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Monday, November 22, 2010

Timelessness and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series

The anonymous “Amateur Reader” at the blog Wuthering Expectations recently hosted a Laura Ingalls Wilder week with a series of posts discussing the literary qualities of Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie. Topics include how the sublime nature of the prairie is a thematic frame running through Prairie, how the end of Prairie ironically revisits the ending of Big Woods, and how the ending of Big Woods reveals Laura’s Augustinian concept of time (yes, really). Here are the closing lines of Little House in the Big Woods, a book that begins with “Once upon a time”:
But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the fire-light gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.

She thought to herself, “This is now.”

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.
Amateur Reader adds: “The ironies multiply as five year old Laura discovers the Augustinian nature of time. The adult Laura, sixty years in the future, knows how the child is wrong – oh, it was a long time ago. And the author knows that soon – that spring, or is it a year later? – that house and fire (but not the music) would be abandoned for another, and then another, and so on. One more ironic turn – Laura’s memories are a bit less likely to be forgotten, now, aren’t they?”

The perceptive Reader isn’t the only Wilder fan to reexamine the Little House books from a critical perspective. Caroline Fraser, writing in The New York Review of Books in 1994, said, “Wilder struggled to recast the literal events of her life into a progressive narrative: a story of moving westward and onward, of maturing, improving, succeeding. This struggle determines the structure of the narrative, its avoidance of bathos, its refusal to dwell on the sorrowful or the terrible; it is what gives the Little House books their spareness, their directness, their ability to affect us.”

The Wuthering Expectations blog asks, “How is this not great writing?” We agree: The Library of America is currently gathering the materials to create a deluxe collector’s edition of all eight Little House books. But we would love to hear what you think. Are Wilder’s books underrated or overrated? Are the Little House books for adults, too?


  1. I first read the "Little House" books when I was very young--I loved them, although I thought the later ones in the series were much weaker. Not long ago, I read them again, out of curiosity, and was a bit surprised how sophisticated they are in many ways. (Of course, there is that school of thought that the books were largely written by Wilder's daughter...)

  2. Because of AR's musings, I bought Little House in the Big Woods and am enjoying the seasonal transitions, the meticulous attention to daily activities, from the oiling of Pa's gun to the churning of Ma's butter, but most of all I enjoy the comfy cosy aspect of story-telling at night, and fiddle-playing, too. As for whether it's great writing, in the sense implied by AR's question, I'm a stubborn agnostic at the moment. In a sense, whether's it's good writing or not is almost otiose, because any reading adult who, however briefly, feels like a child again will tingle bodily AS IF it were good writing. Some books are magical despite their writing....

    Happy Thanksgiving.


  3. As someone who writes about prairie women of a later age, I think the Great Plains in general are worthy of much more attention.

    Wide open spaces, for better or for worse.


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