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Little house on the asylum

May 24th, 2005 · 11 Comments

The girls and I finished reading Pioneer Girl by Andrea Warren. Abigail has been interested in the Little House series and I figured that reading true stories of pioneer girls would be a good counterbalance for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mostly-happy-slightly-fictionalized-early-American-fairy tales. The story of Grace McCance and her family settling in Nebraska near the end of the 19th century surprised me with its details. I didn’t know that pioneers used to live in sod houses. And I think taking care of my 2001-vintage cedar house requires work…

At least the McCances did not have the experience of one Kansas settler who awoke one morning to find the floor, ceilings, and walls covered with inch-long worms. She had to cover her hair and the water pail and sweep the worms outside. It was bad enough that the McCances had to put up with flies, mosquitoes and moths. They were as plentiful inside and outside because the family could not afford window screens and it was too warm in the soddy with the windows closed.


Field mice and snakes burrowed through the ceiling and walls of the soddy, looking for warmth. Mama shuddered when she heard stories about snakes crawling into babies’ beds. Settlers told of snakes dropping down from the rafters, sometimes plopping onto the table during dinner. Before getting out of bed, most people first looked under it and then put their feet on the floor.

[ page 17-18]

I have no idea how easy I have it.

A chapter near the end of fhe book described deaths and illness : It was a rare family that never lost at least one child at birth or to accident or illness. [p. 68]

…Once in a while, Poppie and Mama would hear rumors that a death reported in the paper as accidental was actually a suicide. They knew settlers who despaired or even became insane. Overworked, lonely women were the most likely to suffer deep depression. Winter was the most difficult time. Men were outside every day and went to town for supplies whenever the weather allowed, so they were around people more than their wives. Women were often confined to the dark, cramped space of a soddy.

Some said the relentless mournful wind could drive women mad, knocking on the doors and rattling the windows and keeping everything dusty all the time. There was a special term, prairie women, to describe the wives and mothers brought into mental asylums for depression. [page 71]

Sometimes in my moments of exhaustion or frustration, I wonder about the pioneer women before me. They must have survived this lifestyle, I figure. Yet even more than a century ago, pioneer women struggled with their duties and depression. It’s sad to hear of their sufferings, to hear that there was even a term prairie women, to describe those in despair. But at the same time it’s comforting to know that what we feel at times as overworked lonely women at home is what women have felt for generations before us. No, the idyllic Little House on the Prairie (made-for-TV-before-TV-was-made) books are not the whole story.

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11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kai Jones // May 24, 2005 at 10:46 am

    From your comments it seems that you either haven’t read the Little House books, or don’t remember them well. The prairie wife you describe is represented by a woman who takes a butcher knife to her husband one night while Laura is boarding with them as a school teacher. The Ingalls lived in a soddy house for a time, as well. It’s not all candy in those books; the dire poverty and loneliness are represented as well as the occasional mental illness.

    As I understand it, they were somewhat rewritten by her daughter to be more libertarian, but they certainly aren’t a whitewash.

  • 2 Will // May 25, 2005 at 9:53 am

    I was a big fan of LHOTP when I was a kid. Read every book, plus the diary of their daughter Rose.

    As an adult I discovered Willa Cather. I recommend “My Antonia” and “Oh Pioneers!” She writes about the role of recent immigrants in the frontier, particularly strong immigrant women. Not kid books, but not hard reading either.

  • 3 Julie // May 26, 2005 at 6:08 am

    Thanks for the reminder, Kai. It’s true I haven’t read the Little House books in more than 20 years. However, as I skimmed through the few books my daughter has been reading, I did not see any of the behaviors you mentioned. The big difference between the Pioneer Girl book I read and the LHOP series is that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote from a child’s perspective. Even when a disaster happens, it doesn’t last many pages and Ma and Pa seem to fix it with a song. Skimming through the books I felt that even the tragedies seem small in light of the family love. Ultimately, everything seems okay. Pioneer Girl though was written from the memoirs of an older woman, I believe, and reflects, in my opinion, more of the harshness of the reality. For example, the main character was not able to go to school for many years, instead working at home for her family. It doesn’t have the softness of the LHOP child’s eyes.

    Thanks, Will, for recommending Willa Cather. I never read her and will have to take a look.

  • 4 Garrett Fitzgerald // May 26, 2005 at 10:08 am

    I was going to point out that Laura lived in a sod house on the banks of Plum Creek, but Kai beat me to it.

    I’ve actually stood in the hollow that was left when the house caved in — one of the benefits of driving cross-country when moving. 🙂 If anyone wants me to scan in the pictures, let me know.

  • 5 Julie // May 30, 2005 at 10:15 am

    Thanks, Garrett. It’d be fun to see the pictures!

  • 6 Susan Kitchens // May 30, 2005 at 6:31 pm


    I have two books to recommend about women and pioneer life. Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier by Joanna L. Stratton (1981, Simon n Schuster; ISBN 0-671-22611-8) is a compilation of autobiographical writings originally collected by Stratton’s great-grandmother (early 20th century)… recollections go back to late 19th century. All written by women describing their experiences, mostly Kansas centric. Stratton discovered them in her grandmother’s attic and continued the project that her gr-grandmother began, weaving the narratives together into common themes.

    Another book I discovered: _Leaning into the Wind: Women write from the heart of the west_, is a more contemporary anthology. It’s edited by Linda Hasselstrom, Gaydell Collier, & Nancy Curtis (1997, Mariner Books; ISBN 0-395-90131-6), and centers on writings of women in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, and South and North Dakota.

    I have *no* idea if the material is suitable for your daughters, but if YOU are wondering of the pioneer women, I think you’ll find either (or both) collections absorbing reads.

  • 7 Garrett Fitzgerald // May 31, 2005 at 1:18 pm

    Kick me if I don’t get those scanned in in the next couple of days. 🙂

  • 8 Garrett Fitzgerald // Jun 4, 2005 at 10:15 am

    I’m slow, but I get there. 🙂


  • 9 Nancy // Aug 27, 2005 at 3:17 pm

    I agree with Kai Jones stating that if you thought Laura Ingall’s life was mostly happy-slightly-fictionalized tales, you did not read her books but judged it on the show, which was a little more functional. I am an adult and just finished reading again all of her books and some of Rose’s also and wondered how her family lived through the times because of the harsh times they endured, indians, river crossings, harsh winters, etc. It was a miracle no one died in their family (other than an infant of an illness). Even through the eyes of a child, it was a very dangerous time they lived through but still a thoroughly enjoyable simple read.

  • 10 Sherry Kristoff // Mar 10, 2007 at 5:52 am

    Hi There!!!!! Since I am a primitive folk artist I wonder if you could recommend any books that talk about or illustrate the items that they made to use in their daily lives.And also dolls & other play things they may have created to amuse their children.
    Thank You So Much!!!
    Sherry Kristoff

  • 11 Karen // Mar 11, 2007 at 4:53 pm

    I have been a fan of the Little House books from childhood, long before the television show (which was okay but not as good as the books). I still re-read the LH books periodically, and find that I see them from a different perspective every time. There is a lot between the lines when you read the books from an adult perspective. It’s important to remember that she was writing for children, and was not intending to write an autobiography. She didn’t make things up, although she did change some names (as with Mrs. Brewster and Nellie Olsen) and left out things that she judged either too sad or too adult for children’s literature, including her family’s time in Burr Oak, Iowa where her baby brother died (between Plum Creek and Silver Lake in chronology).

    Laura began writing in her 40s and for many years wrote wonderful essays and articles for magazines before starting on the Little House books in her mid-60s. I encourage those who enjoyed the Little House books as children to read more of her writing and that of her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. The book “A Little House Sampler” is one anthology that I can recommend; Rose’s story about “Grandpa’s Fiddle” is especially poignant. There are other anthologies, and a number of biographies on Laura and other members of her family are available in book or pamphlet form.

    I also urge anyone of any age who loves Laura’s work to visit her home near Mansfield, Missouri (east of Springfield), to learn about the “real” Laura and to see the home where she and Almanzo lived for over fifty years.

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