At least once or twice a year I re-read the entire Little House on the Prairie series, along with all of the Betsy-Tacy books, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s entire oeuvre, and all the Noel Streatfeild books I can get my hands on. Some of these books have aged well, and get even better on revisiting (Betsy-Tacy), while others are pure nostalgia reads for me. But the more often I read the Little House books as an adult, the more I realize something:
I fucking hate Ma.
Have I always hated her? I don’t think so. As a kid, I vaguely thought she was unfair to Laura and was much unnecessarily nicer to Mary. It’s only as an adult that I realize that the true plot of the Little House books is Laura growing up and moving the hell away from Ma.
In Ma’s world—and in the world of many people during that era—a well-behaved girl has a suffocatingly boring life. No tears, no laughter, no smiles, no running, no anger, no joy. A good girl and a good woman had no vision of self, but spent her life working only for others. And that vision is bullshit.
Let’s talk about her bullshit vision of what the word “selfish” means. Ma’s idea of being a good girl is apparently ignoring your own desires and giving your own toys—your toys that you LOVE—away to someone else. Remember the time Mary and Laura found a bunch of pretty beads in an abandoned Native American [“Indian” in the book] camp?
Ma untied the handkerchief and exclaimed at what she found. The beads were even prettier than they had been in the Indian camp.
Laura stirred her beads with her finger and watched them sparkle and shine. “These are mine,’ she said.
Then Mary said, “Carrie can have mine.”
Ma waited to hear what Laura would say. Laura didn’t want to say anything. She wanted to keep those pretty beads. Her chest felt all hot inside, and she wished with all her might that Mary wouldn’t always be such a good little girl. But she couldn’t let Mary be better than she was.
So she said, slowly “Carrie can have mine too.”
“That’s my unselfish, good little girls,” said Ma.
Mary and Laura go exploring and find themselves some sparkly beads, some of the only pretty things in their miserable pioneer lives. And as soon as they get home, Mary (the suck-up) gives her beads to an infant. And Ma, instead of saying “No, she’s a baby, she doesn’t need beads, she will eat them and choke on them and die” – stares her other daughter down until she’s guilted into giving up her pretty beads, too.
Possibly the most brutal moment of the entire series, though, comes when Ma forces Laura to give away her beloved doll (Doll. Singular. Because she had only had one doll in her entire life) to a bratty neighbor.
Laura watched anxiously while Anna tugged at Charlotte’s shoe button eyes and pulled her wavy yarn hair, and even banged her against the floor. But Anna could not really hurt Charlotte, and Laura meant to straighten her skirts and her hair when Anna went away.
At last that long visit was ended. Mrs. Nelson was going home and taking Anna. Then a terrible thing happened. Anna would not give up Charlotte.
Perhaps she thought Charlotte was hers. Maybe she told her mother that Laura had given her Charlotte. Mrs. Nelson smiled. Laura tried to take Charlotte, and Anna howled.
“I want my doll!” Laura said. But Anna hung onto Charlotte and kicked and bawled.
“For shame, Laura,” Ma said. “Anna’s little and she’s company. You are too big to play with dolls, anyway. Let Anna have her.”
Laura had to mind Ma. She stood at the window and saw Anna skipping down the knoll, swinging Charlotte by one arm.
“For shame, Laura,” Ma said again. “A great girl like you, sulking about a rag doll. Stop it, this minute. You don’t want that doll, you hardly ever played with it. You must not be so selfish.”
JUST READING THAT MAKES THE RAGE RISE IN MY HEART. Her beloved Charlotte–her doll she protected so carefully, who she made certain wouldn’t get dirty or hurt, who was given to her on her fifth birthday, who was her only constant comfort while her itinerant parents dragged her all the fuck over the country–get stolen by some other kid, and Laura’s own mother tells her not to be so selfish? Laura should have walked upstairs and set the house on fire.
Of course, Anna doesn’t even really want poor Charlotte. Laura finds her mangled body months later, frozen in a puddle, bald, with half a mouth, and only one eye. Congratulations, Ma.
But then, Ma doesn’t want Laura to have any fun, ever. One glorious day, Laura’s cousin Lena takes her horseback riding and sings songs with her and gives her one of the happiest, freest afternoons of her life. Of course, Ma has to go and smother Laura’s passions and tells her to “remember that a lady never d[oes] anything that could attract attention.”
Don’t attract attention! Don’t smile, or laugh, or cry in front of anyone. What a miserable life to want for your daughters.
You didn’t think I’d forget the racism, did you? All of my friends who are mothers have pulled out their treasured Little House books for their kids, and are so excited to start reading them together at bedtime. And then a few weeks later, they come to me, horrified.
“…So I had to have a difficult conversation with Emma last night about why Ma hated ‘Indians’ so much.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah, Ma was a “product of her time,” and back then everybody thought that way, and really, aren’t we all a little bit racist? But it really sucks to read a nice children’s book you loved as a kid all about a brave little girl and think about how fun it must have been to churn butter and use a pig’s bladder as a balloon and then BAM, RACISM IN THE FACE. There are plenty of examples of bigotry in the books, but Ma’s vicious, obvious hatred for and mistrust of Indians is the most glaring example, especially since Pa and Laura both try to defend Indians (with little success, even when they do things like SAVE ALL OF THE INGALLS’ LIVES).
Not to mention the Ingalls are only able to move around the country and settle on various prairies and lakes and towns because every place they move to is empty and cleared for them by means of forced resettlement and genocide.
It’s easy to say it’s good to use those books as a lesson about racism, but six-year-olds don’t need to read Little House to know that there are lots of people out there who hated them—who still hate them—just for their brown skin. They’ll find that out soon enough.
In sum, instead of reading the Little House books to your kids, try reading Betsy-Tacy instead. It’s still got all the charm of pinafores and popcorn-stringing of Little House, but when Betsy makes friends with a little Syrian girl, instead of frothing at the mouth and starting a race war, her mother cheers her on.
You can let the kids read the Little House books when they’re older, and you can both talk about how Ma is fucking terrible together.