For Little House Fans (everyone else please wait until next post)

This weekend I spent some time reading articles about the Little House on the Prairie books, and how Rose Wilder Lane, one of the founders of what is known as modern Libertarianism and also Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, heavily edited the original manuscripts in order to further her political agenda. I knew this already, to some extent. After all, there is a lot of discussion, mostly from Pa, about being free and independent and about how you can never depend on anyone but yourself. God helps those who help themselves, pull yourself up by your boot straps, et cetera. I was surprised to find, however, that certain details have been changed, hypocritically, that are absolutely central to the story. I knew that the Ingalls family had illegally squatted on land in what is now Kansas, “Indian Territory” land that belonged to the native people and that was not up for settlement, no matter how huffy Pa got at the end of Little House on the Prairie. “I’ll not stay here to be taken away by the soldiers like an outlaw!” Ah, Pa, but an outlaw you were.

What I didn’t know was that Mary’s education at the Iowa College for the Blind was paid for by the government of Dakota. That’s a pretty major detail, since in all the books Laura was teaching school in wretched conditions at a very young age, in order to earn money to send and keep Mary at college. I guess that what poor Laura was doing was earning money just to help keep her family from being completely impoverished and destitute. Poor Laura! Living in that shack in the middle of the god-forsaken prairie, forty below with the wind always blowing and the snow so deep that walking to the schoolhouse was almost beyond her strength, staying with a homicidal woman who threatened her husband with a knife and who was almost certainly suffering from deep depression. Not that I blame her. Mrs. Brewster, the least understood woman in the history of the Little House books. If I were stuck in a similar situation, where my days were spent entirely a) sweeping out the one-room shack, b) cooking two meals a day that consist only of potatoes and salt pork, and c) maybe doing the laundry when it wasn’t minus 40, I’d probably want to murder someone too. And yet, Laura went through this to help with the family’s terrible financial situation, and not to merely send her sister to school. Depressing indeed.

I recently read a book about the Ingalls family; I’ve always kind of wondered about long-suffering Ma, who essentially packed up the family with a cheery countenance any time her crazy husband decided to pick up and move cross-country. Was Ma constantly on laudanum? Or was she some kind of earthly angel? Here’s the depressing answer: Caroline was getting kind of old-maidish – she was a schoolteacher, as well – and Charles was considered to be extremely handsome and dashing. His proposal to schoolmarmish Caroline was a huge surprise to friends and family, who did not think that she was his equal in attractiveness and spirit. THEY DID NOT THINK SHE WAS PRETTY ENOUGH FOR CHARLES. Take a look at this picture and see for yourself:

Perhaps it’s my bias against Old Crazy Blue Eyes, but I think it’s Ma who has the looks in that family. We all know couples who don’t “match”, as it were, but I don’t think it’s PA who has stooped beneath him here. Well, we all know the depressing truth of the matter, and that is that women’s appearances have always been a kind of currency. Apparently Caroline did not have enough currency to afford herself a non-crazy husband. But I digress: discussions of women and their worth as a person vis a vis their personal appearance shall appear on another blog post. See also: future discussion of Sense and Sensibility. 

Ugh, I’m sure that was a styling beard at the time but I find it repugnant. Of course, I freely (and independently!) admit my bias against facial hair, given that I even found Jon Hamm’s Emmy beard to be repulsive. This is a matter of personal opinion, of course, and I know there are a lot of you out there who dig the mountain man, or at least the stubbly, look.
None of this, of course, bothered me when I was a child. I read those books cover to cover many times and I was absolutely enchanted by the pioneer lifestyle. It didn’t occur to me that those ten hour drives to visit my grandparents in the back of a sedan with two brothers, a dog, and all our toys and books to keep us occupied for that time was nothing compared with riding in a covered wagon for months at a time. It didn’t occur to me that if something happened to Pa when he was walking hundreds of miles to find work because he borrowed money he couldn’t pay back to build a fancy house – with glass windows and an actual stove – or when he went to buy supplies somewhere in Kansas, or any other time, that life would go from dreary to desperate in a flash. It would be all the worse for a woman left alone with four young girls in the middle of nowhere. Back then, if something had happened to Pa, the very best option Ma would have had would be to marry someone, anyone, and she would be forever beholden to whomever would take on such a burden, as it were. It’s a very sad thought, to be sure. I guess Crazy Pa was better than No Pa At All.
What did occur to me, as a child, was that Mary, with her golden curls, was much more beautiful than Laura, with her straight brown hair. This is what I looked like at age seven:
Notice I’m reading Little Town on the Prairie; maybe Almanzo has touched Laura’s mitten tip. Anyway, please note that my hair is BROWN and STRAIGHT. This is the message from the Little House books: blonde = beautiful, brunette = ugly. I may be sensitive to this since my best friend at the time had gorgeous, thick, wavy, white blonde hair. Wherever we went, her hair was commented on and gushed over. I have never gotten over that, apparently, since my hair issues could fill a book.
In reality, though, this is Laura:
and this is Mary:
Draw whatever conclusions you will, but I think Laura sells herself a bit short, no?


  1. Oh, I loved this so much! I was like you – devouring all of the books before age 10, and harbouring a very unrealistic pioneer fetish ever since. (as in, I’ll take the dresses but not the drudgery; the cows but not the cowshit). Still, some of this was surprising to me. Clearly I need to delve into the more scholastic aspects of LHOP. Also, Ma kind of looks like a cross between Jessica Biel and Jessica Pare, but Pa just looks insane.

  2. Yes! And seven-year-old you is as adorable as right-now you. And I am not opposed to all facial hair ever, but Pa’s beard is an abomination that should not stand, and I agree about Jon Hamm’s Emmy beard also (actually I don’t find Jon Hamm all that attractive even without the facial hair). I want to say something intelligent about this latest Little House bombshell, but my husband is in Shanghai trying to sell our cows or something and I’m busy baking pumpkin scones and trying not to burn down the house or get eaten by wolves. It’s exhausting.

  3. And Laura! In that photo, I feel like if she just turned and met my eyes, she would be Melissa Gilbert.

  4. This is my favourite post ever. EVER. In the history of the internet. I love it like I love reading about Almanzo touching Laura’s mitten tip.

  5. man, this little brown-haired girl had the SAME longstanding sense of ugliness fostered by those damn books (which i loved.) i still have my copies, which my Nannie gave me, but with the racism and the Ayn Randianism (is that a word?) i’ve been wondering whether i’d read ’em to the kids or not…now that i remember the hair insecurity issues i’m thinking perhaps i should just show ’em the TV series instead.

    also, you and Bea are both totally spot on – Laura a) is stunning and Mary is…not so much (and if i ever read the damn books to my brown-haired daughter i am TOTALLY pulling up this post for visual affirmation) and b) looks a LOT like Melissa Gilbert. eerily so.

    fascinating, how those characters are seeded inside all our heads.

    • I have read them to my kids – in fact, we’re re-reading one now – and they loved them. We discuss the racism and the unsavoury details, but the brown-versus-blonde hair thing is just sad. Right?

  6. So fun to get to see PICTURES of the REAL PEOPLE! I never saw pictures of them before!

    My least favorite part of the books, I think, is where they get these pitiful, pitiful Christmas stockings (though of course they are WILDLY GRATEFUL for them as they ALWAYS ARE for EVERYTHING, which of course permanently ruins motherhood for all of us who don’t have story children), and it says something like “Laura took one single lick of her candy cane, but Mary was not so greedy.” COME ON. Oh, SAINTLY MARY, clearly, to deprive herself so completely and meaninglessly! And evil, evil Laura takes one tiny lick of her OWN SPECIAL CHRISTMAS CANDY, what a GREEDY BEAST!!!

  7. Aw, that picture of you reading Little House is so adorable! You’re like a little Laura. 🙂 I’m also obsessed with Little House – loved the books and the TV show as a kid, and these days I cannot stop thinking about Caroline Ingalls and what her life was like. Did she know when she got married what she was signing up for? How did she hold it together? Looks wise, I certainly think she was more than up to Pa’s standards…maybe she should have held out for a better offer.

    Have you read The Wilder Life? It’s a book by a woman who was also obsessed with Caroline Ingalls, and so went on a bit a quest through the midwest to visit some of the places the family had lived, and to imagine what she went through. It’s been on my reading list for ages but I haven’t got around to it yet – I hear it’s good, though.

  8. I never got into Little House on the Prairie…it was all about Babysitters Club,Nancy Drew and a weird obsession with the pictures in the Guinness book of world records for me ( don’t ask ) ..I do remember the tv show..well “sort of” I remember changing channels when it came on LOL..but I do love Jane Austen so I am curious to see where you go with the Sense and Sensibility blog 🙂

  9. I am a regular reader of your blog now even though I originally found it through different search terms (nothing about bras or moustaches I assure you haha). Come to think of it I’ve been reading for almost a year now but do not have a blog of my own and will admit to being one of the “girl in a boy house” searchers. Maybe one of these days I will save it as a favourite instead of typing it in? haha.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that while I have never commented before I felt compelled to say that I absolutely LOVED this post! I agree it was the best post ever! I hope you will write about Sense and Sensibility very soon!

    • Thanks for commenting! And thanks so much for reading – even if you DID get here without bralessness or moustache interests 🙂 Glad to “meet” you! xo

  10. I will need your reading list, stat, to compare to my embarrassingly large LIW book collection to see what I’m missing. And you really need to include an Almanzo photo on here. Rowr.

  11. It is real?
    Holy shit.
    I honestly thought it was a tv show with that guy with the too big waving and behaving hair.
    I was too busy reading crap like “Are you there God. It’s me Margaret”
    You so smaht

  12. Little Ragamuffin says

    Gosh, thats completely shattered my fond memories of tv’s Little House on the Prairie series. Pa certainly threw me in his picture definitely prefer Michael Landon, but think the real Laura, resembles Melissa Gilbert quite a bit! Great reading, thankyou!

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