When I travel somewhere, I love to read about it first. Sometimes, I read guide books. More often, I read novels.
For me, novels are nearly always better at capturing the spirit of a place. True, they don’t tell you where to eat or the best bars to mix with locals, but they do give you a view into your destination’s soul. They bring the place to life. They light you with inspiration before you arrive. They add an extra dimension to your experience of the place, so that you see it not just through your own eyes, but through the eyes of the author and characters as well. Depending on the novel, it can also show you something of a place’s history.
When my parents and I booked our flights to Kansas a few months ago, I knew that I would have to re-read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Little House on the Prairie.
We would be staying with my great-aunt and her husband in Independence: a town in the south-east corner of Kansas, and the closest town to the Ingalls family in the book. (Its other big claim to fame is that Independence Zoo provided Miss Able, the first monkey in space – but that’s another story.)
We also had plans to visit the Little House on the Prairie Museum.
The Little House on the Prairie Museum is not your average kind of museum. Situated about 12 miles out of town, on a farm in the middle of the prairie, the site consists of four buildings: a ticket shop & gift store, an old post office, a schoolroom, and a reconstruction log cabin of the kind that the Ingalls family would have lived in. There are a few information boards dotted around, particularly in the gift shop, but more than names and dates and facts, the place gives you an impression of life in Kansas in the 1870s. Especially when you pair it with the books.
I had read The Little House on the Prairie before. I hadn’t read any of the other books in the series, or realised there were so many of them. As always when I shouldn’t really take on any extra work, I decided that I would, and made a deal with myself to read all of the Little House books before arriving in Kansas.
- Little House in the Big Woods
- Little House on the Prairie
- On the Banks of Plum Creek
- By the Shores of Silver Lake
- The Long Winter
- Little Town on the Prairie
- These Happy Golden Years
- The First Four Years
(For the Laura Ingalls Wilder officianados out there, no, I didn’t read Farmer Boy. I simply ran out of time, so decided to stick with Laura’s story, rather than delving into Almanzo’s.)
To be honest, I didn’t really remember much about the story at all. And I had no idea about what happened in any of the other books. Or that I would learn so much. Or that they would be so fascinating beyond simply being ‘children’s books about growing up a long time ago’.
I loved them.
They taught me so much about the formation of the USA. When we were driving around Kansas, I now understood why the countryside is divided into a patchwork of 40 acre squares. I understood how land was claimed here, not so long ago.
And I gained an appreciation for the newness of the country, and some of its attitudes towards things like self sufficiency and gun ownership. I’m not saying that I necessarily agree with all of these attitudes, but it did help me to understand how they were forged, in a place where you marked out your territory by your self-sufficiency, and by getting the land to provide what you needed for you and your family to survive.
This came across even more clearly in Kansas, which really is the rural prairie country that everybody thinks of. I went to a charity fundraising auction where the auctioneers were in full cowboy outfits (hats and holsters included), and where the highest selling items were guns and American flags. (We bought a picnic blanket. Sticking to our stereotypical Britishness, there.)
Before I read the Little House books, I don’t think I would have quite understood the Kansas outlook at all. Now, the balance between self-sufficiency and neighbourly-ness makes a little more sense. After all, it was only 150 years ago that ordinary individuals had to defend their claim here against constant threat – whether from Native Americans (I won’t even begin to get into the politics on that one), from wild animals, or from other settlers. To find a comparable situation in England, you probably have to go back around 1000 years.
And speaking of the land, another theme for Laura Ingalls Wilder, which strikes pretty true today, is sustainability and land use.
Although she obviously doesn’t talk about it in today’s terms (over-farming, climate change, global warming, consumerism, capitalism etc. etc.), there are comments all through the series about the way this growing society lives in relation to the land.
For instance, in Little House in the Big Woods, the Ingalls family live a fairly isolated life. Laura’s father very occasionally walks into town to trade furs for small provisions and household items like bolts of cloth, and at key times of the year, they trade work with a couple of local families. Other than that, the family are largely self-sufficient, living off what they can rear and grow, or what Laura’s father can hunt or trap in the woods. During the spring months, the family goes without meat, to ensure the animals can care for and rear their young, to repopulate the forest for next winter’s hunting.
By the time the family is living in De Smet in The Long Winter, Laura’s father is no longer trading furs for provisions, but is earning and then spending money. The family have beccome much more dependent on store-bought goods, as have the other families living in the town – something that becomes dangerous when nature intervenes, and supplies struggle to get through.
Although she is rarely very explicit on any political issues in her novels (from the rights of Native Americans to the capitalist society which she witnesses developing), it’s clear she has a great love of the land and of seeing things grow and then harvesting them. There’s a beauty to the self-sufficiency in the early novels.
And there’s a sense that in gaining a ‘developed society’, there has also been something tragically lost.