Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Little House on the Prairie - Historical or Fictional Characters

Every once in a while, a question will come up about characters on television's Little House on the Prairie. Since the show was based upon Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, some not familiar with Wilder's real life aren't sure which characters are historical figures and which were created solely for the show. Here's a good place to start.

The Ingalls family included: Caroline and Charles and their children Mary, Laura, Caroline Celestia (Carrie), Charles Frederick (Baby Freddie), and Grace. Popular characters though they were, the Ingallses never adopted an orphan boy named Albert or the Cooper children.

Mary Ingalls went blind as a teenager. Her hopes of being a teacher were quickly dashed. While she was sent away to a college for the blind and learned many things, she never married. She remained single, living with her parents until their deaths (Charles in 1902 and Caroline in 1924), and then with Grace and her husband in the Ingallses home in De Smet. She died in 1928 while visiting her sister Carrie. So, Adam Kendall was a made for TV husband.

Reverend Edwin Hyde Alden was minister of the Congregational Church in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Known as Robert, the real life minister who started the church in Walnut Grove, was a home missionary with a wife and daughter back east. He rode the train west and preached in New Ulm, Sleepy Eye, Barnston, Walnut Grove, Saratoga and Marshall. He would preach in schoolhouses, private homes, and railroad depots. He was known to have built small chapels and churches in pioneer communities.

When the Ingalls family was staying in the Surveyor's House in De Smet, Reverend Alden visited them. He had left Minnesota and entered the missionary field in Dakota. The community wasn't yet know as De Smet, but Reverend Alden held the first church service ever held there right in the Surveyor's House. He would stop by De Smet during his journeys, holding services in an unfinished depot until a new minister was appointed, Reverend Edward Brown.

Dabbs Greer played Reverend Alden on Little House on the Prairie. He traveled to other communities, just like his real life counterpart. He was single in the show, however, until Season 6, when he married widow Anna Craig.

Kevin Hagen played kindly Doctor Baker on the show. He is not based on any real life character that I know of. When the Ingalls family lived in Kansas, a black homeopathic doctor named George Tann treated them for malaria.

In the television show, Doc Baker took care of everyone's aches and pains. He delivered babies and acted as the town's veterinarian. In Season 8, Doc Baker decides he needs some help, so he hires African-American doctor Caleb Ledoux, who moves to town with his wife, Maddie. Racist sentiments in town almost drive them away, but they agree to stay in Walnut Grove, though we never see them again.

After the pilot episode, the Ingalls family leaves Kansas and journeys to Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Though the real life Ingalls family only stayed in Walnut Grove a couple of years (1874 - 1876) before crop failures forced them to leave, and then returned again for another two years (1877 - 1879), living in town before moving to their final home in De Smet, South Dakota, the majority of the show took place in Walnut Grove.

When the TV Ingalls and the real life Ingalls stop at Plum Creek, they purchase a dugout house on the banks of the creek from Mr. Hanson. Mr. Hanson was a Norwegian settler who itched to go west, but on television, he was one of the founders of Walnut Grove, and remained there until his death.

Mr. Edwards was a neighbor of the Ingalls family when they lived in Kansas. A bachelor, originally from Tennessee, he lived across the creek. Identifying who he was and what his occupation was is difficult. In Donald Zochert's book Laura, he says he might have been J.H. Edwards, who ran Ed's Saloon and dealt in "liquor and cigars" in Fort Scott, but Zochert says that would make him too far away to be the man Wilder mentions in her books.

In the show, the character of Mr. Edwards is first introduced in the pilot, helping the Ingalls family and befriending Laura. They have a teary-eyed parting when the Ingalls family is forced to leave Kansas, but Mr. Edwards shows up in Walnut Grove. This time, he has a backstory: his wife and daughter died and it was his fault for moving them so far away from medical help, which accounts for his excessive drinking. 

Nellie Oleson, while featured in the books and on the television series, was a totally fictional character made up by Laura Ingalls Wilder. She is a composite of three of Wilder's classmates: Nellie Owens, Genevieve Masters, and Stella Gilbert. Nellie Owens had a brother named Willie and her parents (William and Margaret) ran a mercantile in Walnut Grove. Sound familiar TV lovers?

I hope you have enjoyed this discussion. Comments are always welcome.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Is Lady Edith the Mary Ingalls of Britain?

Like millions of others, I am caught up in watching Downton Abbey. Some time in Season 2, I heard about this fabulous period show on PBS and had to check it out. I loved it so much, I watched the episodes I missed on the PBS website, continued through to the end of the second season, and eagerly anticipated the start of Season 3 on January 6th.

With Lady Mary and Lady Sybil both married, the attention suddenly falls to Edith in the second episode. The middle, and often forgotten, child of Lord and Lady Grantham, is excited to finally be in the limelight. As she prepares for her wedding to Sir Anthony Strallan, it seems like the sun has finally shone on her.

But just like Mary Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie seemed to be a magnet for tragedy, Lady Edith never seems to get what she wants. The creator of Downton Abbey is also the series creator, Julian Fellowes. I'm truly beginning to think he dislikes Edith, because how much bad stuff can happen to one character? With Mary Ingalls it was numerous health conditions, going blind (historically accurate), and losing two babies. With Lady Edith, not only does love seem to elude her, she's always looking for it in the wrong places. Not to mention that she's overly snarky. She despises Lady Mary enough to try and ruin her reputation, and can't even manage to be kind to Mary on her wedding day, rambling something about her older sister getting a man with good looks and position before slipping out of the room. Some might wonder if she deserves what she gets. After all, she did once try to get between a man and his wife.

One also has to wonder if Lady Edith will ever be happy for long, or if like Mary Ingalls, her happy times will be clouded over by horrible tragedies that her mother tells her will make her stronger.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Depressing LHOP Christmas Episodes?

At one of the Little House on the Prairie forums I belong to, we got into the discussion about the lack of Christmas episodes. The show aired back when annual Christmas episodes were not the norm, so that's not surprising. Considering the locations where the show was filmed, it's also understandable that more episodes didn't have snow. One forum member made a comment that most of the Christmas episodes, ones where you would expect to see snow, are depressing. My immediate thought was to refute what she said. But in thinking more about it, she's not really wrong. Let's take a look at the Christmas episodes or scenes.

The first time we see the Ingalls celebrate Christmas is in their log cabin in Kansas. Mr. Edwards crosses the river to deliver presents for Santa Claus. The entire episode is a dramatic one, and at the end, the Ingalls will be forced to pack up their belongings and move because the government has redrawn boundaries and the farm is now in Indian territory.

The Christmas scenes in the Pilot are probably some of the sweetest Christmas scenes we see. Mary is the good girl, patiently waiting to take down her stocking, while Laura can barely control the urge to peek inside.  When a snow-covered Mr. Edwards arrives, little Carrie calls him Santa. Ma, who didn't like Mr. Edwards, finally sees there are some redeeming qualities to the gruff man who frequents saloons.

By the time we see an Ingalls Christmas again, the family has moved to Walnut Grove and is living on the banks of Plum Creek. This is an exciting time, as family members secretly work on presents for each other. Laura is perplexed on what to give Ma, but when she learns what she truly wants--a stove--she makes a deal with Mr. Oleson to buy it for her. Unaware of Laura's plan, Pa is making a saddle for Laura's pony, Bunny. He's also working hard to refurbish a set of wheels for a customer of Mr. Oleson's so that he can buy the stove for Caroline.

It doesn't take long for this happy, exciting time to become sad. The deal Laura makes with Mr. Oleson involves selling Bunny to him so he can give his daughter, Nellie, the pony that she has always admired. It breaks Laura's heart, and when Caroline discovers what Laura has done, she is saddened to know what her daughter gave up.

With Laura giving a stove to Ma, Charles now has no gift for his wife. Oh, and in case I didn't mention it, Charles didn't get a gift from his wife either. Seems Mary and Caroline liked the same bolt of fabric so much that they both made Pa a shirt from it. Rather than disappoint Mary, she tucks hers away.

Overall, the episode reminds us to focus on family, not gifts, so it's classic Little House on the Prairie. Definitely a great episode, but the loss of Bunny makes it a bummer, even if it is temporary, as Laura gets Bunny back in a future episode.

Much of season three is filled with dramatic episodes. So it should come as no surprise that this Christmas episode is filled with angst and tragedy. The school is turned into a hospital on Christmas Eve, when a quick-moving blizzard catches the school children unaware on their way home. Miss Beadle is filled with guilt, having allowed the children to head home early because of the flurries.

The men in town set off in groups to round up the children. Mr. McGinnis foolhardily ventures out in only a light coat and dies while searching for his son, a tragedy that could have been avoided if he had only taken one of the warmer coats Mr. Oleson offered him. To this day, I still feel like kicking him in the shins for refusing the coat.

Most of the children have been accounted for except the Ingalls girls and Carl and Alicia Edwards. When Charles and Isaiah Edwards find the girls in an abandoned shed, they go their separate ways--Charles back to the school and Isaiah continuing to search for his children.

By morning, the storm is over and Charles rallies the men to prepare to go out and find Isaiah and his family.  The door bursts open and Isaiah and his children enter to the hugs and rejoicing of all, especially his wife, Grace, who has been at the school helping Doc Baker care for the others. When Charles turns around, he spies Mrs. McGinnis and her son glumly looking on. He walks to the pulpit, where he reads the Christmas story from the Bible. Even the music for this episode drips depressing, though the Bible story is the perfect reminder of the ultimate sacrifice made for us.

It will be season eight before another Christmas episode occurs. All the stops were pulled out for this one. Special music fills this happy episode where family members share stories of Christmases past while snowbound at the Ingalls homestead. Mary and Adam Kendall, who had moved to New York so Adam could find work at his father's old law firm, return to spend Christmas with the family and Hester Sue. Caroline tells of a special Christmas where she came to accept Papa Holbrook. Almanzo shares the Christmas that he almost stopped believing in Santa Claus. Laura shares the story of Christmas in Kansas, and Hester Sue tells a story of life as a black child during the early years of the Civil War, when her Papa made a surprise delivery as Santa Claus.

I'm fairly certain the real pioneers wouldn't be too happy about having that much snow, but it made for a fun episode. This one remains my favorite.

When the series was cancelled, they ran three post-series movies, which included a Christmas one titled, "Bless All the Dear Children." Almanzo, Laura, Rose, and Isaiah Edwards travel to Mankato to shop for Christmas. John Carter gives Almanzo money so he can shop for his family too. While there, Rose is kidnapped by a distraught woman who has recently lost a baby. They also run into a orphan boy named Samuel, who hides away in their wagon and ends up helping search for Rose.

In Walnut Grove, Jenny spends time with Mr. Montague and the Carters, hoping and praying for Rose's return. Jason Carter is concerned about making enough money to buy his mother a special gift, and John Carter isn't sure what kind of Christmas it will be if the Wilders don't find Rose and return in time, while Mr. Montague is determined not to give in to the commercialization of Christmas by putting up a tree and buying gifts.

I'm not fond of episodes that take place outside of Walnut Grove anyway, but this one especially bugs me because of the modern theme of the commercialization of Christmas running through it, which required other residents of the town to be more focused on gifts, and the absence of Harriet Oleson, who was in the hospital and unable to be home, but still managed to send Nancy a mountain of presents.

This has always been my least favorite Christmas episode. The ending is too sappy, even by LHOP standards, and the attention to detail was lacking. It's wintertime in Minnesota, but everyone is walking around without coats on and some have their sleeves rolled up. What does make this episode special, and what makes it classic Little House, is how everything turns out okay--Rose is found, Samuel gets a home with the couple who lost their child, and Mr. Montague plays Santa and delivers presents to Jenny and the Carters--and the theme that family and friends are the most important gifts of all.

Now that we've run down all the Christmas episodes, what's your verdict? Too much angst? Just the right mix? Do the messages of the happier episodes outweigh the drama and tragedy in the others?