Popular Science

How to survive the 'Little House' books

The Ingalls family almost died. A lot.
Flash fire


Flash fire

Just one of many brushes with death in the Little House books

IN THE LITTLE HOUSE BOOKS, real-life pioneer girl Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957) chronicled her family’s life on the American frontier. Young readers, who continue to gobble up Ingalls’s stories today, will remember the vivid descriptions of a now-lost time, from traveling in a covered wagon to playing ball with a pig’s bladder. Adults who revisit the series, on the other hand, may notice grimmer aspects.

Laura softened her tale for a young audience, and fudged some facts to make the narrative more consistent. But the books are still based on her family’s real story, which included racist attitudes, poverty, hardship—and a disturbing number of near-death experiences.

Although Ma, Pa, Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace do survive the series, they sometimes do so through sheer luck. Popular Science chose one brush with death from each original book (with the exception of Farmer Boy, which does not cover the Ingalls family) and compared the family’s survival technique to today’s best practices.

1. Don’t slap bears

As a young child, Laura Ingalls lived in the woods near Pepin, Wisconsin. Her chronicle of this time, Little House in the Big Woods, contains several incidents in which wild animals threaten the lives of family members. There’s the story of a panther attacking her grandfather, and an incident when her father faces off with what looks like a bear—but turns out to be a stump.

Then Laura has her own encounter. One night when Pa Ingalls is in town trading furs, Laura and her mother go to the barn to milk the family cow. They see the animal blocking the fence, so Ma slaps the cow's shoulder to make her move. Except that it’s not their cow—it’s a bear

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