Manchester Histories recently held a “DigiFest” to mark the 50th anniversary of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act. I thought that the anniversary would attract a lot of attention nationwide, given what an important landmark it was in terms of disability rights; but it seems to have been pretty much forgotten, which is rather a shame. I’m mentioning it here because I think that Mary Ingalls was the first book character (not “fictional character”, as, obviously, she was a real person) with a disability whom I came across who was realistically portrayed. She didn’t make a miraculous recovery, like Clara Sesemann in Heidi, and she didn’t just suddenly die for no apparent reason, like Rosamund Sefton in Mary-Lou of the Chalet School. She got on with her life as best she could, a much-loved member of a family and a community. At the same time, the loss of her sight meant significant and difficult changes for her, her parents and her sisters.
In the books, Laura takes a teaching job at the age of 15, and the entire family scrimp and save, so that they can send Mary to college. In reality, Mary’s education was state-funded. It’s that sort of thing which people who write academic works about Laura (I’m so glad that this book – “Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books”, to give it its full name! – refers to “Laura”, not to “Wilder”, because surely everyone thinks of her as “Laura”) pick up on when arguing that the books express libertarian ideas and ideals. It’s fascinating how much theorising about the Little House books goes on, and how they’ve become caught up in debates about the frontier theory and ideas of American history, about what America stands for, in culture wars, and even in politics. To some extent, this happens with all well-known books – people apparently use Anne Blythe, nee Shirley,’s comments about how she doesn’t write any more now that she’s got kids as an argument against women’s lib – but there aren’t too many parallels for the way that people go on about Ronald Reagan apparently being a fan of Laura’s books, or worry about what Laura would have thought of Donald Trump.
For all the talk about political messages, the early books, in particular, are aimed at very young children. I read the whole series when I was about 7, and, if there were political messages in them, I didn’t get them, any more than I got the religious messages in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or even the much less subtle ones in Little Women. I was genuinely impressed by the much-discussed epiphany scene in Little Town of the Prairie, but only because I took it to mean that all American schoolkids knew the entire Declaration of Independence off by heart. But, yes, reading the books now, I can see what the academics who make these arguments are getting at.
I don’t think that this book made a particularly strong argument for Laura’s books as an expression of libertarianism, though, certainly not to the extent that Prairie Fires did. It wasn’t that the arguments were weak, just that libertarianism wasn’t actually mentioned that much. Most of it was about the relationship between Laura and her daughter Rose, and the argument over whether or not Rose edited, even co-wrote, and was pretty much responsible for the final versions of the books. As far as Christine Woodside’s concerned, there’s no argument – Rose played a far bigger part in the writing of the books than has ever been acknowledged.
Would it matter so much if she had? Well, according to Christine Woodside, yes, it would, because we, the readers, don’t want to accept that the books are not the Word of Laura. Or, indeed, that they’re not the True Word of Laura: I must confess to being quite upset when I had to accept that the life of the Ingalls family wasn’t exactly as it’s set out in the books! As Christine Woodside points out, there’d be quite a to-do today if someone wrote a series of books which they claimed were autobiographical, and then it turned out that they’d changed a load of things and left a load of things out. But times were different then. Today, we’d just say that the books were “based on” the lives of the Ingalls family. Which they were.
I personally don’t accept the theory that Rose did most of the work on the books. I accept that she did some work on them, but I still think that they’re mostly Laura. Let The Hurricane Roar, which Rose did write, isn’t a patch on the Little House books. Christine Woodside obviously thinks differently, and that’s fair enough, but I wish that she’d presented a more balanced view, and not gone 100% for the Rose theory.
I’d also have liked more about Laura and less about Rose, something which I find with all academic works about the Little House books. The book also covers what happened after Rose’s death, i.e. the rather sad tale about how the copyright ended up in the hands of Roger MacBride, which wasn’t at all what Laura had wanted, but the positive, or negative, depending on how you look at it, story of how he got the TV series going and turned the books into a big franchise. I do not like that word. It does my head in when I hear American football teams referred to as “franchises”. Did the TV series help to keep the popularity of the books going? I don’t know. For some reason, I never watched it. It’s all about the books for me.
There are quite a few books about Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane. If you’ve read one of them, this one won’t tell you anything that you don’t already know. If you want to read more about the libertarian theories, Caroline Fraser’s “Prairie Fires” is better. But this isn’t bad, and I’m always glad to read another book about Laura. She was a big part of my childhood, and one of the reasons I’ve always loved American history. And nothing is ever going to change that!