Reading the "Little House" books

I’ve been reading the Little House series of books to my seven-year-old son Y. He loves them, even the rather slow descriptions of the prairie landscape in The House on Plum Creek.

I remember a discussion on a Jewish blog about whether the description of killing and cooking a pig in the first book, Little House in the Big Woods, was appropriate for Jewish children. I felt comfortable explaining to Y. that Laura’s family is not Jewish so they eat pork. Learning about how they prepared it is educational, if a bit disgusting (which is fine). The only part I’ve skipped so far (besides the entire second book, Little House on the Prairie, because I don’t have a copy) is the discussion about Santa Claus and how he represents the generosity in all of us, etc. When the Ingalls family goes to church for the first time I got a little nervous, but Reverend Alden just “talks to God” with no mention of Jesus.

I handled the lengthy discussions about Christmas by saying that the Jews have fun holidays throughout the year, but the Christians wait all year long for their one big celebration. Even back then Christmas seemed to be mainly about the gifts.

Even if we skip the parts that are blatantly Christian, by exposing our children to secular literature we are also exposing them to a secular/Christian lifestyle/outlook or what have you. So unless you plan to allow only “frum” books in your house that is an ongoing concern. Then you have to worry about not having exposed your children to good writing.

The Little House books are good mussar about making do with a little bit. The girls share a reader by holding up pages in the middle; Laura starts from the beginning while Mary looks at the more advanced material. My son was intrigued when Laura and Mary get money from their parents for a new slate, but realize they don’t have enough for a pencil until they remember their Christmas pennies from a couple of years back. They decide to spend Mary’s penny on the pencil, and Mary will own half of Laura’s penny. My son and I discussed why they didn’t just buy two pencils. Pencils aren’t really a luxury. But slates were, and they only had one of those. So another pencil would have been superfluous.

We’re about to get to my favorite scene in the entire series, from the chapter “Grasshoppers Walking” in On the Banks of Plum Creek. Here’s an excerpt:

…Across the dooryard the grasshoppers were walking shoulder to shoulder and end to end, so crowded that the ground seemed to be moving …

…Grasshoppers were walking over Carrie. They came pouring in the east window, side-by-side, end-to-end, across the window sill and down the wall and over the floor.

…That whole daylong the grasshoppers walked west. All the next day they went on walking west. And on the third day they walked without stopping.

…They walked steadily over the house. They walked over the stable. They walked over Spot until Pa shut her in the stable. They walked into Plum Creek and drowned, and those behind kept on walking in and drowning until the dead grasshoppers choked the creek and filled the water and live grasshoppers walked across them.

…The fourth day came and the grasshoppers went on walking. The sun shone hotter than ever, with a terribly bright light. It was nearly noon when Pa came from the stable shouting: “Caroline! Caroline! Look out doors! The grasshoppers are flying.”

I found the excerpt in an article by researcher Charles R. Bomar about the extinction of these locusts: This represented the last stand of the Rocky Mountain Locust on the Great Plains, and no major swarms were recorded again in the Great Plains. The last specimens collected were recorded from southern Canada in 1902.

Reading through the series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, we can see how the self-sufficient lifestyle represented in Little House in the Big Woods also becomes extinct, as Laura’s family becomes more prosperous yet more dependent on credit, hard currency, and store-bought goods.