(A continuation of the previous blog post, “Wilder’s ‘Little House’ Books: Tales for Her Time.”)
When the first of her Little House books hit the shelves in the 1930s, Laura Ingalls Wilder found herself in a cultural moment in which the everyday person should not have been interested in a children’s book. Despite the struggles of daily life during the Great Depression, however, the nation seemed to find something valuable in the stories Wilder told. There was something encouraging about the tales of pioneer determination in the face of adversity, and there was also something just plain attractive about the stories from the old times gone by.
These tales that were so gripping to Wilder’s generation continued to grip readers for generations to come, suggesting that the popularity of the books was not solely due to the culture in the time of their publication but also to something intrinsically valuable about the books. In a recent consultation with Wilder scholars Dr. Dedra Birzer of Hillsdale College and Pamela Smith Hill, Birzer stated that “Wilder’s characters are just as compelling and her storytelling just as profound as they were in the 1930s.” Not only that, but the stories also hold incredible valuable to the study of American history. “This series,” Birzer said, “remains the major introduction to the American West and the frontier experience for readers throughout the world.”
Hill similarly observed the lastingly valuable nature of the Little House books. “Wilder’s themes,” she observed, “are timeless. Best of all, Wilder’s books offer engaging characters and stories that inspire young readers to explore the past, and then think about how it relates to their own lives—and our contemporary world.” As Birzer recalled, Wilder once observed that the children of her time seemed to “like old fashioned stories.” Perhaps the same can be said of many children from later generations as well.
Although a large majority of today’s youth seem too taken up by modern distractions such as technology to pay attention to anything as old fashioned as tales of covered wagons and log cabins, these stories still have the ability to capture the imagination of kids who spend time with Wilder’s books. They not only capture the imagination, though. Any average video game or TV show can do that to some extent. Rather than encouraging passive enjoyment, they inspire an active pursuit of the history of Laura’s times. Best of all, however, they lead to engagement with something that is true and good—true in that Wilder’s series depicts a real part of American history and of the human experience and good in that the stories give readers a glimpse of the lasting and important things in life.
While discussing the value of the Little House books when it comes to modern-day families, both Birzer and Hill took a moment to acknowledge the fact that these books are not simply for the little kids. Wilder’s series is the sort of literature that grows as the reader grows, leading to greater engagement and a greater understanding of the characters. According to Birzer, “For parents of young children, the first four books in particular, with their focus on Mary and Laura’s younger years, offer great read-aloud opportunities. Starting with By the Shores of Silver Lake, the Ingalls girls move into adolescence and more mature situations perhaps outside the understanding of young children.”
Not only are these books valuable to kids of all ages, but something about the books also makes them worth even re-reading as adults. The Little House books are not simply “cotton candy books” that taste good for a moment but have no “nutritional value.” Wilder’s books contain enough truth and depth that they can hardly keep from inspiring study and exploration. When read with new eyes, the simple stories reveal more value than ever before. Life enlightens the truths readers once overlooked as children, showing them that this thing they had simply once enjoyed as a kid is actually worth contemplating.
In all this attention to truth and goodness, however, Wilder’s books never fall into a preachy style. In fact, some of the occurrences of the books seem far from “good” but rather wreak of human imperfections and misunderstandings. What makes them so effective and so worthy of reading and re-reading, however, is the beautiful storytelling of Wilder’s books. The next post in this series will examine the elements and effects of Wilder’s storytelling. Check back soon to read more about the literary genius of Wilder’s Little House series.