October snow reminds me of The Long Winter

In the last five days, we’ve gotten several inches of snow in Southern Minnesota. Some of it has melted off as fast as it arrived. But the early arrival of the white stuff has made me think about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her book, The Long Winter.

Of all the Little House books, The Long Winter is the one I’ve read the most. It was something of a comfort book for me when I was growing up. That might seem a little odd; the book details how the Ingalls family survived the winter of 1880-1881, during which months of successive blizzards kept trains from running to the new town of De Smet, South Dakota. By May, when the first train came, the town had run out of food. Many had been surviving on sourdough bread made from crushed seed wheat. They had no wheat left to plant for crops in the spring.

I think the reason this one was my favorite is because it deals with the struggle. It shows how the family was resilient, how they pulled together to survive, and how even when the days were darkest, they could sing to bring cheer to the long nights. It’s about survival. It’s about rising up to meet life’s challenges. And in my own darkest days, it’s been a comfort to see the Ingalls thrive despite the length of that terrible winter.

The mantra Laura uses in the story is one I’ve come to use myself. “February is a short month, and March will be spring.” It’s a reminder that we can get through anything, and there is light, and spring, on the other side.

I truly hope that my own October snow does not indicate a winter that lasts till May. Even if it does, I will remember that February is a short month, and March will be spring. This, too, shall pass.

On comfort food: Semi- homemade chicken pot pie

I’m sad. The weather is turning, we’re mourning the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and the pandemic is in its sixth month. I felt the need for some comfort food today. So, using a little help from the grocery store, I made a comfort food classic: chicken pot pie.

This is the first time I tried this concept out, but it turned out so well, I think I will be making this many more times.

Things you’ll need:

One deep dish pan. I used an 8 in. square brownie pan, but if you have a deep dish pie tin that would work too.

Frozen chicken tenderloins.

One can mixed vegetables.

One can cream of chicken condensed soup.

One roll refrigerated piecrust.

Seasoning to taste.

Preheat your oven to 400°. In the pan, spread half the can of soup. Layer 3 to 4 chicken tenderloins over the soup. Spread half the can of mixed vegetables over the chicken. Add another layer of soup, another layer of chicken, and another layer of vegetables, finishing with whatever soup is left. If you wish, use a little onion powder, and a little salt and pepper, on each layer. Thaw and unroll the refrigerated piecrust, and then spread over the top layer, and crimp the edges. Cut holes in the top of the pastry to vent. Bake at 400° for one hour. Make sure the internal temperature of the chicken is 180° minimum before you take it out. The crust will be golden, and sauce will be bubbling. Let stand for five minutes before cutting into it with a big metal spoon. Serve in bowls.

This made enough for four people for lunch. Stay well, everybody.

On Midwest Food

Today I’m introducing my new podcast: Tales from the Midwest. The first episode focuses on Midwest food, and I’m talking to Dr. Kimberly Wilmot Voss, a Milwaukee native and expert on food journalism. We had a great conversation about food, home economics, and our hopes for a Midwestern cuisine movement.

For every podcast, I’m going to include links to favorite places discussed on it right here. Kim named Kopps Custard in Milwaukee and State Street Brats (aka The Brat Haus) in Madison, Wis. I’m adding Mader’s Restaurant, The Spice House, and Usinger’s Factory Outlet on Old World Third Street in Milwaukee.

Tales from the Midwest: Episode 1, with Kim Voss

Have a listen. The podcast is also hosted on BuzzSprout.

On Rose Wilder Lane: Good news

The University of Missouri Press will be re-releasing The Rediscovered Writings of Rose Wilder Lane, Literary Journalist, in paperback in in September.

I couldn’t be more thrilled. This is a book that I put together while simultaneously working on my dissertation (which later became More than a Farmer’s Wife). It’s essentially a labor of love for Lane, who in life partnered with her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, to produce the Little House series of books for children. I’m honored that others have enjoyed it, too.

Lane’s always been a bit of a controversial figure in the world of Little House. Driven by arguments over how much she contributed to Wilder’s books, the controversy also extends to Lane’s apparent disdain for her home town of Mansfield, Mo., her tendency to be mercenary in her pursuit of paid publications, and her apparent inability to be personally tactful.

The controversy also extends to Lane’s political ideology. Her political thoughts, best expressed in her 1942 book The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle Against Authority, make it clear that she believed American ideology to be best expressed through the concept of freedom FROM government interference in the lives of everyday Americans. I can say, with certainty, that Lane did not then, nor would she now, support a police state.

While her work does not explicitly challenge the complications of race in American society, her steadfast belief in individualism, and the rights of individuals to have and use the tools at their disposal to their benefit, permeates much of her popular work as well. I’m currently working on research that analyzes race within her political framework, because it is significant that such an individualistic approach tends to “erase” the societal challenges of race.

The Rediscovered Writings offer readers a glimpse at Lane at her best, and her closing work, an article written from Vietnam and published in December 1965, appropriately finishes on a note that encapsulates her political ideology as well.

Lane remains relevant to the twenty-first century, and I hope this work finds a new audience as it heads into paperback.

On a bit of virtual summer: Walnut Grove’s pageant goes online

News from the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder today: Walnut Grove’s summer pageant will be online, starting tomorrow, July 10.

Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Oleson on the TV show, tweeted an announcement about the pageant’s virtual show this morning. Guests at tomorrow’s first performance, via Zoom, will be Dean Butler, who played Almanzo Wilder, and Dale Cockrell, a music scholar whose work focuses on the music of the Little House books. I’m very excited to see it.

More information can be found on the Walnut Grove web site.

On Favorite Black Authors

I’ve written before about some of the seminal influences on my writing, but I want to focus today on work by black authors I’d consider critical to my understanding of race, culture, class, and narrative. Regular readers know that, as an historian, I consider history to be something of a symphony, where all cultures and voices need to be present in order to make the music.

As a child growing up in a predominantly white area, my first exposure to African-American culture came through my television set. The first book on my list is one I first listened to on PBS’ Reading Rainbow, read by LeVar Burton. The book, Striped Ice Cream by Joan Lexau, was about a little girl who, like me, worried that she wouldn’t get the birthday present she wanted because her family was poor. I related to her on that level, and only peripherally noticed that her skin color was different from mine.

As I grew older, my aunt, who lived in and among the historically black neighborhoods of Minneapolis and St. Paul, introduced me to one of my favorite authors: Maya Angelou. The first work I read of hers was I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and I rank it as transformative for me. I inhaled every other book and work I could get my hands on by Ms. Angelou, and I grieved when she passed. Her stories about growing up as a black woman, living as an artist, and working as an activist electrified me.

I already knew I wanted to be a journalist; Angelou’s work made me understand that the stories I told needed to come from all segments of society. She opened my eyes to the assumptions I’d internalized from my limited interactions with people from other backgrounds, colors, creeds, and cultures, and in demonstrating how she found her voice, I learned to find mine.

From there, it was Alice Walker. Toni Morrison. Audre Lorde. Alex Haley. Ralph Ellison. bell hooks. Zora Neale Hurston. It was Oprah, whose rise as a journalist offering space for her viewers to tell their own stories was stunning to witness. I read the works of Martin Luther King, Jr., and I started to read an up-and-coming columnist from the Miami Herald named Leonard Pitts, Jr.

I have been extraordinarily busy in the last five years, personally, but my original passion to find my own voice, and now, as an educator, helping others find theirs, remains. Education doesn’t stop as we get older. On my to-be-read list right now are works by former President Barack Obama, former First Lady Michelle Obama, and novels by Pitts, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2004. His latest novel, The Last Thing You Surrender, is on my e-reader right now.

I can’t honestly say this is a comprehensive list, in any fashion. In thinking about this topic, I Googled “favorite works by black authors,” and my list of new works to read easily tripled. As we move forward in this moment, let’s remember the importance of making our voices heard, and elevating those voices that could otherwise be lost.

On Using White Privilege to Protect; #blacklivesmatter

I wish I could say I was surprised by the breadth and depth of the protests taking place, now internationally, supporting #blacklivesmatter. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I almost expected it.

This is not about me; this is about my children. I am the white parent of black children, and since my oldest children came into my house as teens, I have been required to use my white privilege to fight for them. I didn’t understand the depth of the difference between the institutional challenges they face and the ones I face as a woman until the first time security followed my son and I around a big box store, finally stopping us to ask if he was bothering me.

Bothering. His. Mother.

As the phrase “the first time” implies, however, it was not the last time security took a hard look at us, and it was not the last time I looked a security person or a police officer in the eye and had to say that my son was not bothering me at all. Sometimes, the officer even looked a little chagrined. Mostly not, however.

I instituted a new rule the first time, though. I made sure my teens had phones capable of video recording, that they knew how to use them, and that they knew how to be respectful to police officers even when they had no reason at all to be. Police make assumptions, and I have no desire to see any of my children under one’s knee. George Floyd’s murder proved that even these measures cannot stand as a perfect defense.

I did my best to help equip them with the tools and skills they needed to navigate a world of white privilege while sporting dark skin. I remain angry that it was even necessary to do so. And I will never be certain that it was enough, because we need a world in which people do not have to fear for their lives because of the color of their skin.

On a related note: A tweet this week left me breathless with rage. A white follower on Twitter brought Rose Wilder Lane’s name into the discussion, citing her and Ayn Rand as an inspiration in his quest for “freedom,” presumably at the expense of others.

Rose Wilder Lane would be appalled at the police state that surrounds us. Lane espoused freedom from government interference in the lives of everyday Americans, yes, but she focused on the rights of individuals and the need for all Americans, regardless of color, to take on individual responsibility. She would be marching, too. Or, more likely, using her typewriter to make a point about governmental abuse of power.

Be an ally. Be an anti-racist. Use your own privilege to help others. Do your best to be kind, and to question your own assumptions. Try to walk in the other’s shoes, and see how uncomfortably they fit.