This didn’t half pack a lot into thirty minutes! I have loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books ever since I was a little girl, and it made me rather happy 🙂 to hear them being discussed by three people – journalist Samira Ahmed, author Tracy Chevalier and Laura’s biographer Pamela Smith Hill – who obviously love them as well. It makes me sad 😦 that the books have become the subject of so much controversy in recent years – the much-discussed issue of racism, the question of whether or not it was actually Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane who did most of the writing, and the argument that the books give a completely sanitised view of events. I thought that this programme tackled and answered all those questions really well, without letting them take the discussion over completely.
I loved how enthusiastic they all were! So often these days, you listen to or watch or read something about a particular author, and it feels as if the broadcaster or author is only interested in pulling their work to pieces. Quite often, it feels as if they haven’t even read the books properly, especially with some of the rubbish that people spout about Enid Blyton. What a refreshing change to hear people who were obviously genuine admirers of Laura talking about her life and work. I always think of her as “Laura”, never as “Mrs Wilder” 🙂 .
They started off by pointing out that the books were first published during the Depression, and appealed to the sense of nostalgia for a bygone era that always tends to flourish in difficult times, and also to the whole romanticised idea of the West. I can’t say I’ve ever really been that into the whole romanticised West thing. Westerns don’t really appeal to me that much. I can talk all day and all night about the Civil War, the build-up to the Civil War, Reconstruction and even the Mexican War, but not so much the West. I don’t even know that the Little House books are “Western” in the “Wild West” sense that people generally use “Western”: they certainly don’t involve showdowns at the OK Corral and all that sort of thing! But the idea of the pioneers certainly has a very romantic appeal. I’m being earwormed by the Pet Shop Boys’ Go West now! One of Pa’s songs was something about “Uncle Sam is rich enough to build us all a farm”. It’s the American Dream, to own your own land. And the idea of the American Dream still holds today. People are trekking across Central America because of it.
They also suggested that writing the books must have been therapeutic for Laura. Reading the books as a little kid, I had no idea that Laura had written them because she desperately needed money after her family lost their savings in the Wall Street Crash, nor about Almanzo’s health problems. Was it therapeutic for her? It’d be nice to think so. And, as they also pointed out, the white settlement of the West is often presented as a male-dominated experience. With Laura’s books, we see it from the point of view of a girl. It’s fascinating how we get this incredibly tough lifestyle, but we also get all this really girlie stuff about dresses and hairstyles and wishing that you were prettier than you are. I still want a delaine dress with buttons that look like berries!
One thing that wasn’t mentioned at all was the religious aspect: I don’t know why that was missed. Having said which, they did say that the books are sometimes presented – presumably in America – in a moralistic way. Maybe it’s best not to go there. The Bible Belt culture is something that be quite difficult to get your head round, and which I don’t think most British people are at all comfortable with. I doubt that Laura would be too comfortable with some of what goes on, either. As I said, best not to go there.
I never watched the TV series. I don’t know why, given how much I’ve always loved the books, but I never did. But I gather that it’s that which is largely responsible for the saccharine sweet image that the books have got in some quarters. As Samira and Tracy stressed, they aren’t saccharine sweet at all. OK, some of the most unpleasant aspects of Laura’s childhood, which are in Pioneer Girl, aren’t in the Little House books; but the books, especially the early ones, were written for young children, not for adults or even for teenagers. But the books are essentially a tale of bad luck and failure. And, as they said, maybe that’s part of the appeal. The Ingalls family keep having to pick themselves up, dust themselves down, and start all over again.
And Samira said exactly what I think every time I revisit the books – that, as a young reader, you think that their life sounds very exciting and that Pa is wonderful; but that, as an adult female, you think that Pa is an idiot and you feel desperately sorry for Ma. That poor woman, being dragged from pillar to post, with four kids, all because of Pa’s “itchy feet”! I want to cheer when she finally puts her foot down and says that they’re staying put, so that she can make a nice home and the girls can go to school.
Then they, inevitably, got on to the “culture war” question. As we all know, the Association for Library Services to Children in America recently renamed its Laura Ingalls Wilder Award as the “Children’s Literature Legacy Award”, due to concerns in the books about the attitude towards Native Americans and African Americans. It’s a very difficult and controversial subject, and I said all I had to say about it at the time. Samira made an excellent point about how – she said especially in America, but I think it’s happening everywhere – we seem to be losing the concept of nuance. Everything’s becoming so polarised, and people seem so keen to stick labels on things. I think it’s largely because of people with extreme views at both ends of the spectrum dominating social media, and dominating universities: surely the majority of people do not view things in such polarised terms. As she said, surely we can read a book and say that, yes, I enjoyed that book, but/even though there are things in it with which I’m not comfortable. Why is that a problem? I thought that she put that very well.
Then on to environmentalism! I am not scientifically-minded, and I can’t say that I’d ever thought very much about how digging up the topsoil on the prairies caused the Dust Bowl phenomenon of the 1930s, but, yes, it’s interesting to think that Laura lived through all that.
And then to the idea of Manifest Destiny. That I can go on about that at very great length – and obviously it’s an extremely problematic concept now, and the treatment of Native Americans, from well before Laura’s time, was beyond appalling, but it’s something that does have to be understood in order to understand the historical context of the books. Samira commented that the US is still struggling to come to terms with this. It doesn’t seem to be talked about that much. The issue of discrimination against African Americans is rarely out of the news, but very little seems to be said about Native Americans – certainly far less than about the First Peoples in Canada, or the Maoris in New Zealand, or the Aboriginal Peoples in Australia.
They then made another interesting point – that the happiest book is Farmer Boy. I’d actually have said that the happiest book was These Happy Golden Years, but I suppose that doesn’t have the level of security and comfort that Farmer Boy has. Laura, at 15, having to go to a strange place and teach pupils who are older than she is, isn’t actually a very happy idea at all. OK, OK, they’ve probably got it right and I’ve probably got it wrong! And they picked up on the scene in Farmer Boy that most sticks in my mind – Almanzo’s enormous breakfast! The amount of food they eat for breakfast! Most people don’t eat that much in two days. Why did Almanzo and Royal, who both seem to have had considerably more sense than Charles Ingalls, leave that life behind to Go West? They didn’t mention Eliza Jane, but why did she Go West? Again, it’s got to have been the American Dream. All that hope.
And, in poor Almanzo’s case, it all came crashing down. In The Long Winter, he was this super-fit young man who heroically went off with Cap Garland to bring back supplies in order to save the residents of the town from starvation. Then he was struck down by complications from diphtheria when he was only 31, making it impossible for him to do all the hard physical work their lifestyle required, just as several years of severe drought were making life in South Dakota incredibly difficult anyway. It’s a sad story. The American Dream went sour for a lot of people. Really, it never worked out for the Ingalls family in Laura’s childhood. The books don’t gloss over that. And yet they’re never gloomy or miserable. But they’re certainly not saccharine-sweet. They might not be an exact historical reflection of Laura’s childhood and youth, but they’re very realistic.
She’s only four in the first book, and, if we include The First Four Years, she’s in her early twenties by the end of the series. We do grow up with her – as Samira and Tracy said, the tone of the books does change, and they do move from being books for very young children to being books for young adults. I read the lot when I was aged between about 7 and 9, but I can still read any of them, and enjoy them.
They were scathing about Rose Wilder Lane, though! I think there’s quite a lot to admire about her life, but she certainly doesn’t sound like a particularly nice person. They pulled apart the suggestions that she wrote most of the Little House books, and even said – quite rightly! – that Let The Hurricane Roar is basically a rip-off of Laura’s real life experiences.
They finished up by saying that adversity had been the making of Laura, which is something that I don’t think anyone can argue with. I’ve never listened to Great Lives before, so I don’t know whether it should have focussed more on why Samira Ahmed, who nominated Laura, thought they she had a “Great Life”, rather than just being a general discussion about a popular author and her much-loved books, but they got through an awful lot in half an hour, and it really was very interesting. And it was just so nice to hear people being positive, at a time when so many people in the media only seem ready to criticise.