Pa was a wild man. He uprooted wife and children—moving them away from comfort and plenty, community and family—to brave a perilous journey to an unknown, desolate and dangerous land. Ma was a mild woman. She was a baker of bread, maker of beds and gentle keeper of the household order. And yet she agreed to undertake such an unbelievably imprudent adventure with her husband and three small daughters. She trusted that her man—whose ambitions were wild and risky—would never lead the family astray. Little House on the Prairie, written by Pa and Ma’s daughter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, follows this remarkable family’s life on the treacherous trail from Wisconsin to Indian Territory. Published in 1935, this third volume in the beloved series recounts Laura’s memories of her family braving the peril of weather and wild creatures to establish themselves on the untamed, lonesome, and often cruel prairie. The risk Pa took in this venture bore great fruit, as many wild ventures do. It wasn’t fruitful in our modern, impoverished understanding of gain, but in a greater, more powerful way. It was the fruit originating in the rich soil of hearts on fire with faith—faith in one another, faith in the land, and faith in the Creator.
Pa’s decision to move out west to “Indian Territory” was not motivated by need. The Ingalls lived in a cabin in the woods of Wisconsin, where they enjoyed all the comforts country living can afford. They had a little log cabin in the woods, replete with plenty of homegrown vegetables, honey, cheese, milk, and game. Aside from the necessities, they enjoyed the comforts of living near family and all the pleasures of a loving community. But Pa was a wild thing. He said “there were too many people in the Big Woods … wild animals would not stay in a country where there were so many people…. He liked a country where the animals lived without being afraid.” The family loaded into the wagon and faced an uncertain future with only a wagon full of provisions. Pa took a great risk.
It is generally thought that abandoning security and taking a risk is foolish behavior. Most take comfort in situations that are controllable. Uncontrolled circumstances are accompanied by insecurity and vulnerability. Facing an uncertain future often leads to feelings of anxiety and fear. In embarking on the journey west, Pa felt no anxiety or fear. He embraced the uncertainty of the future. In surrendering himself and his family to the unknown, Pa surrendered himself with confidence to the unpredictability of nature and to the benevolence of a merciful God.
In faithfully abandoning himself to this life of uncertainty, a beautiful hierarchical order unfolds. The heart of this hierarchy is the family itself and the family, in turn, sustains it. The children—Mary, Laura, and baby Grace—are trustingly obedient to Pa and Ma. They do as they are told with confidence in their parents loving care for them. Ma is almost ludicrously trusting of Pa. She serenely follows him on the perilous adventure west and patiently maintains an orderly, homelike environment along the way. She sustains a cheerful home front, despite the unpredictable and often absurdly dangerous conditions—including many invasions in her home by Indians. Pa trusts his own ability and resourcefulness, but he also trusts his beasts, his neighbors, and ultimately his God. The happy success of the Ingalls—or at least their happy survival—in the adventure out west would not have been possible without this confidence in one another. Had any one of the family shown doubt, or failed to faithfully and lovingly obey the higher authority, things might have turned out differently.
In one particularly thrilling scene in the book, the Ingalls family must cross a creek in their wagon.
“This creek’s pretty high,” Pa said. “But I guess we can make it all right. You can see this is a ford by the old wheel ruts. What do you say, Caroline?”
“Whatever you say, Charles,” Ma answered.
Ma agrees to Charles’ proposition with seeming docile indifference. The girls are bidden to lie down in the wagon bed as they begin to cross. Laura feels the wagon swaying peacefully in the water, but the peace is short-lived. The creek is so high that the wagon lifts off the ground and the horses must swim. Pa jumps in the water and guides the mustangs, Pet and Patty, and a quietly terrified Ma is compelled to hold the reigns. Despite their fear, the girls remain silently lying in the wagon back.
If Pa had not known what to do, or if Ma had been too frightened to drive, or if Laura and Mary had been naughty and bothered her, then they would all have been lost. The river would have rolled them over and over and carried them away and drowned them, and nobody would ever have known what became of them.
This particular scene in the book demonstrates what can be accomplished when a family is rightly ordered. Every character—down to the horses—must rise above fear and panic in order to do what the situation demands. Not only must they rise above their fear, they must step outside themselves and forgo their natural inclinations in order to do what must be done for the sake of all. The situation required that they obey the higher authority to an excruciating degree. They must obey, and intrinsic in this obedience is faith and hope that all will be well. The result was the family’s triumphant trudge up the muddy slopes of the creek bank.
The dependence of this pioneering family extends to animals and friends as well. Pa devotedly and tenderly cares for his horses and for Jack, the brindle bulldog. His care is born not only out of a natural affection, but also from his need. If the horses are ill treated, they won’t be reliable. Good horses and a faithful watchdog are a necessity on the expanses of uninhabited country. Jack and the horses trust Pa, and Pa trusts them. They trust one another because they need on another. But from need springs gratitude and a love that is rooted in awe and wonder. The Ingalls—through their need—also put their trust in the few neighbors that they have. While all the Ingalls are remarkably self-reliant, many circumstances arise where they must rely on the goodness of their neighbors. Mr. Edwards and Pa exchange labor in order to build their homes. Pa and Mr. Scott work together to build a well. In some situations, their neighbors save them from death, as when the traveling doctor, Dr. Tan, and Mrs. Scott discover the entire Ingalls family struck down with Malaria. In other situations, the devotion of neighbors is directed towards bringing delight, as when Mr. Edwards swims across a dangerously swollen creek with Christmas gifts strapped to his head for the Ingalls children. This interdependence with neighbors springs from necessity, but the necessity binds them closely together. Nothing unites people like facing difficulty and uncertainty together—even the uncertainty of Indian war drums throbbing in the night.
The Ingalls are always subject to the difficulty and unpredictability of the weather and the land. There is nothing man or beast can do to change the fickle mind of Mother Nature. The Ingalls work the land and do their best to understand it, but if a hot wind blows up and starts a prairie fire, nothing can be done to prevent it. Here the need and trust of the Ingalls is most apparent. They cannot put their trust in man or beast alone. All wild things blindly submit to the awesome power of nature. God is the author of nature. Whether they have a conscious awareness of it or not, the wild things submit themselves to the power of God. And God, in His benevolence, arranges all things for the good of all creatures. The Ingalls family must have felt the awesome and powerful presence of God most keenly in those times when their endeavors were blighted by the forces of nature. But in times of trial, the Ingalls family did not despair. They exhibited fortitude and acceptance, and flourished despite misfortune in an undiminished love for and faith in one another.
Strangely, it is when we are in a state of need that we approach God most closely and value the human relations He has given to us. For beyond the order of the family is a greater, far-reaching, natural and supernatural order orchestrated by the loving hand of God, and Little House on the Prairie is a beautiful and engaging enactment of this mystery—a mystery that gives order and purpose to the family and the wild adventure each family is called to embark upon with faith and love.