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 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!

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 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.

Rose Wilder Lane on D.W. Griffith and the Great War

I’m trying something a little different today. I’ve been inspired by the numerous artists and actors who are reading aloud online to help entertain those of us who have been stuck at home.

Below, you’ll find an audio link. It’s an MP3 file of me reading a work from my book, The Rediscovered Writings of Rose Wilder Lane, Literary Journalist. It features Rose Wilder Lane’s article about D.W. Griffith and that famed director’s attempt at creating great cinema from actual battle footage during World War I. It’s sixteen minutes long. Have a listen. Lane had a habit of letting readers draw their own conclusions, but it’s pretty clear what her thoughts are about Griffith’s approach.

On D.W. Griffith and the Great War

Amy Lauters reads “Mars in the Movies,” first printed in Sunset, February 1918. Written by Rose Wilder Lane; reprinted in The Rediscovered Writings of Rose Wilder Lane, Literary Journalist.

On Fandom

I’ve been mulling over an epiphany I had a couple of weeks ago, about fandom and my place in it.

It will come as no surprise to some that I am, apparently, a professional fan. However, it was a surprise to me when I realized it.

First, it’s no surprise to many to find that I am a lifelong fan of the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder. My first book, in fact, is an edited collection of the literary journalism of Rose Wilder Lane. I subscribed to Little House newsletters from the home sites in Laura’s world when I was old enough to use my babysitting money to do so, and my first independent road trip, the week I turned 18, was to see the Pepin and Walnut Grove sites firsthand.

Like many “bonnetheads,” I made an effort to learn how to do everything Laura did in her books. I learned to sew, to cook over an open fire, to churn butter, and to make bread from ground wheat and sourdough starter. I played “Little House” for endless hours with my cousins and friends, almost always as Mary, the oldest, because I had blond hair. As an adult, I bought each new book that came out about her life, and as a graduate student, I used her life experiences and writings to frame my own historic research.

I’ve even cosplayed as Laura or Rose, on occasion.

But somehow, that didn’t translate into fandom for me. It simply was. The work I’ve done with Laura and Rose has become what I’m best known for as a scholar, and it’s led to a degree of me being recognizable in public. The BBC interview I gave when Pioneer Girl, the annotated edition, came out, contributed some name recognition internationally that was cool and weird at the same time. And yet, I still hadn’t connected the dots.

It’s ironic, because I have actually researched fan culture. For my master’s thesis, I explored fan culture and the emerging communities online that supported various subgroups of it. I was fascinated by the collectives that had decided to take ownership of varied media, particularly Lois and Clark, and “correct” the deficiencies fans had identified in the original work’s plots. I finished and defended my thesis in 2001, just a few years after the World Wide Web had entered homes and before social media became a dominating force.

I spent a long time trying to see the thread that binds that research to the work I’ve done in history, and I realized, finally, and with help from the Michael Sheen fandom, of all things, that what ties everything I’ve ever done as a scholar together is fan culture.

So, there lies the epiphany. I’m still exploring fandom and my place in it. There’s something teasing me with notions of celebrity, familiarity, and cognitive dissonance that I’ve yet to articulate. When I’ve figured it out, I’ll write more about it.

(And yes, I’ve become a big fan of Michael Sheen’s work. Especially in Good Omens. It’s brilliant. You should go check it out.)

(And yes, I really am that clueless about my own significance in some ways, and require metaphorical big slaps in the face to “get it.”)

Laura Ingalls Wilder and Me: My day on Rocky Ridge Farm

I’m standing here, next to a life-sized cut out of Laura Ingalls Wilder, in front of her side porch and the door that leads to her farmhouse kitchen on Rocky Ridge Farm, now known as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum.

Visiting Rocky Ridge has been on my personal to-do list since I first found out that she’d lived on this section of Ozark land for more than 60 years. Wilder traveled extensively as a child across the Midwest as her family looked for a place to settle down and prosper, and each of the places they stopped and lived has become part of the “tour” of Wilder sites. With this stop at Rocky Ridge today, I’ve been to every site but the one in upstate New York featured in Farmer Boy.

It’s hard, sometimes, to process the emotions that come from fulfilling a long-held dream. I brought my sister and my little girls along for this trip, and having them there added to my joy at finally walking on Wilder’s land, touring her house, and viewing her things, lovingly preserved as it was when she died on Feb. 10, 1957 at the age of 90. As our docent explained during our tour, Wilder’s daughter, Rose, locked the house three days after Wilder’s death, and it remained in stasis until three months later, when, with Rose’s permission and the formation of the non-profit society that currently maintains it, the home opened to the public for tours.

I’m grasping for words to express how it felt to stand in Laura’s kitchen, seeing the pipes that Almanzo had installed himself to bring their spring into the house so she’d have running water with which to cook. One counter held her flour sifter, a board, rolling pin, and ceramic bowl, looking for all the world that she’d stepped away for a moment from baking project. Her blue willow-patterned dishes, everyday favorites, gleam from an open cupboard. The green linoleum that tops the short counters–made by Almanzo to accommodate her petite size–is original.

Everything in the house remains as she left it in 1957. Through the kitchen to the dining room, visitors can spot Rose’s ladder stairs to her upstairs bedroom on their left. The dining room table, bought by Rose to furnish the Rock House in 1929, had been brought back to the main farm in 1936, when the couple moved back in after spending eight years in the Rock House that Rose had built for them. On a shelf built as a triangle to fit snugly in the corner above a heater, the clock that Almanzo traded a load of hay for during their first Christmas still tells the time, carefully wound every morning by the docents in charge for the day.

I found it hard not to touch things as I went through the house. (My preschoolers were very good at keeping their hands in their pockets. They started teasing me about doing the same, and made me giggle.) But it was hard! Most tables and dressers held a lace doilies, knitted by Laura in a favored “pineapple” pattern. Her sewing box sat under a table, ready for use; her nightgown lay across her bed. Her desk held letters from publishers and others; her parlor window seat held three pillows, one of which was embroidered by Angeline Day Wilder, Almanzo’s mother.

Laura’s library, Almanzo’s canes, Rose’s organ, and most of all, their space, lovingly built, kept, and maintained, echoed with the remembrances of their lives, lived.

The home is the showpiece that Laura intended, made from materials taken right off the farm, and emerging into view from the road at the perfect spot coming out from town. It’s a lovely home, and I can easily see why she didn’t want to be parted from it for long.

The museum by Rocky Ridge, now down from the house in its own space with its own parking lot, continued the collection of things that once belonged to many of the people in the Little House. Pa’s fiddle, once owned by Charles Ingalls, has pride of place in the gallery. But we can also see Caroline (Ma) Ingalls’ mother-of-pearl handled pen, Mary’s Braille slate, and Rose’s writing desk. I had to send my little girls, who had been very patient but were getting restless, with my sister into the attached store early so I could be sure to view it all: every. single. thing.

Of course, I spent way too much money in the gift shop. But I also signed stock; they had several copies of my first book, The Rediscovered Writings of Rose Wilder Lane, Literary Journalist. I also spotted it in the Rock House in a display about Rose, which I found flattering.

We had a very late lunch in town, then took pictures in Mansfield’s town square and visited the Wilder and Lane graves in the cemetery. I could have spent days, but one day was enough to view absolutely everything.

I highly recommend a stop if you’re in the area. My little girls, at 4 and 5, found it to be a fun experience. Walking the trails around the farm gave them plenty of exercise; somehow, and I realize how silly this is, I hadn’t realized that a farm in the mountains would be on such a significant incline. We were prepared with good shoes, so it didn’t trip us up. If mobility is an issue for you, don’t worry; handicapped parking is available at the museum, the main farm house, and the Rock House. We chose, mostly, to walk. We avoided the over-the-hill walking trail between the Rock House and the farm house, but otherwise walked everywhere.

I sent my mother a selfie of my sister, my little girls, and me, all smiling, pink-cheeked, from Laura’s front porch. She texted back, “Cool! Do you feel different?”

I gotta say, “Kinda, yeah.”

Reflections on Farm Women

Working with the contents of the box that Heather and I are archiving made me think about the farm women I have known over the years. Many chose to share their stories with when I was working on More than a Farmer’s Wife, and I have numerous letters from women all over the country who felt pressed to share a story, either their own, or their mother’s, about what life was like on the American farm for women between 1910 and 1960.

I’ve been asked about my choice of time period for the original book before, and it falls to a couple of things: first, the years that Laura Ingalls Wilder was an active writer, and second, the period during which the United States saw its biggest shift in population from rural to urban in history. In 1910, 90 percent of those living in the United States lived in rural areas; in 1960, 90 percent of those living in the United States lived in urban spaces.

The shift was dramatic, and with it, many had a sense that something would be “lost” of rural culture’s history. More than one letter I received suggested that fear was the reason so many stories were shared. It certainly was the driving force behind Wilder’s initial draft of what would become the Little House series of books for children. Wilder, herself, began writing for farm journals and rural publications at the beginning of that period, under the handle of “As a Farm Woman Thinks” in the Missouri Ruralist. When she and her husband, Almanzo, “retired” from active farming, Wilder decided to write down what she remembered about her childhood in order to preserve it. While it’s true that another motivation was financial–she certainly hoped to create something that would sell–preservation of history remained a goal of that draft, and all subsequent drafts of her books.

I’m finding, as time moves on, that many other women have had the same impulse. Occasionally, I still get a copy of someone’s memoirs in the mail. I keep every one. I have scrapbooks, pictures, letters, and self-published books. All of their senders say one thing: Remember us.

It’s fitting, I think, that these should have some sort of home, even if it’s digital. It’s exciting to see the interactive documentary Heather and I are producing take shape as we make decisions about preservation and content.

Next week, it’s our spring break, and my sister and I plan to take my littles on a road trip to Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Mo., home to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family for more than 65 years. I’ve never been there, and it’s one of the Wilder sites that I’ve most wanted to see. There, she wrote the Little House books. There, her daughter Rose grew up, then later rested and recouped the family’s financial losses during the Great Depression. It’s place, and space, that helped shape a family and a legacy.

I’m really looking forward to it.

From LaCrosse to Pepin on the Great River Road, and LauraPalooza too!

LauraPalooza is one of my favorite places to go. A convention wholly dedicated to amalgamating the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder fans, scholars, and researchers, the event is sponsored by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association and is held every two to three years.

This year, the gathering convened in the LaCrosse, Wis., area with an eye toward a visit to Pepin, Wis., on the last day. Pepin is closest to where Laura was born in a small cabin about seven miles northeast of the town, which is located on the banks of Lake Pepin, an exceptionally wide spot of the Mississippi River.

I wasn’t able to attend all of this year’s convention, but I arrived Tuesday afternoon in time to hear the last few presentations, including a Q and A with Wilder expert William Anderson. Wednesday morning offered presentations about the psychology of the mother-daughter relationship, the “missing” Grace Ingalls,  and an entertaining presentation about the route taken by Laura and Almanzo from De Smet, S.D., to Mansfield, Mo., in 1894.

The afternoon, however, was taken up with the trip to Pepin.

I drove myself, and headed straight up the Great River Road to do so. The route, 75 miles from LaCrosse to Pepin on Highway 35, takes drivers through numerous small towns that sprung up along the Mississippi River during its heyday as the main means of travel in the area. The Mississippi still welcomes boat traffic, and in fact, it’s an active thoroughfare. The views along the way are spectacular, and each little town does its best to help travelers on their way.

I stopped in Nelson at the Nelson Cheese Factory on the way (on the recommendation of LIWLRA Homesite Representative Lynn Urban) and enjoyed a white chocolate raspberry ice cream cone. It’s a cozy place that also offers a variety of lunch items, coffee, wine, and assorted other products that make it an ideal place to get a snack and stretch my legs.

I then made my way through Pepin to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Birthplace Wayside.

I’ve been there several times, first in 1990 as a fresh-eyed 18-year-old on her first road trip without parents. That was nearly exactly 29 years ago. The little cabin that marks the site has been replaced once since then, and its sturdy construction, nestled in among the trees that have really grown in the last thirty years, made it look cozy.

LIWLRA and local host volunteers Susan Goettl and Julie Miller dressed the part for the event, staffing the cabin in their calico dresses and bonnets, and they dressed the cabin as well. Normally, it’s open to visitors but left empty to keep things from walking off. As a treat on Wednesday, however, Miller and Goettl had dressed the cabin, as well, making it appear as cozy as it might have in Laura’s day.

One special treat came from Anderson, who came along on the tour.

bill
Bill Anderson points out the general area where the original cabin was located.

He pointed out the general area that the original cabin had once stood, several feet southwest of the replica in a spot roughly near the wayside driveway’s entrance. A little rain kept umbrellas up, but it didn’t dampen the enthusiasm the crowd had for learning something new about Laura.

That stop kicked off the afternoon, which also featured a visit to the Museum in town, which had Wilder exhibits and merchandise. I also drove down toward the lake, up to the town park named after Wilder, and out to the farmer’s stand on the corner of the GRR and County CC, which takes visitors out to to the homesite.

Also scheduled were guided visits of the Oakwood Cemetery, where several significant people are buried, a supper, and a dance to mimic the Dance at Grandpa’s featured in Laura’s book, Little House in the Big Woods. Knowing I had to drive all the way home, however, meant I had to leave earlier than anticipated. I missed the dance, but I heard that it was a good time.

The Great River Road is always open for traveling, and a fun, leisurely drive to take. It’s not necessary to pair it with a trip to Pepin, but it’s always interesting to make that stop.

And as for LauraPalooza? The next convention will be near Malone, New York, birthplace of Almanzo Wilder, in summer, 2022. I’m already saving up.