I just finished up reading Little House on the Prairie to my daughter Stella. We tried reading it last year, when she was three — I couldn’t hold myself back any longer (enough rhyming repetitive picture books!), and it was a bit of work for both of us. But 4 1/2 years is the perfect age, I think – and it helped that we were reading from this lovely collectors edition with larger, full color pictures. What is Laura doing now? I’d ask Stella. Let’s find out. And Stella would climb onto my lap and we’d read a few pages or a chapter together, Stella remaining intensely focused during these reading sessions. I wish I could have seen inside her mind. I wish I could re-experience hearing this book again for the first time.
The writing is beautiful. It captures precisely how it must have been for a girl to gaze upon the open prairie for the first time, and then try to make sense of it all — the prairie, the Indians who wander by, Ma’s fear of the Indians, the hints between the settlers of massacres, and trying to literally build a new home out of nothing. While I’m nostalgic for all of the Little House books, this is one from the series that rises most above nostalgia to become really amazing. Little House in the Big Woods, while fascinating in its details, is rather fragmented and perhaps too full of minutia, and the future books lose the wonder, the beauty, and the mystery that Laura sees during her first year on the prairie.
There are challenges in this book of course: it is challenging to explain the settlers’ attitudes toward Indians, for instance, to a 4 year old, and I could not bring myself to repeat Mrs. Scott’s words that the only good Indian is a dead Indian. I do think the book can be seen as a historical record of beliefs of the time, beliefs which need to be acknowledged rather than hidden, providing opportunity to begin a discussion with one’s child about the darker side of our country’s history.
I would love to take Laura’s close young limited point of view and her lyricism and wonder and apply it to a science fiction context…..a future project.
Stella and I have moved onto Pippi Longstocking now, a book which I never stumbled across as a child (once again we’re reading a color illustrated version which makes all the difference) (that said I wish the illustrations were a bit more broad and dare I say imaginative or all encompassing or….something). But Pippi, while fun, is devoid of lyricism and transcendent moments, as are many children’s books, which is why Little House is such a gem.
Here are a few favorite passages. From when Laura is delirious from fever ‘n’ ague — the abstract “something” is daring and right on.
“Laura did not exactly go to sleep, but she didn’t really wake up again for a long, long time. Strange things seemed to keep happening in a haze. She would see Pa crouching by the fire in the middle of the night, then suddenly sunshine hurt her eyes and Ma fed her broth from a spoon. Something dwindled slowly, smaller and smaller, till it was tinier than the tiniest thing. Then slowly it swelled till it was larger than anything could be. Two voices jabbered faster and faster, then a slow voice drawled more slowly than Laura could bear. There were no words, only voices.”
There is lovely personification of the landscape throughout the book, capturing how Laura must have seen the prairie as this living thing surrounding her.
The snug log house looked just as it always had. It did not seem to know they were going away.” little house on the prairie
“The dark crept slowly all around the house. The wind cried mournfully and owls said, “Who-oo? Oo-oo.” A wolf howled, and Jack growled low in his throat.” – little house
:”Night crept toward the little house, and the darkness was frightening. it yelped with Indian yells, and one night it began to throb with Indian drums.”
“The wind had a strange, wild howl in it, and it went through Laura’s clothes as if the clothes weren’t there.”
Like Ocean at the End of the Lane, this book is able to capture such moments of childhood contentedness, when one believes all is right with the world, and will be forever. The writing is so straightforward and plain but also exact and enough.
“They were all happy that night. The fire on the hearth was pleasant, for on the High Prairie even the summer nights were cool. The red-checked cloth was on the table, the little china woman glimmered on the mantel-shelf, and the new floor was golden in the flickering firelight. Outside, the night was large and full of stars. 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.
This passage moves me. Such beauty and connection but not overwritten.
“When Pa’s fiddle stopped, they could not hear Mr. Edwards any more. Only the wind rustled in the prairie grasses. The big, yellow moon was sailing high overhead. The sky was so full of light that not one star twinkled in it, and all the prairie was a shadowy mellowness.
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 land.
The song ended. No one moved or spoke. Laura and Mary were quiet, Pa and Ma sat motionless. Only the wind stirred and the grasses sighed. Then 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.”
I’ll stop before I quote the entire book.