Laura Ingalls and Social Class

On the Banks of Plum Creek – Laura Ingalls Wilder and Garth Williams, HarperCollins, 2008 (reprint of 1937 edition)

Plum creek

There is an awful lot of controversy and poetry in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books (see my previous writing on Wilder here and here and here).  There is Manifest Destiny, hateful as well as romanticized views of Native Americans, and historical detail about the life of nineteenth century pioneers in the western United States.  There are conflicting views of the appropriate roles and character traits for girls and women. There are alternating views of child rearing. There is incomparable poetic language.  On the Banks of Plum Creek features a great deal of hardship, but also a relatively idyllic part of Laura’s childhood, as she is briefly able to attend both school and church and to live in a Minnesota home with relatively comfortable features.  By the next book in the series, tragedy has stricken her family, and Pa has, once again, uprooted the family, a decision met by his wife’s unwavering acceptance.

Laura and her older sister Mary walk to school, where they experience both acceptance and derision. Boys call them “snipes,” because they had long outgrown their dresses, making their exposed legs look long and thin, like wading birds’. Many of the girls are kind and friendly, while Nellie Oleson, the daughter of a prosperous shopkeeper, dismisses the Ingalls sisters as “country girls.” Laura’s reaction to Nellie’s appearance can be summarized in one phrase: “…she wore shoes.”

The self-centered Nellie holds a party at her home, one that is filled with what Laura calls “boughten” objects.  Laura may as well be entering a foreign country:

“The whole floor was covered with some kind of heavy cloth that felt rough under  Laura’s bare feet. It was brown and green, with red and yellow scrolls all over it…The table and chairs were of a yellow wood that shone like glass, and their legs were perfectly round.  There were colored pictures on the walls.”

Everything in the Oleson home is oddly contradictory.  Brown and green are earth colors, but the floor covering is artificial.  The dining set is of wood, but wood so smooth that it seems to be another substance entirely, glass.  The human interaction at the party is also compromised, since Nellie has no interest in sharing her toys; she rather wants to exhibit them. When her mother serves cake, Nellie shouts, “I got the biggest piece.”


german noah's ark
Noah’s Ark Toy, circa 1850, Wikimedia Commons

Laura and the other girls are intrigued by a beautiful Noah’s Ark set, which belongs to Nellie’s brother.   It was “…the most wonderful thing that Laura had ever seen.” The girls “…knelt down and squealed and laughed over it.  There were zebras and elephants and tigers and horses; all kinds of animals, just as if the picture had come out of the paper- covered Bible at home.”  Again, the fact that something man-made could so convincingly bring both nature and the Bible to life is overwhelming to Laura.

Then Laura’s mother decides that the Ingalls family must reciprocate the Oleson’s hospitality, rather than just leaving well enough alone!  So, the chapter “Town Party” is followed by “Country Party,” in which nature itself takes its revenge on Nellie, with only a little prompting from Laura.  Nellie is disgusted by everything in the Ingalls home: the fried flour “vanity cakes,” the gravel path to the ford where the girls go to play, and Jack, the family dog.  Laura slyly leads Nellie towards the old crab who lives in the water, and then warns Nellie to run away from it, straight into the muddy creek filled with “bloodsuckers,” leeches that attach themselves to her skin.  Laura herself had accidentally fallen victim to them, but her father had matter-of-factly responded, “Then stay out of the water…If you don’t want trouble, don’t go looking for it.”  Nellie has no ability to cope with one small example of the threatening natural environment that has challenged Laura and her family everywhere they lived.  Nellie’s “dance,” as “she stood kicking as hard as she could, first one foot and then the other, screaming all the time,” is a source of satisfaction to Laura. She is kinder and more competent than Nellie, who, for all her “boughten” things and indulgent parents, is helpless. That’s what happens to mean girls on the prairie.



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