Et Tu, Laura Ingalls Wilder?

If you are a child born in a largely rural state, in one of the most rural parts of that state, feeling as if your destiny is somewhere far, far away, but there is certainly a lot of time to pass between you meeting your destiny and having been borned, and truly, the only thing you want to do to pass that time is read your books and be left alone with a cat, preferably domesticated, but if she is not domesticated then through your devotion and love you may domesticate her, you will most likely know Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Hell, even if none of the above applies to you, you certainly know the Little House on the Prairie. Everyone does. This is America. This is Americana.

But if you don’t know, I’ll tell you. The Little House on the Prairie books are based on the author’s life. Now, with our lofty future lens, we could call them thinly veiled autofiction with details that are made a little sweeter, people who are made a little more perfect, by way of sentiment. By way of adjusting just so. Oh, who could deny that kind of power, once it is yours?

My mother purchased the box set at a yard sale, one of those places, one of those activities, of my youth I was once humiliated by and now have grown to love and cherish. The books were out of order but in good condition. I immediately tore into Little House in the Big Woods, fascinated by a father who was good and kind, at least on the page, and the way boiling hot maple syrup could be made into a sticky candy if thrown onto snow.

I read everywhere and at any time: from the moment I opened my eyes, in the car, in bed, outside, at school, at recess, on my grandparent’s couch, during meals, when I really should have been paying attention.

My mother would not let me watch: anything anime adjacent, The Fairly Odd Parents, Spongebob, Harry Potter.

She would not let me read: Harry Potter. But, otherwise, there were no limits on what I could consume. A book in a day, a series in a week, in this way my mind was completely my own.

Books taught me how to talk. What I mean is: my mother is funny and quick and bright, but her best skills are with numbers. She’s a good teacher but doesn’t like to articulate her feelings. Understandable. My grandfather never went to middle school and my grandmother didn’t finish eighth grade. Again, I say: I grew up in the “Early Death Capital of the World.” I grew up in rural Oklahoma. I am, meaningfully, from there. My other grandfather, the one I didn’t know, spoke mostly Cherokee and occasionally rough English. Less talking, more screaming. If I am sad or angry or tired my voice comes out in a slurred, rural mumble. When I hear the same from my mother I yell: dear lord mother PLEASE SPEAK UP! I thought I liked to talk until I met someone who actually did. When I was young, I liked using big words I had just learned but had never heard anyone else pronounce. At my small state school, I was one of the best public speakers in my class. Not hard, you may be thinking. Once I go on a handful of dates and the person texts: I still don’t know anything about you, but you know so much about me. I did not realize until I went to graduate school that some people didn’t like the way I spoke. Found it rough and uncouth, even mean. I thought I was nice-ish, at least. I like to give real compliments and love my friends. I thought it was good-natured ribbing when we did a little sport or played cards. When I think of educated, therapized words, they are soft stones, no edges. Not from the river but from the garden section. Apparently, I am not as good an actor as I thought I was.

I dislike anti-intellectualism though I am not sure I can claim to be an intellectual, a learned individual. I know what praxis means but I can no longer remember my father’s voice and I don’t want to talk about this anymore.

Reading seemed to circumnavigate the horrific pathways in my brain that would translate what should have been a fleeting moment — something bloody on screen, something gross or unsanitary, a dead animal on the road — into a torturous barrage of amped up images, of ghastly mental acts that would leave me gagging or frozen, trapped in what I deserved for having such a disgusting, sinful mind.

Later, I would realize there was a word, a disorder, for what was happening inside of me, but when I was a child, I simply took it for what it was, another sign I was destined for hell, that the prayers I looped and looped and looped were going unheard, and that any doubts I had were confirmation, creek stone-sure.

Though reading was safe, a comfort, Ingalls Wilder added an extra layer of cushioning. Even if the Indians came, even if Pa was making a decision Ma didn’t agree with, even if someone was sick and close to dying, even if money was tight, things worked out in the end. No one cursed, and if they did, it was remedied quickly. Violent acts were there, were present, but they were brushed over.

Everyone loves their family and does not feel like a stranger to themselves or to others. Everyone is happy with being where they are, eventually. Everyone has ample resources, well, everyone that matters has ample resources. Most especially, one’s father is the ultimate hero, who can do just about anything, and charm just about anyone.

A memory: going over to a friend’s house and being afraid of the man at the head of the table. When will he go home? I ask. He lives here, with us, she says.

Is it any surprise, given the shape of me now, that my favorite of the Little House series was the narrative of the author’s husband’s childhood? It is called Farmer Boy.

Almanzo Wilder is born and lives in a place called New York, to which I still have never been. It begins when he is around nine years old, about the age I was when I would have read it for the first time. He sleeps under a goose down comforter and receives two calves to train for his birthday. He eats popcorn and apple cider around the fire with his three siblings, and mother and father. They take a sleigh to church, and he is not allowed to yawn.

He is a boy, a little boy, who will grow up to be a man.

Repeat after Laura: Ma hates Indians. And Black people. And, Norwegians? But mostly Indians. What is an Indian, anyhow? Well, a Native American. Well, you. Well, me, I mean. But maybe also you. And yet, I did not recognize this. I did not recognize myself.

A worse question: if I had, would it have changed anything?

At the Goodwill that never has any plus size clothing but has the best book selection, I find full-color collector’s editions of books two, three, and five. Farmer Boy, Little House on the Prairie, and By the Shores of Silver Lake, respectively. They are discounted because of their green stickers, and so I pick them up alongside a set of bowls my friend Sean later describes as, “very cottagecore.”

Even now, I am a little sad they didn’t have On the Banks of Plum Creek, because I loved the descriptions of doughnuts and lemonade for a birthday party, and the wasps on the plums, and the water.

Two notable lines, both from Laura’s sister: “You’ll be as brown as an Indian, and what will the town girls think of us?”

And: “I wish I was an Indian and never had to wear clothes.”

Pa doesn’t know what he wants. Pa drags the family to and fro. Pa decides, and decides. Pa calls Laura, half-pint. She is his beloved little darling. Pa is probably hiding, or not hiding, some kind of addiction, according to historical record, but who can truly say? Book Pa is warm and strong and knows himself. He is what a man is supposed to be.

Adults I was not related to had no problem telling me how my own father had wasted his life. Had no problem recounting his history to me, gnarled and ugly and shocking.

This March, my parents would have been married 26 years, had they remained married, and had my father not —

I say: I have mostly made my peace with all of it. I think the hardest part is I will never know what he actually thought of me.

And my mother says: He deceived so easily, baby. Even himself. He did not know who he was, only what he thought he was.

In almost every way that is true, the books I read as a child made me who I am, what I prefer, who I wanted to be. And despite their flaws, despite not even being my favorites in the end, the Little House books taught me lessons I cannot forget: about isolation, about nature writing, about fathers and siblings, about the ways we choose to present our history to others.

But, I suppose the most important lesson, the refracted one, the one you have to search for, is about freedom. About how you have to carve it out and seize it for yourself. About how if you do not take it in hand someone will take it from you. At least for little Laura Ingalls, who never lost the keys to her cage, not really, not really.

In Little House, the Indians are what they are. They are characterized like animals, untrustworthy ones. Snarling and rabid and dangerous. Simple, but for their savagery, which is complex and would never cross the white, Christian mind. They will, as I know, as my ancestors knew, be forced into reservations, were being forced into reservations, were killed, were colonized with violence, with force, with blood and tears, with words of a foreign god. Still are, in so many ways.

I, too, can only be what I am. And I am a hick, and a hillbilly, and a half-breed. I’m just telling you a story. It’s all I know how to do.

And, truly, fuck anyone who thinks they get to tell my story for me. I’m a bad dog, baby. Too big for a cage. I never learned the right manners. Even with years of training, there is a wildness to my eyes. Beware, beware. I bite.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Autumn Fourkiller

Autumn Fourkiller is a writer and mystic from the “Early Death Capital of the World.” She is currently at work on a novel about Indigeneity, the Olympics, and climate change. A 2022 Ann Friedman Weekly Fellow, her work can be found in Atlas Obscura, Majuscule, Longreads, and elsewhere. You can follow her newsletter, Dream Interpretation for Dummies, on Substack.

Autumn has written 7 articles for us.


  1. You should not be deceiving like your dad. You really should be a real woman not a fake. I’m a half breed to never knew my father or his name I only know he was not American or Mexican but I don’t behave like you.

  2. this is such a beautiful essay, and I’m glad it was published here.

    also, for anyone else who grew up on Laura Ingalls Wilder but hasn’t critically revisited the Little House books, the podcast “Wilder” hosted by Glynnis MacNicol is pretty comprehensive.

  3. This is a phenomenal essay! Honestly the only things I remember about the books were the covers and pouring maple syrup on snow, but I deeply appreciated the layers of this reflection.

  4. Accidentally found your essay. Your writing is raw and honest. Thank you for a glimpse into your world. I will read your other articles and look forward to your book.

  5. Thank you for this! I am not sure if LIW was in fact a raging racist, or just writing to the experience of growing up being told The Others are subhuman. This series may be on my kid’s banned list until he understands the difference between antisocial behavior and dehumanizing people to justify taking their property, freedom, and/or life.

    • Thank you for reading! I think an argument can be made for both! I think it is also so, so hard when you’ve grown up isolated to change what you have been taught — Tara Westover’s “Educated” is an excellent read and illustrates this. It could be fun to read Little House and then in conjunction something from the First Nations Development Institutes reading list.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!