Rereading the opening Little House book for the first time in probably half a decade, I was struck by the ways Wilder establishes the point of view for her protagonist—a four-year-old girl and second-born child. She expresses Laura’s thoughts about family members and fairness, for instance, with a simplicity that resonates with children, but with an honesty (untainted by any saccharine attempt to write a “happy,” and thus sappy, children’s book) that appeals to the adult reader as well. The moral and mental universe that she sets up is an appropriate world for a four-year-old, yet it also sets the tone for Laura’s—and the reader’s—maturation throughout the rest of the Little House series.
The most obvious example is the chapter “Summertime,” in which Laura slaps Mary for gloating about her golden curls being prettier than Laura’s brown ones, and Pa gives her a spanking. Throughout the book, we have seen Laura comparing herself to Mary, the firstborn, who is better behaved, prettier, more ladylike, the favorite with their elders, and—because of all this—also quite full of herself. Most recently, on their trip to Pepin, when Laura’s pocket splits and spills her pebbles in the wagon box, she muses: “Nothing like that ever happened to Mary. Mary was a good little girl who always kept her dress clean and neat and minded her manners. Mary had lovely golden curls, and her candy heart had a poem on it….Laura did not think it was fair.”
This comment perfectly encapsulates the emerging worldview of the now five-year-old Laura. Black is black and white is white; she knows some people more nearly approach a standard of goodness or beauty than others. There is also a standard of fairness or equality somewhere. Real life, however, does not seem to measure up to this standard.
This childhood observation fuels Laura’s personality as it is revealed in the rest of the books. She is very conscious of a sense of justice or fairness, of things that do not match up. She is also intensely driven to make herself stand out, which she accomplishes through academic success and through being unconventional or “independent.” (We can suspect that on Wilder’s part, the effort to define her self-worth also made her a demanding mother to her only daughter, Rose.) Yet stronger than her sense of fairness is her sense of duty. She works as a teacher, though she hates teaching, to send Mary to college, though Mary—being blind—will never make any significant use of higher education, whereas Laura’s active mind would have taken her far. She agrees without complaining to do it not because she wants to, but because she knows she “ought” to do so. “Fairness” does not enter the equation.
The reason for these adult decisions can, perhaps, also be found in the same childhood incident—in Laura’s relationship with Pa. Since the first pages of Big Woods, he has been her lodestar for reality, security, and assurance. His response to her quarrel with Mary over hair color seems at first weak and out of place: “Well, Laura, my hair is brown.” To Laura, even his spanking—though she knew it was deserved—was an injustice; afterward, she “sulked,” because the “only thing in the whole world to be glad about was that Mary had to fill the chip pan all by herself.” This, to her, is a small compensation for the unfairness of Mary being better and knowing it. Why would not Pa address the issue from the standpoint of equality, saying, “Oh, Laura, of course both kinds are pretty,” or—better—taking Mary to task for provoking her sister?
Pa responds as he does because the larger issue at stake is not fairness, but his relationship with his daughter. He knows that she looks to him as the ultimate answer for everything. So instead of addressing brown hair as “pretty” or “not pretty,” he lets Laura know that she can identify with him in her hair color, which is a part of who she is. If she can learn to be secure in herself—that is, in her character (which at five years old is developed through obedience to her father in practicing forbearance and not striking her sister), rather than her looks or her social grace—then she will mature into a woman who can face the real injustices of life with equanimity rather than complaint.
There is never any real resolution to the rivalry between Laura and Mary, until one of the later books, when they have a conversation about who was good and who was naughty, and Laura discovers, to her surprise, that her sister did not always look as beautiful in her heart as she did outside. But Wilder presents it simply as a part of life, one more thread that makes up the patchwork of Laura’s life and adds to her strength as an adult. Unlike more contemporary books such as Beverley Cleary’s Ramona Quimby series, which (in this reader’s estimation) places an excess of emphasis on sibling conflict and child-parent communication struggles, Little House does not obsess over Laura’s rocky relationship with her sister. Bigger things happen in her life, like living through the Long Winter and teaching away from home at fifteen, and she must “keep a stiff upper lip” to deal with them. Pioneers (being the practical Scotch that most of them were) do not have time to anguish over emotional crises when they must ford rivers, bring in crops, and get wild game on the table. That, in fact, may be one of the most valuable lessons that children—and adults—can gain from the Little House series.
Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.