The power of Laura Ingalls Wilder


I’m getting to do one thing I always dreamed of doing as a father – I am reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder book series to my son.  We are on “Little House on the Prairie,” the second book of the series, and every time I re-read it as an adult I am ever more taken by her story.   If I were asked which historical figure I’d like to meet and sit down and talk with, she’d be my first choice (Sophie Scholl would be the second).

When we read the chapter on Christmas my son was shocked that she and Mary were thrilled to each get a candy cane, a little heart shaped cake, a tin cup and a penny for Christmas.   As the Indian Jamboree took place with war cries as the tribes considered killing all the white people that settled on the land (including Laura and her family), my son was riveted – and asking questions.

That adds something that makes the experience even more enjoyable – his questions give me a chance to teach him more about history and life values.   What’s a stockade?  Who are the Osage?  Why are the starting a new fire close to the house when they’re being threatened by a big fire coming at them?

A pioneer family, part of the original De Smet, SD settlement.  Standing: Carrie, Laura, and Grace.  Seated: Caroline (Ma), Charles (Pa) and Mary.

A pioneer family, part of the original De Smet, SD settlement. Standing: Carrie, Laura, and Grace. Seated: Caroline (Ma), Charles (Pa) and Mary.

To be sure, children’s books simplify a lot, and sometimes I hesitated reading – such as when Mrs. Scott says “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”  Yet that was the mentality at the time, and just as I drove the kids through the Pine Ridge Indian reservation back in 2012 to show them the poverty of the natives of the South Dakota plains, it’s easier to teach values when you aren’t afraid of the truth.

And ultimately, though Ma would also say nasty things about Indians, the man Laura clearly admired most, her Pa, refused to go along with such talk.   So we discuss why Pa sees Indians more benevolently than the others.    His first reaction – the others are afraid of them.  Fear.  How is fear connected to hate?   And so on.

Their life on the prairie was difficult.  On the trip down to Kansas they could have easily been killed many times, alone in a covered wagon going through the prairie, crossing rivers, and having only what they could carry.  Nowadays such behavior would be criticized for endangering children.   “Why doesn’t he just stay in Pepin and not subject his girls to such threats?  Why take little girls illegally into Indian territory?”

Laura and her husband Almanzo

Laura and her husband Almanzo

But the risks now are different.  Our children are more likely to die in automobile accidents, or to suffer obesity and even childhood diabetes.  In Laura’s time diabetes was primarily genetic — and Laura like her sisters ended up dying due to complications from diabetes.  That was in 1957 when she was 90, so otherwise she lived a long healthy life!

As I go through these books I look forward to discussing everything from churning butter to how they barely survived the legendary winter of 1880-81.   Her stories are powerful in the way they convey the joy of family life despite hardship and often real poverty.

I grew up in South Dakota, and the latter books describe how her family helped found De Smet, a town 100 miles northwest of Sioux Falls.  We’re traveling out there next summer to visit my family, and I look forward to talking about South Dakota history – and the lessons and values one can learn reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s recollections of her childhood.

Laura and Almanzo in 1940 -- Laura would live until 1957

Laura and Almanzo in 1940 — Laura would live until 1957

Tonight we’ll probably finish book two, Little House on the Prairie.  Then we’ll head up to Minnesota for On the Banks of Plum Creek.  It’s also not far to Walnut Grove, perhaps we’ll make a trek next summer there and to De Smet, and see the places the book describes.   One thing we won’t do is watch the old TV show.   It’s nothing like the books and frankly I can’t stomach it – I’m too much of a Laura Ingalls purist!

When I was eight I started saving up my allowances to buy those books.  My third grade teacher read the first ones in class, but didn’t get beyond Farmer Boy (about Almanzo’s childhood).  So my first purchased book was On the Banks of Plum Creek, and I will read to my eight year old son from that book I bought with my allowance.  As I read I realize how deep the impression those books made on me at a young age, and how my values were shaped in part by Laura’s books.

I hold those books and think of me at 8 and 9 riding my bike to “Courtney’s Books and Things” in Sioux Falls (it’s no longer there) and adding to my collection.  The workers there recognized me and were always delighted when I made a new purchase.  As I sit next to my son reading, my eight year old self is there in spirit.


  1. #1 by lbwoodgate on September 23, 2014 - 22:00

    Some of my favorites as a child in grade school were the biographies of Daniel Boone, David Crockett and Kit Carson.

  2. #2 by jianji on September 23, 2014 - 23:34

    One does wonder why he took his children illegally into Indian territory.

  3. #3 by lee1978 on September 24, 2014 - 06:35

    I loved that series too and have enjoyed sharing it with my kids! KC has enjoyed the first couple, but then we took a break and diverged into other genres. As an adult, I read an interesting book by Laura’s daughter Rose, who herself became a writer.

  4. #4 by Susan on September 25, 2014 - 14:36

    I’ve never read the books but I did watch the show as a kid.

    The Indians had no system of ownership so the white man took the land and either pushed them off or murdered them. Where the white man go, destruction follows. Just looks at what happened to the great plains. Can you say Dust Bowl. The only good white man is a dead white man, IMHO.


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