The children are in the front yard cutting down a dead bush with some sharp saws I gave them. They’re taking the dismembered branches, turning them into kindling, and pretending to cook supper over a campfire that they have created by appropriating landscaping pebbles and arranging them in a circle. When I see the makeshift spittle constructed of twigs, I know they mean business. My only fear is that they will somehow discover how to create a real fire.
Later in the day, I observe one of our daughters hand-embroidering a flower design by candlelight. I promise that I have paid the electric bill and the light switches all work, but these newfangled, modern lamps are unacceptable to her. In August it was over ninety degrees in St. Louis, but we did not have our air conditioner on because Laura never had air conditioning. The girls have already sewn their own circle skirts and they wear them frequently. The skirts double as “petticoats”, whatever those are. It is not infrequent that I arrive home from work and they are wearing bonnets and playing with home-made rag dolls.
Little House On the Prairie is my life now. I never should have let my kids read (and re-read, and re-read) those books. Parents, do not repeat my mistake! It is only a matter of time until the demand is made to cease using modern amenities altogether. It doesn’t stop there. They will be inspired to question all of your lifestyle choices relentlessly. One of the daughters complains that I did not name her “Laura”. She has taken it upon herself to amend our shortcoming and only responds to the name “Laura”. I am considering legally changing it as an act of penance. We use the Little House Cookbook and I am made to eat corn mush and all manner of vittles and fixins for dinner. I’m sorry, I mean “supper”. Dinner is actually lunch and lunch doesn’t exist. It is a modern word unknown on the prairies.
Pa is a much harsher man than I. I need to improve my parenting skills and demand, among other behavioral modifications, complete silence from my offspring on Sundays. My daughter informs me that children should be seen and not heard. Silly me, this whole time I was letting them converse with us! Pa is also far more capable than I, spending his afternoons skinning rabbits and pulling feathers out of prairie hens. When I read about him I wonder what in the world he does without a local coffee barista to make him a cappuccino each morning? How does he survive without a vintage turntable to listen to Puccini operas each evening as he sips a glass of port?
What is it about Little House On the Prairie that so captivates children? Whereas when I read I notice the hardships described and consider what I would do in a world without mobile phones, the children apparently are reading an entirely different story. They are drawn into a world of wonder and imagination. They are fascinated by sugar snows and butter churning, swimming in the creek and going to town in a horse-drawn wagon. I find the stories as interesting history; children read them as life instructions.
It seems to me that, in these stories, children are drawn to an example of life that is inarguably more human, a world of family and friends who raise barns for each other and attend dances together, where the whole town dresses up and attends Church as a community. No one is at home watching television alone. Every person has a place and a contribution to make for the success of the family. No one would dispute that such a world is a harder place to make a living. When this world collides with the one we currently inhabit, one or the other must be ruined. I tend to opt for what I already have, but perhaps the way we live now is not all that great? If our lives were to look more like Little House On the Prairie with fewer immediate pleasures, is the trade-off a greater degree of dignity, a more authentic familial bond, greater connectedness to the natural world? If so, wouldn’t this trade-off be worth it?
In today’s world, eyes are glazed over from computer screens, dinners are eaten alone at the drive-through, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass an inconvenience for which a man cannot be bothered to put on a suit and tie. Our world is easier and it is softer, but is it really better? My children implicitly argue that it is not.
Pope Francis, quoting Paul VI, agrees, writing “Society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy” (Evangelii Gaudium 7)
Herein is the greatness of Little House On the Prairie. Laura Ingalls Wilder gives us the unvarnished truth about her life in, as my daughter would phrase it, the “Olden Times.” She writes about the struggle, the difficulties, and the hard times. She describes the loneliness of the Big Woods and the wildness of the creatures that make their home within it. This is not a fairy tale. It is an unvarnished, truthful look at a family that has no distractions and no resources beyond itself and its immediate community. Laura learns to rely on her Ma and Pa and that shared hardship is the soil in which love grows. There are fewer occasions of pleasure, but far more joy.
With our own children, we have a parental choice to make. When they want to sew and embroider and only use candlelight, when they strive to make our house the Little House in the Big City, do we deny them and attempt change them into “normal” 21st century citizens of a capitalist, consumerist society with all its attendant pleasures? Do I arrive home from work pumpkin spice latte in hand, flip on all the overhead lights, and settle in to watch the football game in the living room while eating packaged grocery store food, or do I turn off the television, make a mess cooking dinner in the kitchen, sing a song at the piano, pull out our copy of Little House On the Prairie to read yet again, and see if maybe, just maybe, our children are a little bit wiser than we are.