On Considering Race and Laura Ingalls Wilder

I’ve been thinking deeply about race as it relates to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her works, lately, and I’ve made some observations that I’d like to share.

For those who don’t know, Wilder wrote the wildly popular Little House series of children’s books upon which the television show, Little House on the Prairie, was based. Recently, PBS aired a new documentary biography about Wilder, and I was pleased to see that it paid attention to the controversy surrounding the books, which have episodes of racism. In fact, the argument could be made that the entire series is racist, though it’s most evident and apparent in Little House on the Prairie, the book that tells the story of the Ingalls’ squatting on land in the Osage Diminished Reserve in Kansas and their subsequent departure from it.

However, the rest of the series isn’t exempt; negative references to Native Americans as well as the story of a performance in blackface by characters in the books also highlight the problematic nature of the works, which led to the American Library Association removing Wilder’s name from one of its major awards in 2018.

As an historian, I have said, and I will continue to say, that I think it’s important that the books continue to be studied and discussed, despite their flaws, and the discussion does need to be more encompassing than race. These books remain one of the few series that provides historians and others a feminine perspective on the pioneers’ movement West in the nineteenth century. Wilder gives women and girls in that story voice, and suppressing her work would also wrongly suppress that voice.

The challenge, of course, is that many want to suppress the painful truths of history. As someone put it to me recently, “Why can’t we just ‘get over it’?” My answer then, as now, is that we can’t just “get over” trauma, either personal or collective. The collective trauma of Native Americans being driven away from their homes and forced in many cases to suppress their cultural identities by white authority isn’t something the people are going to get over. The collective trauma of being dehumanized, thought “other,” enslaved, and demonized in popular culture isn’t something any Black person is likely to get over.

These peoples still deal with the remnants and ripple effects of these traumas every day.

When PBS aired the Wilder special, I Tweeted as I watched. At one point, someone on air said the books provided “emotional comfort food.” I retweeted the statement because that’s what the books are for me, too: emotional comfort food that reminded me as a girl that I had value and that my story and my voice meant something. Yet, not all responded positively to my retweet. One clearly said, “Not for me.” And that’s not only valid, it’s worth broader discussion.

My last observation is this: As a girl, I never noticed the books had racist overtones, and that is, in part, because I was a regular and avid watcher of the Little House on the Prairie television series, which expanded on the fictional Laura’s story. In that series, a number of respected African-American characters dealt with a variety of issues on race; the disability of Mary Ingalls was highlighted, and the show paid special attention to inclusion and diversity. I think my perceptions of how the books treated race was softened by simultaneous viewing of the television show.

We have a long ways to go in these discussions. I think it’s more than OK for those of us to have enjoyed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s works as “emotional comfort food” to continue to do so. But we need to remember, too, that her works aren’t inclusive, and for some, could be outright damaging. Don’t expect anyone to “get over it.”

See me discussing Laura: https://youtu.be/va03L58fA28

On remembering at Thanksgiving

I don’t even know how old this pot is. It’s a roaster. Big enough for a 20 pound turkey. Big enough for a family feast of fried chicken at the Fourth of July. Big enough to feed crowd.

This one belonged to my grandma Elsie. My childhood surfaces every time I bring it out, memories of this very pan filled to the brim with whatever she was serving to the crowd in her kitchen when we visited. Thanksgiving was always at Grandma’s, even after she downsized, left the farm, moved into a trailer, and then to an apartment in town. Often, more than 50 of us—family and extended family alike—gathered in the community room in her building for Thanksgiving dinner.

We’d have at least two turkeys. The menu also reflected the whims of whomever was bringing sides. There was always mashed potatoes, and gravy, and stuffing. My mother’s baked beans, sometimes sweet corn, and sweet potatoes speckled with marshmallows sat at the table next to occasional treats brought by cousins who lived further afield than rural Wisconsin.

We ate. We gossiped. We played games of all kinds. We’d have a cribbage tournament sometimes. Other times we’d find the Macy’s parade on the little TV in the corner, followed by whatever football game was playing. (Bonus points for days when the Packers played the Lions.)

This year looks a little different. None of us are traveling, to keep us all safe. This pan is out in my kitchen, ready for the turkey, which I fully expect my small family will be eating for the next week. I have lots of little treats for us to nibble on over the course of the day, and the parade is already on. We’ll connect with other family members later today over the phone. And as we give thanks, we’ll remember we have food, we have shelter, and we have love.

Best wishes to all of you on this Thanksgiving.

On prepping for Thanksgiving at home

Today I started making things that we normally cook in the oven ahead of our Thanksgiving meal at home Thursday.

I started out by making my mom’s baked beans. They’re a dish that takes quite a lot of time, and a lot of oven time, and it just makes sense to make them ahead. We will probably sneak some to eat with our supper tonight. What you see in the picture above is my bean pot, the key to the whole dish. I am not sure why, but they just don’t turn out right if you cook them in anything else.

Each day this week, I will tackle one thing that takes oven time that I want to save for my turkey on Thursday. Tomorrow, it’s pie day. Wednesday, it’s bread day. On Thursday, all I will need to do is make turkey, stuffing, potatoes, gravy, and green bean casserole. Sometimes, it’s the classics that make us the most happy.

Wishing you all the best this week!

On Spooky Stories

When I was a young girl attending one of the many camps I enjoyed, I loved sitting around a campfire telling stories. One of my favorites is a mildly spooky tale that I can’t quite remember the origins of, though I suspect it came from a Girl Scout leader or text at some point.

Half of the fun of telling spooky stories is the ambiance. When telling stories around a campfire, the circle can be big or small, but the warm light from the fire casts deep shadows, as only faces are lit up. Woods or fields surrounding the fire seem darker, and deeper. As a storyteller begins to share a tale, everyone hushes, and the quiet is only broken by the breaking of a log, the snap of pine pitch crackling in the flames, or the call of a night bird.

Perhaps it is a night Iike this where you might hear me tell this story:

Once there was a couple from the Twin Cities named Jane and Martin Hill. They were newlyweds, and in the time-honored tradition of the Midwest, decided to take a road trip for their honeymoon, heading up North along back roads they’d never been on before, just for the adventure of it. One evening, they were driving as dusk was falling, and it started to rain.

It came down in great sheets, making it hard for Martin, who was at the wheel, to see the road, which had gone slippery. He slowed the car, but a shadow ran in front of it without warning, and he swerved. The car flew into a series of rolls, ending up in the ditch with the headlights pointing skyward.

Martin must have fallen unconscious for a moment, but when he came to, he noticed his wife was gravely injured. The rain had lightened up a bit, and there was just enough light from the dashboard that he could see she was bleeding.

Now this was in the days before cell phones, so Martin had no way of contacting an ambulance, and he, himself, knew very little about first aid. He was frantic, trying to think what to do. He managed to get himself out of the car, then to her side, which was crumbled. Something gave him tremendous strength, and he was able to pull her caved-in door open, and take her into his arms. All he could think to do was to get to the road and start walking toward the last town, which they’d passed several miles ago. 

He gathered Jane up, stumbled up the wet, slippery ditch, and made it to the road. He began walking, holding on to his wife and looking for any sign of assistance. His patience was rewarded after a time, and he spotted a light off the road, in the distance.

Martin looked for some kind of path or road that would take him to that light. In the dim light of the rising moon, he saw what looked like a footpath in the underbrush, and he took it, stumbling his way down the path, holding Jane carefully, and looking ahead to a large house that appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, with light emanating from its bay windows. He carried Jane up the steps to the front door, and used his foot to kick it harshly.

He heard footsteps from within, and the door opened with a creak. An old, decrepit man appeared, his long gray hair thinning over his scalp, and his walk marked by a heavy limp.

“Yes?” The man looked Martin and Jane over carefully.

“Please, do you have a phone? My wife, and I, well, we’ve been in an accident and she needs help. Please?”

The man pursed his lips, then nodded. “The Master is in.” He gestured. “Bring her inside.”

Martin entered the house, still holding onto his wife as the other man closed the door behind him and guided him into an old-fashioned looking parlor, gesturing to the settee. “Lay her there,” the man said. “I’ll get the Master.”

Martin lay his wife down. She looked pale and bloody, and he worried it was too late to help her. 

The man came back, and with him, he brought a tall, elegant-looking man in what seemed to be an old-fashioned suit, whom Martin thought was likely this “Master” of which the former had spoken. “Please,” Martin said. “Can you help me?”

“We haven’t a phone,” the Master said. “But I am a physician, of sorts. Let me see what I can do.” 

Martin stepped back, and the Master rolled up his sleeves as he knelt next to Jane. He checked her breathing, listened to her heart, and sat back heavily. “I’m sorry to tell you this, sir, but your wife is already dead.”

Martin felt faint.

“She can’t be! She can’t!”

“There’s nothing more we can do for her.”

Tears fell from Martin’s eyes, and for the first time, he noticed blood dripping down his own arm to the floor below. “Oh,” he said faintly, and fell, before the Master or his servant could catch him.

The Master checked Martin’s pulse, and shook his head. “He’s gone, too.”

“Master, what shall we do with them?” The servant asked.

“Lay him out on the other settee,” The Master directed, going to his parlor organ. He sat at the instrument as his servant laid out Martin on the other settee, and began to play a few chords.

“Master?” The servant asked.

“Just watch, Igor.” The Master began to play, deep rolling chords in flats and trills, a music none had ever heard before that night, and none would ever hear again. As he played, the bodies on the settees began to shake and shiver. He continued to play, the music reaching a fever pitch as the bodies sat straight up, and their eyes opened.

“Master!” The servant called out.

“Yes, Igor, yes!” The Master cried, then sang: “The Hills are alive, with the sound of music.”

A beat. A pause to let the truly terrible pun sink in.

Perhaps the Hills left.

Perhaps they stayed. 

But the power of music saved their lives that night. And when this story is told around the campfire, the “boos” are truly fun for the storyteller. Which was often me, with my terrible sense of humor.

Listen to me tell the story:

on-spooky-stories.mp3

Continue reading “On Spooky Stories”

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.