Why I Still Love the 'Little House on the Prairie' Books



Since I edit children's books for a living, I get asked a lot about my favorite books as a kid. When I tell people I loved the Little House books, I know it's a perfectly respectable answer, the sort of thing folks expect me to say. Then sometimes they go on and ask me whether I also loved various other Important Children's Books, like Where the Wild Things Are and The Little Prince and The House at Pooh Corner, and I'll do my best for a while, trying to play along, and then at some point I have to hem and haw and shrug because, well, you know what I really liked? I liked books that had pictures of toast in them.

Well, not just toast, but, you know, cups and ladles and baskets and hats, lovingly rendered, all in their places in a room or even just in little vignettes, but at any rate, things, in all their thinginess.

I had, and loved, a battered 1960s-era "pictionary" with wagons and hot dogs and butter dishes floating in plotless arrangements on the page. I pored over the page spreads in Richard Scarry's Book of Something-or-Other, looking at all the little rooms whose con¬tents were meticulously catalogued and the dressed-up raccoons and pigs and squirrels who sat in them, drinking "coffee" and listening to the "radio" and eating, yes, "toast."

(Though yes, there are those of you who will no doubt point out that, actually, the Little House books have hardly any toast at all, that in fact The Long Winter is the only book in the series in which toast appears, and then only once do the Ingallses get to even butter it before the town gets snowed in and provisions run low, and then the toast is eaten plain or dipped in tea for the next five months and two hundred pages, and the flour that they make the bread from in the fi rst place is ground from seed wheat in the coffee mill with the little iron hopper and the tiny wooden drawer, and after Ma bakes the bread she makes a button lamp, because do you remember the button lamp, in the saucer, with the little square of calico that she twists up and greases into a wick? Shall we go on?)

Toast or no toast, I think I've made my point here.

The Little House world is at once as familiar as the breakfast table and as remote as the planets in Star Wars. If you had every last log cabin and covered wagon and iron stove needed to conjure this world up, you couldn't, not completely: it's a realm that gets much of its power from single things—the lone doll, trundle bed, china shepherdess, each one realer than real.

Most of the Little House books I read came from the public library, usually off the paperback racks—the Harper Trophy editions with the yellow borders and spines, their corners worn soft after years of circulation. Sometimes I found the battered old hardcovers on the shelves, multiple copies of each book in thick plastic jackets. I remember studying the list of books in the series; their titles appeared in small caps in the front matter of every book, and I loved the way the list had its own rhythm: Little House in the Big Woods. Little House on the Prairie. Farmer Boy. On the Banks of Plum Creek. By the Shores of Silver Lake. The Long Winter. Of course I memorized them. Little Town on the Prairie. These Happy Golden Years. The First Four Years. The words plodded along reliably, like the feet of Indian ponies.

And, oh my God: I wanted to live in one room with my whole family and have a pathetic corncob doll all my own. I wanted to wear a calico sunbonnet—or rather, I wanted to not wear a calico sunbonnet, the way Laura did, letting it hang down her back by its ties. I wanted to do chores because of those books. Carry water, churn butter, make headcheese. I wanted dead rabbits brought home for supper. I wanted go out into the backyard and just, I don't know, grab stuff off trees, or uproot things from the ground, and bring it all inside in a basket and have my parents say, "My land! What a harvest!"

There were a host of other things from the books that I remember I wanted to do, too, such as:

Make candy by pouring syrup in the snow.
Make bullets by pouring lead.
Sew a seam with tiny and perfectly straight stitches.
Have a man's hands span my corseted waist, which at the time didn't seem creepy at all.
Twist hay into sticks.
Eat salt pork.
Eat fat pork.
Keep a suckling pig as a pet.
Chase a horse and/or ox into a barn stall.
Ride on the back of a pony just by hanging on to its mane.
Feel the chinook wind.

I say I wanted to do all these things, though that may not have been what I truly desired. For instance, the sewing presented itself in the form of my grandma's embroidery lessons, but despite my early Little House-inspired enthusiasm, I didn't have the patience; couldn't take how slow and laborious it was to stitch just one letter on the sampler I was doing. The needle kept becoming unthreaded, and more than once I accidentally sewed the embroidery hoop to my skirt. I was trying to spell out my name is wendy mcclure. It felt like homework, and after a while I wondered what was the advantage of writing one's name this way, when you could just take a Magic Marker and be done in ten seconds. I got as far as my nam before Grandma finished it for me. Though I was relieved, I knew that Ma Ingalls wouldn't have let Laura off the hook so easily. I understood, deep down, that I lived in a different world from Laura's, one where grandmas appreciated just that you tried, and that you didn't have to know how to stitch the letters of your name, and that you could just watch The Love Boat instead. It's not that I really wanted to make bullets or race around on ponies, it's that I wanted to be in Laura World and do them.

For a while I had a close imaginary friendship with the Laura of On the Banks of Plum Creek, who felt closest to my age in those books. I was eight or nine; I had knowingly conjured her up to talk with her in my head. I daydreamed that she'd shown up in the twentieth century and I had to be her guide.

I've discovered from talking to friends that this was a common desire. My friend Amy, for instance, wanted to "show her around" (that was the exact phrase she says she remembers using: show her around). Surely a fantasy this specific must mean something. I suppose it allowed us to infuse our own world with Laura-like wonder as we imagined her awed appreciation for the safe, cluttered lives that we led. One of the review quotes from my paperback editions, taken from the venerable children's literature publication The Horn Book, says: "Laura Ingalls of the 1870s and '80s has stepped from pages of the past into the flesh and blood reality of a chosen friend." I don't know if the desire to take that chosen friend to McDonald's is quite what The Horn Book had in mind, but Amy sure wanted to do it.

As for me, I wanted to take Laura to North Riverside Mall. In my mind I ushered her onto escalators and helped her operate a soda machine. I took her with me on car trips and reassured her when the station wagon would pull onto the expressway ramp and accelerate to a speed three times faster than the trains she rode, faster than she would have ever imagined a human could travel. It's okay, Laura, I'd tell her.

So Laura was my friend, and it's perhaps a testament to the utterly solitary nature of my relationship with her that for the whole time I was enthralled with the book series as a child, I didn't know that a TV show based on it was airing Monday nights during prime time. How could I have missed this? Two major reasons as to why:

While I was dimly aware that a TV show called Little House on the Prairie existed, somehow my eight-year-old mind clung to the specious idea that the phrase "little house on the prairie" was simply a general expression, like "home on the range" or "humble abode," and thus there was little reason to believe that a show called Little House on the Prairie was in fact about that little house on the prairie, the one that I adored, as opposed to just some other house on some other prairie someplace where this Michael Landon guy (who of course wasn't Pa, I mean, look at him) lived. I suppose if I'd tuned in even once, all these mistaken assumptions would have been cleared up for me, but for the fact that:

WKRP in Cincinnati ran in the competing time slot on CBS in the late 1970s and my parents and brother and I watched it every week. Because Holy Howard Hesse—man, that show was funny.

It wasn't until a couple years later, long after I'd gotten through my mooniest phase of Little House love, that I found out that the book and TV show were indeed related. By then I didn't care much, though it was a little disconcerting to watch Battle of the Network Stars and occasionally see some of the Little House cast members wearing tiny shorts and swimsuits. (You mean that woman with the Cheryl Tiegs legs was Ma?) Even if my family hadn't been watching another channel I doubt Little House on the Prairie would have been regular viewing in our household, which tended to favor smartass sitcoms and gritty cop dramas over heartwarming family programming.

Not that it hasn't been sometimes confounding to have this parallel TV universe. More than once, a friend or acquaintance has gushed, "you mean you're a Little House fan, too?" only to discover that we have two very different sets of memories. One of us is thinking of the time Laura taught a calf to drink from a bucket. The other is thinking about the Very Special Episode when some kid named Albert got hooked on morphine. The ensuing conversation often ends awkwardly, with one of us a bit disappointed that the real Laura Ingalls did not have an opiate-crazed adopted brother and the other feeling, well, just depressed. (Though she would like to know if the Very Special Episode perhaps also guest-starred First Lady Nancy Reagan as the head of Walnut Grove's Just Say No Temperance Society. Because that would have made for an awesome show.)

So maybe we don't all remember the same prairie, but I'd like to think that there's still a kinship. Just as pioneers kept relics from their distant homelands, the TV show holds on to plenty of the little things from the realm of the books: the calico dresses and the pigtails and the girls running through tall grass.

Reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from THE WILDER LIFE: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure
Copyright © 2011 by Wendy McClure

Read an interview with Wendy McClure by The Atlantic's Alyssa Rosenberg.