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America’s Frontier

We’re reading the entire “Little House” series to our six-year-old, who has adopted them like religion. Each time we finish a book, we ask, “Do you want to go on with the series or take a break?” Our son took a break sometime after the third move by the family, but our daughter is pushing on all the way through.
We’re now reading the last book, These Happy Golden Years, to her. It’s really been fascinating to read these books in a series and approach it with an adult’s point of view.
I wonder whether I’d read the books before I saw the TV series. We had a great shock recently when we got the DVD of the first season from Netflix. I was amazed how clean and simple the show was. My daughter was impressed by how they’d changed the story. “Why is this story all about Pa?” she asked. The books, you might remember, were in the third person. But very little happened outside of Laura’s vision. The stories were reported as if from her point of view all the time. And to add to my daughter’s indignation, she pointed out that Michael Landon was clean-shaven. “Where’s Pa’s whiskers?” she demanded.
The next time I asked our daughter if she wanted to see more of it, she said, “I’d rather read the books. They’re more real.” So that was the end of my trip down memory lane.
The Little House books are feminist in a nineteenth-century sort of way. Pa makes most of the decisions, but when Ma disagrees with him, he finds it convenient to change his mind. Of course, Ma never actually says she disagrees with him. She calmly points out the obvious, and lets Pa save face and make the decision himself.
Frankly, Pa’s decision-making is something we call into question. Think about this: Pa took off in a wagon with two little girls and a babe in arms, his wife, and a dog. Not even a girl dog so he could make sure to have more puppies when he needed them. Not another family that they could depend on. Nothing but a shadow of a trail through the prairie. Pa was truly, can I say it now?, reckless and lacking in common sense!
So then they camp out on the prairie for a while (I think this is Kansas of the future), and finally get scared back when the government says it won’t support them. Sort of reminds me of modern-day Israel. And the only reason they have survived to be able to retreat is that an African-American doctor, probably unable to practice in the state of his birth, comes and saves them all from fever’n’ague – malaria.
So they end up in Minnesota. It’s mighty cold in the winter, and occasionally locusts eat their crops, but there’s a lot going for it. A real town, a creek with trees, pretty much everything they need to survive on their own. But that Pa, he just can’t cotton to civilized life. Soon they’re off with the railroad to the Dakota Territory. That’s right: they could have had large tracts of land in Minnesota or Wisconsin (both centers of modern-day farming), but instead they chose South Dakota. Oh, Pa.
One of the reasons I like reading Little House to my daughter is that Laura is such a well-rounded girl character. She does bad things. She knows they’re bad while she’s doing them, and sometimes she even enjoys doing bad things! On the other hand, she knows that there are reasons for behaving well and badly, and her choices are made clear. I like that sometimes she just can’t bear not to say what’s on her mind.
The last two books show an amazing change in the lives of the Ingalls family and of all families, rural and city, across this country. All of a sudden they go from a sort of iron-age, make everything you need sort of lifestyle to depending on modern conveniences. It’s clear that Laura realized this in her depiction of the family, nearly starving and freezing to death in The Long Winter. Any other time, they would never have moved to a place with no wood for building houses and fueling their fire. No game to shoot when the family is running low on cultivated food. Really, there was no reason to live in De Smet, South Dakota at that time except for the train station there. They depended on that train and their fellow citizens for food and fuel, and the weather did them in.
It’s a fascinating picture of American life, chock full of food for thought.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling, Parenting.

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