I'm not sure whether I'm just a bit of a coward or whether I just shy away from offending others in an effort to keep the peace, but much as I loved reading Anita Clair Fellman's Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder's Impact on American Culture, it crossed my mind to simply not blog about it. However, the book is so good that I don't think I could live with myself if I didn't at least mention it.
I grew up on Laura Ingalls Wilder. I credit the fact that I didn't get my drivers license until I was almost 18 (instead of 16 when I could) on the influence she had over me as a teenager. I faithfully read the series almost every year between the ages of 10 and 20. Even in college, I remember blasting through them over Christmas break. I wanted to live on the prairie, on the frontier, in a dugout. I wanted to feel the wind in my hair and the sun on my face. I still do.
I remember how devastated I felt when I read William Anderson's biography of Laura and learned that the books were fictionalized accounts of her life. I remember studying the photographs of Laura, Almanzo, Rose, and Laura's immediate family and desperately looking for any resemblance to the Garth Williams' illustrations I knew so well.
Over the years, I have come to terms with the fact that the Little House books were children's fiction written by Wilder in collaboration with her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. I have also come to terms with the fact that theirs was a stormy, complicated relationship.
Little House, Long Shadow provides a fascinating look at the history and impact of the Little House books on American culture and the current political climate. As a card-carrying Liberal, I was amazed to learn how Wilder and Lane's political views shaped a set of books that in turn have influenced several generations of Americans.
Fellman does a superb job of dissecting the books, comparing the story they tell with the life that Laura and her family actually led, and pointing out the consistent inconsistencies (e.g., the government is always cast in a negative light even when other factors are in play; the independence and self-sufficiency of the family is always exaggerated). She also provides a thorough analysis of the various political and social movements of the time during which the books were written, providing an understandable context in which to examine the books. Fellman then moves on to explore how the Little House books were marketed and over time became an integral part of the American education system.
The thesis of her book is presented in the chapter "The Little House in American Politics." Here is the paragraph that I think best delineates Fellman's position.
Not only have the Little House books captured a place in the public culture of the United States, but they have also played a role in the nation's politics. Unlikely as it may seem, this series of children's books, in company with other more overtly anti-statist writings, helped prepare the ground for a shift, in the late twentieth century, in the assumptions about the appropriate role for government. In turn, the entire political culture of the United States has been affected. The books were part of the body of writings by those who had never come to terms with the changes in political philosophy and practice implied by the New Deal or who had become disaffected by liberalism as it was evolving.
I've said it before, "the pen is mightier than the sword!"
What I am still wrestling with is why my political orientation did not seem to be influenced at all by my love of Little House while growing up. I don't mean to discount Fellman's theory by my own experience--I really think she's on to something. But, I do acknowledge that I did learn a lot from Laura, stuff that has served me well as an adult, as a daughter, as a wife, and as a mother. Maybe the most valuable thing I learned from her was to think for myself--to take in and process and think and then keep what I found to be true and to let go of that which didn't work for me.
Regardless of your political leanings, regardless of whether you even have any, I think most readers will find this to be a fascinating look at the impact that literature can have on their culture and world.