I didn’t grow up in the heyday of Little House on the Prairie. Born in the early eighties, the NBC series that aired between 1974 and 1983 was before my time. Yet, I knew of the program. A testament to its endurance, syndicated episodes of Little House were around by the time I was old enough to direct my own TV watching. Yet, while accessible, the show was never appealing. The reason? I couldn’t get past the opening credits.
Little white girls, with calico dresses dancing in the breeze, frolicking down a hill to the approach of smiling parents on a horse drawn wagon…nothing of the scene stopped the move for my remote control. The grinning and the prancing gave the impression of some happily-ever-after plot with no loose ends. Not to mention the unfamiliar setting of a 19th century frontier home–although this hurdle may have been crossed had the scene offered some hint of diversity in the cast. But no assurance was given, so I pressed the button to the next channel and cannot remember watching an episode of Little House on the Prairie before the age of thirty.
I write today as a converted fan of the show.
I live in Southeast Washington, D.C., where the population is 94% black. Watching Little House in “the hood” is a bit of an anomaly. In fact, with the exception of my husband and three others, I can’t name another black person who would be excited to watch the show. One friend told me that she would watch only if forced. People in our D.C. church laugh when we speak of our love for the program–they assume it’s a joke. Their looks become a mixture of surprise and amusement when we persist in our praise of the series.Like warming up to a stranger on a plane as they share their history, I was hooked by the story of ‘Little House on the Prairie’.
Black people (at least the ones I know) do not watch Little House on the Prairie. A minor point perhaps–but it becomes more interesting when compared with the show’s sustained appeal within the larger American culture. Mainstream America loves Little House on the Prairie. As I write, Paramount Studios is developing a film adaptation of the show. Thirty-three years after its finale, Little House is coming to a theater near you.
But the program’s prolonged popularity makes some sense when you consider its genesis. Little House is based on a series of well-loved books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Wilder took the adventures of her late 1800s pioneering family and transformed them into fictional storybooks for children. Little House on the Prairie is the title of the third installment of the series–the book has remained in print since its 1935 debut. Moreover, Pioneer Girl, Wilder’s 2015 released autobiography (written 85 years ago) is already in its third printing!
Laura Ingalls and her family are beloved by many. Yet there is something of their story that calls more loudly to the majority culture than it does to minorities. It is perhaps the same beckoning that drew white viewers to Seinfeld while many blacks wondered at the fuss. At its height, Seinfeld was simultaneously the number one show among whites and ranked 50th among blacks.
One reason for the disparity might be this: while a show’s popularity among black viewers isn’t always contingent upon the color of its cast, a program that nevertheless embraces the realities of race will naturally attract a more diverse audience. Seinfeld was noted for its limited ethnic representation, as well as Little House for its, at times, ahistorical attitudes on race (the Ingalls were unusually colorblind for a late 1800s family).
So how did Little House on the Prairie mosey its way into my Southeast D.C. home? Depending on your perspective, you will either blame or thank my husband for the conversion. He watched and enjoyed the show as a child. So when we decided to forgo television watching for select DVD entertainment, he suggested the drama as a good family series. I discouraged the suggestion for years. But at some point, he prevailed. We ordered Season 1 and subsequently viewed the pilot episode. I sat to watch–assuming little in common with the Ingalls family–and soon found myself captured by the narrative. Like warming up to a stranger on a plane as they share their history, I was hooked by the story.
At our essence, human beings are “storied creatures.” We cannot help telling our stories and hearing the tales of others. Albert Mohler offers this thought from his weekly podcast, The Briefing:
It was noted a very long time ago that God made us in his image as storied creatures. We are, as human beings, creatures who love to tell a story and even love more to hear a story. Stories are actually essential to us to such an extent that even as in the Latin we often refer to ourselves as homo sapiens, the thinking creature. We are also homo narrates, we are the creature that cannot help telling stories.
I love to hear stories, and Little House on the Prairie tells a good one. Farmer and mill worker, Charles Ingalls (played by producer/director, Michael Landon) struggles to provide for this family–wife, Caroline, daughters, Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace, and later adopted children Albert, James and Cassandra–in 1870-1880s Walnut Grove, Minnesota. While hard-working, Ingalls’ plans are often derailed by natural disasters and untimely circumstances. The drama maintains moments of lightheartedness, yet it never avoids difficult matters.
The hardships of western frontier life are highlighted in episodes like “Going Home” and “Mile Walk,” which show the devastation natural disasters like tornados and hail storms could bring to crops and the morale of farmers. Episodes like “The Wolves” and “The Raccoon” present natural dangers of another sort as the family respectively battles wild dogs and rabid animals. In fact, the Ingalls are often at the point of death with blizzards (“Blizzard”), near fatal hunting accidents (“The Hunters”), and a typhus outbreak (“Plague”).
Yet the show moves beyond frontier dangers to tackle broader themes like race, blindness, and adoption. For one–even with the ahistorical note–depictions of race on the show aren’t always the “kumbaya” sort. Central characters, like the pretentious Harriet Olsen, are at times pictured leaning on the fence of discrimination; Harriet supports the racist farmer Judd Larabee in his bigoted treatment of blacks in the episode “Barn Burner.” Moreover, even the generally likeable Dr. Hiram Baker is painted with prejudiced feelings toward a black doctor in the episode “Dark Sage.” In all, while few and far between, Little House does make some attempts to show and shame racism in its stories.
And if racism is shamed, then adoption–a major theme on the show–is cheered. So is blindness. My favorite episode, “May We Make Them Proud,” combines the two ideas well. The two-part episode features Mary Ingalls, the blind daughter of Charles and Caroline. At the time of our story, Mary is married to a teacher, also blind, and the two manage a blind school in Walnut Grove. Disaster strikes when Albert, Charles and Caroline’s adopted son, smokes a pipe and inadvertently abandons it in the basement of the school. The pipe ignites a fire that takes the life of Mary’s infant son (Charles’s only grandson). Distraught by the tragedy, Albert flees far from home, but Charles is determined to have his son. He pursues the boy and, instead of anger, assures him of his love.
I turned to my husband with a smile as we took in the episode. I had found a familiar tale within this remote story of the Ingalls. “May We Make Them Proud” prompted thoughts of another Father who pursues His prodigal adoptees even to the death of His own Son. And while I could identify with and enjoy the show’s general plotlines of family and struggle, this image gave another level of engagement with Little House. It struck a deeper chord. The younger me who raced past channels at the site of the show would be shunned to see me so at home in this episode. Yet, it told my story.
In our time of watching Little House on the Prairie, my husband and I have infrequently managed to have others join us. On one rare occasion, a friend came in at the start of the aforementioned episode. She sat down as little white girls in calico dresses ran to the approach of a smiling wagon, and she stayed. My friend watched from beginning to end, interacting with the highs and lows of the drama. I can name her today among the very few black people I know who are willing to watch an episode Little House on the Prairie. Surely, we are homo narrates, the creature that loves to hear and tell stories. And somehow, a story can have the power to make uncommon strangers friends.