"All around them there was nothing but grassy prairie spreading to the edge of the sky": Little House on the Prairie as Sacred Text

As part of my “History of Children’s Literature Publishing” course I’m working on multiple projects over the course of the semester relating to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1935 novel Little House on the Prairie which is the third book published in what would become the eight book Little House series. This is the first of multiple blog posts that will stem from those projects.

At the time of this post, there’s a first edition copy of Little House on the Prairie selling for 3,000 dollars. I checked that same edition out from the Simmon’s University Library a few weeks ago for free (just one of many reasons I love libraries). That first edition copy is currently sitting in my apartment in Boston waiting to be returned to Boston this fall when I return to Boston to start my second year of grad school.

Bookseller image from AbeBooks.com

Before working on this project, I wasn’t aware that Garth Williams didn’t do the first illustrations of the Little House books, rather they were done by Helen Sewell, an illustrious illustrator in her own right. I was hoping to share pictures of Sewell’s illustrations with you, but that’s not an option at the moment.

I knew that there had been an editorial change made to Little House on the Prairie in the early 1950s after a reader wrote to Wilder’s then editor Ursula Nordstrom asking about the line “there were no people. Only Indians” (1935, 1) which was later changed to “There were not settlers. Only Indians” (1953, 2). Like most others, I’d never seen that original line in print.

But when I held the first editions I checked out from the library (Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy, and Little House on the Prairie) it felt like a religious experience.

Having listened to the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” and recently read The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure, about the author’s journey through what she calls “Laura World,” I began to think about how Little House on the Prairie might function as a sacred text both in my own life and in the larger literary canon using the methodology established by the team behind “Harry Potter and The Sacred Text.”

Trusting the Text

Trusting the text means to believe that the text is “worthy of attention and contemplation” and can provide valuable rewards from studying the text. For me Little House on the Prairie is a text that should be attended to in this way not only for the story of resilience and survival on the high plains, but also because I am obsessed with the beauty with which Wilder describes Kansas. People are more familiar with L. Frank Baum’s “great gray prairie” which presents a dry, flat, cracked-earth Kansas, but Wilder’s Kansas speaks natural beauty and connection to me in an important way.

One of my favorite things about that “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” methodology is that just because we treat a text as sacred does not mean that we think the text is perfect “either in construction or moral teaching.”

This is key for me when considering Little House on the Prairie as a sacred text because you can’t ignore just how prevalent negative portrayals of Native American’s are across the text. It can be difficult to consider if we should separate the art from the artist, and I don’t have an answer. It’s also complex as we engage with concepts of history and fact in the Little House books. But to me, trusting the text in this sense means dissecting problematic parts of the text and learning how to converse about them in a productive way. Looking back, I hope that’s something I accomplished with the post I wrote clear back when I started this blog in 2017: Laura Ingalls Wilder & Louise Erdrich

Rigor and Ritual

“By reading the text slowly, repeatedly and with concentrated attention, our effort becomes a key part of what makes the book sacred. The text in and of itself is not sacred, but is made so through our rigorous engagement.”

While I’ve never read Little House on the Prairie using any of the ritual practices that they use on the podcast, I have read and reread Little House on the Prairie multiple times over the past three years (since I started this blog basically) in a variety of forms (I did the audiobook last fall) for a variety of reasons (various classes and personal reasons). I find that any time you reread any book, you get something new out of it depending at which point you’re at in your life.

In my opinion, adding supplemental materials also helps with rigor and ritual and the attention to detail and context that we are able to provide a text. My favorite part of working on my project to tell the publishing story of Little House on the Prairie was engaging with archival material from the Rose Wilder Lane papers which are held by the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum (Lane was Hoover’s first biographer). Additionally, I engaged with multiple biographies, including Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires (which I reviewed for my blog in early 2018). Being able to explore these supplementary materials has deepened the way I read Little House on the Prairie.

For example, one of my favorite facts from Prairie Fires that affects the way I look at Laura’s descriptions of the natural world, is that early drafts of Little House on the Prairie included far more details of the landscape and really show how strong Laura’s connection was with physical place even though much of this was later edited out by Rose (Fraser, 353-359).

Reading in Community

Little House for me has always been a communal experience. My mom read Little House on the Prairie to my sisters and me where were were children from her own copy which came from her paperback box set that she kept in the pie-safe in the basement. My grandma has her own Little House box set and I can perfectly picture it sitting in the little built in bookshelf among my grandpa’s Westerns from having gazed at that shelf so many times. I never had my own copies of the Little House books, but I read (and reread) from my older sister’s box set that she kept in her room. My best friend Katie and I have long bonded over our love of Wilder, and are continually planning our literary road trip (that will happen someday in the future, no matter how distant).

One of the delights of working on this blog post from Colorado rather than in Boston is that when I opened one of the drawers of my desk, I found my mom and sisters box sets side by side. Having reread Little House on the Prairie and Little House in the Big Woods both recently, I think it might be time to reread the rest of the Little House books, and I’m glad I have these books at my disposal.

My mom’s box set is on the left, and my sisters is on the right. You can tell that we’re not exactly gentle on our Little House books.

Being able to talk about any book with others is one of life’s greater joys. But I find that there’s something about discussing a childhood favorite in ways that lead you to rethink your interpretation of that text or find greater depths in a book than you did as a kid is truly engaging and enjoyable. From friends, to family, to graduate courses–I’m always glad to engage with the Little House books in community. Of course, that means I’d love to talk about Little House with any of you as well!

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