NPR logo Ten Surprising Wholesome Values Discovered In Old Episodes Of 'Little House On The Prairie'

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Ten Surprising Wholesome Values Discovered In Old Episodes Of 'Little House On The Prairie'

While preparing the TV On DVD 2008 wrap-up that went live yesterday, I had the opportunity to check out the entire series run of Little House On The Prairie on DVD. I went strolling through the set, pausing here and there to watch things I remembered and, in some cases, things I didn't. And you know what I learned? They taught some deeply strange lessons on that show. I now present a partial list of the values advanced at least once during the run of Little House On The Prairie.

1. Vigilante justice.

Vigilante justice is very popular on Little House, probably because there is no law enforcement to speak of. Occasionally, a visiting judge appears to put someone on trial for burning down a barn, but for the most part, the citizens of Walnut Grove are on their own.

And they know how to take care of themselves. In the episode "The Bully Boys," three mean brothers come to town and begin swindling and intimidating the townspeople. The youngest is still in school, and because the boys are all off helping with the harvest, he's left alone in school with the girls, who eventually get fed up with him and set upon him in the schoolyard, where they commence flattening him. Later, the rest of the town attends church and is informed by the reverend (!) that the children's mob violence has taught them all an important lesson about standing together (!!), so the reverend throws one of the brothers up against a wall (!!!) before strong-arming all three into leaving town with the assistance of the town's entire population of men. Which brings us to...

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2. NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard).

Nothing is really done about the brothers except that the men march them right out of town while the women stay behind in church and sing a hymn. Presumably, the ne-er-do-wells simply move on to Sleepy Eye or wherever, where they will choose new children to bully and citizens to defraud. Apparently, as long as the marauding criminals stay away from your particular mercantile, you've solved the problem.

3. Home remedies, up to and including amputation.

In one of the show's most famous episodes (shown in the clip above), Ma is left at home alone for a weekend, and she scratches her leg on the fence outside, resulting in a terrifying infection that causes her hair to get very messy. In her feverish despair, she happens upon a Bible verse that instructs that if your leg offends you, you should "cut it off," and she focuses over and over again on the words "cut it off" while she (honest!) sterilizes a giant butcher knife. Oh, the family-friendly television of the 1970s! In the end, Ma does not cut her leg off, but she does slice her infection open, which the doctor later explains is the only reason she survived. While it does not straightforwardly portray an amputation, the episode clearly suggests that Ma would and could have cut her own leg off if she'd needed to. And that's what makes her brave and strong.

Even more of all this, after the jump...

4. Insurance.

Barn fire, hail, theft by displaced circus performer, drought, falling down well, bite from rabid raccoon, catching "the fever," house fire, occupational injury (explosives), occupational injury (millstone), property eaten by goat, carriage accident, horseback riding mishap, home invasion by escaped convicts, runaway caboose, assault by man in mask, scarlet fever, sabotaged dinner resulting in cayenne pepper inhalation, accidental shooting, morphine addiction, kidnapping by Robert Loggia, typhus, blizzards, and the acquiring of homeless orphans every time you leave your home: these are just a few of the hazards that lie in store. Purchase insurance. All kinds. Every kind. Raccoon insurance only seems silly until you need it.

5. Fear of French.

In an episode in which Laura is replaced as the town's schoolteacher during a coup by Mrs. Oleson, all learn that the school should teach things the students actually need, like agricultural science, and the students shouldn't be required to wear ties and study silly, frou-frou things. And what stands for "silly things" in this episode? French. Mrs. Oleson wants to teach French! Fortunately, at the end of the episode, it is established that French is out and farm science is in. Just say oui to Francophobia!

6. Child-collecting to treat the blues.

After the departure of Nellie Oleson, who had by then become placid and loving (as a result of falling in love and getting married, naturally), her mother was distraught and depressed, believing that her useful life was over. The doctor's solution: adopt a new daughter! You must admit: it is outstanding medical advice. The Olesons did indeed go right out and adopt a new daughter named Nancy, who was basically the spitting image of Nellie as a child. There's no need to tackle your psychological problems head-on when you can simply acquire new children. Better than a bread poultice to cure what ails you.

7. The dispensability of the lives of spinsters.

When Laura finally fell in love with true love Almanzo Wilder, they had a few logistical problems. He lived with his sister Eliza Jane, so they would need a new place. Besides, Laura wanted to teach, and Eliza Jane was occupying the spot of Walnut Grove's one schoolteacher. What to do, what to do. Eliza neatly solved the problem by pretending that she had an out-of-town fiancé, which meant Laura and Almanzo could have the house and Laura could have the job. It was a great solution, except that she was lying and sacrificing her house, job, dignity, and psychological health, and that eventually, her brother and sister-in-law would probably notice that she made it up. If they don't, that should be an interesting Thanksgiving dinner. ("My husband? He is...um, in the outhouse.")