book is a daughter's fictionalized memory of her father's anticipations expressed through a phenomenology of the spaces of vastness and contraction: the prairie and the little house. Anticipation, future time, urges towards happy space, but memory knows that both the vast and the intimately contracted space have been precarious and ambiguous as values of human experience in the world. With great subtlety Little House on the Prairie introduces the child to the ironies of American life and history, including the American dream and the temporal and spatial horizon of the mythology of Manifest Destiny. The dreamer about the West is unaware that moving toward the westward horizon is traditionally a move toward the end of a time. The narrator, however, knows it: "That long line of Indians slowly pulled itself over the Western edge of the world. And nothing was left but silence and emptiness. All the world seemed lonely and quiet" (p. 311).

The most radical expression of vastness and contraction occurs in the chapter "Fever'N'Ague," when the Ingalls family suffers from malaria. Laura hallucinates in her fever: "Something dwindled slowly, smaller and smaller, till it was tinier than the tiniest thing. Then it slowly swelled up again till it was larger than anything could be" (pp. 186-87). We have here what Bachelard calls a "phenomenology without phenomena" that refers us directly to "our imagining consciousness" (PS, p. 184). The minuscule intimate point that contracts into itself is a defensive energy of such density that it would collapse of its own weight unless it expanded again aggressively. Both, extreme constriction and all-filling vastness, suck in or swallow the fragile ego. These phenomena, experienced here in their sheerness, apply also to the topography of the little house and the prairie as well as to the tensions within and between characters.

Vastness and contraction have a positive and negative end on a spectrum of values. The vastness of the prairie resonates with desire and the need for expansion as these are felt by the human heart, the wandering spirit. But the sublime vastness of the prairie consumes the exploring wanderer and, since the prairie is not really level, threatens with condensed pockets of danger. To keep intact, the ego must clear a containing space, a round shelter in the vastness: the circle of the camp, the shelter of the "hut-dream" (Bachelard) which becomes the little house. The house is the most positive image of civilization in the book, although its contracted space is always endangered from without and within. The image in transit between prairie and little house is the covered wagon with Ma and Pa in front anticipating the future and Laura shaping her memories by looking back at the abandoned house through the circle of the drawn canvas cover (p. 324).

Vast and contracted space and their values become correlatives for the three character groups in the book. The Indians have their camps, but they are really housed in the vastness of the prairie. Ma and Mary desire the contracted space of the house and its civilization. Pa Ingalls and Laura hover between the values of the open prairie and the values of the house. Ma, Pa, and Laura each has a personal image that condenses these values. Laura has the word papoose, Ma has the small china shepherdess, and Pa has his fiddle. Vast and contracted space as well as these personal images reveal the meaning of human experience in Little House on the Prairie.

The value of the prairie's vastness changes throughout the book. In the big woods of Wisconsin, a daydreaming Ingalls expands his horizon: "He liked a country where the wild animals lived without being afraid…. In the West the land was level … [and] stretched much farther than man could see, and there were no settlers" (p. 2). Certainly the deep dark woods are a primordial space for losing one's self, but not for Ingalls when he can hear the thud of an ax or the shot of a gun not his own. Since Ma does not respond to his daydream, he interprets her silence as consent: "Seeing that you don't object, I have decided to go West" (p. 3). Her reply about the snugness of their house in winter has no effect on him.

The irony of Pa's daydream of vastness is that it will always lead to contraction, if not constriction. He, the wandering ego—the sailor over waves of prairie grasses—will tame the space in which he would be lost, the animals will flee him, and settlers with similar daydreams will be his neighbors. The too-muchness of the prairie's freedom becomes imprisoning as the Ingallses travel through Kansas. "In a perfect circle the sky curved down to the level land, and the wagon was in the circle's exact middle … [but] they couldn't get out of the middle of that circle" (p. 13). The wagon is centered no matter how much Ingalls strives to reach the circumference. More intimate circles are needed for centers of refuge. The camp on the high prairie is such a cleared ground where fire can burn without becoming a conflagration, where coffee is ground, clothes are washed and ironed, and where Ma admonishes Laura: "You must mind your manners, even if we are a hundred miles from nowhere" (p. 40). She is right, for the rituals of civilization sustain the ego in its clearing in the wilderness. The circle is a horizon that organizes time as well, the days and the year during which this human experience takes place.

The prairie is not only experienced horizontally; it also beckons with upward and downward extension. The line of the horizon connects the eye with the vast space of the cosmos and suggests a concrete metaphysics in a story that makes no religious references. The following passage shows the images of that metaphysics as they move from the perception of phenomena to a phenomenology without phenomena and then back to the perception of phenomena:

The prairie looked as if no human eye had ever seen it before. Only the tall grasses covered the empty land and a great empty sky arched over it. Far away the sun's edge ran a pale pink glow, and above the pink was yellow, and above that blue. Above the blue color was no color at all. Purple shadows were gathering over the land, and the wind was mourning.

                                    [pp. 26-27]

An example of the vertically downward line and its connection with sky and prairie is the well Ingalls builds after the house is finished. It is a convenience for Caroline so that she will not have to go to the creek when he is absent, but building that convenience seriously endangers a helpful neighbor's life, and Ingalls himself is threatened when he finds that he is sinking into quicksand the moment water rushes into the well. It is a dangerous human-made vertical whose depth excites Laura: "Mary preferred to stay in the house and work on her patchwork quilt. But Laura liked the fierce sun and wind, and she couldn't stay away from the well. But she was not allowed to go near its edge" (p. 158). To test oxygen presence and the possibility of gas at the bottom, Ingalls places a candle in the deep: "All the way down in the dark hole the little candle kept on burning like a star" (p. 158). This meaningful point of light is like the cosmic stars above the prairie, a beckoning assurance to the ego that it will not be enveloped by the depths above or below. At the end of the chapter, the author projects an image of wholeness: "In a little while the well was almost full of water. A circle of blue sky lay not far down in the ground and when Laura looked at it, a little girl's head looked up at her. When she waved her hand, a hand on the water's surface waved, too" (p. 160). The author creates an unusual image of the sky lying in the ground, but it is not buried—the depth will not extinguish the light in whose circle Laura sees a human face. The small child (she seems younger than Laura is) does not yet identify herself with the reflection; instead, she, who also experiences much inner solitude, relates with kindliness towards the other image. She is no alienated Narcissus! The water remains a gift from the depth that must be squared by a stout platform and a heavy cover.

Horizontally the prairie is not really level. It has depths that envelop and depths from which the unexpected can emerge. Both disappearance and emergence tend to be sudden and connote a vaguely comprehended threat. When Pa goes hunting, he disappears into the prairie (p. 42). Since her father fills her life, it always seems to Laura that "the outdoors was too large and empty to play in" (p. 208) when he is gone. Wolves, fire, and Indians can suddenly emerge as real dangers, but more ominous still, the prairie generates a feeling of anxiety: "She had a queer feeling about the prairie. It didn't feel safe. It seemed to be hiding something. Sometimes Laura had a feeling that something was creeping up behind her. She turned around quickly, and nothing was there" (p. 288).

Indians are housed and at home in the vastness: "No one knew how many Indians were hidden in the prairie which seemed so level but wasn't" (p. 275). Their tragedy is the inexorable contraction of that space by the settlers. A neighbor of the Ingallses argues: "Land knows, they'd never do anything with this country themselves. All they do is roam around it like wild animals. Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to folks that farm it" (p. 211). Such farmers assert that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" (pp. 211 and 284), a radical constriction that Ingalls meliorates by supporting the continued westward drive of the Indians by the government, though he admits that this must make the Indians hate the settlers.

Ingalls himself feels intensely aggressive and frustrated when the government determines that the land on which he has settled will remain Indian territory. He decides to leave immediately because he cannot tolerate being ordered off the land. Laura, too, can feel deeply aggressive, mainly toward her sister, who has already internalized all the value society associates with a "proper young lady." But the fiercest expression of aggression is in the tribal war cry of the Indians. The immensity of their wrath is restricted to the circumscribed space of their camp from which the cry rises, filling the vastness of the prairie and the intimacy of the little house. Laura does not know that the Indians have their own restrictive ritual for aggression. It seems to her that their anger is everywhere: "She couldn't hold on to anything; there was nothing solid anywhere. It seemed a long time before she could think or speak … [for] the drums seemed to beat deep inside her" (pp. 291-92). The nightmare of history "was real and Laura could not wake up. She could not get away from it" (p. 293). As her own aggressions against the pressures of civilization are absorbed in that cry, the immensity of aggressive feelings becomes her own intimate immensity and shapes her dreaming and waking consciousness.

Inaccessible as human beings to the Ingallses, the Indians become images of potential danger or of dreams of freedom, impossible for the settler's mentality. Pa communicates silently with them. He stands in awe of Soldat du Chêne, who supports the settlers and leads his contingent of Osages westward. In the chapter entitled "The Indians Ride Away," the family watches spellbound for a whole day as the Indians "went by as if the house and the stable and Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura were not there at all." Their expressions are the last option of dignity for the defeated. Laura perceives the leader's "proud still face" (p. 305) and she envies the freedom of the Indian children riding naked on the bare backs of their ponies. Discontent with civilization overwhelms her: "She had a naughty wish to be a little Indian girl. Of course she did not really mean it. She only wanted to be bare and naked in the wind and the sunshine, riding one of those gay little ponies" (p. 307). Her preconscious knows that that can never be. At this point, without using the word and thereby defining what she sees, she notices the papoose that Pa promised she would see in Indian country.

Though Pa defined papoose for her (p. 6), it is the word as word that fascinates her, a magical and reverie-provoking word freed from what it defines. When she does see the papoose she is unaware that the word has realized itself. The Indian baby is tucked into the basket that hangs on the side of the mother's pony and, as Laura makes significant eye contact with the baby's black eyes, she demands of her all-powerful father: "Pa,… get me that little Indian baby" (p. 308). Shocked, Ma responds: "'Why on earth do you want an Indian baby of all things!' 'Its eyes are so black,' Laura sobbed. She could not say what she meant" (p. 309). The eye contact momentarily joins for Laura two horizons of experience: civilization will forever prevent her from riding naked on a pony. She feels a double aggression: toward the strictures that prevent her from the fulfillment of the desire for unhampered freedom and toward that which she desires so. Because she cannot have the freedom, she wants to possess that which is destined to be free and thereby destroy an elusive dream. Laura already shares the settler's fantasy in which the impulse toward freedom is exchanged for possession and control of the vastness of the prairie. In her childlike desire she is unaware of the paradox that this Indian baby is not unhampered but confined in the strictures of tribal customs. Similarly, the settler refuses to be aware that the Indians' disappearance over the horizon is a movement toward increasing limitation, not freedom.

When the family sets out again into the prairie, vastness dominates once more until a new space will be cleared. Ingalls concludes: "It's a great country, Caroline…. But there will be wild Indians and wolves here for many a day" (p. 325). The contraction of vastness, however, is only a matter of time. When Ma complains that a whole year's labor has been wasted, Pa replies: "What's a year amount to? We shall have all the time there is." But the destiny of the settler, too, will be manifested in its space and time.

The child-reader responds preconsciously, of course, to the fictionalized memories of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The complexities of personal, familial, and national life are communicated in such a way as never to gain dominance over the image of the nurturing mother, the protective father, the shared meals and special occasions, and, most of all, the little house. The memory of the experience of reading this book leaves the contracting space of the sheltering house intact, though the text actually gives to the house as many ambiguities as it gives to the prairie. The child-reader absorbs the images projected by the author's distillation of memory and imagination and perceives them without antecedents, but at the same time the images will become antecedents to future and less oneiric perceptions. Nevertheless, as adult and child read about the little house, they prefer to live in their own hut dream.

Charles Ingalls builds the house to put Caroline and the girls into it. It is he who decides where the contracted space will be (p. 52). For five chapters the reader follows the coming into being of the house, from foundation to roof to hearth. Ma proves incapable of working with Pa after she injures herself. Building the house is a masculine activity, but Laura is the observer who takes in every detail so that the house can again be constructed in memory. She helps her father secure the house with a stout door, a process described so precisely that it becomes a model of how to build a door in order to keep nature out. Building the house means struggling with the elements, as exemplified in the image of the house as a ship at sea in the prairie, an image reinforced by Garth Williams's drawing. Pa pulls the canvas wagon top as a temporary roof over the skeleton structure: "The canvas billowed in the wind, Pa's beard blew wildly and his hair stood up as if it were trying to pull itself out. He held onto the canvas and fought it. Once it jerked so hard that Laura thought he must let go and sail into the air like a bird" (pp. 72-73). Prairie, sea, and air synthesize and project Ingalls's image in a state of tension between settlement and the desire for flight.

After the hearth is finished, Ma places her little china shepherdess on the mantel shelf (p. 117). An emblem of continuity, the china figure takes on a special symbolic value for Caroline in Little House on the Prairie. The fragile lady, dressed with pretensions for rustic work, is for Ma a signature to the house, the family lair, the little household god of civilization carried from homestead to homestead. The figure projects the yearning of civilized humans for an idyllic if not edenic setting and is at the same time Caroline's token of affluence, of conspicuous consumption where a lady's function is "to sit pretty." Ma loved and married "the wild man" Ingalls, and she may be a hard-working pioneer woman, but she has internalized civilized proprieties. She resolutely refuses to adopt "Indian ways" such as washing the clothes in the creek, even if that is more practical. Drying the clothes on the prairie is already a concession; she wants a clothesline (p. 76). The inside of the house is hers. When the red-checked tablecloth is spread, she knows that "now we are living like civilized folk again" (p. 129). After Pa built the bed and helped her to carry in the prairie-grass tick, "she set up the goose feather pillows, and spread the pillow shams against them. On each pillow sham two little birds were outlined in red thread" (p. 148). As an intensification of intimate space, the image cluster of bedframe, tick, pillow, and pillow sham with birds parallels the images of house, mantel, and china shepherdess, images of civilization that are as illusive and sustaining as Ingalls's dream of the wide-open spaces.

The house is not a perfect refuge. It is threatened from without and within. Indians enter, demand food, or try to steal Pa's furs. The family's very life is endangered during the malaria attack. Fire breaks out in the chimney and only Laura's courage and resourcefulness keep Mary, who sits terrified in the rocker with Baby Carrie, from being burnt. Mary's helplessness as the most civilized and ladylike character in the family comes here to the fore (p. 203). Before the stout door is built, wolves that followed Ingalls home encircle the house and howl at the moon. In spite of her fear, Laura is fascinated by the leader of the pack—"she looked and looked at that wolf." As her father circled inside from window to window, Laura "lay and listened to the breathing of the wolves on the other side of the log wall" (p. 98). Danger is alive here, impinges on the intimate space, and reduces the hut dream to a wish.

Charles Ingalls is a skilled builder of intimate space, but he never once expresses the deep satisfaction of Caroline or Laura in having a house. The day it is finished, he plans to buy window glass, which will give him the connection with the expanse of the prairie. Ingalls has a childlike joy in building the house, but afterward he does not really know what to do with it. The house is female space, and he prefers to go to town to get supplies or to sit in his favorite place—the threshold—and play his fiddle: "Pa sat for a long time in the doorway and played his fiddle and sang to Ma and Mary and Laura in the house and to the starry night outside" (p. 129, my italics). He is a man whose life Bachelard would see as governed by the dialectic of inside and outside.

The fiddle is his image of intimacy: "He laid the fiddle box carefully between the pillows, where jolting would not hurt the fiddle" (p. 5). The image is contracted potential and when he activates it, it swells with melodies and provokes the words that express his desires: carefree attitudes, joy in life, tenderness in love, romance, and the vastness of his yearning. His songs often assuage Caroline. After Indians came to the house and made her feel threatened, Pa plays the fiddle while she sings the lyrics to "Wild roved the Indian maid," a song about a woman questing for her lover, a romantic vision that expresses her own attraction to the "wild man" Ingalls and displaces pioneer reality into the romantic projection of the noble savage (p. 235). For Laura, Pa sets the world and cosmos into beckoning motion as he fiddles: "The night was full of music, and Laura was sure that part of it came from the great bright stars swinging so low above the prairie" (p. 51).

After they have been notified that they have settled on Indian territory, Pa lights out for the territory ahead like Huck Finn, leaving the civilizing house readily open for anyone who might need shelter. Laura assures herself that the house is not affected by their leaving: "The snug log house looked just as it always had. It did not seem to know they were going away" (p. 324). When they had left Wisconsin a year earlier, "the shutters were over the window, so the little house could not see them go" (p. 6). Laura learns to consign houses to objects that can readily be discarded as "once more the covered wagon was home" under the wide sky (p. 335), the pioneer's wheels over yet untracked land. Although they are in transit, there is the steady and beloved companionship of Pa, who with his music carries Laura into a sleep-dream of vastness wherein the prairie becomes the sea:

She felt her eyelids closing. She began to drift over the endless waves of prairie grasses, and Pa's voice went with her singing:

     "Row away, row o'er the waters so blue,
     Like a feather we sail in our gum-tree canoe.
     Row the boat lightly, love, over the sea:
     Daily and nightly I'll wander with thee."

Little House on the Prairie abounds with images of immensity and intimacy that evoke in the adult reader the feelings aligned with the sublime. But the experience of the sublime is an oceanic feeling in which the ego loses its boundaries. The growing child cannot afford such ego loss, even while falling asleep, and needs assurance and soothing from a familiar voice. Laura Ingalls Wilder's style always anchors the child-reader's and Laura's egos in reassuring specificity: "All around the wagon there was nothing but empty silent space. Laura did not like it. But Pa was on the wagon and Jack [their dog] was under the wagon; she knew that nothing could hurt her while Pa and Jack were there" (p. 7). As she drifts over endless prairie grasses into sleep, she is steadied by Pa's voice evoking the boat image, the boat in which the fragile ego can row lightly over the potentially enveloping element. In her ultimately civilizing work, Ingalls Wilder prepares the child-reader for transitoriness, for separation, for the need to control the id, for the necessity of civilizations, for historical guilt, and for the constant urgency of dreams that drives us westward. But, as she re-collects the images of childhood, her active imagination also expands with reverie and enables the creative reader, caught in the spaces of civilization, to realize that reverie alone will do to make a prairie.


1. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie, illus. by Garth Williams (revised ed. 1953; rpt. New York: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 31. All references are from this edition and hereafter are cited parenthetically.

2. The Poetics of Reverie, trans. Daniel Russell (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), p. 105. See especially chapter 3, "Reveries Toward Childhood." Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as PR.

3. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), p. xix. The first two chapters about the house—chapter 8, "Intimate Immensity," and chapter 9, "The Dialectics of Inside and Outside"—have been especially valuable for my discussion. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as PS.

4. Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), p. 4.

5. For a discussion of the creative process see the following essays by Rose Ann Moore: "Laura Ingalls Wilder's Orange Notebooks and the Art of the Little House Books," Children's Literature, 4 (1975), 105-19; "The Little House Books: Rose-Colored Glasses," Children's Literature, 7 (1978), 7-16; "Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane: The Chemistry of Collaboration," Children's Literature in Education, 11 (Autumn, 1980), 101-09. For a discussion of stereotyping see Elizabeth Segel, "Laura Ingalls Wilder's America: "An Unflinching Assessment," Children's Literature in Education, 8 (Summer, 1977), 63-70; for biographical data see Donald Zochert, Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1976); for the pioneer theme see Anne Thompson Lee, "'It's better farther on': Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Pioneer Spirit," The Lion and the Unicorn, 3 (Spring, 1979), 74-88.

Charles Frey (essay date fall 1987)

SOURCE: Frey, Charles. "Laura and Pa: Family and Landscape in Little House on the Prairie." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 12, no. 3 (fall 1987): 125-28.

[In the following essay, Frey explores the themes of land and family in Little House on the Prairie, particularly with regard to how both themes relate to Laura's relationship with her father.]

"I like to look at the hills, there is something fascinating in their loneliness" (On the Way Home 30). So wrote Laura Ingalls Wilder during her journey of 1894 from South Dakota to Missouri. Ever since her early childhood, Laura had intimated loneliness in landscape, even as she had celebrated a contrasting closeness in her family relations. Ultimately, however, Laura's "fascination" may have occupied most intensely the margins between family and land, between the inside of the family and its outside, between childhood and maturation, and especially between identity with her father and separation from him. It is the purpose of this essay to explore Laura's relations to family and landscape as developed in Little House on the Prairie and to suggest, particularly, some of the tensions in Laura's relations to her Pa.

In many great works of children's literature, authors use their writing to search backward through time for the child's-eye view of things and for roots of their own identities. Recapture of their varying childhoods by such authors often turns out to be a mixed blessing, however, for the paths of their stories generally lead forward again through time and toward the very crises of maturation and separation that remain either unresolved or so painfully resolved as to suggest why the authors might indeed search for their own youthful roots. The narratives of Mowgli, Jim Hawkins, Tom Sawyer, Alice, and the little sea-maid exemplify just a few instances in which authors manage to reawaken both the vital energy of the child's union with first persons and places and also the confusion and unease, explicit or implicit, of the child's task to separate and to become her or his own "groan-up." In Little House on the Prairie, a fusion or confusion of child's and grown-up's points of view is suggested early on and never is quite overcome.

Consider the opening:

A Long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and little girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. They drove away and left it lonely and empty in the clearing among the big trees, and they never saw that little house again.

They were going to the Indian country.

Pa said there were too many people in the Big Woods now. Quite often Laura heard the ringing thud of an ax which was not Pa's ax, or the echo of a shot that did not come from his gun. The path that went by the little house had become a road. Almost every day Laura and Mary stopped their playing and stared in surprise at a wagon slowly creaking by on that road.


The first paragraph of the story asks us to sit in the present and to imagine "a long time ago." The narrator shares our present time. Yet the strain of the paragraph is not only backward in historical time through the generations but also, implicitly, from the perspective of a grandparent to that of a baby, so that the introduction of "Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie" recapitulates the first, retrospective sequence even as it invites us to see the Wilder family from a child's eye view (giving parents role-names but the children proper names). The final sentence in the paragraph reinforces this interpretation as it semi-personifies the "lonely" house and adopts a child's way of saying "they never saw that little house again."

The second paragraph is objective: "they were going." This could be seen from any family member's point of view or could be taken collectively or from an outside perspective. The first two sentences of the third paragraph begin with "Pa said" and "Laura heard." Now Laura could, presumably, hear what Pa said (as well as hear another man's ax and gun), but the words also express Pa's own personal opinion, his view that there were too many people. Is Laura and Mary's "surprise" at seeing wagons on the road partly a product of Pa's prior expression of surprise and disapproval? The next paragraphs suggest that Pa's view dominates (even to the point of his wanting to be the center of attention for mother and child): "Pa did not like to stay…. He liked to see the little fawns and their mothers looking at him …" (2). Are we supposed to be looking at Pa from the child Laura's point of view? or from the view of an omniscient narrator? It's hard to tell. The chief imaginative effort might be described as a combination of remembering back to childhood and also imagining from the vantage of adulthood what one's father must have experienced.

"Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie" is an interesting grouping of sounds and names that works to question identity and difference in Laura and the two generations of her family. "Pa" and "Ma" are one-syllable names that establish a kind of equality and a basic or "original" vowel sound. All the other names are two syllable names, as if, fancifully, they reflect a joining of the parental single syllables and as if the children form a separable group. "Mary" is older than "Laura," but "Laura" catches up in the two vowel sounds of her name a closer affinity to "Pa" and "Ma." "Mary" and "Baby" and "Carrie," though they all begin with the same consonant-"a" combination of letters as is found in the names of Pa and Ma, nonetheless share a vowel-sound pattern different from that of "Pa" and "Ma" and "Laura." Whether coincidentally or not, these sound groupings in the names reflect the emotional groupings that emerge from Laura's telling of the tale.

Pa's dominance is established early on by the point that the whole family is going to dangerous "Indian country" just because "Pa said" there were too many people around. Apparently it's undesirable to hear an ax or a rifle that's not one's own. What kind of person is Pa? "Wild animals would not stay in a country where there were so many people. Pa did not like to stay, either" (2). Is Laura hinting that Pa is like a wild animal? She makes it plain that Pa likes the unanxious, undisturbable attention of fawns and mother deer. He may seek the same kind of attention from his own children and wife? He may want to keep them from fearing "intrusion." Meanwhile, he seems to identify with "the fat, lazy bears eating berries in the wild-berry patches" (2).

Ma does not "object" to moving, but she sounds less than enthusiastic. Pa says "'I've decided to go … I've had an offer,'" and he's the one who sells the house, the cow, and the calf. Ma "helps" him with the wagon. The point, certainly, is not to look askance at Pa and Ma for their division of functions but rather to note how plainly and in what detail a somewhat patriarchal household is etched in from the beginning of the book. That division of functions may turn out to influence Laura's self-conception and her allegiances. Once the relative lines of authority and areas of competence between Pa and Ma are noted, it becomes possible to consider the consequences and significance.

In the first paragraphs, Laura and Mary appear somewhat passive and doll-like. They play right by the little house, and Ma washes, combs, and dresses them. They cling to their dolls silently while others look at them and then hug and kiss them. Pa puts them on the bed in the wagon. Their being wrapped and placed in a bed contributes to a sense of Laura and Mary as babies whose births are associated with the exhilarating and liberating journey west. Again, perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not, the first topic raised as the journey begins is Laura's desire to see a papoose, to see what's born in the West. Laura and Mary are taking a trip that's made to seem special, strange. "No little children were playing" where they traveled. The terrain is far from domestic: they drive "a long way," the lake is "enormous," stretching "flat and smooth and white all the way to the edge of the gray sky. Wagon tracks went away across it, so far that you could not see where they went; they ended in nothing at all." This eerie sense of tracks ending "in nothing at all," of traveling into a world too large and mysterious for rational comprehension, of being born to a journey and a land defying our ordinary, normal, human, domestic scale is a sense of wonder and awe crucial to the whole experience of Little House on the Prairie. Is this wonder and this awe religious in tilt or tone? Is it more the naturalist's respect or reverence for the primal beauty and otherness of nature? Is it fearful? Lonely? Sublime? Does it hint at a sense of ultimate exclusion from the familiar center or origin of love?

When the wagon was rolling across ice-bound Lake Pepin, "Laura didn't like it." If the narrator never makes similar statements about the internal consciousness of a character in the story other than Laura, then we would have a clear indication that the third-person telling merely masks a first-person point of view. In any event, Laura's is the most active and feeling sensibility in the narrative. Although she professes to know that "nothing could hurt her while Pa and Jack were there," still she wakes in the night, repeatedly, when Mary and Carrie remain sleeping. Laura experiences more of life than any other character experiences. She turns out not to be contained or securely bound in by Pa's personality, or by Ma's. It is her story even though Pa may at times catch her in "his safe, big hug." One of Pa's typical terms of endearment for Laura—"'little half-pint of sweet cider half drunk up'"—may hint at the appetitive though affectionate relation that parents such as Pa often feel for their children whom they call "muffin" or "sugar" or such like, but still Laura's poetic perceptions of the prairie vastness and the life in nature differentiate her world from Pa's. His spirit is, to be sure, a wandering one. He has a gift for mechanical labors that Laura never relishes in herself. And his music-making and song are the counterpart, but only that, to Laura's separate drive to tell the tale of her own, very special life and to tell it in the prose-poem form of a book, something that would last, in some ways, beyond the range of Pa's makings. But still it is a book that tells in varying ways the story of Laura's affinity with and differentiation from her father.

The complexity of relations within Laura's family and between the family and landscape, the complexity established in the first chapters, continues throughout the book. I propose to exemplify some of the developing implications by treating sections from later parts of the story, sections that amplify, particularly, our sense of Laura's character and place in her family and her mission beyond it.

A remarkable feature of the Laura books is the amount and degree of hardship depicted therein without self-pity. One sees Laura in the very process of acclimatizing herself to an alien landscape beyond her home. Surprisingly, the reader, along with Laura, tends to forget or to play down such scenes as these: "There was no place to make camp and build a fire. Everything was damp and chill and miserable in the wagon, but they had to stay in it and eat cold bits of food" (11). Such moments are never lingered over or sentimentalized, and readers are encouraged to see this family's hard, honest way of life so close to the bones of earth and sky as a good way of life, a deeply peaceful and loving way despite the length and strength of its trials. The dramatic creek-crossing of the second chapter is taut and electric in itself but it also brings out a little more of the family's emotional dynamic. Mary huddles down "afraid," "but Laura was excited; she liked the splashing." Mary trembles and lies still, but Laura wriggles and peeks; Mary hides her face but Laura rises up; Mary cries, but Laura watches and holds onto the seat. Laura's the one who thinks of Jack. When Jack is lost, Laura thinks she knows that it is "shameful to cry" though here is crying "inside her." One gets a sense of Laura as a tremendously sensitive, energetic, vibrant personality who feels more keenly than many children the burden of repressive standards for conduct. Yet Laura shows time and again that no external rules will be conceded the power to restrain her natural zest. Her story is so interesting in part because she lives her life so fully, with such strength. Laura is a child-woman, incipient in her independence, invested early on with authorial power, and therefore cast as a somewhat ambiguous and tensional presence in the family.

The narrator's description of the high prairie is much too sophisticated for a child's sensibility:

No road, not even the faintest trace of wheels or of a rider's passing, could be seen anywhere. That prairie looked as if no human eye had ever seen it before. Only the tall wild grass covered the endless empty land and a great empty sky arched over it. Far away the sun's edge touched the rim of the earth. The sun was enormous and it was throbbing and pulsing with light. All around the sky's edge ran a pale pink glow, and above the pink was yellow, and above that blue. Above the blue the sky was no color at all. Purple shadows were gathering over the land, and the wind was mourning.


"No road," "no human," "no color," "empty," "empty": very often the descriptions of nature take this tone, as if the wild land was too big and too blank for domesticated description or for the consolations of conventional religion. Yet into this emptiness the family takes its traditions, its manners ("'you must mind your manners, even if we are a hundred miles from anywhere'"), and Pa's practical and cheerful maxims ("'best be on the safe side,'" "'all's well that ends well'"). The fourth chapter contains typical dialogue that deepens the characterization of Mary as "good," Laura as curious about papooses and careless of her own manners, and Ma as no match for Laura's rivalrous questions: "'Why don't you like Indians, Ma?'" "'What did we come to their country for, if you don't like them?'" Laura, on the other hand, "had never seen a place she liked so much as this place." What does Laura's sensibility stand for? An appreciation of the size and silence of the land quite foreign to Ma's hankering for comfort and security? A capacity to hear the singing of the stars when Ma hears only the fiddle? A long, deep, sure celebration of Laura's Self as a piece of the world's mysterious song?

Laura's discovery, in the fifth chapter, of the Indian path and her inquiry at the same time after a papoose help to keep us pointed toward the distant denouement of the story. The Indians are specifically thought of as "wild men," and they are already eerily present like ghosts. Adding to its masterful mix of tension and drama with the settler details and the homebuilding specificities of pioneer life, as when Ma is injured in the midst of the wall-raising, the narrative style furthers an analogous mix of homely and familiar oral/formulaic devices with nagging attention to the strange and frightening hugeness of the land and sky, the mourning wind, or the silence. "Pa said that was the river. 'That's the Verdigris River,' he said," or "They took…. Then they took…. Then they took …" or "he drove away. He drove right down into the prairie," or "'Where's Pa going?'… 'He's going to….'" Against these lulling rhythms of repeated phrases catching the rhythm of their work and play stand Laura's moments of isolating self-consciousness beneath the big sky, moments when she feels exposed, vulnerable, and wants to hide, to be still. No one else expresses or even seems to share Laura's isolating perceptions, so the story becomes in part the narrator's delineation of Laura's special artistic and spiritual growth, her sense, even, of election.

Mr. Edwards "bowed to Ma and called her 'Ma'am,'" politely. But he told Laura that he was "a wildcat from Tennessee." Laura is privileged to know the real Edwards. Laura tries to spit like Edwards. She gets more out of the singing and fiddling than anyone else; she can hardly stop laughing and, in her enthu-siastic "'Sing it again!'" is the one to break the rule about children being seen and not heard. "Pa and Mr. Edwards and Laura sang with all their might": the others apparently are not a part of this. Laura, in other words, very successfully rivals with Ma for the companionship of the men. At the same time, she seems just to get more out of life than the other females. Her imagination soars. She is free.

Chapters six through ten detail Pa's encounter with the wolves and then his making of door, chimney, roof, and floor for the house. The thrilling account of the wolf-pack first meeting Pa and then circling the house in the moonlight motivates the next sections which show the family becoming more and more secure, or so it appears. That Laura would have taken such interest in the practical details of Pa's carpentry and that the narrator would assume an interest from readers of both genders may belie any sexist ascription in the book of engineering or architectural bent to males. There may be a spectrum, on the other hand, of activities in the story from those clearly deemed feminine—such as cooking, washing, childcare and cleaning up—to those treated as masculine—such as hunting, building, and playing the violin? Insofar as Laura is the one who especially appreciates Pa's (and Mr. Edward's and Mr. Scott's and the cowboys's) activities and temperament, then she may be imaged as more gender-inclusive than the rest? Laura becomes such an interesting child protagonist not only because of her spread-out gender affiliations or interests but also because she inhabits so intensely both the child's instinctive longing for comfy securities and a daring drive toward mystery and change.

The attitudes of the Ingalls' family toward the Indians might today be labelled racist in the extreme. The Indians are "wild," "terrible." They have "snake's eyes." They have a "horribly bad smell." They make "harsh sounds" in their throats. They are screeching devils. And so on. But to Laura, these are not "attitudes"; these are sensory perceptions, at first. How does Laura gradually move out from the confines of her initial mind-set to confront and recognize the humanity of the Indians?

When Mr. Scott faints at the bottom of the well (chapter twelve), the narrator supplies detailed dialogue which, unlike much of the other dialogue, pertains to only one specific event rather than to patterns of family interaction. Notice how believable but also archetypically melodramatic much of that dialogue is. For example:

'Charles, you can't. You mustn't,' Ma said.

'Caroline, I've got to.'

'You can't. Oh, Charles, no!'

This could have happened, but it sounds suspiciously like standard melodrama, writing in rather than writing out. And yet the narration of the incident works well, is gripping and moving, filled with the tensions of constricted breath, release, and the final rewards of the clear, cold fresh water to drink. This seemingly separable incident works, nonetheless, to identify Laura's allegiance with Pa's heroics rather than with Ma's fear.

When Laura crawls to get water for the feverish Mary, Laura becomes something of a heroine (in chapter fifteen on "fever'n'ague"), and Laura is definitely heroic when she pulls Mary and Carrie from the fire (chapter sixteen). The family's appreciation of black Dr. Tan qualifies the suggestions of racism in their attitudes toward Indians. In terms of a narrative curve, the fever chapter may represent a foreshadowing of the family's unsettling from that homestead. No matter how snug Pa makes the cabin, outside forces—fever, fire, Indians—still invade. When Pa goes to town (chapter seventeen), the vulnerability of the family is accentuated. No place can be the rock of their salvation; only the circle of their love can hold them safely. Laura's brave affection tells how much the family means to her, and the masterful pacing and detail of their waiting for Pa tell how a family can for a time seem to mean all.

In a story as substantial as Little House on the Prairie, it's surprising that the writer's skill and interest so rarely flag. The very consistency of interest and liveliness of detail, indeed, might seem almost to camouflage what must have been an often-dreary sameness of days, a sameness and a constriction of action not infrequently alluded to but never given much space in the whole narrative. Laura Ingalls Wilder manages to carve out such dramatic events and such varied tones of response that her turning kaleidoscope remains freshly colorful to the last. "Mr. Edwards Meets Santa Claus" (chapter nineteen), for example, captures a new sophistication of humor, particularly in the genteel conversation Mr. Edwards alleges he had with Santa. Stock emotions of the humble child's rich Christmas ("Think of having a whole penny for you very own") are in evidence, of course, but the narrator never over-spiritualizes the event and remains true instead to a child's happy blending of material gains, good food, and companionship in the time.

The final chapters, on the Indian gatherings and their eventual dispersal, are more connected than the rest of the narrative and provide a sense of an ending, of something large worked through. Just what attitudes toward the Indian predicament we are supposed to take away is difficult to judge. Plainly, the Ingalls family is glad the Indians are going, but the telling gives the Osage tribe great dignity and more than a hint of sad defeat. That Laura "irrationally" wants the little Indian baby for her own because "its eyes are so black" suggests a deep and mysterious affinity she has with the Indian spirit and way of life. All she can tell of this is her longing to "be bare naked in the wind and the sunshine, and riding one of those gay little ponies." Do the Indians take with them some essential spirit from the land? Was their presence and their threat a useful guarantor of familial closeness? A force for compacting mutuality in the Ingalls household?

Pa's sudden angry decision to leave just because of allegations that settlers inside Indian territory will be asked to move seems thin and hurried over. Particularly since the Indians have already left, the threat of eviction seems tenuous? For some readers, the very abruptness and ease of the family's packing and departure in just a few hours may evoke a sense of incomplete devotion to the land, an ethos of nomadism triumphant against agrarian rootedness. Again, Laura aligns her feelings to Pa's: she feels "all excited inside. You never know what will happen next, nor where you'll be tomorrow, when you are traveling in a covered wagon." Pa's song—"'And every time I thought of home, / I wished it wasn't me'"—gets at the pain of his ambivalence, perhaps. Where is home for Pa? Somewhere in his own childhood and a missed parental relation? Where is "home" to be for Laura? Will she grow up wishing it wasn't her task to leave her family? Leave Pa? Or will she work through that pain to a different love?

How does the story end? The Ingalls family camps "under the wide, starlit sky." Pa plays his fiddle and sings "the battle-cry of Freedom!" Laura responds enthusiastically, and Ma hushes him. Pa then shifts to a love song. This curve of action recapitulates much of the emotive drama in Laura's family dynamic:

Laura felt that she must shout, too. But softly Ma looked in through the round hole in the wagon-cover.

'Charles,' Ma said, 'Laura is wide awake. She can't go to sleep on such music as that.'

Pa didn't answer, but the voice of the fiddle changed. Softly and slurringly it began a long, swinging rhythm that seemed to rock Laura gently.

She felt her eyelids closing. She began to drift over endless waves of prairie grasses, and Pa's voice went with her, singing.

'Row away, row o'er the waters so blue,

Like a feather we sail in our gum tree canoe.

Row the boat lightly, love, over the sea;

Daily and nightly I'll wander with thee.'

The final song returns to possibly the deepest theme and most telling impact of the story: the wild and wrenching alliance between father and daughter, bonded beneath all conventional saying, and bonded, we know, forever.

In the strength of its writing, the color and variance of its lively incidents, and its deep, deep affection for the life of all being, Little House on the Prairie stands and will stand as writing for children that has few equals and no superiors. But, beyond its open and patent merits, beyond its clear assay of themes and devices common to great children's literature, the story delves with uncommon subtlety and range of feeling into the intricate dance that a father, mother, and daughter may wind themselves into. And, to all our appreciation, never quite unwind?


Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie. 1935, rpt. New York: Harper & Row, 1953.

――――――. On the Way Home: The Diary of a Trip from South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri, in 1894. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

Jan Susina (essay date December 1992)

SOURCE: Susina, Jan. "The Voices of the Prairie: The Use of Music in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie." Lion and the Unicorn 16, no. 2 (December 1992): 158-66.

[In the following essay, Susina reflects on how the usage of sound—as heard in the natural noises of the Ingalls' prairie environment—and music in Little House on the Prairie is used to highlight aspects of the plot.]

There is one thing that will always remain the same to remind people of little Laura's days on the prairie, and that is Pa's fiddle.

      —Laura Ingalls Wilder, Letter to Harper & Row, Publishers

The "Little House" series by Laura Ingalls Wilder has been widely praised as a richly detailed recreation of the settling of the American West. Much of the critical work on the eight-book series has dealt with the novels' historical authenticity and accuracy (Cooper, Segal), their autobiographical nature (Dykstra, Spaeth), the collaborative process with her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, which produced the series (Moore), and Wilder's literal and metaphorical use of space. Whether the "Little House" series is seen as a working out of Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis, or as part of the heroic, but inherently false, glorification of the settling of the West by white pioneers as argued in a recent controversial exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute, "The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820–1920" (Truettner), the "Little House" books have generally been analyzed as visual rather than auditory landscapes.

An overlooked, but important aspect of the series, is the metaphorical role that music plays in the novels. In examining the many uses of music in Little House on the Prairie (1935), the second book in the series, I hope to draw attention to the symbolic importance that Wilder places on music in her novels, and suggest some of the many ways she utilizes music to develop her themes. Critics such as Hamida Bosmajian, Dolores Rosenblum, and Virginia Wolf have explored how Wilder uses the intimate circles of civilization within the vast open space of the prairie to create a sense of security and a synthesis with nature; I describe how Wilder uses music to symbolically link the settlers with the landscape of the prairie and how—over and over again, like a constant refrain—she connects the music of pioneers with the other voices of the prairie.

The Ingalls, like many settlers of the 1860s and 1870s, initially view the prairie as an empty, uninhabited locale waiting to be cultivated. It is this very appearance of absence that makes the Kansas landscape so appealing to Pa, who at the beginning of the novel urges his family to leave Wisconsin, which is the setting of the first book in the series, Little House in the Big Woods (1932), where he feels crowded in by the sounds of the other settlers; he complains of "the ringing thud of an ax which was not Pa's ax, or the echo of a shot that did not come from his gun" (Wilder 1-2). The prairie becomes a blank canvas on which the family can make its mark. Or perhaps more appropriately, it is a clean piece of composition paper on which they can leave their notations.

Yet for all its apparent emptiness, the prairie is surprisingly deceptive and fertile with its own sources of music. Wilder describes the Kansas landscape in a typical early passage as, "That prairie looked as if no human eye had ever seen it before. Only the tall wild grass covered the endless empty land and a great empty sky arched over it" (Wilder 26). But as Laura's casual exploration of her new environment reveals, close to the place where the Ingalls have chosen to build the new house is "a queer little kind of tunnel in the grass" (Wilder 55), which the family quickly discovers is an Indian trail. The Ingalls, as well as the reader of the novel, are confronted not with a tabula rasa, but a richly populated landscape that is not quite so barren or as soundless as it might at first appear.

In a similar fashion, the aural landscape of The Little House on the Prairie initially appears silent and devoid of sound, except for the constant blowing of the wind. The reader might be tempted to consider the Kansas prairie to be a great empty chamber waiting to be filled by sounds of Pa's fiddle, or Laura and Mary's laughter; Wilder has too perceptive an ear for such a simplistic description. While Pa and his ubiquitous fiddle form one of the major voices of the prairie, it is certainly not the only one. Wilder is especially attentive to the songs emanating from the prairie itself, and she carefully plots her story around the music produced by the various parts of this landscape.

One of the chief sources of music is the flora and fauna. The Kansas prairie is frequently personified in the novel and is capable of producing a variety of sounds ranging from "the grasses [which] seemed to sing and whisper and laugh" (Wilder 112) to the melodies of the prairie meadowlarks. For the young Laura, it is these sounds that make the prairie such a comforting locale:

Laura was very happy. The wind sang a low, rustling song in the grass. Grasshoppers' rasping quivered up from all the immense prairie. A buzzing came faintly from all the trees in the creek bottoms. But all these sounds made a great, warm, happy silence. Laura had never seen a place she liked so much as this place.

                                  (Wilder 48-49)

It is into this melodious landscape that the Ingalls attempt to integrate. The family's primary source of music is Pa's fiddle. Louise Mowder has argued that the "Little House" books are part of the literary movement that characterizes women in the western landscape by their silence (15). Although Pa's fiddle has the tendency to dominate and at times drown out the female voices of the "Little House" books, I would not go so far as to suggest that it becomes an instrument of socialization or means of silencing Ma and the children. Quite the opposite is the case when Pa encourages Laura to join in the music-making and develop her own voice, while Ma warns, "it isn't good manners to sing at the table" (40).

The fiddle, which Pa had carefully packed between pillows on the wagon trip out west, represents his link with civilization and society as much as the dainty china figurine that Ma carefully unwraps and places on the mantel-shelf of the new cabin to remind herself that the family is "living like civilized folks again" (Wilder 129). Ma's china figurine is a powerful symbol of female domestication appropriately at the center of the hearth. Pa's fiddle is frequently played outside the house and its bright tunes both encourage and promote Laura's liveliness and independence.

For such a taciturn man as Pa, who tends to speak in cliches—"all's well that ends well" (Wilder 92), "Better be safe than sorry" (Wilder 153), and "There's no great loss without some small gain" (Wilder 320)—he is unusually eloquent once he puts his hand to the bow. Like a frontier version of Orpheus, no object, animate or inanimate, seems immune to his powers of music. The most dramatic example of his musical skills comes one night when he plays to the stars:

The large, bright stars hung down from the sky. Lower and lower they came, quivering with the music.

Laura gasped, and Ma came quickly. "What is it, Laura?" she asked, and Laura whispered, "The stars were singing."

                                (Wilder 50-51)

In this passage, Pa is capable of coaxing the stars into song, which ought to remind the reader that Little House on the Prairie is not an unvarnished pioneer account of the settling of the West, but a carefully constructed text full of literary allusions. Wilder referred to this mixture of fact and fancy in her "Book Fair Speech," in which she suggested "Every story in this novel, all the circumstances, each incident are true. All I have told is true, but it is not the whole truth" (220). Pa's ability to create the music of the spheres suggests how well the Ingalls have adapted into their new landscape. Pa and his surroundings are capable of singing the same tune.

This theme is made most graphic in the highly symbolic, but geographically inaccurate, scene in which Pa and the nightingale sing a duet together. This episode occurs shortly after Mr. Edwards, the self-proclaimed wildcat from Tennessee, departs from his first social visit with the Ingalls. A celebratory evening, full of song and dance, at his leave-taking Edwards announces, "Play, Ingalls…. Play me down the road!" (Wilder 68). After musically sending off his closest human neighbor to the tune of "Old Dan Tucker," Pa begins to serenade his nonhuman neighbors. Wilder establishes the atmosphere for this magical passage with one of her most lyrical descriptions of the landscape: "Only the wind rustled in the prairie grasses. The big, yellow moon was sailing high over head. The sky was so full of light that not one star twinkled in it, and all the prairie was a shadowy mellowness" (Wilder 69). Wilder's other-worldly description prepares the reader for the transition from the realm of reality to that of the mythic. If this were a fantasy or a fairy tale, the reader might expect the appearance of elves or fairies dancing in that moonlight. But something almost as astonishing occurs:

Then from the woods by the creek a nightingale began to sing.

Everything was silent, listening to the nightingale's song. The bird sang on and on. The cool wind moved over the prairie and the song was round and clear above the grasses' whispering. The sky was like a bowl of light overturned on the flat black earth.

                                    (Wilder 70)

The family is transfixed by the nightingale's beautiful song, which embodies the beauty and wonder of the prairie, the vast new landscape that engulfs the Ingalls. In the profound silence that follows the bird's song,

Pa lifted the fiddle to his shoulder and softly touched the bow to the strings. A few notes fell like clear drops of water into the stillness. A pause, and Pa began to play the nightingale's song. The nightingale answered him. The nightingale began to sing again. It was singing with Pa's fiddle.

When the strings were silent, the nightingale went on singing. When it paused, the fiddle called to it and it sang again. The bird and the fiddle were talking to each other in the cool night under the moon.

                                    (Wilder 70)

In this brilliant musical metaphor, Wilder unites the song of the pioneer with the music of the prairie landscape. It is a frontier version of Paradise where human and animal join together in harmony. It is such a profoundly moving passage that the reader may scarcely notice that it is geographically inaccurate and a physical impossibility. A quick examination in John Zimmerman and Sebastian Patti's A Guide to Bird Finding in Kansas and Western Missouri (1988) will confirm the absence of nightingales on the prairie. Is this simply an ornithological error on Wilder's part in a text which has been widely praised for its careful attention to detail; I think not. Wilder mentions nineteen different types of birds in the course of the novel, and this is the only appearance of a nightingale. The nightingale, which figures so prominently in English poetry for its musical skills—think only of John Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale"—is a bird limited to England and western Europe. The point of the passage is metaphorical, not literal. Using literary allusions, Wilder blends the song of Pa's fiddle and the nightingale's tune to create the powerful image of the pioneer living in perfect harmony with the environment.

But not all music presented in Little House on the Prairie is so harmonious. Besides the song of the nightingale, the prairie also contains the song of the wolves. On another moonlit night, a pack of wolves surrounds Ingalls' cabin and serenades the family with a far less pleasant tune, "Their howls shuddered through the house and filled the moonlight and quavered away across the vast silence of the prairie" (Wilder 98). It is immediately after a terrifying night of music that Pa and Laura together build the stout door that protects and separates the family from the dangers of the prairie.

Nor do all the other songs of the prairie originate from the animal inhabitants. Through music the other human inhabitants of the prairie make their presence known. It is instructive to see how Laura and her family respond to the different sounds produced by the cowboys and the Indians.

In the chapter, "Texas Longhorns," Pa once again plays his fiddle for Laura. Surrounded by the secure sounds of Pa's fiddle, Laura feels that, "Everything was so beautiful that Laura wanted it to stay so forever" (Wilder 162). But this music is interrupted by the strange sound of the cattle on their way to Fort Dodge. Listening intently, Laura can make out a sound that she compares to "almost a rumble and almost a song" (Wilder 163). She asks, "Is that singing, Pa?" only to have her father confirm that it is, "The cowboys are singing the cattle to sleep" (Wilder 163). Reassured that these are also songs of the prairie, Laura falls asleep dreaming of "cattle lying on the dark ground in the moonlight and of cowboys softly singing lullabies" (Wilder 163).

Pa returns too exhausted to play his fiddle after a demanding day's work with the cowboys keeping the cattle out of the ravines in exchange for a calf. Pa's moods can be accurately gauged by his willingness to make music. The four other instances when Pa refuses to make music are when he loses Jack, the dog, after fording the river (Wilder 27), when he is attacked by mosquitoes (184), when he feels that the girls' Christmas has been ruined prior to the appearance of Mr. Edwards (Wilder 242), and when he is too busy making bullets in preparation for the Indian attack (Wilder 288).

That night, Laura again hears the songs of the cowboys, but now having a better sense of the harsh work that accompanied such tunes, "Their songs were not like lullabies. They were high, lonely, wailing songs, almost like the howling of wolves" (Wilder 165). Although these songs now sound more animal than human, Laura is drawn to their primitive rhythm. She lies in bed captivated by these "lonely songs wandering in the night" (Wilder 165). In the young girl's imagination, they become a "crying for the moon," and their very sounds "made Laura's throat ache" (Wilder 166).

This musical call of the wild, found in both the songs of the wolves and the lullabies of the cowboys, suggests the raw power in the music of the prairie. A far more frightening sound for Laura occurs in the music of the Indians. Although the family cannot see the gathering of the tribes for the Jamboree, they can hear the sounds as the Indians debate whether to attack the settlers. For the young girl, this music sounds "something like a song, but not like any song that Laura had ever heard. It was a wild, fierce sound, but it didn't seem angry" (Wilder 265). For many nights, the fearful family listens to the constant beating of the drums, which is finally broken by the most frightening sound that Laura hears: the Indian war-cry (Wilder 292). Yet all this seemingly wild music which threatens to engulf the family ends peacefully when the Indians decide not to attack the settlers. Rather than fight, the Indians, under the direction of Soldat du Chene, choose to move further west.

This dramatic episode has been appropriately foreshadowed in "The Blue Juniata," which is the most fully cited song in the text. Ma sings the tune as Pa accompanies her on his fiddle in their attempt to calm the girls after the two Indians have appeared at the cabin during Pa's absence. When "Ma's voice and the fiddle's music softly died away" (Wilder 235-36), Laura asks what turns out to be the most troubling question of the novel: "Where did the voice of Alfarata go, Ma?" (Wilder 236). Ma explains that Alfarata, the Indian maiden of the song, went further west since, "That's what the Indians do" (Wilder 236). It is the fleeting voice of the Indian girl coupled with the disappearing dark eyes of the Indian Papoose that come to symbolize for Laura the transitory nature of the prairie and its inhabitants. Since the Juniata of the 1844 song refers to the river in Pennsylvania, the reader can assume that the Indians have already been forced to move further west. When Laura persists in asking her vexing questions—"Why do they do that, Ma?" (Wilder 235) and "Will the government make these Indians go west?" (Wilder 236)—the only answer Pa can provide is to softly play his fiddle.

But just as the Indians must make their journey further west, the Ingalls are eventually forced by the government to leave the prairie and go back east. Angered by the news that he will be forced to leave his Kansas homestead, Pa decides to leave before he is confronted by the soldiers. Saying farewell to the little house on the prairie, the family hitches its wagon and starts on the journey back to Wisconsin. But as they depart, they hear a mockingbird begin to sing. In a scene, perhaps more symbolic than realistic, Wilder has her parents comment on the bird's song: "'I never heard a mockingbird sing so early,' said Ma, and Pa answered, softly, 'He is telling us good-by'" (Wilder 326).

Little House on the Prairie is a novel saturated with music. During the course of the book, the family sings or plays fourteen songs that are quoted at length. The number of songs is typical of the amount of music found in the other seven volumes of the series. Generally, Wilder uses songs to emphasize or reinforce the action that is occurring in the narrative, much in the same way that an illustration highlights a particular scene. For instance, when Pa goes out hunting, Ma sings "By Lo, Baby Bunting" (Wilder 201), or just before Pa leaves for his four-day trip to Independence for supplies, he sings "Green Grows the Laurel" with the key line "So woeful, my love / At the parting with you" (Wilder 207). Eugenia Garson has noted, "Laura Ingalls Wilder's memories were filled with the songs of her girlhood, so it was natural that music should have played an important part in the 'Little House' books" (7). As a children's librarian, Garson received so many requests concerning the songs that appeared in the "Little House" books that she eventually compiled The Laura Ingalls Wilder Songbook (1968) which includes sixty-two of the songs and tunes mentioned in the series.

So it is fitting that after hearing the mockingbird's farewell, Pa celebrates the family's departure from their prairie home in a series of four songs—"Oh Susanna," "Dixie," "Rally Round the Flag," and "The Gum-tree Canoe"—that all ironically comment on the Ingalls's situation. "Oh Susanna," sometimes called "The California Immigrant," is a song of the West that recounts the failure of the settler to thrive in a new environment. "Dixie" is a song of the South that celebrates a false sense of permanence: "In Dixie land I'll take my stand, / And live and die in Dixie!" (Wilder 334). "Rally Round the Flag" is a patriotic tune of the Civil War from the North that praises the government and its soldiers, which only moments before Pa has scorned for expelling the family from their new home. These three songs all point to geographic directions that are no longer open to the family. The novel ends with Pa singing the bitter-sweet "The Gum-tree Canoe" as the family makes their way back to the east. Despite Pa's initial belief that the fertile landscape of the prairie will allow the family to "live like kings!" (Wilder 50), the Ingalls have come to resemble the kings of Laura's favorite song "I Am A Gypsy King" (66). Pa sings of the family's lack of fixed home as they head back east:

     Row a way, row o'er the water so blue,
     Like a feather we sail in our gum-tree canoe.
     Row the boat lightly, love, over the sea;
     Daily and nightly I'll wander with thee.
                                          (Wilder 335)

In an account entitled "Grandpa's Fiddle" that has only recently been published in A Little House Sampler (1988), Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter who encouraged and helped structure her mother's recollections into what was to become the "Little House" series, writes of Laura and Almanzo Wilder's final meeting with her grandmother and grandfather in De Smet, South Dakota, as they departed for what would be their final house in Mansfield, Missouri. Pa plays his fiddle for the last time for the family. He promises Laura the fiddle, which can still be seen at the Wilder's home in Mansfield. Rose Wilder Lane records a conversation she recalls hearing as a young girl, or carefully creates the following conversation which emphasizes the importance of Pa's fiddle and music in general to Laura and the structure of the "Little House" books:

"To think, Manly, he gave me the fiddle," Mama said. "It's the first thing I remember, Pa's playing us to sleep when we were little in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. And by the campfires through the awful mud, across Kansas and Missouri, all the way down to Indian Territory and back, and all the way out here, across the whole of Minnesota and beyond the Big Sioux river clear to Silver Lake. He played the fiddle by the campfire at night. We never could—I see it now, though I didn't then—we never could have gotten through it all without Pa's fiddle."

                                        (Lane 68)

Whether this is an accurate account from the childhood of the young Rose Wilder Lane, or an insightful bit of evaluation by the successful journalist and novelist who edited her mother's prose into the series, I can imagine no fitter tribute, nor a more accurate evaluation of the importance of the literal and symbolic place of music in The Little House on the Prairie.

Works Cited

Bosmajian, Hamida. "Vastness and Contraction of Space in Little House on the Prairie." Children's Literature 11 (1983): 49-63.

Cooper, Bernice. "The Authenticity of the Historical Background of the Little House Books." Elementary English 40 (1963): 696-702.

Dykstra, Ralph Richard. "The Autobiographical Aspects of Laura Ingalls Wilder's 'Little House' Books." Diss. State University of New York at Buffalo, 1980.

Garson, Eugenia. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Songbook. New York: Harper, 1968.

Lane, Rose Wilder, "Grandpa's Fiddle I." A Little House Sampler. 1988. Ed. William T. Anderson. New York: Harper, 1989. 59-75.

Moore, Rosa Ann. "Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane: The Chemistry of Collaboration." Children's Literature in Education 11 (1980): 101-8.

――――――. "The Little House Books: Rose-Colored Classics." Children's Literature 7 (1978): 7-16.

Mowder, Louise, "Domestication of Desire: Gender, Language, and Landscape in the Little House Books." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 17 (1992): 15-19.

Rosenblum, Dolores. "'Intimate Immensity': Mystic Space in the Works of Laura Ingalls Wilder." Where the West Begins. Ed. Arthur R. Huseboe and William Geyer. Sioux Falls, SD: Center for Western Studies Press, 1978. 72-79.

Segal, Elizabeth. "Laura Ingalls Wilder's America: An Unflinching Assessment." Children's Literature in Education 8 (1977): 63-70.

Spaeth, Janet L. "Over the Horizon of the Years: Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House Books." Diss. University of North Dakota, 1982.

Truettner, William, ed. The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820–1920. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. "Laura's Book Fair Speech." A Little House Sampler. 1988. Ed. William T. Anderson. New York: Harper, 1989. 215-24.

――――――. Letter to Harper & Row, Publishers. Laura Ingalls Wilder Papers. Laura Ingalls Wilder-Rose Wilder Lane Museum, Mansfield, MO.

――――――. Little House on the Prairie. 1935. New York: Harper, 1971.

Wolf, Virginia. "Plenary Paper: The Magic Circle of Laura Ingalls Wilder." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 9 (1984–85): 168-70.

Zimmerman, John L. and Sebastian T. Patti. A Guide to Bird Finding in Kansas and Western Missouri. Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 1988.

Susan Naramore Maher (essay date December 1994)

SOURCE: Maher, Susan Naramore. "Laura Ingalls Wilder and Caddie Woodlawn: Daughters of a Border Space." Lion and the Unicorn 18, no. 2 (December 1994): 130-42.

[In the following essay, Maher contrasts Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie with the similarly themed Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, suggesting that both works represented a new vision of gender roles in children's literature.]

Recent scholarship on women's writing has increasingly explored the metaphor of the border. Explaining the ambivalent power of border crossings, Diane Freedman in An Alchemy of Genres writes, "Borders can join and separate…. Borders suggest limitations, that which is prohibited and forbidden and in a constant state of transition…. It can be risky to try to migrate across a border, whether aesthetic or geographic" (47). Crossing a border both threatens and liberates, silences and opens one up to new expression. In the world of children's literature, growing up itself proves a crossing of borders. Young protagonists negotiating the increasing complexities of life face uncertain thresholds—entries to possible damnation, illumination, or both. Add to this inevi-table maturation a move, a displacement, from the known to the unknown; then, children, while gaining through parents the traditions of other places, must still respond to the imperatives of new ground. Amid the uncertainties of growing up and resettlement, "a garbling of messages, the push and shove of conflicting influences" (West 253), American childhoods are shaped.

The American West, in particular, has provided children's writers a wealth of border crossings. Its vast reaches are, in Peggy Pascoe's words, "a cultural crossroads" (46), a space defined by ever-shifting borders. The diversity of the lands and the people is only part of the fascination engendered in this literature. Since the early years of this century, children's writers, re-envisioning the West, have focused particularly on the lives of settlers' children. Resettlement, as historian Elliott West has persuasively argued, blurred many boundaries. "To say the least," West comments:

social controls were imperfectly enforced, and girls and boys grew up close to the West's famous vices and its sizable population of rakehells and shady characters. Theirs was no protected, choreographed upbringing…. In a dynamic and unsettled America, the child's role was shifting and imprecise.


Gender roles themselves underwent considerable revision. Settlers' daughters enjoyed the outdoors, contributed to men's work, felt themselves part of a national experiment. These daughters of "first wave women" (Fairbanks 160) questioned their mothers' practices and often identified strongly with the male members of their circles—fathers, brothers, and uncles (West 257).

Importantly, many frontier-born and -bred women—followed by their daughters—became writers for both the adult and juvenile markets. Their narratives helped define the settlement experience for an American audience eager to mythologize the Anglo-European migration to the plains states and beyond. Among the most influential of these children's writers are Laura Ingalls Wilder, creator of the autobiographical Little House series, and Carol Ryrie Brink, whose Wisconsin and Idaho tales also reclaim family history. Published amid the disruption of the Great Depression, their fictionalized memoirs—literary border crossings themselves—re-create an earlier period in which children came to grips with conflict and confusion. Countering the simplified popular West, so powerfully articulated in pulp Westerns, boys' magazines, and Hollywood productions, Wilder's and Brink's narratives explore the complexities inherent in any border crossing.1

Little House on the Prairie and Caddie Woodlawn, both published in 1935 and subsequently honored by the Newbery Award committee, share a common narrative: they present heroines trying to negotiate public and private spheres, to redefine gender lines, and to come to terms with the liberating spaces around them. Kathryn Adam claims the "rhythm of the Little House books carries Laura back and forth between town and prairie, civilization and wilderness, 'stay' and 'go,' in a sense she is the living embodiment of the central tension in her parents' marriage" (104). Brink's novel, too, shares this struggle. In attempting to modify the givens of mother-defined femininity, Laura and Caddie frustrate the domestic sphere "reconstructed" by their mothers (Rosenblum 74; Adam 99). These prairie-nurtured girls find their fathers (and, in Caddie's case, brothers) encouraging their attempts to open up the cultural borders that restrict them. Pa Ingalls fosters Laura's explorations—both spatial and intellectual—and Mr. Woodlawn permits Caddie to romp freely with her brothers, instructs her in repairing timepieces, and sanctions her visits to the Indian camp. The fathers, consciously breaking with eastern society, become their daughters' mentors, guiding the girls' transformation as daughters of the land. The mothers, conveyors of eastern manners and fashions, of domestic protocol, modify, even hinder, the girls' attachment to the native soil. Though neither novel dismisses "womanly achievements," each presents traditional domestic work as "limiting" (Adam 101). Finally, the girls' contacts with Native Americans further their maturation, for the differences glimpsed provide both Laura and Caddie insightful views into the confines of their own acculturation. The girls push their limits, and, in the give-and-take of growing up, learn to combine the lessons of their fathers and their mothers. Thus crossing geographical, cultural, and racial borders helps shape Laura's and Caddie's evolution and make the girls into something more than "westernized domestics" (Kolodny 240). They both stand for an attempted synthesis, a paradoxically uneasy yet releasing bridging of their mothers' continuous domesticity and their fathers' westering instincts.

At the opening of Little House on the Prairie, a novel that loosely and imaginatively chronicles the Ingalls' first attempt westward,2 Pa declaims the West's beauty: "In the West the land was level, and there were no trees. The grass grew thick and high. There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no settlers. Only Indians lived there" (2). Space, at first, daunts Laura. Departing from Pepin, Wisconsin, the family's wagon lurching upon an icy lake, she watches the town diminish: "All around the wagon," we are told, "there was nothing but empty and silent space. Laura didn't like it" (7). The journey introduces Laura to other enveloping dangers: ice break-ups, violent storms, swelling rivers. In the context of such events, "the rippling grass and the enormous sky" (13) defining the Kansas prairie hardly comforts the young child. Yet westering itself subtly transforms Laura's connection to the sky's circle, the land's enormity, the deceiving monotony of both. The final dangerous crossing into Indian territory proves incisive in Laura's evolution. She clearly understands what death here could mean: "The river would have rolled them over and over and carried them away and drowned them, and nobody would ever have known what became of them" (24). Jack, the watchdog, disappears down the river, which prompts Pa to say, "And what we'll all do in a wild country without a good watchdog I don't know" (27). Upon the high prairie, Laura gazes around and perceives blankness: "No road, not even the faintest trace of wheels or of a rider passing…. That prairie looked as if no human eye had ever seen it before. Only the tall wild grass covered the endless empty land and a great empty sky arched over it" (26). Border crossing has left Laura disconnected and withdrawn.

Except, of course, family provides protective continuity, and Jack returns. Strengthened by reintegration, Laura embraces her first "Prairie Day" (Chap. 4) and seizes the chance to see the detail masked by "the whole enormous prairie" (40).3 Meadowlarks, dickcissels, rabbits, prairie chickens by the thousands, and gophers emerge from the grasses. Delighted by the prairie's fecundity, Laura connects quickly, joyously, deeply to the land:

Laura was very happy. The wind sang a low, rustling song in the grass. Grasshoppers' rasping quivered up from all the immense prairie. But all these sounds made a great, warm, happy silence. Laura had never seen a place she liked so much as this place.


The prairie, like Pa, is musical. And Pa, too, responds to the Kansas plains rapturously. Returning from the hunt, he recalls the fifty deer and uncountable "'antelope, squirrels, rabbits, birds of all kinds…. I tell you Caroline,'" he declares, "'there's everything we want here. We can live like kings!'" (49-50).

As the Ingalls settle into their wilderness home, Laura coarsens up. Ma, linked to the snug home, the china shepherdess, the straw-tick beds, and nine-patch quilting—to the walls and borders of civility—attempts to rein Laura in, to "domesticate desires," as Laura Mowder puts it (15). But the prairie's call definitively shapes Laura (as it will in subsequent volumes), and, as she browns and leaves the home—her sister Mary's preferred domain—for "the fierce light and the sun and the wind" (Wilder 151), Laura's cultural allegiances blur. In a significant tense moment, between Ma and Laura, Ma contends Laura yells like an Indian and looks like an Indian. Remembering the papoose her Pa had promised she would see in the West, Laura asks, "When are we going to see a papoose?" Ma, dismayed by Laura's fascination with the prairie's wildness, tells her, "Put on your sunbonnet, now, and forget such nonsense" (123). Sunbonnets, however, provide only tunnel vision; they restrict one's vision like a horse's blinders (Spaeth 44). Though Laura obeys her mother's wish, her heart remains resistant: "She put her sunbonnet on when Ma told her to, but she did not forget the papoose" (123). In Louise Mowder's suggestive imagery of merging, "the project of domestication is always in danger because, as Laura enters the wilderness, the wilderness enters her" (17). But such doubleness is necessary in remote country. Arguably, Laura's ability to blend visions enables her to face the challenges of settlement life in subsequent volumes of Wilder's family epic.4

When we first encounter Caddie Woodlawn she is equally "transgressive" (Mowder 15). If Ma and Mary are Laura's foils, then Mrs. Woodlawn, sister Clara, friend Katie Hyman, and Cousin Annabelle are Caddie's; they are the weavers of what Ann Romines calls "the home plot," narratives of "domestic ritual" (4) Caddie resists.5 If "for Mrs. Woodlawn, the real beauty and meaning of life centered in the churches, the bookshops, the lecture rooms of Boston" (Brink 19), then the real beauty and meaning of life for young Caddie is "this enchanting place of adventure, of lake and river, prairie and forest" (20). Like her father, Caddie "was entirely happy on the outskirts of civilization" (20). Thanks to Mr. Woodlawn, Caddie need not bother herself with becoming "a young lady" (17). To strengthen his daughter's health, he once begged his wife:

"to let Caddie run wild with the boys. Don't keep her in the house learning to be a lady. I would rather see her learn to plow than make samplers, if she can get her health by doing so. I believe it is worth trying. Bring the other girls up as you like, but let me have Caddie."


Like Laura, then, Caddie is identified with her father. Mary and Ma Ingalls sew blocks of nine-patch quilt; Laura mixes mud chinking for her father (Wilder 114). Harriet Woodlawn and her other daughters make samplers and dip candles; Caddie "run[s] wild with the boys" (Brink 15). Indeed, Brink's novel opens up with this statement:

In 1864 Caddie Woodlawn was eleven, and as wild a little tomboy as ever ran the woods of western Wisconsin. She was the despair of her mother and of her elder sister, Clara. But her father watched her with a little shine of pride in his eyes, and her brothers accepted her as one of themselves without a question.


Caddie, opposed to domesticity, is an "adventurer." With her brothers, she strips nude and crosses the Menomonie River, a geographical boundary between the white settlers and Indian John's encampment—a border crossing that signifies all the deeper crossings in Caddie's life. It is the outdoors Caddie prefers, whether she is hunting with Uncle Edmund; gathering wild grapes, berries, and nuts with Tom and Warren; or plowing fields. Unlike Katie Hyman, "a quiet little girl, who didn't ride horseback and was afraid of boys and cows" (60), or Cousin Annabelle, "reared as a lady … nicely finished" (179), Caddie is happiest when water laps against her skin, when wind blows through her red hair, the hair that identifies her with the Woodlawns. The "dark-haired side of the family"—Mother's side—expresses "all the safe and tidy virtues" (3). Brink's critique of various female types in Caddie Woodlawn privileges the tomboy—the hybrid girl—as the appropriate mother of the West.

Even when indoors, Caddie's adventuring spirit follows her. At school she "battles" Obediah Jones and shadows her brother Tom who pummels the other Jones boy. Caddie fiercely defends herself from these "[g]reat, hulking boys" (63). When a skating accident forced her to remain inside for weeks, Caddie wanders restlessly and is unwilling to help Mrs. Woodlawn and Clara sew carpet rags. Instead, her father teaches her "the clock business," how to fine tool "all of the fascinating wheels and gimcracks" (79). Late in the novel, with the arrival of Cousin Annabelle, a domestic goddess, a "delicate apparition" in "tiny buttoned shoes … tiny hat … velvet streamers floating out behind," whose "little round-topped trunks and boxes" (224) overwhelm the river steamer, Caddie once and for all attempts to exorcise housebound ladyhood. Annabelle's barnyard vision of savagery—riding horseback, milking cows, salting sheep, somersaulting in haymows—allows Caddie to prove ladies incapable of surviving on a farm, let alone in a wilderness. Caddie's "tricks," however, prompt a final, climactic struggle with her mother. Having endured a bruising riding lesson and a flock of over-eager sheep who devour all eighty-eight, fashion-setting jet buttons from her frock, Annabelle collapses in tears when a "squishy" egg runs down her back after a tumble in the haymow. Mrs. Woodlawn, whip in hand, reprimands Caddie as "a hoyden," no proper lady: "No punishment that I can invent would be sufficient for her" (240). Caddie's "tricks" have neither defeated the lady nor liberated the tomboy from domesticity. Instead, Caddie must brood in her room and contemplate

that hateful thing which Mother was always talking about—a lady. A lady with fine airs and mincing walk who was afraid to go out into the sun without a hat or a sunshade! A lady, who made samplers and wore stays and was falsely polite no matter how she felt!


In that they both strain away from their mothers, Laura's and Caddie's cultural border crossings are particularly painful. The girls' contacts with Native Americans make them even more transgressive in their mothers' eyes. Though the Kansas prairie seems blank, without sign of other humans, in its swells and hollows hides the elusive papoose Laura eagerly seeks. "Mercy on us!" Ma counters. "Whatever makes you want to see Indians?" (46). Janet Spaeth argues, "To Ma, the Indians are a physical representation of the very nature of the prairie: she does not know the limits of either…. The Indians are in control of the same surroundings in which she must act with cautious reserve" (39).6 Pa, however, is more trusting and respectful of the people he, ironically, displaces. Pa takes Laura and Mary to an abandoned Indian camp (the counterpart of their own transient prairie camp) and deciphers for them the tracks, marks, and other vestiges of camp life. Pa frequently meets Indians in the creek bottoms. When Soldat du Chene, a great Osage warrior, appears at the homestead, "Pa squatted down by the Indian, and they sat there, friendly but not saying a word" (228). Laura tries to reconcile her parents' differing opinions. At times, she reacts like her mother, for the Indians can be as frightening as the howling wolves that one night circle their log home. The first native visitors, "tall, thin, fierce-looking men" (134), their "faces … bold and fierce and terrible" (139), stand naked and wild in Ma's home; reeking of skunk, they silently eat cornbread. Laura, motionless and choked with terror, faces their otherness and feels no connection. In autumn, two "dirty and scowling and mean" Indians enter, stealing Pa's furs and tobacco, and Ma's cornbread (233). Yet, that very night, Pa sings about "the Indian maid / Bright Alfarata," a popular lyric that romanticizes a maiden and her "bold … warrior good" (235). In an unconscious, empathetic moment, Laura says, "please tell me where the voice of Alfarata went" (236). Told it went west, Laura asks, "Why do [Indians] go west?" (236). If the government makes Indians go west, won't the Indians in the creek bottoms react in anger? Her complex, uncomfortable questions probe both her parents' views; her parents, in turn, silence her.

Because Pa has built their homestead next to an active Indian trail, Laura's meetings with the nomadic Indians become more frequent. At a jamboree, Indian voices, reminiscent of the wolves' howls, rise from the creek to interrupt the Ingalls' days. Their presence unsettles Jack, worries Ma, and frightens Mary. It is Laura who attempts to interpret the strange, choppy song, "to hear it more clearly" (265). Laura, though not unnerved, "feel[s] funny…. It made [her] heart beat fast" (265-66). The wild "fierce yells of jubilation" grip her, thrill her, as much as they menace her. Mounting tensions between settlers and the prairie natives prompt a war council and days of war cries. The prairie itself, Indian country, no longer harbors freedom and joy: "It didn't feel safe. It seemed to be hiding something" (288). Crossing borders leaves one vulnerable. Just as the river threatened to drown and the wolves to devour, now Laura's beloved prairie threatens to erase.

Finally, the Indians leave for their winter grounds. Though their war cries have pierced the cold nights, they will not fight. Laura looks upon du Chene's "proud, still face … the eyes … [gazing] steadily far away to the west" (305). Hundreds of warriors, women, and children follow him. The children ride bareback on their ponies: "All their skin was out in the fresh air and the sunshine. Their straight black hair blew in the wind and their black eyes sparkled with joy" (307). Laura, appreciating their freedom, desires "to be bare naked in the wind and the sunshine, and riding one of those gay little ponies" (307). The colorful procession provides Laura with her greatest joy in the novel. At last, she sees a papoose, and her eyes locked "deep down into the blackness of that little baby's eyes" (308). Unable to articulate her longing—to capture what Dolores Rosenblum calls the "inner immensity … of freedom and innocence" (78)—she can only explain falteringly to her astonished mother, "Oh, I want it! I want it!… Its eyes are so black" (309). For a brief border crossing, Laura penetrates the Indians' otherness; her ambiguous "it" ("I want it") reaches out to the entire "long line of Indians slowly [pulling] itself over the western edge of the world" (311).

Caddie has closer dealings with Indians and so, when restrained to her room after shattering Annabelle's ladylike facade, Caddie plans to run away to Indian John's camp. Brink establishes her heroine's special relationship to John in the opening chapter. Birch smoke and hot pitch fill the camp's air, "perfume to [Caddie], as sweet as the perfume of the clover fields" (6). Despite "massacree stories" (3), Caddie, her brothers, and their father discount the circuit rider's rumors and his distrust of seemingly friendly Indians. Caddie herself once shared her mother's horror of "those frightful savages" (7). Three years earlier, "a big Indian had seized her and held her up in the air…. She had been so frightened that she had not cried out, but hung there, wriggling in the Indian's firm grasp, and gazing desperately about the store for help" (7). Now, breaking her mother's law, Caddie joins her brothers in visiting the perfumed Indian camp, a possible home away from home, at least in Caddie's rebellious imagination.

But the word "massacree" inflames a panicked terror, "the fear [spreading] like a disease, nourished on rumors and racial hatred" (119). Because the community distrustfully eyes the peaceful Indians, because the most fearful argue "[let's] wipe them out" (125), Caddie's allegiance to Indian John's camp is suspect. When the settlers congregate for safety at the Woodlawn's homestead, Caddie confusedly adjusts to the crisis. Ordered to play, she "[lets] out an Indian war whoop that [sets] the whole farm in an uproar" (120). Silenced by the adults, she quietly judges their faithlessness: "The Indians had not yet come to kill. Why should they come at all? Indian John had never been anything but a friend" (124). Overhearing some murderous white settlers, she steals away to warn her Indian friends; she crosses the river and thus violates the community's racial borders. But these transgressive moments allow Caddie, like Laura, to intuit connections between the divided communities, to see savagery and civility overlap sides. In the moonless winter night, the Indian camp appears

twinkling like a bright star. It was something warm and friendly in a world of darkness and sleet and sudden, icy branches. From the bright star of the Indian fire, Caddie's mind leaped forward to the bright warmth of home.


As a result of her rescue mission, Indian John, departing for safer territory, leaves his scalp belt and his lean, wolfish dog with Caddie. Intimidated by his presence, Mrs. Woodlawn and her helper, Mrs. Conroy, stand "nearly frightened out of their wits" (146). They have not adjusted to the demands of the West's cultural crossroads. Caddie, in contrast, preserves both scalp belt—a record of John's father's heroic exploits—and dog, signifying her assimilation of the wild, her bending to this newly settled terrain. Though her mother dismisses Caddie's "way with savages" (148), the reader applauds the young girl's protection of John's history, her appreciation of what resides outside the boundaries of Dunnville, Wisconsin. Indeed, Caddie's ability to see beyond the borders enables her to spend an entire silver dollar from Uncle Edmund on the half-breed Hankinson boys. Rounding up the boys maternally, Caddie ushers them into the Dunnville store to buy them candy, tops, combs, and handkerchiefs. Explaining her generosity later to Tom, Caddie touches upon the moral cost of Dunnville's racial lines, between which fall the innocent half-breed children: "I wanted to drive that awful lonesome look out of their eyes, and it did, Tom. It did!" (164).

Embracing the cultural and physical challenges embodied in settlement life, Brink celebrates Caddie's—her grandmother's—separation from the family's English and Bostonian roots. The author's final words bespeak the joys of border crossings, for the novel chronicles one significant crossroad after another. Caddie's experience with racial hatred strengthens her growing sense of justice. Her father's assurance that being female "takes nerve and courage and patience," that "woman's work is something fine and noble to grow up to" (244) comforts Caddie and frees her to accept her role as a woman. No longer "afraid of growing up … Caddie was ready to go and meet it" (246). John's return from "the strange, far wilderness" touches Caddie with "the beauty and mystery of far-off places" (272). Additionally, friendship with John cements Caddie's relationship to the land. Participating in the family's decision to remain at the frontier's edge brings home to Caddie her appreciation of the unfinished narrative of the American West. Brink concludes on an epic note. Recalling the year's events, Caddie looks back upon all the borders crossed: "How far I've come! I'm the same girl and yet not the same…. Folks keep growing from one person into another all their lives, and life is just a lot of everyday adventures" (275). A glorious setting sun turns Caddie's face golden. Her back to the east, Caddie gazes westward. Yet she will pull west with her the best of women's traditions. At the threshold of young adulthood, she stands as an emblem of synthesis. She will never be "a lady": she will become "a woman with a wise and understanding heart, healthy in body and honest in mind" (244). Thus the tomboy achieves near-mythic stature. No prairie madonna, she will carry in her eighty-five years both the westering spirit and the honor of home, westward to Idaho and the Pacific Ocean ("Author's Note" viii).

The fictional lives of Laura Ingalls and Caddie Woodlawn express the complexities of childhoods spent in the ebb and flow of American settlements. As settlers' children, Laura and Caddie must adjust to unhewn culture, to the isolation and rawness homesteading at first engenders. Borders separate. Thus their fathers' mentoring proves essential. Yet the unsettled evolves into the settled; this makes their mothers' teaching equally valued. Borders join. Virginia L. Wolf's comments on the paradoxical nature of the Little House books are also relevant to Brink's novel: "Internalized, Pa's need for freedom from constraint and Ma's for freedom from insecurity become Laura's for freedom of choice" (292). As arbiters of a new culture, both Laura and Caddie internalize tensions, oppositions, and—from this fertile, antithetical mix—they cross personal borders into a redefined female space. Thus the contemporaneous Little House on the Prairie and Caddie Woodlawn belong to the "resisting female writers" Melody Graulich defines as quintessentially Western and American. Wilder and Brink, in refusing to dilute the contradictory richness of America's cultural crossroads,

challenge and revise the dichotomized sex roles and the values associated with them…. [They aspire] to escape and rebellion, to nonconformity and adventure … [to] respond to the West's limitlessness, but … also [to] acknowledge and seek to understand the real restrictions in women's lives, to redefine the ways in which we understand such concepts as "individualism" and "freedom."



1. Carol Fairbanks notes that "in the last quarter of the nineteenth century when prairie women began to publish their own stories about the frontier, they wanted to undermine or, at a minimum, modify the public's image of the lives of women on the frontier" (25). Wilder and Brink are certainly part of this female prairie tradition.

2. "Laura was still too little to remember," biographer Donald Zochert writes: "She was only a year and a half old" (25). Wilder altered other bits of chronology as well. The prairie homestead was not forty miles from Independence, Kansas, as Wilder states in her novel. The actual homestead, Zochert states, was in Rutland Township, Montgomery County, Kansas. It was here that baby Carrie was born, thirteen miles from Independence, on August 3, 1870.

3. Wilder's fiction parallels that of many prairie writers. Fairbanks describes an almost archetypal process many women experienced before embracing the land: "The prairie at first felt like a limitless vastness, but gradually became familiar, friendly, and even intimate" (33).

4. My conclusions that border crossings reinforce and strengthen Laura differ considerably from Mowder's, who argues Laura's desires must be tamed, fettered, colonized by an "indoctrination of a girl-child into the ways of womanhood" (17). Laura's "masculine barbarity," Mowder suggests, awaits "the strong, firm hand of the Mother to transform it into a domestic paradise" (18). I would argue that the prairie itself allows a new generation of womanhood to flower, one never fully defined by an autocratic Mother. Ma herself does not always match her china shepherdess. In Little House on the Prairie, Ma crosses a flooding creek, helps lift logs onto the home's frame, works to stamp out a prairie fire, endures days without Pa, and prepares to fight the amassing Indians. She is as capable of firing a gun as Pa. There is that which is "masculine" in her, for she has already been shaped by the Wisconsin wilderness. As a "first wave" settler, she prepared her daughters for independence and self-definition. Historian Paula Petrick's comments on Montana frontier life are relevant to Wilder's experience: "To look for liberation is to look to the second generation of the frontier" (96). Neither Laura Ingalls Wilder nor her sisters, Carrie Ingalls Swanzey and Grace Ingalls Dow, grew up as dependent, self-effacing women.

5. Romines examines five American writers—Stowe, Orne Jewett, Wilkins Freeman, Cather, and Welty—in light of "the home plot":

a woman who is committed to domestic ritual is participating in an enterprise connected with the continuity of a common culture and the triumph of human values over natural process. A housekeeper, whether Circe or Aunt Roxy Toothacres, beats back chaos every day with her broom. Doing so, she is victor and victim—for in beating back nature, she is also subduing an aspect of herself.


Not all female writers accept "domestic ritual"; Cather, as Romine argues, often resisted the home plot. Wilder and Brink entwine "home plots" into their novels, but with ambivalence. Their heroines must eventually learn domestic ritual—humorously, Caddie's brothers join her in learning to sew—but the girls attempt to maintain their ties to the natural world around them.

6. Fairbanks's chapter "White Women and Indians" analyzes various motifs relating to settlers' contacts with native peoples. Little House on the Prairie echoes earlier settlement literature that expresses women's fear and hatred of Indians. Fairbanks writes, "These examples show that women novelists were well aware that many women carried with them, as they traveled west, vivid images of threats and harassment by Indians. After settling into their new homes, they continued to hear rumors and, in some cases, went through the ordeal of conflicts with Indians" (143).

Works Cited

Adam, Kathryn. "Laura, Ma, Mary, Carrie and Grace: Western Women as Portrayed by Laura Ingalls Wilder." The Woman's West. Ed. Susan Armitage and Elizabeth Jamesson. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1987. 95-110.

Brink, Carol. Ryrie. Caddie Woodlawn. Illus. Trina Schart Hyman. New York: Macmillan, 1990.

Fairbanks, Carol. Prairie Women: Images in American and Canadian Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.

Freedman, Diane P. An Alchemy of Genres: Cross-Genre Writing by American Feminist Poet-Critics. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1992.

Graulich, Melody. "'O Beautiful for Spacious Guys': An Essay on the 'Legitimate Inclinations of the Sexes.'" The Frontier Experience and the American Dream: Essays on American Literature. Ed. David Mogen, et al. College Station: Texas A & M P, 1989.

Kolodny, Annette. The Land before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontier, 1630–1860. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984.

Mowder, Louise. "Domestication of Desire: Gender, Language, and Landscape in the Little House Books." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 17.1 (Spring 1992): 15-19.

Pascoe, Peggy. "Western Women at the Cultural Crossroads." Trails: Toward a New Western History. Ed. Patricia Nelson Limerick, et al. Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 1991. 49-58.

Petrick, Paula. No Step Backward: Women and Family on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier, Helena, Montana, 1865–1900. Helena: Montana Historical Society, 1987.

Romines, Ann. The Home Plot: Women, Writing and Domestic Ritual. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992.

Rosenblum, Dolores. "Intimate Immensity: Mythic Space in the Work of Laura Ingalls Wilder." Where the West Begins: Essays on Middle Border and Siouxland Writings. Sioux Falls: Augustana College Center for Western Studies, 1987. 72-79.

Spaeth, Janet. Laura Ingalls Wilder. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

West, Elliott. Growing up with the Country: Childhood on the Far Western Frontier. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1989.

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie. Illus. Garth Williams. New York: Harper Collins, 1971.

Wolf, Virginia L. "Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House Books: A Personal Story." Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature. Vol. 1. Ed. Perry Nodelman. West Lafayette: Children's Literature Association, 1985. 291-300.

Zochert, Donald. Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1976.

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Heldrich, Philip. "'Going to Indian Territory': Attitudes toward Native Americans in Little House on the Prairie." Great Plains Quarterly 20, no. 2 (spring 2000): 99-109.

Argues that Little House on the Prairie contains a complex assessment of racial attitudes towards Native Americans.

Kaye, Frances W. "Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve: Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Kansas Indians." Great Plains Quarterly 20, no. 2 (spring 2000): 123-40.

Maintains that Wilder's Little House on the Prairie presents an ugly portrait of indigenous Americans as well as ignoring their poor treatment in the frontier era.

Romines, Ann. "'Indians in the House': A Narrative of Acculturation." In Constructing the Little House: Gender, Culture, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, pp. 55-94. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Detailed critical examination of Little House on the Prairie.

Segel, Elizabeth. "Laura Ingalls Wilder's America: An Unflinching Assessment." Children's Literature in Education 8, no. 2 (summer 1977): 63-70.

Analysis of Wilder's legacy in documenting America's frontier era in Little House on the Prairie.

Wolf, Virginia L. Little House on the Prairie. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1996, 287 p.

Book-length critical reading of Little House on the Prairie.

Additional coverage of Wilder's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 26; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 2; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 111, 137; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 22, 256; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 2005; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5; Something about the Author, Vols. 15, 29, 100; Twayne's United States Authors; Twentieth-Century Western Writers, Ed. 2; Writers for Children; and Writers for Young Adults.