the spines of the Little House books (complete in a box set) along with Young Pioneers by Rose Wilder Lane and Laura, a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder

These books form a considerable part of my childhood memories.  First of all, of course, there was the television show Little House on the Prairie.  It seems to be undergoing a bit of a revival as it is now available on DVD and there have been several memoirs by various actresses from the show over the last couple of years.  It was a decent show, which I mainly remember for the opening music (I can hear it in my head right now and picture Melissa Gilbert running down the hill as it plays).  But then there are the books.

They are wonderful children’s books.  They evoke a very specific time and place.  They make a part of American history come vividly to life in stark, simple language that is easy for any child to understand.  They are enjoyable and interesting and easy to read.  It is true that they speak more to girls than to boys, as it is the tale of Laura and her three sisters.  But there is Farmer Boy, the story of her future husband Almanzo, growing up in upstate New York, a book I read a number of times as a kid.

Currently the books are available in a very nice set with the original illustrations in colored drawings.  This is a much older set, as you can see from the box and the state of the books.  They are the set that my family had when I was growing up.  So how did I end up with it?  For the same reasons that I end up with so many of the family sets (I also have the Chronicles of Narnia and the Sesame Street Library as well as The World of Pooh): I have a love for books, especially books which I remember and I don’t want to let them go and because I have a strong streak of sentimentality.  Actually, that would be a major understatement.  I would venture to say that not only am I the most sentimental person in my family, but that perhaps no person I have ever met would be more apt to utter that final sentence of Gatsby: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

But here are the books, as Laura wrote them. (Actually, how much of them was Laura?  There is a very interesting New Yorker article you can read here about the amount of influence that her daughter Rose had on the shaping of the novels that bear Laura’s name and describe her youth.)

  • Little House in the Big Woods (pub. 1932)

    the cover of the two books and the side of the box set

  • Little House on the Prairie (pub. 1935)
  • Farmer Boy (pub. 1933)
  • On the Banks of Plum Creek (pub. 1937)
  • By the Shores of Silver Lake (pub. 1939)
  • The Long Winter (pub. 1940)
  • Little Town on the Prairie (pub. 1941)
  • These Happy Golden Years (pub. 1943)
  • The First Four Years (pub. 1971)

Those are the “canon” books, the ones in the current box set.  They include the eight books that Wilder published in her lifetime (she died in 1957) as well as The First Four Years, a book that was written about the early days of her marriage.  Much of the writing of that book is discussed in the New Yorker article.  The other two books are Young Pioneers, a book written by Rose herself as well as Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, a biography by Donald Zochert, which is still in print after over 30 years.  It was originally published in 1977 at the height of the show’s popularity and its cover artwork depicts the Ingalls family as seen on the show.

I have always felt that the first three books are the best of the bunch.  They do the best job of depicting the family, and of course, Farmer Boy was the one that spoke to me the most (for some reason Farmer Boy, though written second, is third in the box – which makes no sense since it actually takes place before Laura was even born).  I still remember reading it and the scene where Almanzo, furious at his sister, Eliza, threw the polish brush at her and put a mark on the wallpaper of the parlor.  What follows later is a scene where Eliza saves him by finding a patch of wallpaper and covering over his foolish act and saving him from a whipping.  It always reminded me of my relationship with both my sisters, in both the aggravation and the eventual appreciation.

Interestingly enough, the show mainly follows the middle books.  Only the original pilot follows the story of Little House on the Prairie and many of the later books are condensed in place.  The show covers much of On the Banks of Plum Creek and many later events, including the courtship and eventual marriage between Almanzo and Laura.  The show places all of this action in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, when, in fact, the family left there when Laura was only 12 and lived in South Dakota for years, which is where she met and married Almanzo.

The show was nice and enjoyable.  The books are wonderful.  Don’t let your child read them on a Kindle.  Let them turn the pages of an actual book.  Or think of it this way.  Look at the wear and tear on those books.  They have survived through my entire family and are over 30 years old.  Do you think a Kindle will stand up to punishment like that?  Will you be able to pass it down to the next generation, like these books have passed to me so that Thomas can read them?