World News – USA – Little House of Maybe: « American Masters » on Fact, Fiction and the Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder


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In March, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a global pandemic; By April, dozens of Americans had absorbed what can best be described as an « urban homestead »: baking bread, tending gardens, raising chicks, cross-stitching, and quilting. This coincided with, or perhaps inspired, a noticeable cultural surge in Little House on the Prairie.

Brooks Barnes of the New York Times appeared as « Bonnethead » in his play « Comfort Viewing: 3 Reasons I Love That Little House on the Prairie ». « People started to form group texts » Little House « . Alison Arngrim, who played the bad girl Nellie Olsen on the 1974 TV series, hosted virtual readings of the books for fans on Facebook Live, while reporter Liam Stack tweeted, « I baked so much, made broth and cooked it myself during the pandemic is like Little House on the Prairie. If that little house on the prairie was one block from a strip club and four flights of stairs from a Yemeni bodega. « 

There is something about these books, as does the long-running series starring Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls Wilder, which spoke deeply to people in an era of isolation and social distancing. Maybe it’s because of the idea that our ancestors were forced to do the activities we chose to keep us busy during moments of boredom. Maybe it’s something deeper.

« Some scratchy spots, » he wrote. « But comforting and familiar and one of the first things I reach for when I feel particularly vulnerable, as has been the case lately in quarantine. It helps to put today’s problems in perspective. « We got through worse, » Ma says wisely when something bad happens. I trust her. « 

With this in mind, PBS ‘new 90-minute documentary « American Masters – Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page » comes at an ideal time. Previously targeted at Charlie Chaplin, Andy Warhol, Billie Holliday and Leonard Bernstein, the series takes viewers through the lives and legacies of artists and writers whose work has had an indelible impact on American culture.

Wilder is a particularly interesting topic precisely because her life seems so well known. Generations of American children were introduced to the « Little House » books at school, and the series basically mythologized Wilders and their experiences. What director Mary McDonagh Murphy does so well in this documentary is telling the difference between Laura Ingalls Wilder, the literary character, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, the woman.

Wilder was born in Pepin County, Wisconsin, in 1867, in what she later called the « little house in the great forest ». « Her father, Charles Ingalls (probably better known as Pa), decided to move his family – which at the time included his wife Caroline and eldest daughter Mary – west for a better life.

That decision pioneered the Ingalls family, and Wilder was eventually recognized as a voice who could bring color to a crucial time in our country’s history. The documentary contains a quote from a speech she gave before her death in 1957.

« I realized that I had seen and lived everything, all successive stages of the frontier, » she said. « First the border guards, then the pioneers, the farmers and the cities. Then I understood that I represented an entire period in American history in my life. « 

Wilder did not necessarily intend to be a writer, despite clinging to poems and essays from her school years. Her daughter, journalist Rose Wilder Lane, encouraged her to put her childhood memories together in a collection in order to make extra cash. As the documentary shows (although this has been known for a while), Lane likely co-authored, or at least edited, Wilder’s work, which helped HarperCollins publish it to pick it up.

The book was originally formatted as a memoir titled « Pioneer Girl » and was finally published in that form in 2014. However, the publishers asked them to revise it into their series of children’s books starting with « Little House in the Big Woods ». « 

A note from her publisher at the time read: « The more details you can give about the everyday life of the pioneers, such as the making of spheres, what they eat and wear, etc.. . The livelier an appeal to the children’s imagination becomes. « 

And it did. I can still remember details of Wilder and her siblings mixing butter, Pa playing his violin and the family blowing up a pig’s bladder to play with like a ball. It’s burned into my mind, along with passages from books like « The Wind in the Willows » and « Anne of Green Gables ». « 

Such are the stories about the family’s stay in covered wagons through grass fields to the west. In the books, the Ingalls’ journey is portrayed almost as a straight-line shot from Pepin County to De Smet, South Dakota, with a few detours along the way, but real life was far more complicated. American Masters seeks help from historians and archivists such as Caroline Fraser and Marta McDowell, and writers such as Linda Sue Park and Roxane Gay, to fill these gaps.

In the books, Pa Ingalls describes his desire to get out of Wisconsin as almost a compulsion. « My wandering foot is itching, » he would say. In reality, like many Americans at the time, Ingalls was forced to move under the Homestead Act of 1862, which « any current or future citizen could claim up to 160 acres of homestead on government land on just ten dollars, and » improve upon « you the land by using it as family property. « 

There was a promise of better life for families who would make the difficult hike, but by 1875 the Ingalls family struggled in ways not fully portrayed in the book series. You may remember the horrific line from On the Banks of Plum Creek in which Laura describes a horde of locusts: « The cloud hailed locusts. The cloud was grasshoppers. « 

That was a real thing called the Rocky Mountain Locust Invasion. The beetles decimated fields and impoverished many farmers. While describing the events, Wilder does not talk about how bad it got for Charles Ingalls. He eventually had to sign a poor man’s oath, an affidavit stating that he was essentially destitute to get resources to feed his family.

Ingalls struggled to make a living. The family hopped from town to town, sometimes under cover of darkness, to avoid debt. The family eventually settled in South Dakota, where Charles became a citizen.

This rush to colonize the American West also served as a catalyst for the U.. . S.. . -Dakota War of 1862. The United States government had violated numerous treaties with the Dakota people and, combined with late pension payments by federal « Indian agents », led to increasing hunger and hardship among the local population. The media coverage at the time raised fears of « massacres » and the headlines increased the number of « white deaths ». « 

Wisconsin was on the verge of most of the conflict, and both the books and archival materials show that the Ingalls family’s views of Indians mirrored those of most white Americans at the time. It’s a mix of fear and fascination, backed up by the belief that Indians were less than humans.

In the books, Pa says he wanted to move west to be where « there were no people, only Indians lived there. « . « Wilder finally apologized publicly for this statement and changed the line to » There were no settlers, only Indians lived there. « 

But as Kate Beane, a Minnesota historian and member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe, says in the documentary, « Why are we ‘just’? What does that mean for us? And what message does this give our children? »  »

In « American Masters – Laura Ingalls Wilder, » director Mary McDonagh Murphy makes an obvious and much-needed point in approaching the series and Wilder’s life with nuances. Wilder was a product of her time, and while her books are still very popular, as writer Roxane Gay says, “they need to be taught in the right context, not the revisionist context. « 

Much can be learned from the books about the harsh realities of pioneering life as well as the joys of living in close-knit families. There are things that today’s readers even find desirable, like the loving relationship between Laura and her husband Almanzo and the threads of self-sufficiency and resilience that run through the text.

But with that, « American Masters » claims, readers have to grapple with Native American portrayals as « savages » and Wilder’s fetishization of their « freedom. ». « It means having hard conversations with students about why Pa Ingalls wore blackface and appeared on a minstrel show. It means poking holes in the myth that the American West was empty and the land did not belong to anyone.

Wilder was once quoted as saying: « I only told the truth, not the whole truth. « 

McDonagh Murphy quietly urges longtime book lovers to help young readers draw the line between biography and fiction. The books remain part of a cultural retelling of an exciting time in American history – even if they don’t tell the whole story.

« American Masters – Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page » debuts nationwide on Tuesday, December, on PBS. 29 at 8 p. m. European summer time.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie, PBS, American Masters

World News – USA – Little House by Perhaps: « American Masters » about fact, fiction and the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder
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