Emily Anderson’s Little Novels encourages you to re-imagine Laura Ingalls Wilder, even if you haven’t thought of Wilder since the sentimental ‘80s drama Little House on the Prairie or haven’t read On the Banks of Plum Creek since your awkward days in 6th grade.
Still, there’s something familiar about Laura’s narrative, or the way our culture has reframed it– imbuing her story with the hope (and hubris) of Western Expansion and the problematic narratives of self-reliance and bootstrapping.
You want the nostalgia as you read Little Novels. You want to remember how Wilder has been received–airbrushed, and contextualized in ‘80s cultural politics of Health and Wealth, of good living, and patriotism. Anderson offers lines such as -“Ma and her girls were Americans.”, a paratactic throwdown in an era of homesteading. Little Novels romanticizes then problematizes the Ingalls’ toil, their farming, and their fear of the Dakota. Anderson recasts your memory of Laura in beautiful ways, adding tension as she reconfigures Wilder’s texts.
“Race crept under the table, crawling up Laura’s bare feet to her bare knees under her skirts, warm and shining.”
Yet, it feels Anderson has an undeniable affection for Laura. As a character, Laura takes on an ever-changing role in Little Novels. Often, Wilder’s perspective is scrubbed out. She is shifted from narrator to subject to abstraction, which calls attention to authenticity in personal narrative, diary, and epistolary writing. Laura becomes work, commerce, food, domesticated animals, a plague of locusts, and a source of her parents’ hope. She is all aspects of prairie life. Anderson draws Laura into obsessive focus then subverts our expectations.
Little Novels is contemporary in its concern over big banks and class and its inclusion of technology, all of which create a sustained tension. “The bank took a lady and tore her in two.” In Little Novels, as in Wilder’s text, bodies are fed, worked, and sacrificed.
“In the morning the woodpile was full of Ma. The bank had scalped her. Her mouth on her cheek. One eye was under the rocking chair. Laura promised to make her good as new. The bits of her mouth and her eye remaining thawed while Laura washed her face. Patchwork Ma hugged and hugged Laura.”
Little Novels is laced with image and even contains a flip book of Michael Landon laughing. It includes the inset of a 19th century novel beloved in the Ingalls’ household. At the center of Little Novels, condensed, it covers two and a half pages, unreadable to the contemporary audience.
In all, Anderson’s prose is innovative, reframing everything Laura Ingalls Wilder has come to represent in our culture.