Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Revisiting Little House on the Prairie

Like many children born in the 1970s, one of my best childhood friends-in-a-book was a plucky pioneer girl named Laura.

I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books: Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek... I read and re-read them so many times that I knew the stories backwards and forwards.

And I loved Laura. Like me, she had a older blonde sister who was the one who liked to cook and sew, while Laura wanted to be running barefoot in the wind. When cows got into the haystacks, or a ball of fire was rolling toward the house, Laura was the one who leapt into action. She was the brave one, always ready for another adventure. I loved that about her. And I loved that she was always pushing back her sunbonnet so she could see the whole world around her.

Over the years, and my many moves, my well-worn series of Little House books has traveled with, covering more miles than the Wilder family rode in their wooden wagon.

A few months ago I brought out the first book to show Miya. At first she was not too interested. She is used to short books filled with colourful illustrations and brief narratives. Long chapter books with only occasional pen and ink drawings were new to her. But just like her, the character of Laura is four years-old when we first meet her in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. And Ingalls Wilder writes in a beautifully descriptive yet accessible style that is perfect for children. She describes birds in flight, the shifting play of colours and light in a sunset, the sound of winter winds on clapboard walls... I could see Miya imagination increasingly engaging with the stories.

Soon she was asking for the Little House book each night at bedtime and would listen carefully to the story. When we finished one, she couldn't wait to start the next. She listened wide-eyed to stories of prairie blizzards and fires, wolves howling in a circle around the house. We had to reassure her several times that there are no wolves around here.

I wondered if she would lose interest as Laura grew into a teenager, then a young woman. But she stayed engaged in the story. I will admit I skipped over some passages in the latter books. The part where the woman she was boarding with pulled a knife on her husband - we passed over that. I also left out the chapter where Pa and some other men dress up in 'black face'.

But the book prompted conversations about the native rights and how settlers pushed people off their land. We had discussions about racism when Ma says 'The only good Indian is a dead Indian.' And I figured our other conversations about diversity have sunk in when Miya announced that after college Mary would likely marry someone who is also blind, "a blind boy or a blind girl".

We finished the last book a few weeks ago, but Miya still brings up Laura and Mary from time to time. It's neat how they have become real to her, just like they were to me in my childhood.

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