Thursday, September 13, 2012

An interview with Caroline Fraser: why the Little House books are enjoyed by both children and adult readers

Caroline Fraser, author of Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution, spoke with us recently about the new publication of the two-volume boxed set of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Little House Books, which she edited for The Library of America.

When did you first discover the Little House books?

I read them for the first time at eight or nine and couldn’t put them down. They encompassed a lost world, one that my grandmother knew as one of sixteen children of Swedish immigrants working on a Minnesota farm. She didn’t have a lot of nostalgia for those hard times and reading the books helped clarify that for me.

At one point, my sister took me aside and warned me that something very sad was going to happen at the beginning of By the Shores of Silver Lake. I suspect that the opening of that novel may be, for many young readers, their first experience of the tragedies that literature (and life) holds in store.

What brought you to reread them as an adult?

In 1993 I heard an interview on NPR with a University of Missouri professor, William Holtz, who had published a biography of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, The Ghost in the Little House. In it, he argued that Lane—a successful journalist and author in her day—had acted as her mother’s ghostwriter. It touched off a firestorm of headlines, “Little Fraud on the Prairie” and so forth. I decided to look into those claims, eventually examining copies of Wilder’s unpublished letters and manuscripts for an article that was published in The New York Review of Books. In the end, Holtz’s argument was unconvincing: no one who has seen the documentary evidence, Wilder’s own manuscripts, laboriously handwritten and revised by her again and again, can come away believing that she wasn’t the author. To be sure, her daughter played a substantial editorial role, helping her mother reshape and revise the drafts, providing transitions, touching up dialogue, even adding passages. But Wilder often disapproved of her daughter’s revisions and undid them.

It has largely died down, but the controversy gave me the opportunity to rediscover the novels as an adult, and I found them just as compelling but more complex, with an undercurrent of longing, a yearning for people and places gone forever.

Do they have different things to say to adults and to children or young adults?

Indeed they do. Adults will pick up on parallels to our own times: Wilder was writing about an era of economic uncertainty, recession, bank failures, and crippling drought. Sound familiar? Railroads were as reviled in her day as big banks or corporations are in ours, something that can be seen in the workers’ payday riot described in By the Shores of Silver Lake.

Aside from the social history, the novels are a rich source for lovers of American folk music—full of popular songs, occasionally with verses that aren’t recorded elsewhere. And they bear witness to an early phase of the ecological destruction of the American West: beaver and bison were nearly gone and wolves were on their way out, triggering alterations to plant and animal communities as the Great Plains were being plowed under. Wilder’s account of the 1875 locust swarm remains an important historical document as well as a dramatic highlight of On the Banks of Plum Creek. It brings alive a national environmental catastrophe, a forerunner of those we’re experiencing now.

Do you have a favorite novel? Favorite scene?

As a child, my favorite was The Long Winter, and I’m still astonished at its claustrophobic power, its stark sense of numb survival. Little House on the Prairie seems to me now an irreplaceable narrative of the white settlement of the American West and the traumas it entailed. It’s comparable to a work of folk art, na├»ve on the one hand, uncanny and knowing on the other.

I have favorite moments in all the novels, but I love the scene in Little House on the Prairie of the wolf pack trotting next to Pa on his terrified mustang and later surrounding the cabin at night and howling as Laura watches from the window.

What’s the secret of their staying power?

They’re beautifully written. There are moments of high drama and descriptions of process that are as satisfying to adults as to children—raising a cabin log by log, hewing shingles, making pies, planting crops, haying. There are lyrical descriptions of landscape and a wilderness that was disappearing even as Laura Ingalls first laid eyes on it. Here’s just one:

All those golden autumn days the sky was full of wings. Wings beating low over the blue water of Silver Lake, wings beating high in the blue air far above it. Wings of geese, of brant, of ducks and pelicans and cranes and heron and swans and gulls, bearing them all away to green fields in the South. [from By the Shores of Silver Lake]
Another aspect that stays with readers must be Wilder’s portrayal of her father, Charles Ingalls. Their relationship is one of the rare instances in children’s literature of a truly close, admiring bond between father and daughter. In so many novels, the father is absent, ineffectual, even actively wicked. Charles Ingalls has his faults, but he acquires almost a mystical quality in these books, always heading out into the wilderness on his own, then returning to comfort and entertain and protect his family.

How successfully did the long-running television series (1974–83) capture the spirit of the books?

I’m an enthusiastic consumer of television adaptations, but this one is pretty dreadful, with its inaccuracies and ahistorical nonsense. I know that many people discovered Wilder’s work from the television show, which may be an excuse for it. But preening Michael Landon with his 1970s layered hairdo is just all wrong.

What’s your view of the Laura-Rose collaboration?

Laura Ingalls Wilder would probably never have written or published the novels without her daughter’s encouragement, editorial advice and revisions, and publishing savvy. As the series progressed, Wilder became more adept under her daughter’s tutelage. It was a unique and unusual collaboration, one that seems to have brought out the best from both women. I can’t think of another instance of a daughter playing this role for her mother.

Regarding the ghostwriter controversy, it’s worth remarking that if Lane had wanted to write a great American novel about the frontier, she certainly had the opportunity. She made two attempts, both based on her mother’s material, Let the Hurricane Roar and Free Land. But she was a more commercial writer, and her later fiction is often stagy and melodramatic. She lacked her mother’s fine ear and her restraint.

How would you characterize the special quality of Wilder’s achievement in the Little House books? Why do they belong in The Library of America?

Wilder’s work reclaims not only her own childhood but an entire American era. She defined her achievement best, in her speech at a Detroit book fair in 1937:

. . . I began to think what a wonderful childhood I had had. How I had seen the whole frontier, the woods, the Indian country of the great plains, the frontier towns, the building of railroads in wild, unsettled country, homesteading and farmers coming in to take possession. I realized that I had seen and lived it all—all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers and the towns.

Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American history.” [Speech at The Book Fair, Detroit, Michigan, October 16, 1937, reprinted in volume 1]
Wilder took that material, reaching back and recovering childhood memories, and, with some help from her daughter and her husband—Almanzo Wilder doubtless supplied many details for Farmer Boy—transformed them into enduring tales. And she did it beginning in her sixties. She was in her mid-seventies by the time she finished. It was really a “labor of love,” as she put it.

That said, the Little House books are artifacts of their time: they include stereotypes and racism, and they reflect a time when manifest destiny was accepted uncritically. The infamous phrase—“the only good Indian is a dead Indian”—occurs several times in Little House on the Prairie. The books are not beloved by many Indian readers, and the tendency in some circles to hold them up as moral exemplars has been questioned by scholars of Native American history.

But they are classic works of American literature, written for younger readers but no less important for that. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Little Women were written for children, and we recognize their importance in our culture, although we might not rank them with more ambitious novels like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Notions of the canon are more inclusive now than they were even a few decades ago, and we’re attuned to the influential, formative role of children’s literature and its appeal to a wider audience. Ultimately, these novels cannot be marginalized as mere popular or genre fiction. Taken together, they’re panoramic in scale and remarkable in their evocation of a particular time and place and experience.

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