Friday, November 21, 2014

Thoughts on Laura Ingalls Wilder

A picture of Carrie, Mary, and Laura Ingalls,
taken at about the time of The Long Winter
As I've written a bit about in the past, I've been reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's books to my daughter.  We made it up through Little Town on the Prairie, at which point I realized that my daughter is young enough and Laura is old enough that she can't relate to her right now.  I'm sure that we (or she) will finish out the series when she's older.  I may finish re-reading it on my own, but I have THIS GEM coming to me next month (squeals in excitement!)

My daughter loves Laura, and I love that she loves Laura, but I have to say that it is not completely unproblematic,  There were times when I questioned my decision to read these books to my daughter, and there ended up being a few conversation coming out these books that one would not expect to have with a 5 year old.

There is also the Rose aspect.  There is a question about how involved Rose Wilder Lane was in these books.  Some say that she simply proof read and "cleaned" up the manuscripts.  Other people believe that she actually wrote them.  Personally, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle, but her presence--especially in the later books--is obvious.  Rose Wilder Lane was, along with Ayn Rand, one of the "mothers" of the American Libertarian movement.  I'm sure there are people who think this is oh-so-interesting--a number of people in my family might fall into that category--but I do not.  So, there is that.

I'm not going to write a full review of each book, but I am going to jot down a few thoughts on each.  Let me say, before I start, that--despite what I might say--I love these books, even with their flaws to the modern eye.

Little House in the Big Woods  My daughter and I loved this book.  However, I know a fair number of parents who read this to their kids and HATED it.  You see, there is not actually a plot to this book, which understandably rubs many the wrong way.  I guess I just spent enough time reading history books and memoirs to read it as that rather than a novel.  My daughter, however, related deeply to Laura in this book and I think that is what led her to want to read more.

Farmer Boy So, can I just say that this is a weird book?  It's about Almanzo, so that in itself is strange--it is sort of outside the LIW universe.  But, even more than that, this book is NOT like the others  From reading this book, it sounds like Almanzo (which, by the way, should be pronounced al-MAN-zoh, not al-MAHN-zoh, as is said in the TV series) grew up in this strange world of unlimited rich food,  Seriously.  After reading just one description of a "normal" breakfast (and there are many such descriptions), it is a wonder that these people didn't all die of heart attacks at 16.  There is one part where the 4 Wilder kids eat a whole barrel of sugar in, like, a week.

It's all incredibly unbelievable.  However, in The Wilder Life, Wendy McClure theorizes that the world of Almanzo's childhood is actually Laura's fantasy world--it is everything she did not have as a child.  It's an interesting theory and one that I can easily buy, but it doesn't change the fact that this book is weird!

Little House on the Prairie  This was the most problematic of all the books.  For one thing, this book is probably closer on the fiction side of the spectrum than any of the other books (besides Farmer Boy).  The chronology of the books is a bit off, but the events in this book took place when Laura was about 3 years old, not 5 years old as said in the book (and it should come before Little House in the Big Woods).  So, most of this came from "constructed" memories, not true memories.

This is also the book that raised the toughest questions with my daughter.  You see, Ma Ingalls--the sweet, unassuming Caroline Ingalls--was a raging racist.  This is the book that actually contains the sentence "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."  And, yes, Ma says it.  Oh, and guess what ONE SENTENCE my daughter decided to repeat over and over again?  Yeah....

There is an argument that this is just reflecting what people felt at the time and that sentiment is very troubling to me.  I don't doubt that people felt that way--I know that they did!--but that doesn't make it okay.  And just saying, well, that's the way it was is like saying slavery is okay because that's just what people did.

And here is where I'm torn.  As an adult, I can recognize this as a popular and UGLY sentiment in a period of time.  However, my daughter does not see that.  Laura idolizes her Ma and Ma can do no wrong and then there is this.  I'm not saying the book should be banned or edited, but I wish I had taken this into account and maybe, well, skipped this book until my daughter was older.

The site of the Ingalls home on Plum Creek
Walnut Grove, MN
On the Banks of Plum Creek This is probably my favorite book of the series. And it has Nellie Oleson, and that is all I really need to say about this.

By the Shores of Silver Lake We also greatly enjoyed this one.  It helped that we read about Laura and her mother and sisters arriving in De Smet as we were actually driving into De Smet.  I mean, how cool is that????  The one interesting thing is that Laura talks about how grand the Surveyor's house is--where they get to stay rent free (and, literally, eat everything in sight) on winter.  That house still stands and I would guess is is maybe about 1000 square feet.  We didn't get to tour this house, but we will the next time we go (and there will be a next time!)

The Long Winter So, this is an interesting book in a couple of ways.  For one thing, it is kind of a downer.  There is evidence that the Ingalls were not quite as isolated as depicted in this book, but it is definitely not a book you want to read when you are down in the dumps.  I mean, nothing terrible happens, no one dies, but....

The second point is that this is probably the most accurate description of what Seasonal Affective Disorder feels like.  I have battled with bouts of that and I realized that Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing exactly what I felt during those times.  The term she frequently uses is "dumb and stupid" which, to our modern ear, would initially mean something else but it is a very, very accurate descriptor.

This is also the first book where I started noticing strange episodes that didn't really fit into the plot but were more like rants about Libertarianism.  Mr. Edwards (who never, ever has an orangutan in the books--sorry, Michael Landon) shows up out of the blue--he hadn't been seen since Little House on the Prairie--to go off on how he defrauded the government by lying about his situation so that he wouldn't have to pay taxes!  And this is supposed to be a good thing!  Rose Wilder Lane strikes again!

Nellie Owens, one-third of the deliciously evil Nellie Oleson.
She was Laura's foil when the Ingalls lived in Walnut Grove.
Little Town on the Prairie  At this point, we are entering YA territory--which is all fine and good, but my 5 year old could no longer relate.  Personally, though, I quite liked this book.  There are hints of romance and Nellie Oleson returns!!! (Nellie Oleson is actually a composite of 3 girls from Laura's childhood.  In reality, the "Nellie Oleson" from Laura's time on Plum Creek is not the same one that shows up in De Smet).

There are some more soap box speeches from Rose in this book, which is annoying, but my daughter didn't even notice it and, for me, it gave me a chance to indulge in adolescent eye rolling.  It was probably fortunate that my daughter wasn't too attached to this book so that we didn't have a repeat of the "The Only Good Indian.." episode when we came to the scene where Pa performs in a skit in blackface  Ugh....

So, all in all, am I glad I read these books to my daughter? Yes.  She found a heroine to look up to who breaks the mold and is a strong female role model.  In retrospect, I probably would have postponed Little House on the Prairie and Little Town on the Prairie until she was older, but she now has the books on her shelf and she can re-read them when she feels ready.  Or before our next visit to Laura-country....


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