Fellman focuses Chapter 4 on how the Little House books have been used in the classroom: the reading of them and the activities based upon them. Through the 1990s, the Little House books were very much a part of the classroom scene in the United States. Changes in curriculum, changes in the textbook publishing industry, and recent government regulations affecting the teaching of reading are cited by Fellman as making the books less ubiquitous in classrooms since 2000 than they were in the previous fifty years.
The author admits it is impossible to make the connection between what children read in school and their beliefs as adults. She hopes to show, however, that the reading of Wilder’s books at school has made “individualist interpretations of the texts possible and appealing.” Because teachers like how these books teach values without preaching, the Little House books are seen as embodying universal truths, and as providing a “valuable introduction to an important chapter of U.S. history.”
One very interesting thing that Fellman mentions is that the acceptance of the books didn’t come out of nowhere, but that conditions were right for the books to make their mark in the educational system as well as in individual homes. We are taken back to the early 20th century to where young people’s leisure reading tastes were formed by experts in literature instead of the children; where children’s services in public libraries and libraries in elementary schools were being introduced; and Macmillan established the first children’s book division in 1918. After WWI, editors of children’s books were appointed at major publishing houses.
During the Progressive Era, there were efforts to impose standards on what children read for pleasure. “Basal materials, with carefully chosen reading selections keyed to children’s cognitive and social development and accompanied by step-by-step guides for the teacher,” were used from the 1930s into the early 1990s. Schools became an important market share for publishers. The Little House books became a favorite with librarians, teachers, critics, and children as a result. Readers identified with Laura. The books also grew with them. Because of the positive elements in Wilder’s books, experts saw them as appropriate to include in basal readers. In the 1980s and 1990s, basal readers came under attack. Teachers were relying on them too much. So now, teachers were encouraged to get children to read complete books by reading books aloud in class.
Fellman touches upon the discontent with history and social studies texts used in American classrooms. Some teachers support historical fiction to help teach history to students, claiming the need to harness the power of narrative when teaching children. The Little House books are considered, “the best loved of all American historical fiction.” The challenge for some teachers is the books’ depiction of Indians. This brings the discussion back to basal readers and the particular selections from the Little House books that are used. In the end, teachers are important to what students derive from assigned materials. Fellman states there is ample evidence to suggest that “the choices of books that teachers make for their classrooms, access to those books, and the presentation and discussion of them affect the responses expressed by the children.”
My thoughts: As someone who works in publishing, I found a lot of this chapter interesting. It also helped me to understand how education has changed since I was in school versus how it is for my children now. Teachers remain influential in what children get out of the books and excerpts they read at school.
The one thing I keep coming back to, however, is what I feel is an unfair depiction of the books as being prejudiced against Indians. The fears Caroline felt toward Native Americans was based upon real danger at the time. Laura's fascination with a culture different than her own never made me feel she looked down on anyone. As a child, she was curious about how these people lived and what they were like.
Thanks to a friend at a Little House on the Prairie forum I belong to, I learned that the Main Street Theater in Houston, Texas is running a production titled, A LITTLE HOUSE CHRISTMAS. Adapted for the stage by James DeVita, and based on Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, this production is directed by Katie Harrison.
Details from their website are as follows:
Main Street Theater - Chelsea Market 4617 Montrose Blvd.
Weekend Family Performances
Saturdays at 1pm and 4pm November 10, 17, 24 and December 1, 8, 15 & 22, 2012 Friday at 11:30am November 23, 2012 Open to the Public
School Matinees Monday - Friday November 7 – December 21, 2012 9:30am, 11am and 12:30pm Open only to groups from Public, Private or Home Schools
This post continues our discussion of Little House, Long Shadow by Anita Clair Fellman.
Chapter 3 - Revisiting the Little Houses
This chapter starts off with Wilder's talk at a Detroit Book Week
celebration in 1937, where she discusses how wonderful her childhood was
because she had seen it all: the frontier, woods, Indian country,
frontier towns, unsettled country, homesteading and farmers coming in to
take possession. Fellman is quick to point out that Wilder did not
journal or keep a diary when she was younger, so her books are based
upon memories. A recent book on memory is stated as saying that memories
aren't fixed but are evolving generalizations of our past. It claims we
reshape memories as we go through life. And this is what Fellman says
happened with Laura. What she understood about past events underwent
changes due to personal and political events and her experience of
writing the books. She says Wilder viewed her past differently depending
upon what was going on in the wider world.
The author mentions the influence of Frederick Jackson Turner, a
historian who wrote the paper, "The Significance of the Frontier in
American History." He believed that the frontier changed the pioneers as
much as they altered the landscape they passed through and settled. He
focused on the economic forces and the everyday actions of the farmers
instead of the violent confrontations between the lawless and the law to
counteract the 19th century interpretations of the frontier West created
by stock characters of "explorers, Indian fighters, cowboys,
desperadoes, prostitutes, and gamblers." The conquering of the West
became, Fellman states, the source of much of American pop culture.
Fellman claims Wilder is one of those who interpreted her own
experiences through this mythological frontier that was "omnipresent in
many forms of popular culture in her day." Laura included more of the
home life and female perspective of the frontier than men did, and
therefore, it provided a unique twist to the frontier saga. Wilder and
Lane believed individualism was a good thing, and the Little House
books, according to the author, helped strengthen the myth of the West as
the main source of American individualism. The books also perpetuated
the myth of self-reliance. Historian Stephanie Coontz states families
see their own histories in terms of self-sufficiency and individual
effort, ignoring the role of government and community. She says, "It
would be hard to find a Western family today or at any time in the past
whose land rights, transportation options, economic existence, and even
access to water were not dependent on federal funds."
The author mentions on page 77 that she realizes Wilder and Lane are
writing fiction, but there are still political implications to the
stories, and as time went on, Wilder, Lane and their publisher said
these stories were true. Lane is quoted as saying, "They are the truth
and only the truth." The rest of the chapter is dedicated to tracing
definite patterns of the changes Laura and Rose made.
I can definitely see how your impression of your past changes as you age. You become more aware of things you might not have realized or perhaps misunderstood as a child. What I am not yet convinced of is that our view of the West is more symbolism than substance. Though I didn't make specific mentions of any of the changes Fellman discusses in her book, one of the things she drives home is that the Ingalls family wasn't as isolated as portrayed in the books. Being an author of children's books, I always thought the other characters were omitted simply because too many would bog the story down and not focus on the main characters--the Ingalls family. This is especially true for The Long Winter. To add the Masters, who stayed with the Ingallses during the long winter, would have added too many characters in the story and could have confused readers.
This continues our discussion on Little House, Long Shadow by Anita Clair Fellman.
Chapter 2 - Creating the Little House
This chapter starts with Rose's return to Rocky Ridge Farm in 1928. Having spent time in her beloved Albania, she returned to help Laura with her writing, but also to recover from how the political landscape was changing Albania. As a freelance writer, Rose struggled with having to churn out story after story to make a living. Unlike her mother, who had many story ideas, Rose had difficulty coming up with ideas. It appears at this time, she was trying to start over. She wanted to build up her financial reserves so that when she was ready to leave the farm again, she would be free to do it.
Lane put herself into debt to build the English-style stone cottage for her parents to live in--despite Laura's lack of enthusiasm for the idea. The author claims Rose felt no matter how much she did for her mother, it was never enough. It mentions a recurring dream Laura had about traveling a frightening road in a dark wood, which she interpreted as anxiety about money. According to the author, Laura's fear of doing without affected her relationship with her daughter.
When Lane's investments failed in 1931, her travel plans were thwarted. During the Depression, Laura opted to use her savings to pay off the mortgage on Rocky Ridge, but that also meant the Wilders had no money to retire. Lane resented having to churn out articles and stories to make a living. Neither Laura or Rose saw writing as a way out of their plight. "Pioneer Girl" was written during this time. Notations on the manuscript, according to Fellman, indicated Laura expected Rose to edit and embellish the work.
Little House, Long Shadow then goes on to talk about how "Pioneer Girl" was rejected, but the Wisconsin years were turned into a children's book titled, "When Grandma Was A Little Girl," which was accepted for publication by Knopf. This would be picked up by Harper and Brothers after Knopf closed its children's division, and was published in the spring of 1932 as Little House in the Big Woods. Rose was originally thrilled by the book's success, but watching her mother achieve public recognition while she was being forgotten by friends was hard for her.
Fellman shares much of what we already know about the writing of the books and the difficult relationship between Rose and her mother. It also talks about some of Laura's articles for the Missouri Ruralist on the topic of mother-and-child relations. While Laura didn't believe in whippings, she also didn't believe in oral displays of affection. By the end of the 19th century, female advice authors, however, would be talking about how a child must in every way be made happy. Rose seems to have accepted this new idea of love and emotional support easier than her mother. The book also talks about how even though Lane wished her mother could go it alone on her books, Rose couldn't pull away and Laura may not have been confident enough to let her.
Rose completed "Let the Hurricane Roar" late in 1931. It covered much of the same ground as On the Banks of Plum Creek, but showed Lane's feelings of isolation and her idea that people are pretty much on their own. Not only was this a story about individual courage, it was about the current economic depression: how life is never easy and "our great asset is the valor of the American spirit." Laura, of course, resented Rose using this material without permission and Rose was crushed by her mother's lack of support.
The last thing I'll say is that the book takes a look at how the country is changing at this time. The children's book, The Little Engine That Could, was released in 1930, and illustrated the can do spirit of the Hoover administration. The Wilders had been Democrats for many years, but they didn't like the shift in philosophy that came about with the New Deal. Lane became angry over government farm-relief programs that implied individuals were incapable of handling setbacks on their own. The Wilders couldn't fathom the idea of cutting down so-called crop surpluses. Fellman also mentions how Mansfield was affected by the Depression, and that the town had been struggling even before the crash.
Why would you build your parents a house and go into debt doing it if they never seemed to want it in the first place? They seemed quite happy in the home Almanzo built. Once Rose left, they moved right back into it. Why did Laura's success impact Rose in such a way? Was it because Rose struggled to come up with ideas, while her mother had them in spades? Was it just her nature? Is it any wonder Laura was upset with Rose over her using material she planned to use in her children's series? Especially since she didn't ask first. It would be one thing if Rose told Laura she planned to do it, but to keep her in the dark like that was a bit sneaky. The Wilders' concern over a shift in political philosophy makes me think of when Ronald Reagan claimed he didn't leave the Democratic party, it left him. As ideology shifted, the Wilders couldn't relate to this desire to have the government step in and assist. No matter how you lean politically, I think we can all relate to how that might happen if a party you believed in started promoting something that went against your grain.
I've been reading Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder's Impact on American Culture for the last few weeks. It's taking me a while because I am reviewing other books for different blogs, and because the chapters are long.
I've written up chapter reviews of this book and started a discussion at one of the online forums I belong to. I thought it would be interesting to add these reviews here. I hope you'll chime in with your thoughts.
Chapter 1 - Growing Up in Little Houses
In the Introduction, we learn that author Anita Clair Fellman grew up with the Little House books and read them to her children. At some point, however, she discovered that Rose Wilder Lane was not only a libertarian, but also collaborated with her mother on the books. Instantly, she wonders if some of Rose's ideas made it into those books. As she ponders this, Ronald Reagan is elected president, and she is struck by the "individualist, antigovernment nature of his rhetoric." She was impressed by how Americans responded to it. It also made her wonder why such antistate ideas resonated for them, which makes her wonder if the books' appeal has something to do with the vision Reagan was talking about. Could children's books, "by virtue of their content, emotional appeal, ubiquitousness, and iconic status in the culture" help explain a shift in political assumptions by the populace?
There are several more pages to the Introduction, but most of them have to do with how the author approached her research: viewing the Wilder and Lane papers at the Herbert Hoover Museum, looking at books by authors like Ayn Rand, sales of the Little House books, autobiographical and biographical sources, etc.
Chapter One spans a great deal of time. It talks not only about Laura and Rose growing up in their little houses, but also about Caroline and Charles, Mary, and how Laura found herself acting as the older sister once Mary went blind. It mentions Carrie, Grace and Freddie, but only in that they were members of the family and that Mary went to live with Carrie after Ma's death. It talks about the somewhat tense relationship between Laura and Ma, and how Laura was not exactly the "good" daughter. It also discusses how Laura wrote for the Missouri Ruralist and with Rose's help broke into the national market. It spends time talking about Laura and Rose's relationship: that Laura always saw her as a child--no matter how old she got, how Rose helped shape her mother as a writer, Rose's feeling that she must take care of her elderly parents and provide for them, etc.
This chapter ends in 1926, with Lane leaving the farm and traveling to Albania, now that she felt her parents were secure enough. It also mentions that in 1925, Laura was performing research for her autobiography or some form of historical fiction.
This author isn't the first one to mention some type of political agenda. What we tend to forget as we look upon past events is that people are products of their time. Independence and self-reliance were necessary for Laura and her family. It took a lot of courage for any person--male or female, married or single--to move West into a territory they knew little about that was filled with dangers of all kinds. Some authors have claimed Caroline was a racist because she didn't like Indians. The fact of the matter is that Indians were a real danger to white settlers. Charles was squatting on Indian territory in Kansas. If I were Caroline I would be chewing my fingernails off with worry. Kansas was already a hot bed of problems without the treaty issues.