ROAD TRIP! We Drop in on the Wilder Family

I’ve read all of the Little House books many times, but Farmer Boy, which doesn’t feature the Ingalls family at all, is my favorite. Malone, New York, site of the Wilder homestead is a five-hour drive from where we live. While we were reading the book, we told Junior, “Someday, we’ll visit Almanzo’s house.”

The front of the Wilder Homestead. Remember when Almanzo and Royal had to chase Lucy the pig through the snowball bushes?

The front of the Wilder Homestead. Remember when Almanzo and Royal had to chase Lucy the pig through the snowball bushes?

Someday came this summer! We vacationed for a week at Selkirk Shores State Park, on the shore of Lake Ontario, and all three of us agreed that this was our chance to visit Almanzo’s house—and we should take it!

Franklin County, where Malone is located, is still farm country, although Malone’s suburbs have spread out around the Wilder family farm. The Wilder family moved to Minnesota in 1875, but the house in Malone is the original described in the book. Our terrific docent took us through the house and rebuilt barn complex, explained all of the farm machinery to us, and even accompanied us down to the Trout River, where Almanzo went swimming and fishing. Junior’s favorite part was eating blueberries from the farm’s blueberry bushes. I was amazed to hear that restoration work in the parlor had uncovered Almanzo’s disastrous blacking splotch on the wallpaper—the one that his sister Eliza Jane skillfully covered over before their parents returned home from vacation. 

Here are Almanzo and another of his sisters, Alice. The docents at the Wilder Homestead told us that this picture was taken at about the time that the book was set.

Here are Almanzo and another of his sisters, Alice. The docents at the Wilder Homestead told us that this picture was taken at about the time that the book was set.

Great literature is supposed to make you think, and reading the Little House series aloud creates a lot of questions. Farmer Boy makes a lot of good points about economics and treating animals well—but also raises questions. Why do the big boys want to break up the school? Why is Big Bill Ritchie’s father proud of his son for fighting? Why don’t the farm’s hired hands’ children go to school? I remember being struck, as a child, by Ma’s prejudicial attitude towards Native Americans in the rest of the series. Kelly Jensen writes for BookRiot that she knew going in that the books "unkind to anyone who isn’t a white settler," but she wasn't prepared to find that to her adult ears, the Ingalls are always complaining.

What should you do, as a parent, when you come to a problematic part in otherwise terrific read-aloud material? This isn’t just an issue for the Little House series. Note that this is different from reading something that is just flat-out awful. My recommendation in that case is to just put the book down, state your reasons why, and move on. Or you could follow my friend Kate Hambrecht's example and throw the book across the room to make your point.

Ironically enough, my methodology comes from the Little House series. Almanzo’s and Laura’s fathers never miss a teaching moment. They are constantly showing their children something that they can see, discussing a process that involves that visual, and explaining how their children can make a difference toward the outcome. In Farmer Boy, Almanzo asks his father for a nickel to buy pink lemonade at a Fourth of July celebration. Almanzo’s father seizes the occasion to take Almanzo through the concept that money is the product of labor. After Almanzo makes the connection that all of the work that went into raising, putting by, and selling a half-bushel of potatoes is worth fifty cents, his father gives him a fifty-cent piece, saying that he’s earned it.

It’s yours,” said Father. “You could buy a sucking pig with it, if you want to. You could raise it, and it would raise a litter of pigs, worth four, five dollars apiece. Or you can trade that half-dollar for lemonade, and drink it up. You do as you want, it’s your money.

His father guides the discussion, but doesn’t tell him what to think, letting Almanzo come to his own conclusions. 

Upstate New York has a substantial Amish presence, so while we were walking in Almanzo’s footsteps, we were right next to people with a similar lifestyle and technology. We stopped off at an Amish roadside stand advertising eggs, jam, and rabbits. Junior asked the farmer about the rabbits. He responded, “I’ll have to ask my son about how much they cost.” Junior was wide-eyed when we said, “Remember how Almanzo’s father tells him that he can buy Lucy the pig, raise her, and then sell the piglets? That’s what this boy is doing with his rabbits.”

The Little House series is beloved for a reason: it makes history come alive. What child doesn’t sympathize with Laura, who wants to run and jump and play but is constantly being told to be more careful?

Other books I would recommend reading for similar historical content:

  • Caddie Woodlawn. Stories from the nineteenth-century Wisconsin frontier childhood of author Carol Ryrie Brink's grandmother.
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Even though this is set in the 1930s, the cast of characters and their lifestyle is remarkably similar to the Little House books—even down to the prissy sibling!)
  • The Great Brain. Stories based on the nineteenth-century small-town Utah childhood of author John Dennis Fitzgerald. The Great Brain, his older brother, is always hatching a plan.
  • Soup. Loosely based on the childhood antics of author Robert Newton Peck and his best friend, Soup, in small-town Maine during the Depression.

These are all terrific stories—but parts within each book should also provide some food for discussion. Laura June writes for The Awl that she picked up the Little House series, a childhood favorite of hers, to read to her baby, only to discover after many years that she couldn't stomach the content. But, she writes, 

When Zelda is seven or eight and can read, she will be allowed to read anything her heart desires. If she wants to read Laura Ingalls Wilder, I’ll explain to her how racist they are, and how flawed their vision of the world is, was, and always will be. Until then, we’re going to try to read something better. Like A Wizard of Earthsea.
Cassie, the main character of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, is a lot like Laura. She's a level-headed farmer's daughter with a schoolteacher mother. She has strong opinions (also like Laura) about what's going on around her.

Cassie, the main character of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, is a lot like Laura. She's a level-headed farmer's daughter with a schoolteacher mother. She has strong opinions (also like Laura) about what's going on around her.

 

Writing this post has also let me know about additions to the Little House canon since I left off reading the books. Did you know that there are now series books for Laura’s daughtermother, grandmother, and great-grandmothers childhood and early adult years? Or that Louise Erdich wrote the Birchbark House series in part to provide a Native American counterpart to settler childhood stories? So much reading to do, so little time!