by Stacey Tol
Has anyone else been thinking about Little House on the Prairie during all of this sheltering-at-home? No? Only me? I figured.
Maybe it’s the abundance of alone time with family and without friends that has had me thinking of desolate prairie life. Maybe it’s the hours I’ve spent staring at the monotony of my pantry and trying to come up with something new for dinner. Either way, my thoughts keep circling back to those pioneering days of yore.
I was born the year that Little House on the Prairie premiered on TV, and I spent a good bit of my childhood watching Pa, Ma, Mary, and Laura “Half-Pint” Ingalls resolve the many problems that cropped up each week in the not-so-sleepy town of Walnut Grove. Sometimes, Laura and her frenemy, Nellie Olson, would be battling it out over a cute farm boy. Other times, Laura would be kidnapped by a psychotic old woman, or would runaway to live on a mountaintop with a hermit who was also God. (Over the course of her 204-episode life, TV Laura experienced more than her fair share of drama.)
The program was very loosely based on the autobiographical book series written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Like most page vs. screen comparisons, the books were better. I was probably 9 or 10 when I first read the Little House books. Back then, I identified with Laura, the young protagonist. I don’t remember paying much attention to the actions of Laura’s Ma & Pa, even though they were the ones making the tough decisions and doing the heavy lifting. As boring authority figures, they were merely Laura’s supporting cast (and at times, antagonists).
Eventually, I grew up, had three kids, and became a boring authority figure in my own right. As such, I found it thoroughly satisfying to transform a moment of idleness into an opportunity for learning. Naturally, on our long car trips, I’d read books aloud to the family. Sometime after Junie B. Jones and before A Wrinkle in Time, we got to the Little House books. This time through, Laura’s antics weren’t nearly as compelling for me as her crazy parents’ were. Over and over, my mouth would drop with astonishment and I’d say to my backseat captives, “Can you imagine that? Can you even imagine?!” They could not. Nor did they care.
I, however, couldn’t stop thinking about what life would be like living like a poor hobbit in a single-room, dirt floor “house” dug out of a hill; or having the skill—and necessity—to use every part of a butchered cow, including the boiled head from which I was supposed to make “head cheese.” (Did I mention I’m a vegetarian?) What would it be like to be married to a man who was compelled to move further into the wild every time a place got too crowded with neighbors? Would I be willing—or strong enough—to build a log cabin with him, just the two of us? Would I stay married and/or sane the year he borrowed on the crop, then lost the crop to a swarm of grasshoppers? What about The Long Winter? The Ingalls lived through seven months of Dakota blizzards, surviving in the end on pasty flapjacks made with handfuls of grain ground in a coffee grinder. Someone had to be working the tiny mill all day to have enough flour for their supper. Could I have done that?
I suppose I keep thinking of these bleak pioneer stories as I stare wearily at my cupboards because my subconscious is trying to remind me that my life is easy. Even if I can’t eat inside a restaurant or go out to see a movie for another year. Even if Zoom meetings are exhausting. Even if I have to smell my hot mask-breath when I go grocery shopping and bathe in hand sanitizer when I get home. Even if I have to use off-brand, one-ply toilet paper. Even then. I really can’t complain.