(A continuation of the previous blog post, “Wilder’s ‘Little House’ Books: Timeless Tales.”)
Despite the changing times and the changing culture of the past several decades since the initial publication of the Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of her life as a pioneer girl on the American frontier have continued to engage readers of all ages. The fact of their widespread popularity speaks to the intrinsic attractiveness of these books. They are not simply the passing fad of a cultural moment but rather enduring and endearing tales that have truly made a mark on history as a whole.
As suggested in the last post in this series, the reason for the books’ intrinsic value is the presence of truth and goodness within Wilder’s stories. They represent a very real and true aspect of human experience while also celebrating the good things of life.
Yet the real magic of Wilder’s stories appears not in the simple fact of the truth and goodness throughout these stories but in the way she tells the stories. This is also where the aspect of beauty comes in.
As Wilder biographer Pamela Smith Hill told the Memorial Society in a recent interview, “The genius of Wilder’s books—and all great children’s classics—is that they don’t set out to teach children about truth and goodness. They trust readers to make up their own minds about the characters and situations within their pages.” She went on to explain that, rather than simply “preaching,” Wilder’s books “tell compelling stories about compelling characters…. The Little House books will make young readers think. And that’s what all great books—for young readers or adults—should do.”
In essence, Wilder’s goal in writing these stories was not to sermonize or pound a certain idea of truth or goodness into the heads of readers. The ultimate goal of these books was to tell a story—to paint a picture for history to enjoy. This story and this picture, not any potential “life lesson” that readers can reap from the tales, are what have captured imaginations for years since the first reader clapped eyes on the opening words of the series, “Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin…”
Dr. Dedra Birzer of Hillsdale College put it all quite well recently when she explained that Wilder’s books “represent profound larger truths about everything from family life to the values inculcated by hard frontier living.” She went on to say,
The books present essential, permanent truths about what it is to be human. Wilder is still popular because she appeals to the best of humanity. Readers recognize a humane soul speaking to a humane soul. There is goodness throughout the series, though it is not of a Pollyanna-ish sort. Rather, the Little House books reveal the goodness of life itself and the beauty found in daily activities and relationships as well as the prairies and plains of the American West. Wilder’s vivid writing continues to inspire readers to see the truth, goodness, and beauty in their own lives and in the natural and social worlds in which they live.
So, in a way, Wilder’s books communicate wisdom, but it is the kind of wisdom that is gentle and quiet. While still celebrating good and true things, the stories are imaginative. They are beautiful. And, as Hill said, they are compelling. These are the things that have made them endure across generations. This is why many kids today can still say that they love “old-fashioned things.” They may not realize what exactly they mean when they say that, but generally the thing underneath that attraction is their desire for the goodness and beauty of life. As long as some people in the world continue to love the sort of beauty that can be found in the simple things of everyday existence, these stories will continue to capture imaginations for generations to come.
In all the truth and goodness of her books, Wilder is able to escape the greatly dangerous element of “preachiness” that would otherwise have rendered her stories tactless and valueless. Avoiding this element requires a great level of talent as well as sincerity on the part of the author. Stay tuned for our next post in which we will address Hill’s and Birzer’s observations regarding Wilder’s genius ability to maintain the sense of gentle wisdom in her books.