“We are having hard times now, but we should not dwell upon them but think of the future. It has never been easy to build up a country, but how much easier it is for us, with such great comforts and conveniences, kerosene, cookstoves, and even railroads and fast posts, than it was for our forefathers. I trust that, like our own parents, we may live to see times more prosperous than they have ever been in the past, and we will then reflect with satisfaction that these hard times were not in vain.” — Let the Hurricane Roar (p. 66-7)
“There is much more money in juveniles. I’d do one myself if I could get the time.” — Rose Wilder Lane to Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1937
As evidenced by me name-dropping them occasionally in nominally unrelated posts, I was a pretty big fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series as a child. They were among the first chapter books I read on my own and as a result, they hold a special place in my literary heart. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the Little House books are a series of nine books written by Wilder ostensibly as a lightly fictionalized account of her childhood and young adulthood in the American west of the late 19th century. The stories follow the Ingalls family as they stake claims and try to farm their way into the American dream of personal liberty and a place to call one’s own. Told from her fictional self’s perspective, readers watch Laura grow from a pioneer girl to a frontier schoolteacher and eventually, a young wife repeating the cycle of exploratory agriculture with her own family. Laura and the tight-knit Ingalls clan are the heart of the narrative, and much like their less rustic Eastern version, Louisa May Alcott’s Marches, it’s their love and courage in the face of good and bad that really draws the audience in. Written in the 1930s and 40s by an adult Wilder, there are obviously some aspects of the books that have aged better than others, but overall they remain charming stories about the excitement and challenges of growing up.
Despite not being much of an outdoorsy type either then or now, the idea of having to “rough it” in the wilderness off the fruit of the land was appealing to me when I was young in a way that other standard tropes of the American western genre were not. Like many kids who fell in love with these books, I’d spend hours gathering the few random weeds the suburban world of Western New York would cough up and pretend I was setting aside stores for the winter like the Ingallses did and imagining living in a world where the nearest neighbor was miles away and not next door. This is particularly interesting because I love living in cities and as an adult I have no interest in rural or off-the-grid living.
But I think that these books were and are very adept at tapping that particular well of American mythology—the myth of the independent, self-sufficient farmer-citizen—and because they’re children’s books, I think their stories and the underlying messages beneath them are worth examining. Not in the hyper-critical, book-banning way, but in the literary critical way. Because that’s why I keep returning to these books and their author as an adult. I first came back to them as an undergrad taking Children’s Lit classes, and understanding both the conscious and unconscious themes of the Little House series doesn’t “ruin” them for me, but rather makes them worthy of being studied and deconstructed—thus, remembered. Just as Laura’s pioneer adventures enthralled me when I was little, the stories behind, around, and through the books have been just as engrossing to me now.
Now, you might be wondering why in an entry that will supposedly be (eventually) talking about Wilder’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane and her writing that I’m spending so much time on the former’s books. And that’s because you really can’t separate mother and daughter from one another when you’re talking about the Little House books and their adjacent literary universe. While it used to be verboten to talk about, Lane was heavily involved in the writing process for the Little House books as an editor and general collaborator to her mother. If you aren’t eyeballs-deep in the publishing world, you may not be aware that there are several types of editors. What most people imagine when you say “editor” are copy editors and proofreaders—people who read a manuscript and find mistakes of grammar, punctuation, fact, or continuity; or make suggestions as to the “flow” of a work. But editors can also specialize in broader aspects of the writing process, such as development of a story, or assessing its quality or marketability. This is not to say that the writer isn’t the “real” author, but how involved an editor is sometimes changes the complexion of a work. Think of all the Shakespeare plays that have his name on the fly leaf but have historically acknowledged co-writers like John Fletcher and George Wilkins.
Lane was all of this for her mother. A successful journalist and published author herself, Lane is now acknowledged to have had a firm hand in the shaping and marketing of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, and Wilder often bowed to her daughter’s perceived greater expertise in these matters. This becomes important because while Wilder was very much a Midwestern farmer’s wife and the daughter of farmers as portrayed in her stories, Lane was very much a woman of the world with a strong social and political sense of self. A self—which, to be clear, her mother largely agreed with—that saw writing as first and foremost a moral and commercial enterprise, and as an art or entertainment second. These views not only shaped the narrative of the Little House books, but is the very reason it has until very recently been so taboo to speak of Lane’s input in them. Because this isn’t some great historical wrong imposed on Lane, robbing her of literary fame or credit. In her lifetime, she wanted her contributions to be erased.
You see, Lane, along with fellow authors (and friends) Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson, are considered the mothers of the American libertarian movement, with all that entails for their literary output. American libertarianism means any number of things to an equally large number of people, but its basic political philosophy is usually denoted as holding the liberty of the individual and the free market as being paramount to all other social concerns or ideologies. In short, classic libertarians are economically conservative and socially liberal. As a result, they are by design for small government, as they want little to no restrictions on the economy or on individual choices. For many years positioning themselves as the “sane” middle ground between true conservatives and the liberal left, libertarianism enjoyed an intellectual revival in in the late 1990s and early ‘00s in the United States, but its influence seems (to me) to be on the wane as its positions have become increasingly untenable in the current political divide. In the present climate, most avowed libertarians have been “unmasked” as really conservatives willing to favor the independence of unfettered capitalism over individual liberty, or as essentially amoral masters-of-the-universe types who do the same because they believe they have a fundamental superiority over the unwashed masses who don’t really deserve personal liberty anyway. Your mileage may vary.
Lane’s personal libertarianism was largely a reaction to the Great Depression and subsequently, the New Deal. A close personal friend of Herbert Hoover, Lane detested Franklin Roosevelt and his social programs, which she saw as insidious to personal responsibility and liberty. Accepting government “handouts” was antithetical to Lane’s vision of the courageous, self-sufficient farmer creating America out of nothing but hard work and native (though not Native) ingenuity—in other words, the image of her mother Laura’s adored father Charles Ingalls, and Lane’s own father Almanzo Wilder, that she had clearly grown up with long before her mother wrote a word of the Little House books. Although American libertarianism as a political ideology came out of the late 19th century, it’s really at its heart a sort of neo-Jeffersonian view of American greatness—where the crux of the nation’s future liberty and prosperity comes out of an independent, small-collective agrarian society. But just as Jefferson’s yeoman-farmer utopia had a built-in underclass of chattel slavery to make it feasible, Lane’s vision of the heroic pioneer-farmer of the west was also largely a fantasy of a past tinted by the nostalgia of those who experienced it and their descendants.
This also informed the authorship narrative around Wilder’s books. Lane knew that the idea of her relatively unschooled farmwife mother penning instant classics about her childhood in the Old West by herself was much more likely to capture the public’s imagination than the idea that she did so with the help of her more educated, world-traveling journalist daughter. The outsider woman author stealing a moment from childcare and domestic labor to *poof* write an immaculate work in a vacuum—be it Jo Rowling in her cafe, Stephanie Meyer on fanfic forums, or Wilder herself—has always been a powerful fantasy for the reading public. I’m not trying to downplay the success of any of these women, but it has always been potent marketing and many of these “true” stories have been mythologized and embroidered in the interim to make a better story. No writer, of any gender, is an island, and all of us rely to some extent on the support of someone else’s income (Meyer), government financial assistance (Rowling), or expertise (Wilder) to help them along. I know because I’m no different.
In the early 1930s, when Lane was trying to combat all this nefarious New Dealism by encouraging her mother to write down stories from her red-blooded American childhood for what was then referred to as the “juvenile” book market, she was at the same time attempting to capitalize on those same memories for a more adult audience. In 1932, the same year that Wilder’s first Little House book was published (Little House in the Big Woods), Lane published Let the Hurricane Roar, a short novel fictionalizing her Ingalls grandparents’ adventures as newlyweds on a farm in southwestern Minnesota. They live in a dugout sod house by a creek, grow wheat that is subsequently destroyed by grasshoppers, have negative experiences with the nearby townsfolk, and survive a blizzard.
Those of you familiar with the Little House books are thinking I just described the basic plot of Wilder’s fourth novel, On the Banks of Plum Creek, and yeah, Let the Hurricane Roar is basically a slightly more adult version of that story. However, there are some differences between the two. Hurricane is told from Caroline (Ma) Ingalls’ perspective rather than a young Laura’s, in part because Lane rearranges the timeline so that the move to Plum Creek happens very early in the Ingalls marriage, rather than where it occurs in the Little House timeline (itself a rearrangement). In the Little House timeline, the Ingalls live in the Big Woods of Wisconsin until Laura Ingalls is about five, then they move to the titular little house on the prairie in Osage Indian Territory (Kansas), then move to Plum Creek. In the Hurricane timeline, Ma and Pa get married as teenagers in the Big Woods, then move directly to Plum Creek. Both of these differ from the actual order of events, where Ma and Pa get married in Wisconsin, move when Laura is about two years old to Kansas, move back to the Big Woods for a few years, then go to Plum Creek.
There are narrative reasons for both Wilder and Lane’s decisions on the timeline. For the Little House books, which were (and are) marketed as a sort of lyrical nonfiction—aka true stories—both Wilder and Lane wanted to downplay the fact that a two year old Laura would have had no firsthand memories of the events of what would become the most famous book in the series. There was also a thematic desire to have the Ingalls family always moving westward (into the future), so having them backtrack east to the Big Woods—which they did for a variety of reasons, the least of which being that they had been effectively squatting on land owned by the Osage Nation in Kansas—would have been antithetical to that aim. In Hurricane, Lane probably wanted to avoid talking about the little illegal house on the prairie (because her family were upright, law-abiding citizens, thank you very much), and the grasshopper plague is a good story for the didactic purposes of not letting a literal act of God beat you down. Also, it seems that she wanted to have her perfect, white, Anglo-Saxon American pioneer couple to have only one child for narrative simplicity (maybe because she was her parents’ only child?), and she wanted that one child to be the all-important boy to help and inherit the farm. And for the Ingallses, that would be the one born in Plum Creek. Which means it’s also time to discuss the “ghost in the Little House,” Freddie Ingalls.
Little House readers are familiar with the four Ingalls girls (something else the family shares with the fictionalized Alcott/Marches): Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace. What Wilder left out of her children’s series, probably because she thought it too dark, was her brother Charles Frederick, who was born between Carrie and Grace while the family lived at “Plum Creek” in Minnesota in 1875. Freddie would die only nine months later, and it seems that no one, especially Wilders’ parents, ever got over the loss. Wilder chose to deal with this by excising Freddie from the Little House books entirely, while Lane, more removed from the emotional fallout, chose to memorialize him as the healthy, living firstborn child of her fictionalized grandparents. Grief takes different forms.
Another reason Wilder might have decided to avoid Freddie and his death was that it came almost directly after her parents’ financial ruin caused by the grasshopper disaster, so it was an incredibly bleak time for the family all around and again, there’s only so much you want to shove at even Depression-hardened kids. The “grasshopper disaster” I’ve referenced from both Plum Creek and Hurricane was the so-called Grasshopper (Locust) Plague of 1874, during which an abnormally large swarm of the now-extinct Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus) annihilated about 2,000,000 square miles (5,200,000 km) of crops and natural vegetation in the North American Great Plains. An unusual hot and dry spring and summer allowed the locusts to breed at an accelerated rate, and their greater numbers meant that any territory they moved into was essentially stripped bare and dead grasshoppers clogged most fresh water sources. Human migration westward basically stopped until fortuitous frost patterns in the spring of 1875 killed the locust eggs (and probably contributed to their almost equally abrupt extinction), and farmers were left stranded in a dead zone with no crops to sell and virtually no game to hunt, larger animals having been mostly driven off in search of vegetation.
The situation was so dire that the Kansas legislature approved $73,000 in bonds for aid, and in Nebraska farmers had to prove they literally had nothing left to sell to receive assistance from the Nebraska Relief and Aid Association because need was so high. Americans from unaffected regions sent barley and corn as donations, and the federal government supplied $30,000 in seeds to the area. Congress eased homestead residency requirements in the west in an effort to lure settlers back, but U.S. Army still spent over a year delivering rations and basic necessities to farmers and their families. Not that any of that government relief or private charity makes it into either Wilder-Lane telling of events. The Ingallses of both Plum Creek and Hurricane survive with Yankee gumption and only a little insignificant quid pro quo between neighbors. And if they could do it, why are you Okies whining about how you’re destitute and someone should help you? Where’s your pride?
For the record, I’m not trying to denigrate American farmers or Pa Ingalls with any of this analysis. Pa and other pioneer farmers were incredibly hardworking men doing a variety of jobs I would suck at (see my earlier comment about being an indoor kid fantastizing about the pioneer lifestyle). But by sanitizing or erasing their missteps and failures, Wilder and Lane merely contribute to a mythology that punishes those who believe in it when they struggle or fail.
To bring up Jo Rowling again, Harry Potter is another children’s series I enjoy consuming literary criticism about, and others have pointed out very cogently that one of Rowling’s arguable shortcomings as a writer is that in the universe of her work, there are no bad actions, only bad people. For example, both our protagonist Harry and his schoolyard nemesis Draco Malfoy own (house elf) slaves, but only Draco’s ownership is portrayed as bad because his family is evil. Harry is a “good person,” so the fact that he is participating in a slavery system is okay because he is nice to his house elf slave and the Malfoys are mean to theirs. The morality of the Little House books works similarly: if Charles and Caroline Ingalls receive help from a neighbor (or the government), they must “deserve” it through current or prior righteousness, but someone else is probably a lazy freeloader who wants to suckle at the teat of communism. Hell, in Hurricane, Caroline basically steals two cows, but it’s okay because she found them in a blizzard and she saves them from dying. I’m not arguing with her logic, but you’d better believe if she’d heard about someone else doing that, she would have had opinions. Both the Little House books and Hurricane are full of situational ethics like this, where what’s allowed for “good” people like the Ingallses is forbidden to those whom they (or Wilder and Lane) judge as bad or inferior.
In short, most of the Wilder-Lane oeuvre is a romanticizing of the conservative bootstrap mentality that so often leads to the suffering and dehumanization of our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings. If even Ma and Pa Ingalls got help from Uncle Sam, you should too, and you shouldn’t deny that help to someone else in need from a misplaced sense of morality or patriotism. If we can do that, we might find that American utopia of liberty and justice after all.
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