If I’ve learned one thing from life, love and fiction it’s that most great relationships consist of one logical, methodical quick thinker, and then a nonsense person. Pa Ingalls was the nonsense person in the Little House universe, but not the benign kind. A benign nonsense person would, say, decide that it would be a great idea to open a used book store in small-town New England and then they let the logic person figure out how to do it. Pa’s more like “let’s cross rivers and woodlands to go build a house underneath the earth for whatever reason and not really take care of our dog while we’re doing it.” Every couple needs an idea person: the problem was, Pa Ingalls’ ideas were bad.
During the Big Woods years, Ma and Pa Ingalls more or less serve as the Goofus and Gallant of 1800s forest life. Caroline painstakingly dyes her butter with carrot juice so that it looks more appealing; Charles lets shiny hot lead bullets cool within reach of toddlers. (Granted, he did warn Laura, but that child was half Charles, after all.) They balance each other pretty well, except that it is the nineteenth century and every time Pa wants to get into a covered wagon and move onto an Indian reservation that the family has no legal right to occupy (a true thing!) Ma just had to pack up the calico and deal with it.
The Ingallses were poor. It’s fine to be poor, but I can’t help but think it’s because Pa can’t settle himself in one place and be normal. You can tell the family is poor because the inventory of their possessions is so small that I can recount it decades after reading the books. Ma had one (1) china shepherdess, Pa had one (1) fiddle, they clearly owned a thimble because Pa did that Jack Frost stuff on the windows which was admittedly pretty cool, and then one day a year they had a pig bladder to play with until it disintegrated because that is not a toy, it is a body part. Okay, so the family wasn’t doing terribly but wasn’t raking it in either, and they went off to find a “better life” or whatever. Problem was, Pa wasn’t good at finding it.
First the family lives in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. It’s pretty good; they have a garret full of dried vegetables in the winter and they run around in bonnets in the summer; Ma has the love and support of her family close by; sometimes Laura gets a piece of hard candy if they take the wagon into town. As I said above, they’re poor but in a comfy way. This is when Pa gets it into his head to, in the great words of T.L.C., “go chasing waterfalls” even though he quite literally would be better off sticking to the rivers and the lakes that he’s used to.
The family piles into a covered wagon and crosses a swollen creek, huddling in a rickety wooden cart that I don’t even think they caulked per Oregon Trail recommendations. Oh, did I say the whole family? Not their dog Jack, who was left to swim alongside the wagon and drown. Jack comes back later because he is a Very Good Boy but that was a bad position for Pa to put his kids and dog in. While I know dogs served more of a utilitarian function in those days, you can’t deny that Laura loved that pup and for good reason. Jack jealously guarded and protected his family from everything … except for Pa’s poor choices, which almost killed him.
The family gets to Kansas, but psych! They move onto Osage Indian land and they aren’t allowed to be there. You know all those times Pa says racist garbage like “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” and you kind of try to put yourself in the head space of a white man from the 1800s, but it STILL seems awful? To make it even worse, Pa was acting like the Osage were dangerous intruders when he was on their land. It’s like a racist version of that movie The Others, where the characters think that their house is haunted because they don’t realize that they are the ghosts. Sorry if you haven’t seen The Others, but it came out 15 years ago and was good but not amazing.
You know the real threat in that part of Kansas? Of course you do. It was weird white people. More specifically, the “Bloody Benders,” a family – or possibly not a real family? – who ran a tavern of horrors where they murdered over twenty people. The Ingalls drove by the Bender tavern at one point, saw the murderess, looked her in the face, but didn’t have tavern money. This is one time when Pa’s inability to provide for his family actually saved them, so that’s nice. What’s not nice is pretending like the Osage were out for blood when the real killers were more like a 19th century homespun Manson family.
The books kind of shift the timeline here, but after that the family moved back to The Big Woods. “Lesson learned! Better stay comfy-poor in these big woods!” That’s how a normal person would react. Not Pa! He decides maybe if it would be better to go move to a hole next to a creek in the coldest and snowiest state, and Ma says “Charles, that sounds irresponsible and also like a weird thing to do, even for people in the 1800s.” Just kidding! Societal conventions wouldn’t have allowed it. She just packed up the china shepherdess and they moved into a dirt hole.
At this point the Ingallses kind of move to and fro within Minnesota for a while. Then they go to Iowa for a bit to manage a hotel, a weird kind of Wes Anderson-y chapter in the family’s existence. While that seems like a tough lifestyle to mess up, Charles finds a way. He wasn’t into the hotel so he works at a grist mill for a second, the family lives above a grocery store and then they live in a rented house… and THEN the family skips town under cover of darkness and they go back to Minnesota. Okay. Cool. Minnesota is a bit too warm and dry so then the Ingalls go to De Smet, North Dakota, where they experience the worst winter America has ever had, per my twenty-year-old memory of The Long Winter. Laura meets Almanzo, gets married, and no longer has to live under the rein of her father’s nonsense ideas. I mean, Manly’s favorite food is apples fried with onions, so I’m not saying he’s perfect; I’m just saying they get a bit more stable.
During her whole childhood, Charles (and Caroline, but we’re talking Pa here) was also painfully oblivious to Laura’s feelings of inadequacy, probably because he was too busy making plans to get lost in blizzards or move out of a perfectly good cabin into a way less-good cabin. Laura always thought Mary was so much better than her, probably because of things like Mary having a legit ragdoll, Nettie, while Laura just had a handkerchief that was trying to be a doll. Laura clearly had a hangup the size of the wide-open prairie about Mary having blonde hair, because she brings it up a LOT. You’d think Pa would have squashed that nonsense or, at the least, informed Laura that Mary was seriously not even all that blonde but Pa was cooking up a schemes and a once-annual pig tail so I guess he never got around to it.
This is just the tip of the Bad Idea iceberg. Remember the time Pa dressed up in blackface for the minstrel show? Or almost got blizzarded to death that one Christmas? When I was a kid, I thought Pa seemed like the most fun dad ever, what with his singalongs and scruffy friends and all. Now that I’m older, I can see Pa through Ma’s eyes instead of Laura’s – and what I see is a whole lot of nonsense wrapped up in a legacy of terrible ideas.