It’s safe to say that Little House on the Prairie is not my typical kind of reading choice. It’s a children’s book, a picture book, a kind of historical fiction based on memoir, and, I don’t know, a lot of other things that don’t seem to fit my style. But mostly, it’s a children’s picture book, and I can’t remember the last time I read one. That said, it made my list this year because of a category on the Back to the Classics Challenge, at which I’m failing miserably to succeed. The category is “Classic Adaptation,” and I chose this one both because I’d never read it and because I have fond memories of watching the old 1970s/80s television series with my grandma. We also used to watch Highway to Heaven together (she had a thing for Michael Landon).
The edition I read is the fully color illustrated collector’s edition, with art by Garth Williams, acclaimed illustrated of such books as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. The book is printed on thick, glossy paper and has a substantial heft for being a children’s book. This made me a little intimidated, and I refrained from dogearing or writing on any of the pages, the way I normally do when I’m reading. That said, I’ll refer here to general passages rather than specific quotes with page numbers, because I also didn’t write anything down in my notebook. Whoops.
I’m not sure what I can say about this book that no one else hasn’t, so I just give some personal reactions. Things I like include the fact that each chapter is a kind of mini-episode, making it no surprise that the book series was turned into a television series; it’s kind of perfectly set up that way, though of course this one was first published in 1935, so I think we can assume television wasn’t on her mind. I appreciated the way that each chapter really is about this “little house on the prairie,” all the steps it took to create a home in the late 1800s high plains United States, “Indian Country,” in this case. I loved the little glimpses into construction, daily activities, hardships and wonderments, and Wilder’s descriptions are both targeted and full of joy.
I was less enamored by some of the dated elements, of course, like the way Native Americans are described many times throughout and the general simplicity/lack of depth in all story features, from characters to descriptions, to plot, and etc. Thank goodness for the character Pa, who is wise and compassionate, and who teaches not just his family, but the reader, much about how to live with and treat other people; how to avoid assumptions, give people the benefit of the doubt, and act first with kindness and generosity. I have to say Pa might be one of my favorite literary characters, filled as he is with goodness and ingenuity. I’ve always dreamed of being the kind of person who could not just survive in any situation, but thrive. Pa always seems to know just what to do, and it’s a wonder to witness.
Characterization in general, though, is pretty flat, and there aren’t really any major story arcs, no complexity. This is no surprise, since the book is intended for young readers, but I’ll still admit that it’s a bit less substantial than I was hoping or imagining it would be (probably because I had the television series so in mind.) I was both heartbroken and cheered at the end, though, when the family makes a particular decision, mostly because they must, but also because it’s the right thing to do, which I’ll leave only alluded to in order not to spoil anything.
The illustrations, by the way, are absolutely lovely. They do add to the story, and I can picture a young family reading this aloud together, pausing to consider the illustrations that are so generously included on most of the pages.
I have to admit that, upon finishing the book, I did search for the television series again, but I couldn’t find it streaming anywhere (we have Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Roku, YouTube TV, and Amazon Prime) — this last, Amazon, was the only place I found it, but it seemed to cost something like $2.00 per episode!? Nostalgia is strong, but not that strong!