115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Food of the Prairie: Connected But Contrasting Discourses in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House Books and Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark Series

Scott Pollard, Christopher Newport University
Kara K. Keeling, Christopher Newport University

The paper uses food/foodways as cultural markers to compare the radically different historical visions of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books (as a triumphalist narrative of individual self-sufficiency) and Louise Erdrich's Birchbark Series (as an egalitarian indigenous community in dialogue with other indigenous and western communities around it).


As autobiographical fiction, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series captures a version of  westward expansion, grounded in eastern civilization, fueled by European immigrants, and tracking across the Great Plains. The conservative, do-it-yourself bootstrap ideology that motivated Wilder to write the series as a response to Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression was inspired by Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis in The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1893) concerning the inevitability of European expansion westward across the continent. The five-volume Birchbark Series is Louise Erdrich’s response to Wilder, tracking her Ojibwe ancestors’ less-than-voluntary westward movement, exploring in detail the lives and cultural practices of the Ojibwe as they live their lives, maintaining family, community, and civilization in the face of daily and seasonal realities as well as the pressure of white settlers. On the one hand, Erdrich offers a complex counter-narrative to Wilder’s minimal and superficial portrayal of the very few Native Americans Wilder represents in the series; on the other, rather than privilege individual and immediate family as Wilder does, Erdrich describes a radically egalitarian social structure which also allows for individual identity and expression.

In both series, food and foodways are dominant cultural markers, and they function aesthetically as key elements to plot and character development. This paper will look at each author’s uses of food and foodways to pursue their radically different social visions: Wilder’s blinkered white, exclusive, and triumphalist narrative of individual self-sufficiency and Erdrich’s inclusive vision that recognizes the egalitarian structure of a broader Ojibwe social structure but how that social structure is entangled with and dependent upon others (e.g., white settlers, tribes to the west).