I finished the Little House on the Prairie books a couple weeks ago, shortly after the hurricane craziness (it was comforting, somehow, reading The Long Winter during the power outage, because even though our lives had been thoroughly disrupted by bad weather, it was nothing like what the Ingalls family experienced. We weren’t in danger of starving!). I like the early books in the series, but I love the later ones, and those are the ones I reread most often as a kid. Laura gets more interesting as she gets older and starts to grow up. Now she has to confront the fact that she can’t do whatever she likes with her life; instead, she has to become a school teacher in order to put her sister Mary through college. She takes on sewing jobs that she doesn’t like. She deals with social difficulties such as Nellie Oleson’s competitiveness and general nastiness. Since Mary became blind, Laura has been responsible for “seeing” the world for her, and she has taken on the responsibilities and worries of the oldest child. She is still energetic and high-spirited, but she must hold these spirits in check because young ladies are not supposed to do things like play with the boys at recess. She has to fit the code of femininity that she does not like and that feels uncomfortable to her. Things are not as simple as they once were, and the stories become richer as Laura figures out how to negotiate the changes.
Reading the Wilder books was a whole lot of fun, but reading about the Wilder books in Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow has been much more complicated. Fellman’s book, which I am about halfway through, is very good; it’s an academic book, but one that is jargon-free and extremely accessible to general readers. I find the ideas in it fascinating and the arguments convincing. But it’s uncomfortably self-revelatory. I’m seeing now just how influential Wilder really was for me and how much I learned from those books as a young person, without meaning to learn anything. I recognized some of these things as I was reading Wilder herself this most recent time, but it took a critical perspective for some of it to really sink in.
There’s the matter of being uncomfortable with femininity, for example. Laura was expected to be docile and quiet in a way I never was, but I still knew how she felt when she longed to be out playing in the sunshine rather than sitting quietly with the other girls during recess. I hated the thought of having to fit someone else’s expectations of proper feminine behavior. I also identified with her longing to be like Pa and keep traveling westward. Ma and Mary both wanted to settle down near a town and school, but Laura knew what Pa felt when he looked longingly west and wished he could have more adventures on the frontier. I thought I knew what that felt like too.
But more significant than those things is the description of the relationships among the family members. Members of the family obviously felt warmly toward each other and it’s clear that they loved and felt loyal to each other, but they are not verbal about their feelings. They don’t hug or say “I love you” or share many of their innermost thoughts. They are all very stoic; they keep their thoughts and worries to themselves for the most part, and they try not to show it if they are scared or angry. When Laura does show strong emotion, she gets reprimanded for it. And, interestingly, she reprimands her little sister Grace for showing emotion when Mary leaves to go to college. It’s startling the way she keeps repeating “for shame! for shame!” to poor Grace as she very understandably cries at losing her oldest sister. Fellman describes the difficult relationship Laura had with her daughter Rose, and part of the problem was Laura’s refusal or inability to show affection toward her daughter.
So, yes, all of this reminded me of my family very much, both strong the sense of loyalty and love and the fact that it was rarely acknowledged. And then there’s the extreme individualism that runs strong throughout the novels. This is really the subject of Fellman’s book, which argues that the Little House books and their conservative ideology were powerful although largely unrecognized influences on American conservatism of the 80s and onwards. The Ingalls family take care of everything on their own, thank you very much; they rely on each other and occasionally are helped out by friends and neighbors (and they help others), but they don’t need a community or a government to take care of them. They create who they are and are responsible to no one but themselves. As a young person, this appealed to me very much, as, I would guess, it probably appeals to many young people. I had an (exaggerated) sense of my own strength and independence and a reluctance to trust or rely on anyone else. Independence and self-sufficiency are certainly not bad things, but Fellman points out how Wilder and her daughter (who heavily edited the books) leave out details that show the importance of community in their lives. She argues that the two of them regularly exaggerated the isolation of the family in order to make them seem more self-sufficient than they actually were.
There are more examples, but I think I’ve given plenty to show just how much these books have made me think. I’m left wondering how much the books taught me vs. how much I loved them for reflecting what I already felt, or how these two possibilities worked together. I’m not entirely sure, but I have learned that rereading childhood favorites can be dangerous, so watch out!