Little House on the Prairie

Laura Ingalls Wilder・1935

Synopsis

Little House on the Prairie is the third book in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series, “The Little House Books”, though it is only the second book in the series that details the experiences of the Ingalls family.  Laura Ingalls Wilder was a pioneer who, later in life — starting in the 1930’s — documented her childhood as a pioneer in a series of children’s books; the series ranges from stories of 4 year old Laura’s life in the first installment, Little House in the Big Woods, to her married life, which she started writing about in her unfinished novel, The First Four Years.

In this book, Little House on the Prairie, Laura is about 7 years old and the novel is set around 1874.  The novel begins with the Ingalls family heading West; as the Big Woods of Wisconsin are getting too crowded, Pa packs the family up and they head to “the Indian country”.  The Ingalls family – Pa, Ma, Laura, her older sister Mary, her baby sister Carrie, and their dog Jack – travel in a covered wagon across Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas to Indian Territory.  The Ingalls family faces many challenges, overcomes many trials, and meets many new people.

When hot weather comes, the Ingalls family gets very sick, and they all come down with Malaria (what they then referred to as “fever’n’ague”), but they all recover thanks to the help of a local doctor whose primary job is to tend to the Native Americans in Indian Territory.  The novel ends when, after living in their new house on the Prairie for an entire year, soldiers come to take all the settlers, including the Ingalls family, out of Indian Territory.  The family says good-bye to the friends they made, load their wagon, and head north.

 

In the daytime there were only one or two mosquitoes in the house.  But at night, if the wind wasn’t blowing hard, mosquitoes came in thick swarms.  On still nights Pa kept piles of damp grass burning all around the house and the stable.  The damp grass made a smudge of smoke, to keep the mosquitoes away.  But a good many mosquitoes came, anyway.

Pa could not play his fiddle in the evenings because so many mosquitoes bit him.  Mr. Edwards did not come visiting after supper any more, because the mosquitoes were so thick in the bottoms… In the morning Laura’s forehead was speckled with mosquito bites…

Laura did not feel very well.  One day she felt cold even in the hot sunshine, and she could not get warm by the fire… She was tired and she ached.

“I ache, too,” Mary said.

Ma put her hand against Laura’s cheek.  “You can’t be cold,” she said.  “Your face is hot as fire.”

Ma called Pa, and he came in.  “Charles, do look at the girls,” she said. “I do believe they are sick.”

“Well, I don’t feel any too well myself,” said Pa.  “First I’m hot and then I’m cold, and I ache all over.”…

Ma and Pa looked a long time at each other and Ma said, “The place for you girls is bed.”  (Ingalls, 184-186)

The Epidemic: Malaria

In Little House on the Prairie, malaria sweeps through the Ingalls family.  The chapter is entitled “Fever ‘N’ Ague”, and Laura prefaces the chapter by detailing how massive and ceaseless the swarms of mosquitoes were when they all got sick.  Laura was the first one to notice symptoms, then Mary, then Pa, and, ultimately, Ma; Laura does not specify as to whether Baby Carrie was sick or not.  With the entire family deathly sick and hardly conscious, they were all quite literally on their deathbeds.  However, thanks to their ever-faithful dog, Jack, help arrived just in time in the form of Dr. Tan, a black doctor who works with Native Americans in Indian Territory and, eventually, Mrs. Scott, a friendly neighbor woman who tended to the family; both Dr. Tan and Mrs. Scott administer medicine to the family and ensure that they are well.  Thanks to the attention of Dr. Tan and Mrs. Scott, the family ultimately recovers.

Laura is notably thorough in her coverage of the spread of the disease, and, at the end, reveals to readers that it is malaria with which the family (as well as most all of the surrounding settlers) comes down (as opposed to what they refer to as the “fever ‘n’ ague”).  Malaria, of course, is transmitted through the bites of mosquitoes, and often times, mass numbers of people get Malaria at once, which is in keeping with the events detailed by Laura.  “Symptoms usually include chills, fever, and sweating” and there are different forms of malaria, each with different respective fatality rates, though all are fatal  (“Malaria”).  As is in keeping with the period and the location of the Ingalls family, there was no medicine able to combat the illness, and natural remedies were used, instead.

An arm lifted under her shoulders, and a black hand held a cup to her mouth.  Laura swallowed a bitter swallow and tried to turn her head away, but the cup followed her mouth.  The mellow, deep voice said again, “Drink it.  It will make you well.”  So Laura swallowed the whole bitter dose…

Next morning Laura felt so much better… She lay and watched Mrs. Scott tidy the house and give medicine to Pa and Ma and Mary.  Then it was Laura’s turn.  She opened her mouth, and Mrs. Scott poured a dreadful bitterness out of a small folded paper onto Laura’s tongue…

Then the doctor came.  And he was the black man.  Laura had never seen a black man before… She would have been afraid of him if she had not liked him so much.  He smiled at her with all his white teeth.  He talked with Pa and Ma, and laughed a rolling, jolly laugh.  They all wanted him to stay longer, but he had to hurry away.

Mrs. Scott said that all the settlers, up and down the creek, had fever’n’ague.  There were not enough well people to take care of the sick, and she had been going from house to house, working night and day.

“It’s a wonder you ever lived through,” she said.  “All of you down at once.”  What might have happened if Dr. Tan hadn’t found them, she didn’t know.

Dr. Tan was a doctor with the Indians.  He was on his way north to Independence when he came to Pa’s house.  It was a strange thing that Jack… had gone to meet Dr. Tan and begged him to come in.

“And here you all were, more dead than alive,” Mrs. Scott said.  Dr. Tan had stayed with them a day and night before Mrs. Scott came.  Now he was doctoring all the sick settlers.  (Ingalls, 190-192)

As “Malaria is [an] endemic, debilitating disease that attacked Natives as well as colonists” (Stoffle), it is likely that Dr. Tan was quite familiar with Malaria and effective ways of treating it.  As medicine had not developed as to where there was advanced technology that could combat Malaria, it is likely that Dr. Tan treated the Ingalls with natural medicines that have historically proven to be quite effective.  Indeed, “According to the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, Native Americans have given the world over 200 drugs that are now used today for healing, including… the cure for malaria” (Johnson).

In this chapter, Laura explores topics of misdiagnosis and better understanding the nature of illnesses, which is a quite sophisticated topic for children’s literature.  In the chapter, Laura presents two theories, one being Mrs. Scott’s and one being Pa’s, but at the end of the chapter ultimately reveals to the reader what exactly “fever ‘n’ ague” is.

Mrs. Scott said that all this sickness came from eating watermelons.  She said, “I’ve said a hundred times, if I have once, that watermelons–”

“What’s that?”  Pa exclaimed…

Mrs. Scott said that one of the settlers had planted watermelons in the creek bottoms. And every soul who had eaten one of those melons was down sick that very minute.  She said she had warned them.  “But, no,” she said.  “There was no arguing with them.  They would eat those melons, and now they’re paying for it.”  (Ingalls, 192-194)

Pa, of course, is supremely skeptical about this theory, and rides out to buy a watermelon and proceeds to eat it all himself to disprove Mrs. Scott’s theory (Ma refused to have any and forbid the girls to eat it, as well, for fear of them becoming ill again).  Pa, however, got no sicker than any of the others – even after eating the watermelon.  Such a theme thus presents a very valuable theme that can be extended beyond illness: skepticism, a peculiar, fairly unique theme to find in children’s literature in such a capacity.

Pa’s theory as to the family’s  illness was simple:

Pa laughed his big, pealing laugh again… “That’s not reasonable,” he said.  “this is a good melon.  Why should it have fever’n’ague?  Everybody knows that fever’n’ague comes from breathing the night air.”  (Ingalls, 197)

In the end, however, Laura debunks both theories, and closes the chapter with her modern insight, which thus gives the reader the context they need to examine “fever ‘n’ ague” for what it really is: malaria.

No one knew, in those days, that fever’n’ague was malaria, and that some mosquitoes give it to people when they bite them.  (Ingalls, 198)

 

Malaria also hits characters in A Little Princess.

For a further brief analysis, refer to Introduction and Abstract.

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