Little House, Long Shadow Book Discussion - Chapter 3
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.