Monday, October 18, 2010

Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder's Impact on American Culture

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.


  1. I know just what you mean, about not learning the intended or implied lesson, although my example is sillier. Every Christmas, for years, I was always glad that I got more than - am I remembering this right? - a tin cup, a penny, and a single piece of peppermint candy. Laura and Mary seemed happy, but it never sounded nice to me!

  2. Thanks for covering this. I recently read it myself and was fascinated by the questions it raised about literary influence. Does literature really influence us on all levels, or on different levels (personal, political, etc.)? Can literature "transmit" a worldview? Not sure if it answered my questions, but boy did it add to them.

  3. Great post, because it conveys your early and continuing admiration for the Little House books, as well as the mixed emotions that often attend reading the back story of our favorite authors and their works. My husband and I have had several arguments over the role of Rose Wilder Lane (after her book came out)! He felt that aha! reaction--that Rose was the "real" author--while I favor the idea of a significant collaboration that still preserved Laura's voice. Your review makes me more likely to seek out this latest work by Fellman on the books' impact.

  4. This sounds like a fascinating book! I grew up with Little House, but was not a huge fan... my college roomies watched the show and read the books religiously! I have always believed that literature has far reaching impact on culture, etc. and would be tempted to pick this book up to read Fellman's exploration of the point.

  5. Like you I devoured these books, most especially Little House in the Big Woods, which was given me by my Wisconsin-born grandmother. Some of my friends rolled their eyes at this series as being SO unsophisticated, but not me. You see, even though I lived in a suburb of sunny Los Angeles, for two summers I experienced a taste of Laura's world.

    My grandmother's family has a log cabin summer home in the woods of Wisconsin -- it's well over 100 years old now; the original structure is falling apart! Apparently my great grandfather (an attorney and businessman in turn-of-the-century Superior) delighted in having a rustic getaway for his family. And what a place for kids: fishing in the creek with homemade poles, water from a pump, the outhouse, ferocious thunderstorms, the deep woods, an honest-to-goodness creek out back, the wood pile and towering trees to climb -- and my grandmother's and great aunts' stories of what life was like before The War to End All Wars. Those summer visits brought such richness into my suburban world!

    The people in the Little House books reminded me of older members of my family -- not perfect, but patient and decent and so kind. And civilized! I shake my head and smile at the familiar likenesses. Ma, ironing Mary's and Laura's pinafores in the prairie camp -- and being so pleased! -- could well have been my grandmother. These are the Hiles, from whom I have taken my pen name.

    Thanks so much for posting this review, Jane.

  6. This book sounds fascinating, and I need to get a copy of my own, I think. I devoured the Little House books, and I think I unconsciously learned some political lessons from them too. I've since unlearned them, but I do think they had a profound effect on the way I think. Fascinating!

  7. I'm so glad you got over your hesitation and wrote about this. Years ago, I read biographies of both Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane that touched on the writing of the books but neither went into depth and got between the lines.

    And like you, I read these books a million times, but I don't think I fully took in the political message in them. I was way too focused on what they were eating and what they were wearing and so on to think at all about what the government was doing.

  8. what a great post. Thanks for this. i'm so glad you wrote it.

    Little House was a huge hit in Australia. There are scenes from it that are still spoken of in my family and when I got a chance to see a re-run of the episode where Mary finally went blind I was so glad to see it again - it had stuck with me all since childhood.

    I came to the books later, trying to capture something of the childhood love of the TV show. I didn't even know there WERE books when I was a kid. I devoured them. I still appreciated them as quaint, lovely stories just like the tv show. I know almost nothing of the back story of Laura and her daughter - a smattering of stuff picked up from the web - but now I think I really want to take the love further and read this book.

    I think I may have been influenced when I was younger by the politics and the religious side of it, but not so much now. Now I'd be more interested in reading about the way of life - the survival techniques and the craft. Was there knitting in the books? I must go and find out!

  9. Jane, I'm forwarding your review to two of my friends, who also grew up on the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.
    Do childrens' books affect their politics as adults? I bet an awful lot of kids were put off the idea of communism by Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time

  10. Fascinating! I too have long been a Little House fan, though my politics do not mesh with this analysis of the books. Perhaps that is why I always liked Nellie, despite her horrid behavior? I always assumed it was because she had the pretty dresses on the TV show, but maybe I was unconsciously endorsing the less traditional, matriarchal structure of the Oleson family? There's a can of worms...

  11. I think my dislike of the TV show (primarily Laura's cuteness) resulted in my avoiding everything but the real books, yet this sounds very interesting. I am always afraid I would not have liked Rose at all.

  12. Don't tell me that my beloved Laura is responsible for the likes of Sarah Palin! Egads!

    You make me want to run out and buy the book (or see if my library has it) and read it for myself.

    I have the book of Laura's journalism, which gave me a view in to more of the real LIW. I still like fantasy Laura, anyway.

  13. I was never a fan of the TV series myself, CLM--but this book really puts Laura and Rose and the books into perspective.

    Meg - actually reading this book made me admire the fictional Laura all the more as she really is an incredible fictional heroine and the talent that it took to create her is profound.