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Apr 15, 2020

A Return to Ingalls’ Little House on the Prairie

Amanda Knapp

My earliest literary memory is of my sister and I, perhaps three and five years old, sitting on my dad’s lap on our recliner while he read to us from The Little House on the Prairie series. That memory is engrained in my head, and I’m sure it’s at least partially responsible for my lifelong love of everything Laura Ingalls Wilder.

My photo albums are full of childhood pictures of myself in Ingalls-inspired dresses, and my memories are populated with long days spent pretending to be Mary, the oldest daughter in the family and the Ingalls child I always related to the most.  

My daughters and I are about sixty pages away from finishing the entire series. Recently, upon reflection, I jokingly asked my husband if our daughters would lovingly recall the manner in which I pressure cooked their chicken the way Wilder did as she went into detail recalling baking and cooking with her own Ma in those little log cabins all those years ago.

Something tells me they won’t.

A New World

I’ve spent most of my daughters’ childhoods trying to recreate for them the cozy feelings of home that inspired most of Ingalls’ books. But, under ordinary circumstances, twenty-first-century America has very little in common with its nineteenth-century predecessor.

As much as I love my air conditioning and laptop and easy access to whatever prepared foodstuffs I might fancy, I’ve always envied the slow pace of the Ingalls lifestyle. I envied their self-sufficiency and ability to make do at the same time my family and I were running around trying to keep up so we could live our modern lifestyle in, well, style.

And then our world stopped, on a dime, on March 13. That was my daughters’ last day of school and my husband’s last day of work.  

The world doesn’t look the same as it did when we entered this year. It’s hard to know how to navigate when our externally-focused world and lives are left to turn inward, when external productivity can actually be harmful and dangerous to the most vulnerable around us, when taking a break is actually the morally superior choice.

It’s during these last couple of weeks, however, that I’ve been able to most clearly see the inadequacies of our culture and just how much that pioneer family has to teach us.

Pioneer Life and Today

Their goals in nineteenth-century pioneer life were survival, faith, family, and friendship. They weren’t running around trying to compete with the well-to-do Olsen family. They weren’t trying to make their house the most spectacular, their land the most beautifully cultivated, their coffers the most padded. They didn’t make their decisions on the criterion of how it will affect their daughters’ ability to conquer a world out there, and they most definitely did not live by a socially constructed timeline. They made their own lives. They had no choice; for a decent amount of their lives they lived out where those external structures hadn’t even been built yet.

And it’s that history we can look to now to figure out how to best navigate our near futures. These days my children are doing school work for grades, but most of their learning is done for learning purposes rather than for accolades. We don’t play outside because we have a few free moments before violin practice that we can spend. Rather, we play outside because it brings joy and expresses our desires. We don’t pray to God because that is the time Mass is occurring at our church. Now we read Scripture, say our prayers, and gather together as a family because we want God to be the center of our lives. We don’t wake up at a certain time, go to bed at a certain time, and eat lunch at a certain time because that is what the world has scheduled. Now we do those things when we do them because it works for our family.

It’s hard to switch so drastically from an externally focused life to an internally focused one, but it is a necessary correction if we want to survive in this current world as well as survive better and more effectively and more gracefully in whatever world is to come to us post-COVID.

We Aren’t the First

We aren’t the first generations in history to survive in these internally focused worlds. When we look back to those worlds that came before ours, we can see more clearly that the values that were alive way back when are still the values we come back to once the external standards have been slackened. They are the values written on our hearts.

These days we can take note from those who came before us, those who lived in a world much more dangerous than the one that we woke up to on January 1, 2020.  We can cultivate our families in the ways we want them to grow. We can control our balance, for the time being at least, in much saner ways now that we aren’t all spending dozens of hours a week in commuting.

The more I try to navigate this new world, the more I think back to the old ones and the more I recall those lessons learned from that small family on the prairie. It’s comforting to know that we aren’t the first to live lives centered mainly and mostly around family, and if we work hard during these days, I think we can find that the world we wake up to in the future may be much more kind and humane than the one with which we started.

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Amanda Knapp is a wife, mother, writer, reader, and knitter.  She spends most of her time looking after her four young daughters who daily inspire her to pray deeper and love more fiercely. She blogs about life and faith at

Featured photo by Sheila Scarborough from flickr

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