Thursday, April 12, 2018

Laura Ingalls Wilder: How Green Was My Prairie

As a schoolgirl, of course I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books from cover to cover.  Years later I introduced them to my children. And they’re now being enjoyed by a third generation. It’s not just me and my family—Wilder’s books about growing up on America’s Great Plains are still savored by girls (and boys) the world over. 

When you read Wilder’s books you feel that you, like she and her ma and pa, can do just about anything: grow corn, churn butter, trap a possum, make an acceptable doll out of odds and ends. Ma knew how to put hearty food on the table, no matter what. And when things got really tough, Pa’s fiddle knew how to soothe hurt feelings and make peace. Wilder’s books don’t skimp on the hard times: they talk about plagues of locusts, an illness that left an older sister blind, and a winter so long and brutal that the family feared starvation. But the books are a triumph of the can-do spirit, showing that with faith and a stoic acceptance of hardship it’s possible to surmount every challenge.

The Little House books, though, are hardly the whole story. They were written by a woman looking back on her pioneer upbringing with nostalgia for people and places that were now long gone. The books are a portrait of her own early years, but they should not be taken as fully accurate. Timelines are re-arranged, characters are combined, and some truly disturbing moments are wholly suppressed, so as not to dispel the books’ rosy glow. There’s also the fact that Laura and Almanzo’s daughter Rose, barely born in the last of the Little House books, served as her editor. The tension between an adoring mother and a headstrong, talented, but emotionally unstable daughter (one who spent money wildly and then turned to her frugal parents for loans) is something the Little House books don’t cover.

But that story comes out in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, a scholar with her own pioneer roots. Her book, well researched and full of family photos, attempts to set the historic record straight. Late in Fraser’s book, there’s the matter of how the famous Little House on the Prairie television series came to be. At that point, Laura was dead and buried, as was daughter Rose. Throughout her life, Rose (a divorcee) had the habit of unofficially adopting various young men and supporting them in lavish style. One of these was a young attorney named Roger MacBride, an aspiring Libertarian politician. Upon Rose’s death, he managed to claim her mother’s copyrights, and made a deal with CBS. In the era following Vietnam and Watergate, audiences were eager for homespun, heartwarming tales. The Waltons appeared in 1972, and the Little House show followed in 1974. 

Famously, episodes of the latter made Ronald Reagan weep. But Fraser is clearly dismayed by the liberties taken with Wilder’s work by Michael Landon and company. As director, head writer, and star, Landon imbued the role of Pa Ingalls with sexy glamour, favoring tight pants and unbearded cbin. He gave his prairie family a nice two-story mini-mansion instead of a sod dugout, and by the end of the series was borrowing old plot lines from Bonanza. “Walking to school,” says Fraser, “his Mary and Laura wore shoes rather than going barefoot, because Landon didn’t want his show children to be ‘the poorest kids in town.’” The producer who’d bought the series, Ed Friendly, liked to joke that it should be renamed “How Affluent is My Prairie?”

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