Saturday, November 10, 2012

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.

My thoughts:

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.

You'll find Part One of this discussion here.

Part Two of this discussion is here.

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