How to survive the ‘Little House’ books

The Ingalls family almost died. A lot.

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. Ma and Laura run back to the house, and make it to safety unscathed.

Unsurprisingly, bear-slapping is a terrible survival technique.

How to survive

When the Ingalls family lived in northern Wisconsin, they shared the area with both black bears and cougars—which Laura refers to as panthers. Today, you could still encounter a bear in those woods, but almost all cougars have disappeared from the region.

That bodes well for your survival odds, as cougars are quite capable of killing humans. The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for Florida, where panthers still roam, recommends that you increase your vigilance at dawn and dusk, because the predators move at night. They tend to stalk smaller targets, such as pets and small children, so if you do encounter a rogue big cat, make eye contact and try to appear larger by raising your arms and avoiding crouching. Do not run or turn your back, but don’t approach the animal either—if there’s an escape route, the cougar will take it. If the cat does attack, try to remain on your feet to keep your head and neck out of the animal’s reach—and fight back.

Today, cougars only rarely attack humans, and they’re even less fond of tackling grown adults. You’re much more likely to encounter a bear. Luckily, the black bears that call Wisconsin home are less aggressive than their grizzly and polar cousins. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources recommends that you avoid surprising the 120- to 300-pound animals. Alert them to your presence by making noise and waving your arms around, and they will usually leave you alone. If you do surprise a bear, retreat slowly, without turning your back, and try to find a car or building where you can shelter.

What you should not do—and this is important—is slap the bear.

Little House on the Prairie
A child reads Little House on the Prairie Wendy Berry on Flickr

2. Do slap mosquitoes

When the Big Woods began to fill up with too many people, the Ingalls family hit the road and moved to Kansas territory on a covered wagon, a chapter of Laura’s life that she describes in Little House on the Prairie. While she faced several dangers in this book, her closest brush with death came from a tiny danger: the mosquito.

In Kansas, the Ingalls family settles on a homestead near a creek. Although they encounter mosquitoes, they view them as buzzing pests rather than disease-carriers. Eventually, the entire family falls ill with what they call “fever n ague.” As the disease progresses, even the adults become bedridden, unable to get up and carry water to Mary when she cries from thirst. They survive thanks to a chance encounter: A doctor on the way to the nearby town of Independence was passing the house, and the family bulldog Jack came outside to encourage the visitor.

As it turns out, their neighbors living all along the creek had fallen ill with what Laura learns is called “malaria.” Dr. Tan sticks around to treat all of the stricken settlers. While the disease had some effective treatments in the 1870s, its cause was unknown. One neighbor blames it on eating watermelon, while Pa Ingalls insists the culprit is the night air.

How to survive

The real cause is a parasite called Plasmodium that infects humans through the bites of the Anopheles mosquito. In fact, mosquitoes kill more humans than any other animal, spreading diseases (like dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya, and Zika) that wipe out an estimated 725,000 people every year. In 2015, malaria alone killed more than 400,000 people and infected more than 200 million.

The easiest way to survive malaria is to avoid mosquitoes in the first place. If you find yourself in a part of the world where the disease is found, the CDC suggests these basic precautions. Protect your tender skin from the insects by wearing protective clothing and insecticides or repellents. At night, either sleep in a well-screened room or cover your bed with a treated net that reaches all the way to the floor.

If you do get malaria, you can look forward to some of the symptoms that Laura mentions in her story, including fever, sweating, chills, weakness, and achiness, as well as headaches and nausea. In severe cases, the disease can cause organ failure and death. When travelers to vulnerable areas develop symptoms like these, they should immediately go to a medical center that can treat them with antimalarial drugs such as quinine.

On the bright side, you can keep eating as much watermelon as you’d like.

Shelter in a blizzard
Take shelter in a blizzard. Pixabay

3. Keep warm

From Kansas, the Ingalls family briefly returned to their Wisconsin home (a side trip that Laura omitted from the Little House books) before heading to Minnesota and settling On the Banks of Plum Creek. There, Laura fights leeches, deals with a mean rich girl, and comes close to drowning in a freezing stream. But in this book, it’s Pa who comes closest to death.

In the winter, Pa is traveling from town back to the Ingalls home when a blizzard catches him out in the open. The snow erases all visibility while gusts of wind ruin his sense of direction. Instead of wandering blindly, Pa holes up in a snow cave, keeping an air hole open while the storm rages for four days. He sustains himself by eating the candy that he had planned to give his daughters for Christmas.

How to survive

As it turns out, Pa’s technique for surviving a blizzard was spot on. If a blizzard hits, your best bet is to find dry shelter indoors. But if you’re out in the open and with no shelter in sight, you should protect yourself from the wind with a lean-to or snow cave.

When riding out a blizzard, Air Force staff sergeant Charles Dornford has some advice. First, you must maintain a supply of fresh oxygen. Snow cave denizens can poke a chimney through the roof, and somebody sheltering in a vehicle should crack the windows and keep the exhaust pipe clear to prevent carbon monoxide buildup.

To stay warm, proper clothing is also essential, and periodic bouts of exercise such as push-ups can also help. While hydration is essential, eating snow directly can lower your core temperature. Instead, experts recommend that you melt it before imbibing.

However, the best way to deal with a blizzard is to avoid getting caught unawares. If you live in a blizzard-prone area, keep supplies in your car and home, and heed the weather channel’s warnings—unless you really want to survive on candy for days.

4. Be grateful for antibiotics

When By the Shores of Silver Lake starts (before the Ingallses actually move to the titular lake), we learn that the family has just battled another bout of disease, this time fighting through scarlet fever. Symptoms include a high fever, rash, and flushing, but the Streptococcus bacteria responsible for scarlet fever (as well as strep throat) can also can spread to other organs. In these cases, it can lead to more severe symptoms such as kidney damage, although death is extremely rare. However, the book does claim that the disease caused Mary to go blind.

Side note: According to modern medicine, scarlet fever does not cause blindness. One researcher even pored over historical records to come up with a new culprit for Mary’s loss of eyesight: viral encephalitis.

How to survive

Luckily for today’s scarlet fever sufferers, a full course of antibiotics can quickly eradicate the disease . While the drugs are doing their work, the Mayo Clinic recommends that you mitigate symptoms with lots of fluids, as well as fever-reducing painkillers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen.

However, antibiotic resistance is becoming more widespread. Eventually, bacteria like Streptococcus may stop responding to most antibiotics. That’s why the best plan is to avoid contracting scarlet fever in the first place. To do that, you should be vigilant about washing your hands, avoid sharing food with someone who’s sick, and encourage everybody to cover their mouths when they cough and sneeze.

5. Stave off starvation

Scarlet fever is a walk in the park compared with the challenges that the Ingalls face in The Long Winter. In this book, the family is cultivating a homestead in the Dakota territory, but as a severe winter sets in, they move to the town of De Smet, South Dakota for the duration of the season.

Blizzards gust through town with such high frequency that supply trains can’t get through. Short on food and fuel, hungry and cold, the Ingalls spend much of their time trapped indoors, twisting hay into sticks that they can burn for warmth. Their fellow townsfolk are in a similar situation, and everyone worries that, without relief, people will starve to death before the intense winter ends.

Ultimately, they are saved when two of their neighbors fight their way through the snow to bring wheat to town. This sustains people until the trains can start running again.

How to survive

The Ingalls would never have come so close to starvation if the trains had managed to fight through the storms. Today, railroads use high-tech snowplows, supersonic air blowers, and even fire to keep trains running. So the best survival method would be to improve the infrastructure of this isolated area in order to keep the train tracks in good condition.

But let’s say that you have no supply chain, and you’re facing starvation. There’s still some good news! With adequate hydration from melted snow, humans can survive for a surprisingly long time without food, especially if they start out with a higher body mass index. Scientific American provides some historical examples: Mahatma Gandhi, who had a low BMI, spent 21 days on a hunger strike with only sips of water. In another incident, political prisoners in Northern Ireland died after up to 73 days without food.

If you’re trying to eke out more time without food, conserve energy: avoid unnecessary physical activity and sleep as much as possible, as the body burns fewer calories when it’s asleep. And most important, make sure to stay hydrated. Without food or water, most humans will die after 10 to 14 days.

Unfortunately, the long winter lasted more than 73 days. Rather than eking out the last of your food and then enduring starvation for as long as possible, a better technique would be to cultivate social ties. The town lived because two of their number chose to risk their lives to benefit everyone. For social animals like humans, this group behavior makes everyone more likely to survive.

It’s also worth noting that social mores contributed to the Ingalls family’s ability to fight malaria: After the doctor treated them, a neighbor came nurse them back to health.

Laura's school

6. Stay sane

In the next two books, Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years, Laura faces fewer new dangers. That said, she does experience a disturbing incident while she is living 12 miles from home.

While she teaches school in another settlement, Laura spends weeknights boarding with the Brewster family. Mrs. Brewster complains about life on the homestead, begs to return to the east, and generally makes everyone’s life miserable. One evening, to Laura’s horror, she sees Mrs. Brewster threaten her husband with a knife.

From that point on, the then-15-year-old has trouble sleeping due to her fears of an attack.

How to survive

As we learned in The Long Winter, winter on the prairie was cold, isolating, and monotonous. We might armchair-diagnose Mrs. Brewster with something like seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that strikes at specific times of year. Light therapy or treatment for depression may have prevented her from sinking so low that she lashed out.

Lacking a psychiatrist, you can still survive an encounter with somebody who is threatening and armed. Psychologist Nadia Persun recommends that you remain calm and collected, while listening to the angry person’s concerns with empathy. If you can’t defuse the encounter this way, your best option is to disengage and remove yourself from the situation.

Unfortunately for Laura, she was stuck in an isolated settlement on the cold winter prairie—she couldn’t exactly run for help. In this case, as a last resort, you can learn a few self-defense techniques—like these moves that knife-fighting expert Michael Janich demonstrates—which allow an unarmed person to defend against a knife attack.

Studying a video of Janich’s techniques isn’t enough. In a high-adrenaline situation, many people will freeze rather than springing into action. To prevent this response, you’ll need to practice your self-defense moves over and over before you find yourself in a threatening situation. When your body becomes familiar with the movements, you will be more likely to use them in a real-life encounter.

7. Avoid pioneer life altogether

The final book in the original series, The First Four Years, was published after Laura’s death, based on an unrevised manuscript. The lack of edits might be why it seems so bleak.

When Laura marries Almanzo Wilder, she promises to try being a farmer’s wife for three (ultimately four) years. After the two settle on a farm near De Smet, they experience a parade of misery: A hailstorm destroys their first crop, they fall ill with diphtheria, that diphtheria gives Almanzo a permanent disability, wind destroys another set of crops and then a third, their son is born but survives only a few weeks, and they struggle constantly to repay the debts they owe. Finally, the coup de grace: a fire burns down their house.

How to survive

Most of the Little House books portray pioneer life as fascinating and adventurous, even when danger threatens. But this unedited look at the difficulties of running a farm paints a different picture. Even Laura’s vast experience—she spent her youth learning the minutiae of founding frontier farms—couldn’t guarantee success. This suggests that we 21st-century softies wouldn’t survive the same hardships.

There is an easy solution: Don’t become a pioneer.

But there’s another, less pessimistic, lesson to learn from the Little House books. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing ultimately made her one of the most beloved American authors of all time. Her disputed estate is worth an estimated $100 million, far more than the successful farm she and Almanzo went on to run in Missouri. So perhaps the real survival lesson has nothing to do with pioneers. The key is to keep a backup career up your sleeve.