13 November, 2006

Truth and Fiction and a Feminist Libertarian Firebrand

Aside from the Bible--which I consider to be more of an instruction manual--there are three books I read every year.
The Harry Potter Series
A Girl Of The Limberlost
The Little House Series

All three are highly moral coming-of-age stories, wherein the protaganist(s) have to overcome hardships small and large. They are all very atmospheric books that successfully transport me to another place and time and are peopled with characters I think of as friends. I always knew that HP and Limberlost were fictional, but the Little House books were extra great because they were TRUE. Or so I was taught in school.

One of the bigger disappointments in my life was finding out at 18 that the Little House books were a James Frey-ish 'based on a true story in the most limited of ways' concoction. In fact LH is part of the reason I am so distrustful of 'true' memoirs.

If the fictionalised nature of the books wasn't disappointing enough, a few years ago I came across the scholarly debates about who actually wrote the book. Not only were the books mostly fiction, but now there are a number of experts who agree that they were probably mostly written not by beloved Laura but by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Great, just great.

I was a girl of the 70s. Laura was a role model. She was a scrappy girl who grew up on TV and in books and turned out to be a famous writer. I wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder. To me, Rose was nothing more than a footnote, a baby born in the last book of the series and part of the happy ending for the Wilder clan.

Boy did I have it wrong. Rose is the role model. Rose is the person who took her mother's notes and wove them into a captivating series of books grounded in feminist and libertarian ideals. Rose is the woman who wanted America to be as free as the prairie where her mother grew up, and sought to present a picture of a libertarian world in terms so simple a child would yearn for it. Pa hunts without a license and makes his own bullets by the fire. The family moves house as they please, and while Indians show up from time to time the bigger threat to the Ingalls' homesteading is the arbitrary nature of governmental regulation.

I've grown up. I no longer want to be Laura. I want to be Rose.

**Malia has been reading the books with her daughter and wrote a post recently about Laura's feminist integrity. It was that post that inspired me to talk about my love for the books and my evolution of respect for Rose Wilder Lane.


At 10:48 AM, November 13, 2006, Anonymous nm said...

Yeah, that horrible arbitrary government, preventing the Ingalls family from stealing land from the Indians. You've got to hate it when that happens.

I've never been all that convinced that RWL wrote the Little House books. Or if she did, she must have been remarkably faithful to her mother's voice. If you've read any of her writing, it's clear that she's got a lot more humor than what comes through in the books attributed to her mother.

That said, both of those women would make good role models.

At 11:31 AM, November 13, 2006, Blogger Lynnster said...

I had not heard or read about any of this... my childhood seems oddly invalid now, heh.

Very interesting read, thanks for posting about it all.

At 1:39 PM, November 13, 2006, Blogger Malia said...

nm - The thing about RWL and the speculation that she wrote the series comes from the fact that she was an accomplished ghostwriter. As I understand it, a talented ghostwriter is able to write in a different way than they themselves would write. I think it's quite possible that she wrote them although, from the little I've looked into it since Kat mentioned it to me, I think it's more likely a heavily edited version of her mother's stories - it's still Laura's voice with Rose's slant.

I'm with you, this doesn't change my love for the series of books because in the end they are well written and as you said, "highly moral coming-of-age stories" which is why I have so enjoyed reading them to Sweetpea. At the beginning of the series, Laura is close in age to Sweetpea now and it's been very fun for her to "watch" Laura grow up. My six-year old would rather run around in dresses with three skirts underneath them for petticoats and wear a sunbonnet rather than the "latest" young girl fashions (which lately are not very young girl-ish)! Makes me a proud Mama!

At 2:31 PM, November 13, 2006, Blogger Kat Coble said...

The 'arbitrary' part is where the U.S. govt. first allows white settlement in Kansas and then withdraws their permission. I can't remember which book that's in. (I think it's ...on the Prairie.)

I don't think Rose wrote the books in their entirety. I've been more of the opinion that she provided the structure and outline to make them more commercial and then added bits and pieces. There are a few things--like the protofeminist speach from Happy Golden Years that Malia referenced--that strike me as much more in line with RWL's philosophies than LIW's.

The books are wonderful, and they're great for little girls. Not to make this a plugfest, but if you ever get the chance, please read Girl Of The Limberlost to her as well.

I know so many people (my mother- and sisters-in-law included) who would be brokenhearted to think that the books are anything other than the gospel truth. I try not to bring it up very often.

At 3:20 PM, November 13, 2006, Anonymous nm said...

Well, it's true that I haven't looked at the books for a while but I've read them dozens of times and they are engraved upon my heart, more or less. My recollection is that the Ingalls family moves down to Oklahoma because of the rumor/speculation that the gov't is about to open the territory to white settlement. (They're sort of proto-Sooners, I guess.) This (naturally) angers the Indians there, leading to some of the unrest that frightens the family while Pa is away (or am I transposing this from another book?), which leads to the gov't not making the decision after all. I could be misremembering, though.

I do think that the limited feminist ideas expressed by LIW fit with the other things we know about her: her stubbornness, her willingness to take advice but only if she has asked for it, her pride in her own self-sufficiency. Besides, it was in the air all around her. IIRC, the minister of her church, who marries her and Almanzo, hates asking wives to obey their husbands and preaches against it.

I sure did love those books. And I never read Girl of the Limberlost, but what about Caddie Woodlawn?

At 4:10 PM, November 13, 2006, Blogger Kat Coble said...


I think you're remembering right, because that's close to how I remember it, except I thought it was Kansas. I'll know for sure in 3 weeks when I start reading the books again.

I've never heard of Caddie Woodlawn. I just looked it up over at Amazon and it sounds like my cup of tea. I'll have to check it out of the library.

As for GotL, I can't say enough good things about it. I would love for every woman and girl to read it at least once.

At 7:40 PM, November 13, 2006, Anonymous Jason said...

It is most certainly Kansas. I have to say that I read the books yearly, as well. I am male, albeit a gay male, but I think there's a lot men can glean from the books.

At 3:00 AM, November 14, 2006, Blogger Lynnster said...

Yeah, I'm not terribly upset about it or anything. It just makes it all seem very, very weird. If I had a dollar for every time I read every one of those books, oh my.

At 6:49 AM, November 14, 2006, Anonymous sista smiff said...

I started to read Little House in the Big Woods last week because I hadn't read it in years. I never read the entire series because to me (and this is me) they all seemed pretty much the same. I was a true 70's kid and preferred the tv show. I know that will make the literary folks cringe.
Maybe I should go back and read them.


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