Published on July 18th, 2023 | by Cheryl Klein0
Going Home Again: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Settler Colonialism, and the Stories We Inherit
1. Medium-Sized House in the Suburbs
It’s hard to separate my own childhood from that of Laura Ingalls. Not because our lives were remotely similar, but because the Little House books took root in my imagination so early and deeply. She grew up in a series of little houses—in the big woods, on the prairie, in small towns doing their best to manifest America’s self-proclaimed destiny. I grew up in just one house, in a suburb that bordered the Pacific Ocean. By the time I came along, Westward expansion had gone as far west as it could go.
On my proudest day of kindergarten, I wore a long yellow dress printed with tiny pink flowers and a matching sunbonnet. Like Laura’s Ma, mine sewed, and she’d made me my favorite “old fashioned” outfit. Immediately a boy teasingly inquired as to whether there was a bee in my bonnet. No, I told him, confused. It was clearly uncool to wear a sunbonnet in a sea of E.T. T-shirts, but I only cared a little bit.
The fantasy still clings to me: the maple candy made by pouring syrup on snow, the grasshoppers that darkened the sky and ate their crops, the austerity of pioneer life punctuated by humble, beautifully described abundance—oranges and a penny in Christmas stockings.
My mom read the books aloud to my sister and me beginning when I was about five, roughly the same age as Laura in the first book, Little House in the Big Woods. For all the homogeneity of 1980s Manhattan Beach, California, I knew that the world as it was was not the world as it had always been.
My oldest son is eight now, and I’ve tried to replicate my librarian mom’s reading traditions. I read aloud to him each night before bed, but we’re not very consistent. We reread some books and never finish others. Sometimes I get the sense I’m a human white noise machine.
A couple of months ago, I pulled a copy of Little House in the Big Woods from his shelf. It had once been my copy. The pages were stiff and browned, and a corner was torn from the cover, where illustrator Garth Williams had depicted Laura cradling Charlotte, her beloved rag doll.
“How about this book?” I suggested. “It’s about a little girl who lives in the forest a long time ago. I loved it when I was a kid.”
Dash is somewhat receptive to stories about my childhood, so he was briefly intrigued. Then he fell asleep and, the next night, wanted to read a Star Wars book.
But I kept picking up the book. It’s all about chores, I marveled. Chores within chores. Ma spent pages churning butter, then dying it yellow with carrot juice. Not only did the family tap their own maple trees, they carved the taps themselves.
My mom loved recipes that started with a boxed mix of some sort, and my dad preferred to see nature from the comfort of an RV, but they, like the Ingallses, believed in self-sufficiency and hard work. Instead of churning and plowing, they vacuumed and remodeled. They scrimped and saved, and while there were always glorious new plastic toys at Christmas, there weren’t as many new plastic toys as some of my friends got. Still, I knew, it could have been just an orange.
My mom was an omnivore when it came to books. I think she picked up the first Little House book because it was beautifully written—the language is strikingly simple, like the hidden slopes of a prairie that at first appears flat—not because they embodied her personal values. Yet it’s hard not to see a bit of my family in the Ingalls household. They were so insular that I couldn’t remember any supporting characters other than Nellie Oleson. Sometimes the prairie isolation reads as romantic, but often it seems boring and lonely, to Laura then, and to me now.
My parents weren’t much for friends either. Their own parents were all dead by the time I was four, and I only had three cousins, whom we didn’t see more than a couple of times a year. In On the Banks of Plum Creek, the Ingalls family lives just two miles from town. Ma finally gets to live out her dream of having a house built from sawn lumber, close enough to civilization that her daughters can walk to school and the family can attend church every Sunday.
This was another thing that struck me upon rereading: Although Ma seems to genuinely love and respect her husband, and vice versa, her longing for education and community are palpable. Although Pa tries to make good on his promise that the girls will attend school, eventually, he usually gets his way when it comes to constant moves, a hunter in all senses of the word, pushing westward in a country where, already, “buffalo wolves” were dying out and flocks of birds were thinning.
My dad can hardly be described as an adventurer, but he took more risks than my mom did. He dreamed of retiring to a house he’d built himself, deep in a redwood forest somewhere. My mom wanted to be close to friends and a good hospital. My dad usually won. They loved each other and made decisions as a couple, but there were echoes of Ma’s “Yes, Charles” in their relationship.
2. Land Acknowledgements
I was well into adulthood when I learned that Laura Ingalls Wilder, along with her daughter and editor, Rose Wilder Lane, was a staunch and early advocate of libertarian values. They fretted over the New Deal, despite the fact that Wilder and her family benefitted from a federal farm loan. All your faves are problematic, of course.
I am in no rush to defend their politics, nor the blatant racism in the books. Even as a kid, I’d known that it was weird that Pa put on blackface to play the fiddle at a party.
But I do feel protective of my child self, who loved the stories so deeply, who always pretended to be good, blind, beautiful Mary, even though (or because) I was much more like impatient, brown-haired, imaginative Laura. I resisted rereading the books because I didn’t want to have to hate them.
But when I cracked open Little House in the Big Woods, I knew with something like an inner manifest destiny that I would be rereading the entire series.
In Little House on the Prairie, the second in the series, the family leaves the Big Woods of Wisconsin for “Indian Territory.” Having recently read Kelly Lytle Hernández’s City of Inmates, which opens with the Spanish conquest of the Tongva in Southern California, I finally had a working definition of what settler colonialism actually was: settlement with the intent to eliminate the Native population of a given area. I was guardedly intrigued to read an account of settler colonialism at its most literal.
The racism and cultural bias is as loud as a wolf’s howl. Yet it doesn’t have the feeling of being conventional wisdom just yet. As the country is forming, so are its myths.
As a recent New Yorker piece reasoned, the genocide of Native Americans was a slow boil, and viewing North American tribes as victims who were immediately outgunned does them a disservice: “they dominated far longer than they were dominated.”
This comes across in Little House on the Prairie. On one hand, Pa believes that if the local Osage people aren’t farming the land, it’s wasted on them. On the other, his way of life is much more similar to theirs than it is to, say, mine. He knows how to track animals and people based on their footprints. He hunts for most of the food his family eats. He trades furs rather than using cash to buy what he needs. He takes a practical, neighborly approach to the Osage. White people are outnumbered, so the best strategy is one of respect and generosity. This means sometimes sitting quietly as the locals wander into their house and eat their food. He also empathizes, even as he colonizes. Of course the tribes are angry and plotting, he says. Wouldn’t you be mad if someone pushed you off your land?
Then the family learns that they were misled: This part of Kansas has not, in fact, yet been opened by the U.S. government for white settlement. Pa is mad. But then something amazing happens. The family packs up and leaves the house they’ve just spent a year building by hand.
I wondered if the people who scrawled Gentrification is violence on the walls of my local coffee shop would do the same. If nothing else, the Ingallses’ retreat from Kansas underscored how individual behavior is only a small part of any history. Urban gentlemen in Washington, D.C. decided who and who was not allowed to live on Native land. For all his rugged individualism, Pa took his cues from them.
3. Tastes Like Springtime
As a kid reading Plum Creek, I was horrified when a neighbor child went home with Laura’s rag doll and abandoned her in a mud puddle. I can still feel the outrage, the tragedy of it. But somehow I entirely forgot that Pa got lost in a blizzard and almost died trying to find his way home. I forgot that Ma hung the lantern in the window and tried to keep the girls’ spirits up for days that must have stretched out endlessly.
Now, of course, I put myself in the parents’ shoes. In The Long Winter, the family finally finds their homestead in De Smet, South Dakota, only to weather the worst winter in two decades. Blizzard upon blizzard makes it impossible for the train to get through to restock stores, and Pa spends every sunny (but still freezing) day harvesting hay from the snow-covered prairie, plummeting into grassy crevasses with his horse and sled as a matter of course. The hay is for their weary livestock and to twist into tight sticks to burn as fuel; the coal and wood and kerosene are long gone.
No one is allowed to complain, because to do so would be to name Voldemort. They sing and sew and recite lessons from their school books.
If they have regrets about homesteading, they don’t voice them. Survival means pushing onward, twisting hay, and celebrating every stray wheatstock they can find.
By the Shores of Silver Lake takes place when Mary has recently been left blind, apparently by scarlet fever. She never sheds a tear, although Laura acknowledges the mourning they all do silently—Mary had been the intellectual, who would have loved to become a teacher, and now Laura must manifest that destiny in her stead. But their (undoubtedly exaggerated) plucky pioneer spirit also combats ableism. As soon as they learn that colleges for the blind exist, they begin saving their pennies to send her.
Pa instructs Laura to see the world for Mary, and Laura takes her mission seriously. Laura’s descriptions are sometimes too metaphoric for Mary.
“‘Sheep sorrel tastes likes springtime,’” Laura muses in Little Town on the Prairie.
Mary corrects her: “‘It really tastes a little like lemon flavoring, Laura.’”
I didn’t realize it as a kid, but Laura narrating the world for Mary is the story of Laura becoming a writer. I did the same, in a secondhand kind of way. She went into the bathroom and sat on the beige toilet seat, I whispered to myself. No blind children were wondering about my bathroom habits, but that’s how the world came alive for me. Everything was a story.
4. What Were Their Names?
Dash sometimes asks about his ancestors. I don’t know if his curiosity is innately human—the desire we all have to know where we come from—or heightened by the fact of his adoption. I tell him about my mom, who died before he was born, and about my grandparents. I tell him that he has three sets of ancestors: mine, Mama’s, and his birth family’s. Two from Mexico, one from Europe. I tell him there are different ways to be related to someone.
“But what were their names?” he wants to know.
I tell him the name of his birth mother’s father, who died shortly before he was born. I found his obituary online when I googled her.
Recently we went to the Maya exhibition at the California Science center. On the way over, we talked about how some of his Mexican ancestors may have been Mayan. Or Aztec/Nahua, or Zapotec, or…I wish I knew for sure.
“Were they mean to them?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Like how in America….”
“Like how white people treated Native American people badly?”
Intuitively, he’d already picked up on the fact that being Indigenous meant enduring abuse at the hands of white people. On one hand, he wasn’t wrong, and I told him as much. On the other, I wanted him to know that Indigenous culture was so much more than suffering.
The museum exhibit communicated as much, with neon displays against striking black backdrops making bits of pottery come alive. He liked the model of the city of Tikal and the glowering jaguar masks. But he sped through the exhibit at Dash-of-The Incredibles speed. I wanted him to like museums, and the Maya, so I jogged along behind him and didn’t lecture.
Later, I would get books about the Maya and Aztec peoples from the library. He expressed excitement and then ignored them in favor of a Dogman book we’d read many times.
But that day, the day of the museum, he came home and began digging in a patch of dirt in our backyard with the pointed handle of a beach umbrella. (He’s also a fan of those Primitive Building videos on YouTube.)
“It takes a lot of handwork to do this,” he explained.
Maybe the little thatched huts surrounding the steep pyramids of Tikal had made an impression after all. Maybe he’ll come back to it when he’s my age.