When I was about nine, a friend of the family gave me my first Little House book. I was immediately captivated by the stories within and read them over and over through the years. The copy I had contained wonderful illustrations to accompany the story by Garth Williams. Eventually I was given all of the books in the series, plus a few other collections of Laura’s writings. I gave my set to my oldest daughter and it soon became scattered in their room. I purchased a second set for my now nine-year-old.
About a year ago I wanted to read the books again for myself. Unfortunately my daughters could no longer assemble a complete set between them. I wanted a set of books for ME now that would be hand-off for the rest of the family. When we traveled to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri I saw exactly what I wanted.
Little Town on the Prairie begins during the springtime following the events of the previous novel, The Long Winter. Laura is enjoying life on the family’s claim on the Dakota prairie when Pa suggests she take a job with seamstress in town. Laura is not keen on the idea, but she knows the family could use the money. Laura dreams of her older sister, Mary, going to a college for the blind and hopes to help out.
Laura is growing up, and this book shows that more than any other. It covers a good deal of time. Laura is just fourteen at the beginning of the book, but she has a great sense of responsibility to her family. It was interesting to read this with my own fourteen year-old and discuss the differences. I also enjoyed seeing more of the day-to-day life of living in or near a town. In the books up until now, the life of the Ingalls family (as well as the Wilder family) had seemed more isolated and disconnected from the rest of society at the time.
It’s interesting to see the people who come into Laura’s life. As a seamstress, the family she works for is much different than what she’s used to. Once back in school, her teacher – who also happens to be her future sister-in-law – has an adversarial relationship with Laura. She meets old friends, such as Mary, Minnie, and Cap from The Long Winter, and new ones such as Ida. Nellie Oleson from On The Banks of Plum Creek is back as well, only this time the tables have turned a bit…
When Mary does finally go off to college, Laura is now the oldest in the home. It’s a different role for her and she seems to grow more protective of her younger sister Carrie. Laura also spends a lot of time studying, knowing she must become a teacher if she is to help the family and keep Mary at the school in Iowa.
There are lots of good times too. Town life provides more social time and there are terrific evenings of fun throughout the winter where the town gathers together for spelling bees, charades, musical programs, and even a minstrel show. Parents might want to think about how they will address this with their children. While it may not have been a big deal in the 1880’s or even when the book was first published in 1941, it’s a part of history not talked about too much now.
During the book Laura also begins “seeing” Almanzo Wilder. Although Laura is only fifteen (and he is actually ten years older than her – Laura has changed his age in the novels to make their ages seem not quite as far apart) he walks her home after church revival meetings. Laura still seems more enamored of the beautiful horses he owns more than of the person he is, but it’s fun to read about the start of the romance and to root for them, even when I know what happens. Laura seems to not understand his interest in her, and my daughters and I got a good laugh out of it.
I spent several weeks reading Little Town on the Prairie at night before bed with my daughters the first time we read it through together. Laura’s descriptions of the setting and events is excellent, and comes with years of practice being the “eyes” for her blind sister, Mary. I don’t find her descriptions to be overwritten and bogged down, but fascinating. It’s nice to read about things being a bit better for the family, from Pa getting work in town to Laura enjoying some of the niceties of life such as having “name cards” made up like her friends have. I had a great deal of discussion about what my children have versus what Laura had and the “little things” she was grateful to get. It also sparks discussion about the differences between the current time and life back then, some questions about which I don’t have the answers to.
My new edition of Little Town on the Prairie is a paperback bound book with the same beautiful illustrations by Garth Williams that I grew up with. The difference is that they are now in color, rather than the pen-and-ink style drawings I first saw all those years ago. I always read the description of Laura’s name cards, but seeing what they actually looked like really brought them into reality for me. I love the color drawing of the four girls with Mary holding the new kitten Pa brought home to the family. It’s beautifully done with colorful dresses and their hair just the different shades the way Laura always described them. At the same time, the color adds more depth and life to some of the sketches. I thought this was especially true of the sketch of Almanzo depositing Laura at her door one night.
In any of the earlier books, I noticed an increase in the font size with the new editions. That doesn’t seem to be the case with this edition of Little Town on the Prairie. When I read the story with my girls, the chapters were the perfect size to read one each night at bedtime.
If you’ve never read the books, I definitely feel they are worth it for adults as well. I am enjoying reading them again just by myself for the first time in years. If you have children, it’s a wonderful experience which will spark lots of conversation and questions about life so many years ago.
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