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"The Republic of the Fittest"
November 3, 2013 8:03 PM   Subscribe

Little Libertarians on the prairie. Book research by Christine Woodside suggests that Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter, novelist Rose Wilder Lane, secretly ghostwrote the Little House books as an anti-New Deal fable, according to family journals and letters. Lane was also a friend of Ayn Rand and may have coined the term "libertarian." Tactical omissions in the massively popular frontier history of self-reliance include the land grant that gave 160 acres for a mere filing fee; the loss of their first homestead after borrowing money to save it, and Laura's blind sister receiving education funding from the territorial government (and not from Laura's job as a teacher).
posted by Brian B. (123 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite

 


Little Half-Pint never lost hope received a dime from the gubmint.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:09 PM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


cthuljew: The article itself doesn't claim she was the first person who uttered the word. It just says she might have been the first one to apply it as a label to that specific political movement in the US.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 8:14 PM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


I loved these books as a kid and find these revelations funny. Because though I loved the idea of homesteading and the tales of the plucky pioneers, reading them as a child made me so, so happy I lived in a time period where I had regular access to medical care, highways, and other modern marvels enabled by government funding and infrastructure.
posted by schroedinger at 8:20 PM on November 3, 2013 [40 favorites]


None of this is news. It's not strictly true that Rose Wilder Lane ghost wrote the Little House books, but she did edit them so heavily that she should have gotten a co-writer credit. Laura Ingalls Wilder wasn't much of a writer. She wrote a more or less factual account of her childhood that Rose, who was a successful professional journalist, reshaped into fiction, thereby improving it vastly in literary terms. The First Four Years is the one book Rose didn't work on much, and it has none of the charm of the previous books.

And yes, the libertarian slant Rose gave the books always has annoyed me since I first learned the actual facts. It's totally true that Mary attended the school for the blind for free: her tuition and board were both government funded. The Ingalls only had to pay for her train fare back and forth, her clothes, and her books. Since they were saving the cost of her food and would have had to buy her clothes and books anyway, they weren't spending very much more on her than they were spending on their other daughters. Willie Oleson (the infamous Nellie Oleson's younger brother) went blind young and was also educated at the same school.

Laura would claim in late life that she and her husband had worked for everything they had, that they had never had help from anyone. Which was totally false, as Almanzo's parents bought them a house in the town near their farm in the Ozarks and the Little House books never would have come into being without her daughter's help and professional contacts. Her sisters Grace and Carrie, with their husbands, wound up living on social assistance during the Depression (they'd supported Mary until she died and hadn't been bought houses nor did they have grown children to help them — and Rose gave her parents a LOT of financial assistance, including building them a house which they later sold), and unlike the Laura character in the books who would sacrifice much for her beloved family, the real Laura was ashamed of her poverty-stricken sisters and never seems to have helped them though given her income from the Little House books she could easily have afforded to do so.
posted by orange swan at 8:25 PM on November 3, 2013 [121 favorites]


This is a great article.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:36 PM on November 3, 2013


I read some of these books as a kid, and it might be interesting to re-read them now, in light of this. I don't remember anything particularly political in them, but I do remember that, even as a kid, I was embarrassed by Pa Ingalls taking part in a minstrel show, and got the impression that he kept moving his family to follow the frontier, not so much because he believed in self-sufficiency and independence from government, but simply because he didn't like people very much.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:37 PM on November 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


You know, if Rose Wilder was editing these books to be libertarian propaganda, she did make one very big mistake in The Long Winter. Ever since I first had it read to me as a child, I have vividly remembered the passage in that book about Laura's Pa going to the Wilders' house and demanding that Almanzo Wilder share a portion of his secret store of seed wheat (which was hidden in a false wall, to keep hungry neighbors from discovering it), so that the Ingalls family would not starve. Pa's reasoning was that it was morally wrong to hoard wheat while your own neighbors' children were going hungry. This was my childhood introduction to the most basic tenets of socialism. The lesson stuck with me thereafter.

(Imagine how astonished little BlueJae was later on in the series to discover that Laura, of course, wound up marrying Almanzo the Wheat Hoarder!)
posted by BlueJae at 8:40 PM on November 3, 2013 [51 favorites]


I was just going to mention the same scene as BlueJae.
posted by muddgirl at 8:42 PM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


(Not that I think it disproves the article or anything. In general people tend to have a huge philosophical blind spot when it comes to their own safety and wellbeing.)
posted by muddgirl at 8:43 PM on November 3, 2013 [12 favorites]


I clearly remember that at age 8 or 9 my idea for how I wanted to grow up and live Just Like That was to wish that there were still communes to go join, although this might have something to do with my favorite relations being aging hippies. Stll, the simplicity and back-to-the-land stuff sounded lovely, having everything depend entirely on your immediate family sounded like hell. It took awhile to figure out the author(s) seemed to think that was a good thing, and not that this was supposed to be a kind of cautionary tale.
posted by Sequence at 8:51 PM on November 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


About ten years ago we toured the Wilder house in Marshall, Missouri, which is maintained as a museum and kept as it was when Rose died. On the table by the reading chair in the library were a stack of early National Review magazines. I asked the docent about them and she said "Oh those are just some magazines she was reading." I wanted to browse the library but she would not let me.
posted by LarryC at 9:14 PM on November 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Rose Wilder helped "Jack Black", a murderer, hobo, vagabond, thief, con-artist and more, write his autobiography, You Can't Win. This is a book I recommend highly. She apparently also ghost wrote Jack's articles for Fremont Older, editor of the San Francisco Bulletin, advocating for better prison conditions.
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:15 PM on November 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


Please tell me this has nothing to do with Melissa Gilbert.


please...
posted by R. Schlock at 9:15 PM on November 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


You know, if Rose Wilder was editing these books to be libertarian propaganda, she did make one very big mistake in The Long Winter. Ever since I first had it read to me as a child, I have vividly remembered the passage in that book about Laura's Pa going to the Wilders' house and demanding that Almanzo Wilder share a portion of his secret store of seed wheat (which was hidden in a false wall, to keep hungry neighbors from discovering it), so that the Ingalls family would not starve.

This is mentioned as an example of Rose's influence, in the first link:

The next book, “The Long Winter,” stops for a moment of free-market speechifying almost certainly added by Lane. When a storekeeper tries to overcharge starving neighbors who want to buy the last stock of wheat available, a riot seems imminent until the character based on Wilder’s father, Pa, Charles Ingalls, brings him into line: “This is a free country and every man’s got a right to do as he pleases with his own property....Don’t forget that every one of us is free and independent, Loftus. This winter won’t last forever and maybe you want to go on doing business after it’s over.” It’s an appealing, if perhaps wishful, distillation of the idea that a free market can regulate itself perfectly well. Wilder rarely wrote extended dialogue in her own recollections, the manuscripts show; her daughter most likely invented this long exchange.
posted by Brian B. at 9:22 PM on November 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


Somebody ought to tell the French anarchists who coined the word "libertaire" to evade a ban on anarchist propaganda ("We're not anarchists, we're libertarians!") that they were too early to coin the word. Wait, that doesn't make sense at all.

Seriously, first capitalists redefine "socialism" to "capitalism with regulations and a social safety net" (both of which Adam Smith enthusiastically advocated for, so it's not like those are things which are foreign to capitalism), then they steal the words "anarchist" and "libertarian" for their own gross uses. Get your own fucking words, you thieves!
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:27 PM on November 3, 2013 [24 favorites]


Ugh, this is as terrible as learning the truth about Madeleine L'Engle, all these years later.

Do not tell me any facts about Frances Hodgson Burnett. Seriously.

Great, if disillusioning, post.

sadface
posted by purpleclover at 9:32 PM on November 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


Rebutted (I think fairly well) by Megan McArdle on Bloomberg.
posted by hartez at 9:45 PM on November 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Madeleine L'Engle, really? I guess she was a Christian writer, but she was about as liberal of religious beliefs as Christian authors come. Was there something else to her that I never heard about?
posted by Sequence at 9:48 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ugh, this is as terrible as learning the truth about Madeleine L'Engle, all these years later.

Man, now I kind of want to know what's wrong with L'Engle. But I'm really coming to terms lately with separating writers from their writing, so I'm just going to let it go because I liked that book and it doesn't matter that much what crazy weird views she may have had.

(How bad is it, though?)
posted by hartez at 9:51 PM on November 3, 2013


I read many of Madeleine L'Engle's books as a kid. I too am curious as to what about her is so terrible. Her religious beliefs, such as they were, seemed pretty harmless to me.
posted by dhens at 10:00 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Madeleine L'Engle. You guys, Charles Wallace/ Rob Austin drank himself to death. Also, all the science was fakey.

/L'Engle derail
posted by purpleclover at 10:08 PM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wendy McClure also looks at how Rose and Laura embedded these particular myths into the Little House narrative in The Wilder Life.
posted by scody at 10:09 PM on November 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


Actually, Brian B., that's a different part of the same book, when a different character was hoarding wheat. (It was a VERY long winter.) And in fact I disagree with the article's interpretation of the shop riot scene as pro-libertarian-style-free-market. The article cuts the quoted section off too soon, and, I think, misinterprets Pa's tone:
"That's so, Loftus, you have," Mr. Ingalls agreed with him. "This is a free country and every man's got a right to do as he pleases with his own property." He said to the crowd, "You know that's a fact, boys," and he went on, "Don't forget every one of us is free and independent, Loftus. This winter won't last forever and maybe you want to go on doing business after it's over."

"Threatening me, are you?" Mr. Loftus demanded.

"We don't need to," Mr. Ingalls replied. "It's a plain fact. If you've got a right to do as you please, we've got a right to do as we please. It works both ways. You've got us down now. That's your business, as you say. But your business depends on our good will. You maybe don't notice that now, but along next summer you'll likely notice it."

"That's so, Loftus," Gerald Fuller said. "You got to treat folks right or you don't last long in business, not in this country."
This scene depicts a mob of hungry villagers rising up against the wealthiest man in town and threatening a mass boycott of his store (accompanied, I think, by an implied threat of violence) unless he is willing to sell them food at a price they can afford. And it's clear here that the villagers are the heroes. That's really not the sort of morality tale I typically imagine libertarians telling their children at bedtime . . .
posted by BlueJae at 10:16 PM on November 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


(And by the way, I'm perfectly willing to believe that Rose Wilder was a libertarian, but if she intended to edit her mother's life story to create a perfect libertarian fable, she failed in a few fundamental ways.)
posted by BlueJae at 10:19 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


That's really not the sort of morality tale I typically imagine libertarians telling their children at bedtime . . .

I would imagine that the retelling was not at liberty to deny the dramatic event of a desperate gathering at a food source, demanding it on their terms, which was probably based on fact. The next best thing for Rose would be to neutralize any socialist justification with political spin to the right.
posted by Brian B. at 10:24 PM on November 3, 2013


"Rebutted (I think fairly well) by Megan McArdle on Bloomberg."

Megan McArdle's to libertarian dishonesty as fish are to water; it's no surprise she can't find any misrepresentation in the claims.
posted by klangklangston at 10:46 PM on November 3, 2013 [21 favorites]


"She may have been the first writer to use the term “libertarian” as the label for a nascent revolt against state authority."

I suppose you can quibble about the exact claim being made by The New Yorker, but the OED gives a citation for libertarianism as a USAn political movement in 1920, long before Rose Wilder used it:
 1920 Amer. Jrnl. Sociol. 26 68 The enlightened libertarian is not today greatly interested in academic attacks on the metaphysical state or the political state. He is interested in well-directed attacks on special privilege and shielded, protected monopolies‥. Flank attacks on the state are far more effective at this stage than frontal attacks.    
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:50 PM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


If the nature of your parable isn't apparent without significant research, you've failed at parable-writing.
posted by Apropos of Something at 10:58 PM on November 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


Now we know where this Libertarian thing lairs home. Perhaps it's no accident Koche brothers are based in Kansas and Wizard of Oz was a gold standard fable (or something).
posted by stbalbach at 10:59 PM on November 3, 2013


Megan McArdle's to libertarian dishonesty as fish are to water; it's no surprise she can't find any misrepresentation in the claims.

I can never see Megan McArdle's name without initially reading it as Andrea McArdle, which then make me imagine Rand Paul in a Little Orphan Annie wig.

posted by scody at 10:59 PM on November 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


I'm going to have to extend that derail. I'm not quite sure what's problematic about L'Engle, other than the fact that she creepily tried to incorporate real life family drama into lurid stories. And anyone who thinks that her sci-fi is any more sciencey than the Space Trilogy is bound to be disappointed.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:03 PM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


All these people with their importunate etymological citations trying to un-Rose-Wilder-made-up 'Libertarian' are harshing my scapegoating mellow.
posted by perhapsolutely at 11:24 PM on November 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Here, burn this marshmellow.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:34 PM on November 3, 2013


Every time I hear libertarian folk going on about the pioneer spirit of the frontier, individual independence, self reliance and all that jazz I like to ask them who paid for the Indian Wars
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 12:13 AM on November 4, 2013 [27 favorites]


Get your own fucking words, you thieves!

Tell me about it. I really, deliciously enjoyed the time I explained to some folks on a certain warblog (no, not that one, another one) that when Noam calls himself a "libertarian socialist" he is not actually appropriating a term they own, nor stating a contradiction in terms -- and they might consider for a moment the people who actually coined the word to begin with before they started a pissing match. Naturally, they had never heard of Dejacque or Bakunin, not once. I mean, good grief, it's not like politics sprang newborn from Rand and Hayek in the middle of last century. Read a book.

Please tell me this has nothing to do with Melissa Gilbert.

The two-term president of the Screen Actors Guild, you say?
Yes, you know who else &c.
posted by dhartung at 12:22 AM on November 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


In a letter to her old boss in April 1929, six months before the stock market crash, she had written: “Personally, I believe what we need—what every social group needs—is a peasant class."

...

During the roaring 1920s, growing ever more successful as a writer of magazine fiction, she lived the high life and even had a big house and servants in Albania for a time.

More proof, if proof were needed, that much libertarian ideology is really just a misunderstood attempt at ancien regime-aristocrat larping.
posted by Sonny Jim at 12:50 AM on November 4, 2013 [10 favorites]


Spoiler: every author you have ever liked is poison
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 1:05 AM on November 4, 2013 [11 favorites]


Spoiler: every author you have ever liked is poison

Except Terry Pratchett.
posted by Alnedra at 1:28 AM on November 4, 2013 [23 favorites]


also is there like a bizarro version of little house on the prarie/tundra where i guess Roysa gets told about how essential the NKVD are
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 2:17 AM on November 4, 2013


or the modern version where the NSA prevent cattle thievery with cow wiretapping. i dunno, okay, i'm just spitballing here
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 2:21 AM on November 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


Rebutted (I think fairly well) by Megan McArdle on Bloomberg.

That doesn't strike me as a particularly solid "rebuttal;" more of an extended, "Yeah? So?" by someone who agrees with the message. McArdle essentially argues that if Rose were REALLY trying to convince people of the Libertarian message she would've put in stories about police officers being evil.

But that's not the point. The deep conflicts between the book's message of extreme self-reliance and heroic individualism have always felt false for those who read enough of the background to understand the real story of the Ingalls family. News that Rose was a friend of Ayn Rand's and was a libertarian isn't a Big Reveal, but an "Aaaah, of course" addition to the existing story.
posted by verb at 2:40 AM on November 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


This scene depicts a mob of hungry villagers rising up against the wealthiest man in town and threatening a mass boycott of his store (accompanied, I think, by an implied threat of violence) unless he is willing to sell them food at a price they can afford. And it's clear here that the villagers are the heroes.

I'm not sure I hear the "And it's clear the villagers are heroes" part.

Pa's argument establishes that the store owner is in the right doing whatever he likes, and the customers present a profit-motivated argument for lowering prices (if we will starve we will no longer be customers), followed by an implicit threat of violence if their demands are not met. Given the absence of a police force to protect the store owner from attacks, lowering prices is a rational decision rather than a moral one.

It seems like the most libertarian spin you can put on a bunch of starving townspeople being price-gouged in a small, isolated community.
posted by verb at 2:51 AM on November 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


The hungry villagers scene ends with the shopkeeper capitulating and giving the folks the wheat for cost (I think? Might have been free, but I don't think so). Pa responds that he's not opposed to someone making a fair profit, the implication being that price gouging hungry folks out in the middle of nowhere in't fair. Is that the libertarian point? I honestly don't know. They do divvy up the wheat according to has the most need (if you have more food remaining, you buy less), which is pretty socialistic.

Additionally, Cap and Almonzo (who risked their own lives to find the wheat) make a point that they accepted no money at all to make the dangerous trip; they did it solely for the good of the town.
posted by themanwho at 3:00 AM on November 4, 2013


[A couple comments deleted. Just discuss the post topic please, without trying to start weird snarky fights about everything from feminism to Mao and the war on drugs, or putting words in anybody's mouth? ]
posted by taz at 3:11 AM on November 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


Pa's argument establishes that the store owner is in the right doing whatever he likes, and the customers present a profit-motivated argument for lowering prices (if we will starve we will no longer be customers), followed by an implicit threat of violence if their demands are not met.

That "we don't have to [threaten you]" response reads more like a typical, self-righteous, anti-revolutionary, our-friend-the-invisible-hand-will-beat-you-for-us boast than a threat of any implied violence or change to the status quo. He could have pointed out the correlation between empty stomachs and destructive behavior, or he could have appealed to the store owner's humanity or made an argument on religious grounds but instead he....points out that next summer the store owner's business will suffer?

It seems like the most libertarian spin you can put on a bunch of starving townspeople being price-gouged in a small, isolated community.

Agreed.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 3:27 AM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, McArdle's "rebuttal" consists of things like this: "That the Dakota Territory government paid Mary’s tuition at the Vinton, Iowa, college for the blind has been well known to Ingallsologists for some time". Whether or not it was known to True Fanboys and Fangirls, it wasn't in the book itself.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:56 AM on November 4, 2013


Discussion of the Little House books and The Wilder Life (mentioned above) in the London Review of Books here (registration required). I was just reading this article in a back issue yesterday, funny how these things crop up.
posted by corvine at 5:12 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've never read the books, and have seen very little of the TV show. The only substantial thing I specifically remember from the TV show was when the little commies pooled their collective resources on the football field to guide the blind kid who didn't know which way he was running across the goal line in some sort of proto-ADA Act.
posted by Flunkie at 5:59 AM on November 4, 2013


I've been talking about this here and elsewhere for years, ever since I read Ghost in the Little House by literary scholar William Holtz, who is cited in this piece and seems to be the true source for ucovering most of the revelations given here. His book is detailed and painstakingly researched, and the supreme convincer, for me, are the long passages of text quoted from Laura's drafts and then compared with Rose's rewrites. Well, that and learning how much public assistance and federal and state help the Ingalls relied on. It's quite an interesting story - Rose was a fascinating character, if pretty much odious.

I think it's important to credit Holtz, because Woodside's piece is just a synthesis of his and perhaps others' scholarship, and she really buries his name.
posted by Miko at 6:01 AM on November 4, 2013 [16 favorites]


There's a fantastic episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, in which a local television station is doing a profile of Herb (the salesman) and his wife. And in fashion that's typical of them, they overplay how wholesome and wonderful they are (on Sunday morning, for instance, they take the film crew with them to "their church," but drive to a synagogue). When the interviewer asks them what kinds of television shows they watch, Herb's wife (played by Edie McClurg), says, "We only watch wholesome shows. Like the Little House on the Prairie. It's a wonderful show about blind children in the old west, and each week one of them gets an incurable disease or something."
posted by jbickers at 6:10 AM on November 4, 2013 [9 favorites]


Without the 'implied threat of violence' wouldn't Libertarian-Loftus just retort that "after your families starve there will be others in the summer just as ready to buy my wares". I mean, that's how it works now, right?

Not that I'm advocating pitchforks here.
posted by aesop at 6:13 AM on November 4, 2013


I don't think there's really an implied threat of violence. Lane's interest is just in showing that simple consumer-end decisions are effective enough to control pricing and distribution.

In real life, yes, you're right - that's the problem with this economic fantasy; there's always another market. But Lane was designing a little snow globe of a world in which nostalgia blended with and flavored her ideology for wide public consumption - just the hint that people are empowered in market decisions (even at scales at which they have no significant power) was all she needed. 8-year-olds are going to perceive her parable as simple fairness in action, and not notice its structural faults.
posted by Miko at 6:19 AM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Without the 'implied threat of violence' wouldn't Libertarian-Loftus just retort that "after your families starve there will be others in the summer just as ready to buy my wares". I mean, that's how it works now, right?

Yeah, the implicit premise in Pa's speech is that the shopkeeper would make more money (or otherwise get more utility) sticking around as a fixture in the community than he would soaking the starving farmers and then either packing up and leaving OR picking the bones of the community as it starved. If the shopkeeper is willing to just pack up and moves on, like Pa himself keeps doing, charging exorbitant prices strikes me as the rational thing to do.
posted by gauche at 6:20 AM on November 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


The takeaway I always got from the books was how much the family depended on government handouts. I'm not sure why, just that the idea that the government used to give people grants of farmland for the price of registering it was so huge it outweighed a lot of other things in the books.

Also, Pa was a jerk.
posted by winna at 6:26 AM on November 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


And with that, I suddenly realize why the (imagined) presence of the frontier is problematic for libertarians. The frontier is important on the one hand because -- and libertarians I've known have often said this to me -- if you don't like a particular economic arrangement you can always leave and go find or make a different one. But if that fact is true, it also undermines the ability of markets to regulate themselves because firms can likewise fly by night to new frontiers. Huh.
posted by gauche at 6:26 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pa was a jerk.

He was really unsuccessful. They moved all the time. He was a terrible farmer and couldn't stay with any one thing very long. That's why they moved all the time.

As an adult, the story I'd really like to read is of Laura's mother.
posted by Miko at 6:33 AM on November 4, 2013 [34 favorites]


*whistles theme song*

good luck getting that out of your head.
posted by echocollate at 6:36 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


As an adult, the story I'd really like to read is of Laura's mother.

I wouldn't - I imagine it would be a terribly depressing story.

'And then for the fifteenth time Pa decided he didn't want to live near other people and be part of an actual community. Yet again I had to organize and pack up and manage the children, headed into another godforsaken wilderness while he ambled along beside the wagon whistling.'

It's a wonder she never beaned him with an axe.
posted by winna at 6:41 AM on November 4, 2013 [44 favorites]


I really need to reread the Little House books. They're all muddled up with Opal Whiteley's (probably completely fictional) journal in my head. But frankly, I always preferred what I saw as the city slicker version, the All-of-a-Kind Family. There was probably plenty of socialism in those.

As for L'Engle, of course the science wasn't real. I mean, I find the hardest thing about reread L'Engle to be the weird Native American race stuff. But if you think body hopping unicorns are Real Science and not fantasy, I mean, I dunno.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:46 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wouldn't - I imagine it would be a terribly depressing story.

That's why I want to read it. Balance out the sugary part and fiddle tunes and get real.

All-of-a-Kind Family was good, and I don't remember it half as well - should read them again. Another urbane family, though set a few decades later, were the Melendys, whose series I loved.
posted by Miko at 6:52 AM on November 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


If the shopkeeper is willing to just pack up and moves on, like Pa himself keeps doing, charging exorbitant prices strikes me as the rational thing to do.

Oh snap.
posted by verb at 6:55 AM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


I loved the All-of-Kind Family books, too! I remember the fish in the bathtub and Sukkot best.

I'm afraid to go back and re-read them for fear they'd be like the Little House stories.
posted by winna at 6:56 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


What was interesting to me, as a young Protestant homeschooled kid whose parents were a weird blend of paleo-conservative, Reagan Republican, back-to-the-earth hippies who grew all our own food on a farm, was when I read C.S. Lewis' book The Great Divorce (Lewis being, of course, just as much beloved as the Ingalls stories in our household) and saw that his picture of Hell was basically a place where people can't stand to be in community with one another and just keep moving further and further away and isolating themselves.

I don't, as an adult, have a ton of affection for either of these authors, but the contrast there has stuck with me and I kind of think Lewis' picture is insightful.
posted by gauche at 6:56 AM on November 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


As a Midwestern kid, of course I read the Little House books and watched the TV show. What threw me was the difference between the books' portrayal of endless, restless movement of the family from place to place, and the show's permanent geographical base in a bright, endless summer Somewhere Near Town.

(Around 1980 we attended a big, multi-state family reunion in Pepin, Wisc., which I understand is the town that the Ingalls visit in the "Going to Town" chapter of "Little House in the Big Woods." Apparently a relative ran a hotel there for a long time; the details were crowded out of my mind that day after meeting a "senior citizen" great-great-aunt who drank beer, reportedly drove a motorcycle, and was seen to kick a wood-and-wire box containing two recently caught rattlesnakes. Damn.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:59 AM on November 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


I loved the All-of-Kind Family books, too! I remember the fish in the bathtub and Sukkot best.

I'm afraid to go back and re-read them for fear they'd be like the Little House stories.


I always remember that one of the older girls gets her ears pierced by slowing pulling a string through her earlobes over the course of . . . weeks? Days?

I'm never all that surprised that the beliefs of children's book authors seep through into their texts. It seems like quite a few people get all aghast at propaganda, but authors like L'Engle and Lewis generally keep those elements light and to an extent, fairly positive (love and sacrifice are good things, yes, in Christianity and otherwise). I don't know how much children notice things like, say, L'Engle's evil atheists.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:02 AM on November 4, 2013


I suppose we shouldn't be surprised. Modern libertarianism is founded on mythmaking, revisionism and an overfond view of America as a series of frontiers between pools of private property.

No man is an island, a sentiment from 1624 but as true today. I'm baffled by how modern libertarians imagine themselves appearing in a coherent, organised and functional society but still declaim they are entirely self-made.

The only surprise for me here is that this same wilful abuse of the facts dates back so far. But then frontier life is a series of myths in popular culture that often goes against actual historical accounts.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:10 AM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


The takeaway I always got from the books was how much the family depended on government handouts. I'm not sure why, just that the idea that the government used to give people grants of farmland for the price of registering it was so huge it outweighed a lot of other things in the books.

Same here, the "bet" with Uncle Sam was such a big thing--and so much depended on it--it really stuck with me. I find it kind of bizarre to suggest this was "barely mentioned" in the books.

orange swan, the biographer cited in the McArdle link said the Ingallses did pay for Mary's room & board. Not to nitpick, but if that is true, it probably would have been a significant expense.

I agree that these complaints aren't new... I remember feeling a little disillusioned in adulthood when I read the non-romanticized facts about the Ingallses, Wilders, and Lane. But still, now having reread the books over the years to my own kids--I don't think the big takeaway is anti-government. That life was tough is clear. That these people had an independent streak and were hard workers is a continuing theme. But (Lane's personal beliefs notwithstanding) there is no rosy scenario in which hard work guarantees that you'll get ahead, nor that taking handouts/charity/government grants is a bad thing.
posted by torticat at 7:12 AM on November 4, 2013


Oh yeah, on non-preview--I think the most disillusioning thing for me as an adult was recognizing that Pa's wanderlust was not after all a particularly admirable trait. From a kid's perspective, he seems all fun and adventurous, and Ma's kind of a killjoy for wanting move back east where things were settled and good education was available for the kids. But in fact, Pa's ambitions (such as they were?) made for poverty and heartbreak and a freaking lot of hard work for his family, year after year after year.
posted by torticat at 7:19 AM on November 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


Yeah, these days Pa would be the 'fun' dad who leaves his wife to find himself and occasionally shows up with expensive, randomly-selected presents but pays no child support.
posted by winna at 7:21 AM on November 4, 2013 [14 favorites]


And with that, I suddenly realize why the (imagined) presence of the frontier is problematic for libertarians. The frontier is important on the one hand because -- and libertarians I've known have often said this to me -- if you don't like a particular economic arrangement you can always leave and go find or make a different one. But if that fact is true, it also undermines the ability of markets to regulate themselves because firms can likewise fly by night to new frontiers. Huh.

Well, and plus the reality that constantly intrudes on that fantasy, recalling that your "frontier" was someone else's home once. And then you have to remember why, and suddenly you're not even a libertarian anymore if you want to retain your claim to that land.
posted by kewb at 7:34 AM on November 4, 2013 [14 favorites]


Well, and plus the reality that constantly intrudes on that fantasy, recalling that your "frontier" was someone else's home once.

Yeah, there are giant cast-iron brackets around that inconvenient (and unpleasant and shameful) fact. I don't even bother trying to penetrate that one.

In fairness, I think most U.S. citizens probably don't think about that one a whole lot, but you're right that in libertarians its absence seems especially glaring, given their emphasis on property as the fundamental human right.
posted by gauche at 7:38 AM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Well, and plus the reality that constantly intrudes on that fantasy, recalling that your "frontier" was someone else's home once.

IIRC, the Ingalls' had to leave one of their homes--Plum Creek, maybe?--because they had settled illegally on Indian land, and Pa expected the government to make it right. Maybe there was a new treaty in the works; I don't remember the details anymore. But Pa knew what he was doing.

By the way, it was definitely Almanzo's seed wheat Pa helped himself to. Almanzo and his brother Royal had the wheat behind a false wall they'd built in their living space behind Royal's store.

I remember being really disillusioned when I first learned about Rose's hand in producing the books, though it also explained the "What the fuck?" reaction I'd had when I read The First Four Years as a fourth-grader. But now I find both Rose's story, and what I know about the truer story of the Ingalls family, much more interesting than the stories in the books, which I read a thousand times as a child. It's messier and more human.
posted by not that girl at 8:05 AM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


That was in the original Little House on the Prairie - Pa and the family settles just past Independence, Kansas which was Osage land, thinking that the US would open it for settlement "soon." They moved back to Minnesota when the US government made it clear that their settlement was illegal and that if they didn't leave, the Army would make them leave. Ma Ingall's racism and hostility towards the Native Americans she encounters in that book seemed much nastier when I read the books as a high schooler and realized that she was squatting on their land.

By the way, it was definitely Almanzo's seed wheat Pa helped himself to.

It's two different instances in the same Long Winter - there is both a greedy shopowner and the Wilder brothers trying to protect their seed investment in the same book.
posted by muddgirl at 8:19 AM on November 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


This scene depicts a mob of hungry villagers rising up against the wealthiest man in town and threatening a mass boycott of his store (accompanied, I think, by an implied threat of violence) unless he is willing to sell them food at a price they can afford. And it's clear here that the villagers are the heroes. That's really not the sort of morality tale I typically imagine libertarians telling their children at bedtime . . .

Actually, it is very much that kind of tale. Loftus's long term interests are the precise reason libertarians will offer as to why there is no need for any kind of intervention in that situation.
posted by ocschwar at 8:37 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]



Oh yeah, on non-preview--I think the most disillusioning thing for me as an adult was recognizing that Pa's wanderlust was not after all a particularly admirable trait. From a kid's perspective, he seems all fun and adventurous, and Ma's kind of a killjoy for wanting move back east where things were settled and good education was available for the kids. But in fact, Pa's ambitions (such as they were?) made for poverty and heartbreak and a freaking lot of hard work for his family, year after year after year.


There was an article here on Mefi a while ago about how Pa's repeated migrations were abnormal by the standard of the time, and indicated he was doing somethign unspoken (and thus possibly unspeakable) to piss off the people around him.
posted by ocschwar at 8:54 AM on November 4, 2013


Pa's repeated migrations were abnormal by the standard of the time, and indicated he was doing somethign unspoken (and thus possibly unspeakable) to piss off the people around him.

In before the inevitable Little Dexter on the Prairie fanfic.
posted by gauche at 8:59 AM on November 4, 2013 [12 favorites]


Yeah, the last thread here goes into more detail with outside sources on the vast depths of Pa's failure.
posted by elizardbits at 9:09 AM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm sure they'd love the comparison, but it reminds me of Nancy Campbell's daughter's family--Nancy Campbell is big in Quiverfull circles--where Serene and her husband decided to Rough It and whatnot and the result was eight kids, the oldest of them twelve years old, living in a house without running water or adequate heat. Nothing wrong with those adventures, if you're Thoreau with a little bit of land and some family support and you want to go have some time to yourself to reflect on the world, or if you're a kid today who takes a summer in college to drive across the country. It's the dragging the unwilling along that's horrifying.
posted by Sequence at 9:16 AM on November 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


As an adult, the story I'd really like to read is of Laura's mother.

I wouldn't - I imagine it would be a terribly depressing story.

A story on Laura's mother would be hard to read, I think. She lost her only son at the age of nine months and had no more children after that. Laura also lost her son, before the baby had even been named. He died at just two weeks' old after "convulsions", making Rose Laura and Almanzo's only surviving child. And Rose also lost her son! It was either a stillbirth or he died very soon after birth, and she had no more children, either.

Since none of Laura's siblings had any biological children of their own, it would not surprise me to discover some genetic issues were behind the loss of those boys.

Whatever the cause(s), the horror of potentially losing a child haunts every parent, and it is incredibly sad to me that the one thing these women held in common was that shared tragic experience.
posted by misha at 9:18 AM on November 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


also, ocschwar, is this the comment you were thinking of?
posted by elizardbits at 9:19 AM on November 4, 2013


winna: "Also, Pa was a jerk."

???

Pa was a prairie farmer, and that is a life so risky it makes "card shark" look like a salaried profession with full health coverage. Picking up and moving when things went south was a survival tactic.

But I'm not up on the books. It would help if you supported this opinion.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:29 AM on November 4, 2013


As for L'Engle, of course the science wasn't real.

The history was pretty bad too. I mean, "speaking" Ogham? I enjoyed Wrinkle/Wind/Tilting for the fantasy books they were, but Many Waters and An Acceptable Time were horribad.
posted by Foosnark at 9:31 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I just read elizardbits link to the other thread, and while Pa comes off as overeager to move, there's no doubt he struggled hard to support his family his whole life - more than many jerks would do. All of his moves seemed aimed at finding a better life for his family (misguided as his judgment may have been, in retrospect - but then, we aren't living on the US Great Prairie.)

And my faint memories of Laura include her loving relationship with her dad, which makes him de facto a decent father figure to her.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:39 AM on November 4, 2013


But I'm not up on the books. It would help if you supported this opinion.

For someone who is up on the books - that's sort of not a very controversial statement. Pa totally was a jerk. Maybe read the books? I think that's all the supporting that opinion needs.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:40 AM on November 4, 2013 [11 favorites]


winna, I re-read the All of a Kind Family books a couple of years ago, when I was reading them to my daughter, and they've held up pretty well. The polio epidemic section was even scarier to me now, but they're still lots of fun (and sent me off researching that author and her family, which would be an interesting FPP of its own).
posted by mogget at 9:51 AM on November 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


We listened to Little House on tape during a trip across the Dakotas last year, and I was struck by how much peril Pa left the family in. At one point, he is gone for over a week hunting game. No one knows if he will ever come back. The girls and Ma are living in a shack with NO DOOR. It occurred to me that if Pa didn't return, Ma would have to track back to the weirdo Confederate soldier drifter they met by the riverside, and somehow get him to help, since he is the only other person they have come across in months. And Pa seemed kind of troubled, maybe mentally ill. It was disturbing to listen to.
posted by Malla at 10:02 AM on November 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


If you can read the description in the other thread of a man who forces his wife to move to the wilderness into a grinding life of hopeless poverty and does it over and over again and not think he's a jerk I don't know maybe we have different definitions.
posted by winna at 10:04 AM on November 4, 2013 [11 favorites]


I am ready for the Wilder/Deadwood mashup now. Fascinating themes of mutual aid and mutual ripping-off, protection, exploitation and the dubious charms of social normalisation abound...
posted by aesop at 10:15 AM on November 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


You guys are breaking my heart. First, Little House on the Prairie is libertarian and now Madeline L'Engle has "bad" athiests!? Any other childhood favorites to shred? Was Nancy Drew a spoiled rich kid? Did Heidi never live in the Alps?
posted by Measured Out my Life in Coffeespoons at 10:51 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Was Nancy Drew a spoiled rich kid?

How many kids did you know who get a brand-new blue roadster on their 17th birthday from their lawyer dad? Your question answers itself, I'm afraid.
posted by Miko at 10:52 AM on November 4, 2013 [17 favorites]


my favorite of the little house books were always little house in the big woods and farmer boy - the two entries where the respective families are actually living kind of settled and safe. i don't remember big woods too much but that's the one with the sugaring-off and extended family comes to visit and it just felt to me, in my memory of childhood reading of this series, that things were better for them then - and of course almanzo's childhood in new york was plenty secure. there was hard work involved but my mom and i were involved with a local 18th century reenactment troupe when i was little and i could identify with the kind of nice settled farmwork involved in those two books. after pa started dragging everyone to a new home every six weeks because he saw a chimney and got spooked that he might have neighbors close enough to come visit him, the life depicted by the books became increasingly unappealing to me - seemed like every single move just made them all have to work harder for even less gain and small titus quite easily came to the conclusion that i would've stayed in wisconsin and let my neighbors help me make maple taffy thankyouverymuch
posted by titus n. owl at 11:01 AM on November 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


I was a huge fan of the Little House books growing up. I then discovered a biography, "Laura" by Donald Zochert, and thought that the truth was even more interesting (and far bleaker) than the fiction. And I've since read as many non-fiction biographies of Laura and her family that I could get my hands on.

There are quite a few internet blogs and articles devoted to Laura Ingalls, her family, and the Little House books (inevitable, once the women who read the books as girls got access to the Internet). One blog entry, which I can't find now, talked about the possible consequences of a severely impoverished childhood on Laura and her sisters. The author wondered if Mary would have been so ill and gone blind if she were better nourished. I think this author made a good point.

It's also notable that Carrie was in poor health much of her life (in the books she was "sickly," but nothing specific was mentioned, and a picture of her with Laura and Mary the year after the Long Winter shows her looking stunted and frail). Laura was only able to have one surviving child, and Carrie and Grace had no children at all. Perhaps it was something genetic, or perhaps it was a legacy of childhood malnourishment.

Reading biographies of Laura, I also note how distant her family became after the sisters grew up. Laura didn't seem to correspond with her sisters or parents that regularly (and, as was noted upthread, didn't give them any financial assistance even when she did have money). Apparently her cousin Lena Waldvogel (the horse-loving tomboy in "By The Shores of Silver Lake") wrote to Laura after she became famous, asking if that was her cousin Laura - and got no response.

I mention this not because I think it's bad to distance oneself from one's family, but because it's such a contrast to the close and loving family portrayed in the books, which seems like yet another fiction. It's sad to think that the squabbling but devoted sisters in the fiction, very possibly didn't like one another that much in real life.

(On a lighter note, the books really got me into sewing, cooking and crafting. I wanted hand-made calico dresses! I've long since given up sewing, but now I wonder if I might go back to it.)
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:41 AM on November 4, 2013 [11 favorites]


Was Nancy Drew a spoiled rich kid?

How many kids did you know who get a brand-new blue roadster on their 17th birthday from their lawyer dad? Your question answers itself, I'm afraid.


[laughing] Yeah...Nancy was spoiled in part because her mother died when she was a toddler, so her father tried to give her everything to compensate, but yeah, Carson Drew also really could give her everything because he was perhaps River Heights' best-known lawyer. He could afford full-time live-in housekeeping and nannying from Hannah Gruen, for instance.

And early on in The Haunted Showboat, Nancy's sapphire-blue convertible is stolen, and her father immediately gets her a new yellow one, because apparently—surprise!—he'd already been thinking about giving her the yellow one for her birthday, since the blue one was getting a bit worn.

And in The Quest of the Missing Map (and oh so many other books), he (spoiler alert) charters a special cruise to an island just so Nancy and her widowed client can search for buried treasure. [chuckles] So um, yeah.
posted by limeonaire at 11:59 AM on November 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


The failure comment is popular, but it's dismissive and simplistic. There's a lot of contextual detail missing. These were pioneering people. That was a hard life. That government didn't, for example, just give you land for some money and registration paperwork. You had to stay and work your land for five years before it became your homestead, and that is not easy work. Yes, the Ingalls moved around a lot, but they eventually settled in De Smet and lived there for decades.

I think, winna, you are really projecting with Pa. Why assume he would be the fun Dad who never made child payments?! This was a man who seemed to value family first, as far as I can tell. He may not have done everything right, but he seemed to have genuinely loved his wife and daughters.

I don't get the idea that Laura's Ma was forced into this life by her husband, either. She didn't like some of the moves, and they did end up moving back to Walnut Grove(?) after one of the moves went disastrously. But I always felt she and Pa were on the same page most of the time. It's quite possible he wasn't a good farmer or hunter or that he may have been involved in shaky dealings--that's all fun to speculate about, but he and Ma were together until he died, they raised four girls together including one with a disability, and all the girls seem to have remained on excellent terms with their father right up until the day he died.

Both parents just seemed human to me, with their own faults and frailties. I don't see painting Pa as a jerk or Ma as a saint. He liked traveling more than she did, but when she got tired of moving, she told Pa she wanted their move to De Smet to be the last one they made, and he agreed, so it was.

Pa was quite successful there; he held public office as a justice of the peace and a sheriff's deputy, was on the school board and involved with the church. Pa died in 1902 (15 years after they got to De Smet), but Ma lived until 1924.

Ma seems to have been the private one, actually. She kept to herself, sitting on the porch with Mary for the most part. While all the girls were there when Pa died, Laura at least didn't go to her own Mother's funeral and never even visited her mother after Pa died. That saddens me, as a Mom myself. But you can't blame Pa for Laura's strained relationship with her Mother. Ma and the other girls seemed to get on just fine. Ma and Laura were just very different people and Laura went her own way.it happens. Why demonize the father here?
posted by misha at 12:20 PM on November 4, 2013 [8 favorites]


but he and Ma were together until he died, they raised four girls together including one with a disability, and all the girls seem to have remained on excellent terms with their father right up until the day he died.

Okay but in all seriousness what other options would a poverty-stricken (or at least poverty-adjacent for much of the time) pioneer woman have in the 1880s, other than staying with her husband?
posted by elizardbits at 12:28 PM on November 4, 2013 [17 favorites]


farmer boy - the two entries where the respective families are actually living kind of settled and safe.

I taught Farmer Boy rather intensively, and one interesting thing about it is that the depiction of security - and especially, abundant food - is , in large part, Laura's fantasy. Not that it wasn't grounded in a relative difference between them, but she was envious of Almanzo's relatively well-fed and supported and stable childhood, so different from her own, and so she was perhaps focused on those aspects of his life when fictionalizing his childhood. The long, loving, bordering-on-obsessive lists of foods that were on the breakfast table read differently in that light.

quite successful there; he held public office as a justice of the peace and a sheriff's deputy, was on the school board and involved with the church

It's not clear that these are markers of economic success. Were these offices competitive, or a way to fill empty time and get out of the house? He also no longer owned land, but worked as a tradesman, for other people.

I don't see painting Pa as a jerk or Ma as a saint.

Maybe you should read some of the scholarly biographies before you decide. You really can't use the children's books as evidence - which is the point of the post.
posted by Miko at 12:38 PM on November 4, 2013 [10 favorites]


Those offices may also have paid a small stipend.
posted by Miko at 12:48 PM on November 4, 2013


BlueJae: " This scene depicts a mob of hungry villagers rising up against the wealthiest man in town and threatening a mass boycott of his store (accompanied, I think, by an implied threat of violence) unless he is willing to sell them food at a price they can afford. And it's clear here that the villagers are the heroes. That's really not the sort of morality tale I typically imagine libertarians telling their children at bedtime . . ."

But it's quite in keeping with the Theory of Moral Sentiments. It's important to keep in mind that capitalism's view on morality are more diverse than the Randian interpretation of a vestigial artifact to be discarded with sufficient application of reason.
posted by pwnguin at 1:28 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pa may have been a creepy misanthropic jerk, but it's not like it was unheard of for men of that age to abandon their families if they wanted to. I've been working on my family genealogy, which includes a lot of pioneers who made the trip out from the original colonies to various places in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, and eventually Oregon and California. Two of my direct ancestors seem to have been abandoned by their fathers after moving westerly - one after his wife died (leaving his children to be raised by various relatives) and another seems to have taken off in search of work and never came back.
posted by muddgirl at 1:29 PM on November 4, 2013


So, I wrote a book that is in part about Little House on the Prairie and am very active in the world of Laura. I've attended both LauraPalooza academic/fan conferences and fielded endless questions about the Laura of the books and the Laura of real life in my work with readers. Before I hit my twenties, I had no idea that the two weren't one and the same.

That said, the most interesting part of getting further into the world of the Laurati hasn't been the information itself (which is fascinating), but watching how different people react to the realization that their childhood fiction isn't really reflective of reality. From my (slightly wacko) mom sputtering as she realized that Pa was essentially a squatter during a presentation on the Indian Territory and associated laws to the audience's response to Barbara Walker's AMAZING talk on how the story of Laura is one of food insecurity and that her father's pioneering spirit may have cost all of the Wilder girls their health and the family its future kin, it's clear that there's something really unnerving and unsettling about having a familiar fiction debunked or challenged.

I tend to fall in the "a little bit of this, a little bit of that" camp. Laura can be the dutiful daughter and the daughter with mommy issues. Pa can be a lawless squatter and an adventurer and a man who gained everything on the back of his female relatives.
posted by mynameisluka at 2:04 PM on November 4, 2013 [14 favorites]


I visited Almanzo's house in Malone recently and the guide told me that James Wilder had been married to another woman( who presumably died in childbirth) before Angeline.
posted by brujita at 2:21 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think Pa's migrations are as capricious as people are making them seem: the government was giving out free land. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that the land actually wasn't worth all that much, but Pa, in the books, explicitly says that he thinks it's a wonderful deal. If that land had been "back East" it would have been worth a fortune; he just didn't understand economics and he didn't know that the pattern of settlement would be different.

Mind you, the "free land" was somebody else's home (as other people here have said): Pa was behaving like a European peasant taking over his neighbour's home, because surely the Jews would never come back. And most of them didn't, but that didn't make it OK.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:24 PM on November 4, 2013


Mynameisluka: That Barbara Walker reference was what I was looking for when I mentioned that Laura and her sisters' infertility may have been a legacy of their poorly-nourished childhood. It was mentioned in another MeFi thread on the Ingalls family. (Now I want to try and find a transcript). After reading the Zochert biography (the first non-fiction one I could find; this was way back in the 70's at my local library) - I thought it was strange that three married women could produce only one living child between them, and that Laura, married at eighteen or so, only had two children during her entire marriage.

It's true that Carrie, IIRC, didn't marry until her late thirties or so, but the Ingalls sisters seemed to either have some sort of family infertility issue or they were all in celibate marriages. Childhood malnutrition issues seem very likely. Laura herself was always described as a very petite, short woman. Would she have been taller if she had better food in her childhood?

I have a book on my Kindle whose title I've momentarily forgotten, but it talks about the fictional setting and characters of the Little House books as a fantasy "Laura World," which really resonated with me as I was charmed by Laura World as a girl! It mentions that "Farmer Boy" and its comparatively luxurious lifestyle and endless descriptions of food was Laura's "Laura World" - the yearnings of a woman who spent her childhood on the edge of starvation.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 2:31 PM on November 4, 2013


Not sure if there's a transcript of BW's talk, but I livetweeted the event.

To be fair, Almanzo was short, too...5'4" if I recall correctly.
posted by mynameisluka at 2:38 PM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Pa was behaving like a European peasant taking over his neighbour's home, because surely the Jews would never come back.

I could be wrong, but my impression is that that's not a realistic view of European Jewry viz a viz agriculture. Counter-arguments welcome.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:42 PM on November 4, 2013


Thanks for the twitter link!

Here is the blog post I was talking about, which discusses just how deeply poor the Ingalls family was. The author compares Laura's living situation to Anne of Green Gables, the March sisters, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, all of whom were supposed to be "poor" or poor-ish or financially struggling, but compared to the Ingallses, were pretty well off.

From the blog: It's not stated in the books, but you somewhat have to wonder how much of Mary's illness and resulting blindness was the result of poverty and poor nutrition.

(And, I just remembered, I actually have Barbara Walker's Little House cookbook. I originally got it partly because I wanted to know what "vanity cakes" really were!)
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 2:57 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have a book on my Kindle whose title I've momentarily forgotten, but it talks about the fictional setting and characters of the Little House books as a fantasy "Laura World"

The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure?
posted by palomar at 2:58 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fascinating! I read all the Little House books multiple times as a child and at some point heard that they weren't completely factual, but had never realized the extent that Rose Wilder Lane shaped the books. I do remember reading one of Lane's novella's about pioneer life and being struck by the fact that it included a locust storm, exactly like the Little House books.

The whole discussion about how much Pa moved the family around is also interesting. I definitely ascribed to the romantic notion of wanderlust when reading the books. Thinking about it now, it is reminding me disturbingly of how my grandmother described her life with my grandfather. He acted a lot like Pa: as soon as they were somewhat established somewhere, he would decide to uproot the entire family and move somewhere else where they would have to start over. My grandmother complained that he wouldn't even let her sell the furniture. This was during the Depression so I'm sure it was a challenging time, but she definitely resented his decisions.
posted by dormouse at 3:04 PM on November 4, 2013


Yes, that was it, The Wilder Life! Good book - I'd recommend it to Laura-ites (Laurapaloozers? Laura fangirls?), especially for the portrayal of the fans of the books who really identify with the "Laura World."
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 3:04 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


the story of Laura is one of food insecurity

Fascinating - I'd love any citations to this work, as it would be useful for my thesis.

I have a book on my Kindle whose title I've momentarily forgotten, but it talks about the fictional setting and characters of the Little House books as a fantasy "Laura World,"

I'd love to know this title too!

there's something really unnerving and unsettling about having a familiar fiction debunked or challenged.

It's true, and our history is so full of fiction that this is essentially why our history education is so terrible. We identify with our myths very closely.
posted by Miko at 3:10 PM on November 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


Rosie M. Banks, or mynameisluka, what do we know about why Laura was estranged from her mother and sisters? Or if estranged is too strong a word--why she didn't visit or support them?

If that story about the cousin writing to LIW and receiving no response is true, it's very sad. Because Wilder did cultivate relationships with fans, didn't she? Didn't she receive visitors sometimes at her house, hold Q&A sessions, correspond with readers? (Maybe I'm misremembering that.)

It is also a shame, if she didn't get along well with her mother, that she went on to have a rocky relationship with her daughter also. Laura apparently saw herself as sort of a kindred spirit with her father, and if Rose had some of Pa's traits in common with her, it seems like there could have been a kinship there.
posted by torticat at 4:11 PM on November 4, 2013


Rosie: I've heard "bonnetheads," but I prefer "Laurati." ;)

Miko, definitely check out Barbara Walker's amazing Little House Cookbook. It's much more than a cookbook...it's an incredible piece of food history writing. [On Amazon]

A quote from the book:

Food . . . looms large in this pioneer chronicle because there was rarely enough of it. Though she tells of being listless and weak from near starvation in the Long Winter, the storybook Laura never complains of hunger. Yet the real grownup Laura’s memory for daily fare and holiday feasts says more about her eagerness for meals, her longing for enough to eat, than it does about her interest in cooking. Farmer Boy is not merely her husband’s story; it is her own fantasy of blissful youth, surrounded on all sides by food.

Here's an interesting thread about Laura not attending Ma's funeral. It may seem incomprehensible to us now, but I can only assume that Ma never attended her mother's funeral...the distance was simply too far and many times news of a death came too late. I know that "things were different back then" is probably a facile answer, but I think it's at least part of the equation.
posted by mynameisluka at 4:52 PM on November 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


And Miko, I couldn't agree with you more about the paucity of history education. Part of the joy, for me, in writing history is in learning the human side of these mythical people, warts and all. But my encounters with the reading public more often than not remind me that convenient fiction is a lot nicer than actual, gray-area, can't-believe-she-would-ever-do-that fact.
posted by mynameisluka at 4:54 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Another thread from the same board that Mynameisluka linked to in her last post: Fertility and the Ingalls sisters, a discussion on why none of Laura's sisters had children. It seems that Grace developed diabetes quite young - and she was only about four years old during the Hard Winter. That was probably a huge hit to her growing body.

Laura also developed diabetes when she got older, and someone on that thread mentioned possible gestational diabetes as Rose was a big baby, and Laura and Almanzo were small people.

Most people who go on to develop diabetes weren't malnourished as children, but I surmise that childhood deprivation played a part in the Ingalls sisters' cases. And that also would explain the infertility.

(I'm finding this thread so very interesting and have bookmarked several links and a Twitter liveblog! Thanks to all who have provided them, especially Mynameisluka!)
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:51 PM on November 4, 2013


none of Laura's sisters had children

Grace did have one baby, but it died. Carrie never had any children. Mary never had any either, but then this is understandable given that she never married and was probably celibate all her life.
posted by orange swan at 6:26 PM on November 4, 2013


Propaganda on the Prairie. I find it interesting how seemingly innocuous stories are fed to our children to erect a myth of what America is supposed to be. A little spoonful of sugary propaganda at a time can build a mighty brainwashed mass when they grow up. What other innocent icons of our youth were creating the Uber-American of today? Gilligan?
posted by JJ86 at 10:45 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pa was behaving like a European peasant taking over his neighbour's home, because surely the Jews would never come back.

I could be wrong, but my impression is that that's not a realistic view of European Jewry viz a viz agriculture. Counter-arguments welcome.


We can go directly to the source and look at the Manifest Destiny doctrine. When John Quincy Adams coined that phrase, his point was not that the USA was inherently superior to the indigenous peoples, but that the aborigines could not defend their land claims (undeniably true: huge acreage, few personnel, no arms of note), and that someone was going to take the landmass. If not the US, then it would be Britain from the north, Russia from the west, France/Spain/Mexico from the south, but someone was going to swoop in and take it. Ergo, it had better be the US.

Which means if you want to talk about the politics behind the Western expansion and the relation fo the pioneers to the government, you should be hoenst enough to dump the Rose Wilder Lane narrative. As a pioneer, you go forward, squat on the land, endure hardship until modernity catches up with you, at which point the land you squatted on rises in value and you can sell out. Not exactly a good libertarian analogy there.
posted by ocschwar at 11:06 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe you should read some of the scholarly biographies before you decide. You really can't use the children's books as evidence - which is the point of the post.

Miko, I'd don't know why you would assume that I am using the children's books as evidence, or that i wasn't familiar with those biographies? Did you decide that simply because I disagreed with winna upthread?

I haven't read any of the LH books since I was a kid, and honestly don't remember a lot of the details from them. I am basing my opinions (not decisions, really, because in the end I don't know that any of us can do more than speculate) on a number of sources (the South Dakota Historical Press, and various biographies from Zochert's Laura to source material from the Pioneer Girl Project, if it matters).

Even if I hadn't though, disagreeing with someone would not mean I do not understand the post! I simply don't see the need to label people as clearly this or that--either loving father or conscienceless jerk, accurate historian or propagandist libertarian. Not accepting your narrative does not make me ignorant or uninformed. So please do not make unfounded assumptions and then build on them to lecture me about the point of the post.

Anyway! Moving on.

Infertility: I know that Carrie did not marry until she was 42 years old, and her husband had two children from a previous marriage, one of whom, Harold I think, was very sick. She spent her time caring for him (Carries seems to have been, poor woman, the family member who ended up caring for everyone, including her mother and also sister Mary after their mother's death). So Carrie may have been infertile, but as it would be unlikely for even a fertile woman to conceive for the first time at 42 with no intervention at that time, it's hard to make a definitive case.

Grace, on the other hand, married young and had no children. She or her husband or both were likely infertile.

Rose Wilder lane had a hysterectomy or similar surgery after her son died in childbirth, due to injuries sustained in the birth--it is not really clear what exactly happened, but we are given to understand that "the surgery" meant she could have no more children.

Malnourishment: The Ingalls girls may have been affected by malnourishment, but to what extent? Hard to say. None of them died particularly young; Mary died at 63, and we know she made it through the illness that blinded her and was probably not in the best of health afterward. Grace was also said to have suffered from poor health, and even she did not die until she was 64, which is not too terribly young.

Still, malnourishment may have played a part as all the sisters had some trouble with the diabetes that led to Grace's death. It seems counterintuitive, as we tend to associate diabetes with a sedentary lifestyle and overrating, but there have been studies out of Austria showing babies born during times when food was scarce had a higher incidence of diabetes later in life. Thing is, the link appears to be with the mother not getting the nourishment in pregnancy and around the time of birth, and as Grace was born last, at the time when the Ingalls were settling down and food was more plentiful, we would expect her to be better placed than the other sisters for avoiding that fate.

There is also the argument that, as some doctors will tell you, if you live long enough you will eventually become diabetic. Laura, after all, lived until she was 90 years old(!). I think Carrie was 84 when she died.

Laura's 'half-pint' size, too, was more likely related to genetics than malnourishment. I got the impression that Mary was taller than her siblings; when it was just her and Laura, Laura was the small one and became half-pint, but once the other girls came along Mary was the odd one out. Laura was 4'11" or so, and her husband Almanzo was only 5'4" (which may have helped that initial attraction between them).
posted by misha at 1:30 PM on November 5, 2013


Tactical omissions in the massively popular frontier history of self-reliance include the land grant that gave 160 acres for a mere filing fee

Really? I thought that was pretty clear in all the books where they got land grants. You were "gambling" with Uncle Sam that you could maintain a farm or a tree lot for some years, and if you successfully maintained those lots, the land was yours.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:02 AM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Never read the books but my favorite thing about them comes from a letter I read in Dear Genius which is a simply fantastic collection of letters from Ursula Nordstrom. One reader wanted to buy the series for her daughter but was upset by the following passage in one of her books:
There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no people. Only Indians lived there.
Nordstrom responded, saying that of course Wilder did not mean to imply that Indians were not people, and that she was surprised that no one had noticed this for the 20 years it had been printed. It was changed in the next edition to read …there were no settlers. Only Indians lived there. A complimentary copy of the 9th edition which included the change was sent to the letter writer who had intended it as a birthday gift for her 8 year old daughter.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:22 AM on November 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Recap of the Bender's Killing Tavern with a trap door, and hints that Pa Wilder may have killed the suspects.

In the cellar underneath was the body of a man whose head had been crushed by the hammer. It appeared that he had been seated at the table back to the curtain and had been struck from behind it. A grave was partly dug in the garden with a shovel close by. The posse searched the garden and dug up human bones and bodies. One body was that of a little girl who had been buried alive with her murdered parents. The garden was truly a grave-yard kept plowed so it would show no signs. The night of the day the bodies were found a neighbor rode up to our house and talked earnestly with Pa. Pa took his rifle down from its place over the door and said to Ma, “The vigilantes are called out.” Then he saddled a horse and rode away with the neighbor. It was late the next day when he came back and he never told us where he had been. For several years there was more or less a hunt for the Benders and reports that they had been seen here or there. At such times Pa always said in a strange tone of finality, “They will never be found.” They were never found and later I formed my own conclusions why.
posted by Brian B. at 10:14 AM on November 9, 2013


Laura Ingalls Wilder made up her family's part in that story. It was true that the Benders were killing the people who stopped at their inn and burying them in their apple orchard, and that there was a manhunt for them, but the Ingalls left Indian Territories in 1871 when Laura was four years old, two years before the Benders were exposed in 1873. Charles Ingalls certainly never helped a mob kill the Benders because, although they were never found for certain, it is known that they were able to escape to Texas.
posted by orange swan at 6:08 PM on November 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


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