Laura Ingalls Wilder Revisited

November 8, 2007 | 2 books mentioned 2 2 min read

Though the Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley isn’t the most “sexy” of critics (Pete Dexter’s comments notwithstanding), I’ve always enjoyed his columns. He will champion anything he believes is worth reading, even naming a book by John Grisham as one of the “best” of the year in 2005. He also clearly loves to read, and it shows in his writing, as opposed to, say, Michiko who I’d imagine dreads every book that crosses her threshold. Yardley also has a wonderful column called “Second Reading” that does away with the tyranny of the new and allows him to select and ruminate over any title from the vast trove of books he’s read. This week revisits a classic that I remember warmly from my childhood, Little House in the Big Woods, the first book in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s well-known series about life on the frontier.

Yardley offers some tidbits that were new to me: Wilder didn’t start writing the books until she was in her early 60s, and her daughter, a popular journalist and novelist, co-wrote, or at least heavily edited, the books. In revisiting the book, Yardley doesn’t succumb to nostalgia, but he does acknowledge why the books have had such staying power:

Some of the readers who’ve urged me to include one of Wilder’s books in Second Reading have said that they can be as satisfying for adult readers as for younger ones. In the sense that I had a pleasant time rereading Little House in the Big Woods, I guess that I agree, but it’s not exactly an adult pleasure. Wilder’s prose is clean, her people are immensely appealing and the details she provides of frontier domestic life are fascinating, but we shouldn’t try to persuade ourselves that these books are more than what they are: very good books for children that — as I realize far more keenly now than when I was a boy — paint a rather idealized picture of the American past. Wilder herself never seems to have pretended that she wrote for any except young readers, so let’s take her word for it.

If you’ve read the books, you’ll enjoy the essay.

Bonus Links: The Home-Schooling Book Boom, The Little Men Who Love Little House

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. Nice post today, really brings back memories of when I read these as a kid. They were so enjoyable and interesting.

  2. (Excuse this if it repeats; I'm not sure if the post system is taking this comment and have entered it more than once.)

    I read Little House in the Big Woods for the first time a few weeks before the Washington Post essay. The book is not the sappy tv show I remember running to turn off (and to which I owe my long delay to reading the original Little House books) but comes across more as a tale by an adult trying to relay how she saw things as a child — less sentimental than just how she saw life as a little girl. The account of strict Sunday observance enforced on the children ("They might look at pictures and they might hold their rag dolls nicely and talk to them. But there was nothing else they could do.") can be seen now as bordering on cruelty. Within the story, though, it is just another event carefully relayed sans judgement. The lack of a full list of dirty, depressing facts about that pioneer life doesn't make it historically inaccurate, which appears to be the view Yardley takes in his essay, or even necessarily sentimental. Wilder lived the life she described and I have trouble believing all the careful detail, from song lyrics to how to salt down deer meat, is somehow less true or rose-colored for leaving out full disclosure on violence, disease and death. Though intended for children, this book and its followup, Little House on the Prairie, is accurate enough to be on any reading list about pioneer life and interesting enough to be on everyone's "to read" list, child or adult.

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