Sometimes, I think the only reason I had a child at all was to have someone to whom I could read the Little House books. My mom scored a complete set of them at a 1986 yard sale, and they figure heavily into my childhood memories. My mom read me Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie; I read the rest on my own. I still can’t read the early ones without hearing her voice behind the words. I think Farmer Boy sparked my love of food and food-writing (those butter-soaked pancakes! spicy apple pie for breakfast! the feast at the county fair!), and The Long Winter may be why I am terrified of cold weather. And when I got scarlet fever as a child, I was kind of excited, as though I had achieved the pioneer equivalent of street cred (although, thanks to the miracle of penicillin, I did no go blind like Mary – or even have to have my head shaved).


I never watched the television show. In fact, I am always surprised when I mention Little House on the Prairie and people say something about Michael Landon. Michael Landon, to me, is really only famous for dying, and if he was on my radar at all before his death in 1991, it was as an angel on Highway to Heaven, not as Pa Ingalls. Pa Ingalls will never look like Michael Landon to me; he will always look like Garth Williams’ illustrations from the books. But anyway, I can’t speak to the TV show.

Neither can I discuss the controversy over how much of the books Laura’s daughter, Rose, wrote or how domineering of a mother Laura was – although my first job was at the University of Missouri Press, which published The Ghost in the Little House among others. I can’t discuss it, not because I know nothing about, it but because I can’t bear to think about it. (I also can’t bear to think about Roald Dahl being an asshole.) At my former office at the press, there were framed reviews of various Laura Ingalls Wilder scholarly books that we’d published posted along the walls in one corridor, and I would take the long way to the bathroom to avoid having to walk past them.

I am happy to discuss the books otherwise. I will absolutely discuss the shameful depiction of American Indians in the books; the notion that Pa Ingalls might have been bipolar or had some other mental illness; the role that infertility plays – the Boasts are childless and try to buy Laura’s daughter, and Laura herself has only Rose and an infant son who dies soon after birth, raising questions about whether diphtheria caused some sort of complications or whether Laura could have been Rh-negative; and the specter of infant loss (Ma, Laura and Rose all lost baby boys). I will discuss these topics eagerly if you so much as get me started, but I am defensive about those books the way I am defensive about my crazy family members, my crazy friends and this crazy city. I take the Little House very seriously.

Anyway, Ruby turned 4-and-a-half on Tuesday, the summer solstice (she was born on the winter solstice), and I thought she was maybe getting old enough to enjoy Little House in the Big Woods. But no go. There weren’t nearly enough pictures to hold her interest, and my insistence that “these were Mommy’s favorite books!” fell on deaf ears. I will give it another try when she is older, but I am fearful that there will not be enough princesses/zombies/My Little Ponies in the books to really capture her interest. It is hard to realize, as every parent does, that not every interest can be shared. My mom and I are extremely close, but that is largely because she let me be my own person, giving up her dream of cheering at various sporting events in exchange for the reality of cheering at poetry readings and academic rallies, rather than forcing me to “share” interests. So if Ruby doesn’t like the Little House books, I won’t belabor the point. If she isn’t a straight-A student, that will be OK. If she is really good at sports, I will try to silence my inner voice that screams, “The ball is the enemy! Duck and cover!” and is the reason for that D I made in high school gym class. The one line in the sand for me is bad grammar. She can be whomever she wants to be, as long as she can correctly use “whomever.” (Or, alternatively, argue with me about whether I used “whomever” correctly above, as I don’t think I did because it is a separate clause and also, potentially, a predicate nominative. Anyone?)

Ruby can spurn the Little House books, but the second she uses the wrong form of “your,” she’s grounded. I am hopeful, though, that this won’t be an issue. A few weeks ago, she said, “Mommy, if I were you …” and I said, “Ruby! You just correctly used the subjunctive!!!” I still glow with maternal pride just thinking about it.

What are your parental lines in the sand? What did or do you hope to share with your kids? Was Pa Ingalls a good provider, a little bit crazy or both? Weigh in below.