Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Well, since I brought it up...some chatter about Rose Wilder Lane and the Little House books.


Some time ago I happened to be reading some biography or other of Agatha Christie that noted that strong nostalgia for childhood memories often masks deep, unspoken anger. (If I recall correctly this is also true for Collette.) In Christie's case, this anger was probably rooted in the unexpectedly early and tragic death of her father when she was only 11, and the resulting negative economic effects on her family. But reading it, my mind flashed, not so much to Christie, but to that most nostalgic work of American children's literature: The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

If you were a girl in America, you probably read all eight books, and some of you may have watched the TV show. (I mostly missed the show, since we lived in Italy when the show initially came on, and when we returned to the States I was indignant to see all of the changes that had been made to some of my favorite books, what with Laura suddenly having a brother and this annoying Nancy person and what was with Mrs Oleson? Some years later I caught an episode and realized that on top of all this, it was just an utterly terrible show, so I'm glad that my fury saved hours of my life. Of course, since I spent that television time watching Thundercats instead we could have a very legitimate debate of just how much of my life was saved, but, moving on.) Reading the books now, as an adult, the most remarkable thing is seeing them for what they are: a celebration of financial failure, and a fierce indictment of the federal government as the source of all evils.

Given the books' beloved status as pure Americana, and the scenes that merrily celebrate the Fourth of July and praise the Declaration of Independence (if not the Constitution) this can be shocking. But Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, were fiercely against New Deal policies, which they saw as supporting industry over agriculture, preventing farmers from doing what they wanted to on their own property, and providing handouts to those who did not deserve it. They shaped the last six books in the series into subtle rants against the New Deal.

When does Pa get into trouble? Whenever he chooses to invest in newfangled equipment, borrowing the money for it, or when he chooses to build a house with "boughten" (in other words, manufactured) planks instead of logs or dirt, or, most critically, whenever the government interferes with him. One ongoing theme of the series is that the family would have been prosperous if only the mean old U.S. government had not forced them out of their family farm in Kansas (or Oklahoma) – even though, as the text makes clear, they were in fact squatters on the land, with no title to it whatsoever. The theme also nicely ignores the fact that the Ingalls could not have been in Oklahoma (or Kansas, where the farm was probably actually located) if the U.S. government had not been running Native Americans out of Oklahoma (and Kansas) to begin with. And that the farm the Ingalls did eventually win and create in North Dakota was made possible only by the U.S. government's removal of Native Americans from the Dakotas.

But even leaving aside the Native American question for a moment, what is remarkable in the books is just how much of an economic failure Pa really was.

For years, I missed this, primarily because for whatever reason, I never realized that the Little House books are set in a time after Little Women (who are, that text explains, poor), and about ten to twenty years before the settings of Anne of Green Gables (who is, as that text explains, poor) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (who does go to live with wealthier aunts); and about twenty to thirty before the Betsy-Tacy books, which take place in the same state as one book(Minnesota), but sound as if they are from an entirely different world.

The Betsy-Tacy books may not be a fair comparison, since they occur later and talk about distinctly middle class characters. But let's look at the other cases, particularly Little Women:

Little Women: The two older March girls start working at the ages of 15 and 17, as a companion and teacher. The girls all own multiple dresses (that they aren't happy with, but moving on) made of manufactured fabric; they own several dolls, a piano (admittedly an old and battered one), several books; they live in a house with at least three stories and several rooms, where the four girls share a bedroom; they have access to paper and ink; and they eat a varied diet with plenty of meat and vegetables. Oh, and they have a servant. Everyone agrees that they are remarkably poor especially since they can't have any presents on Christmas, even though they each receive a dollar. They are very concerned about medical bills with poor little Beth, and about the reality that they cannot have all of the nice things their friends have. They keep their house.

Anne of Green Gables: Anne starts working at the age of 16, as a teacher, after she has gone to the local "college" (more a high school.) Although an orphan, she has a room of her own; Marilla gives her those infamous three ugly dresses and she gets more as the series continues; the household has plenty of books and lamps; she eats a varied diet with plenty of meat and vegetables. There is a hired boy who helps out with the farm and doesn't come into the story much. They keep their house. Everyone agrees that they are poor (which is why Marilla and Matthew were originally trying to find a cheap boy orphan.)

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm: Rebecca's mother against all odds keeps her farm despite its ongoing mortgage issues (an ongoing plot point); Rebecca and her siblings are well dressed; everyone eats well. Everyone agrees that Rebecca is very poor which is why she has to go live with her aunts.

(19th and early 20th century adult literature obviously contains several more examples than this, but I'm focusing on children's literature for comparative purposes.)

Now, let's look at the Little House books:

Over and over, Pa Ingalls loses his houses. Presented as part of his wanderlust, a closer look shows that this is because he is unable to get enough food in Wisconsin as forests are overtaken by farms and hunting opportunities vanish; he is forced off the land in Kansas; he goes bankrupt in Minnesota – more than once. (In Plum Creek he is forced to walk 300 miles to find a job so his family can eat; in the next book he has lost the house.)

The houses he builds in are, even for the period, remarkably small and primitive. For the most part, the entire family lives in one tiny room; in Plum Creek they are living in a hole in the ground which is not nearly as nice as a hobbit hole; reading between the lines shows that the family hated it so much that they were willing to take on a desperate and major debt to build a tiny wood frame house.

It becomes clear that, unless they borrow money, this family cannot afford manufactured products even as the Industrial Revolution is merrily going on. Pa makes his own bullets, locks, furniture, cups, and plates, and digs his own wells. It's all presented as a marvelous model and even triumph of self-reliance, but again, keep in mind that when you are reading about the wonderfully primitive log cabin life of the Ingalls family, it's the 1870s, with trains, bicycles, fine china, newspapers, cheaply mass produced books, candy, subways, and so on. The truth is, the family is so desperately poor that in Plum Creek, the girls do not even dare to ask for a penny to buy needed school supplies. In that same book, Pa suffers because he cannot buy boots, and only Mary gets a (single) new pair of shoes (not snow boots.)

For books seemingly obsessed with food (especially in Farmer's Boy - you get the impression that what Almanzo Wilder mostly remembered from childhood was food), after Little House in the Big Woods, their diet is beyond terrible until Silver Lake, where they feed off supplies left by the surveyors. Just a few years later, they are almost starving. So are others in the town, since the residents were depending upon trains to arrive from the East bearing food, but, as Wilder also writes, several people in the town – including the man who she would later marry – had stocked up on a grain and other foods as the harshness of the winter became apparent. Charles Ingalls did not, because he could not afford to. We read that for the most part, the Ingalls survived on cheap corn meal, supplemented by occasional bits of "salt pork" and hunting. Wilder clarifies that they had to leave their cabin in the Big Woods because the hunting was poor; apparently, their small farm did not provide enough other food. Every single time they encounter abundant food, Wilder writes about it in awe. She also writes about the comparative childhood abundance of her husband in awe, even though it is clear that his family was none too wealthy either - note that his mother has to spin and weave her own cloth for clothing.

Remember, for a moment, that wonderful scene in Little House on the Prairie, where Mr. Edwards meets Santa Claus. (It was my all time favorite bit in the book.) It's wonderful, funny, heartwarming – and then take a look at the presents, and realize how awestruck the girls are over a tin cup, a penny, and a single cookie. Not just grateful, awestruck. Wilder even begs readers to imagine just how marvelous getting all of this for yourself for a present was.

Laura has only one doll, something so precious that its temporary loss becomes a huge tragedy. Partly, of course, she loves the doll, but it's clear as well that this is her only toy. (Before getting the rag doll, she plays with a corn cob.)

And in the books, she begins to work, for pay, at the age of 13. (In real life she began working at the age of 11 in a hotel.) This was not a part time job to earn spending money or gain real world experience; this begins as full time work in a makeshirt hotel for the frequently drunken men who are passing through on their way further west; she later works long, poorly paid hours as a seamstress despite an admitted hatred for sewing. Why all the work? So that she can send a sister, blinded through illness, to college, and so the family can eat. It's not stated in the books, but you somewhat have to wonder how much of Mary's illness and resulting blindness was the result of poverty and poor nutrition, and how much the fiercely intelligent adult Laura resented that her own educational opportunities (she never graduated high school, although she did work as a teacher) were subsumed for her sister. After all, another sister, Carrie, had managed to become a journalist, and had apparently not faced the same financial burdens. (Although apparently the youngest sister, Grace, ended up on welfare, interesting given the anti-government rants in the books and the insistence that only self reliance and living off the grid can result in financial security.)

There is no question that the women in Little Women, Anne of Green Gables and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm are doing considerable physical labor, especially with food preparation (which was no joke before refrigeration) and that, even beyond that, they are expected to get jobs to help the family finances, at least until they marry. (Except for Jo, who merrily keeps up with her career after marriage. Another reason to like Jo.) And poverty, of course, can be a relative term.
But even with this relativity, the Ingalls are dirt, dirt poor.

And this, incidentally is in a book where the actual poverty of the Ingalls was frequently softened.

It's quite possible, therefore, that the nostalgic tone of the Little House books is motivated by anger: Laura's anger that her father's decisions kept her in a life of abject poverty and kept her from getting education for a better career, leading to further poverty; the anger of her daughter (who helped edit and possibly rewrite the books) that this had in turn led to her own childhood poverty and poor teeth; the realization by her daughter that if Laura had only been able to finish school and become a writer and journalist, like her younger sister and daughter, the family might not have been quite so poor* and much of her childhood pain could have been avoided. (Contrary to current legends, women in the 19th and early 20th century did work outside the home and could make money out of it, although their career opportunities were limited. Rose Wilder Lane was one of those women, earning enough money from journalism to travel widely and build her parents a better house.) What anger the Little House books clearly display (aside from Laura's occasional flashes of temper) is limited to fury at the government and government incompetence, and occasional glimpses of Laura's deep envy of the toys and food and fun that other children her age enjoyed.

And in turn, it's possible that that fury contributed to the general distrust of government shared by so many women** today. I don't mean to suggest that the Little House books are the only or even a major cause (Watergate leaps to mind) but when you read childhood books that tell you that the U.S. government is the source of your problems, it's bound to make some sort of impression.

*To be fair, the Wilders' poverty came from other factors, primarily an illness, discussed in The First Four Years, that left Almanzo partially paralyzed and unable to work his homestead and tree claim, forcing the family to head first to Florida and then to the Ozarks, where they spent several painful years trying to develop a family farm, a task made more difficult by Almanzo's paralysis.

** I say women because although I do know some guys who have confessed to reading and enjoying the Little House books, for the most part the books are marketed to little girls.


( 44 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 13th, 2010 11:42 pm (UTC)
Huh. I haven't read Ingalls since I was a kid; maybe I should take a look now that I'm grown. Fascinating post. Thanks for writing it!
May. 13th, 2010 11:53 pm (UTC)
Ok, I'm not actually arguing any of this, because I agree with it, and it becomes more apparent if you read some of Laura's work writing for farm papers. (Although, for the record, if you read the books again, in On the Shores of Silver Lake, Pa didn't lose the house, he intentionally sold it so that they'd be able to pay the doctor's bills and have a start in Dakota, above and beyond just whatever he made at the railroad camps. On second thought, never mind. That's kind of the definition of losing the house.)

There's also a good deal of resentment that comes out as Laura wrote about her 'beloved older sister'. I mean, for all that Mary's supposed to be this paragon, she got a higher education, including political science, for crying out loud, while Laura got endless work, and all so that Mary could sit at home with her organ until she died and never do anything but be 'the family burden' and let Laura shoulder all the responsibilities that Mary had originally wanted. I mean, I /never/ liked Laura.

Amusingly, the Rose books that are written by a man who was Rose's honorary grandson have a lot of similar feelings and Rose, herself, becomes somewhat unlikeable as she actually dares to express the resentment that Laura never did.

Kinda makes you wonder what Ma was /really/ thinking.
May. 14th, 2010 02:23 am (UTC)
The paragon role itself is also suspect for two different reasons.

First, Mary herself tells us that she was not precisely the paragon that Laura thought she was, in that rather revealing conversation in These Happy Golden Years.

Second, Mary was later blind.

I never really thought of this in connection with the Little House books until I started reading various disability studies of pop culture, and realized that, historically, disabled people have often been cast in the "angelic" role, the sweet inspiration to others. This was particularly true in 19th century and early 20th century literature, and particularly true of female characters. (Male disabled characters often fit other tropes. And one reason why the Oz books by Baum are so refreshing since he emphatically rejects this and other disability tropes, but that's another discussion.)

If the author knows that the character will be permanently disabled, or will die young, this angelic role appears even before the character gets sick/disabled. Think of Beth in Little Women, Cecily in The Story Girl/The Golden Road, Katy in What Katy Did and so on, and then contrast them with characters that the author either knows will get well (Jill in Louisa May Alcott's Jack and Jill: a Village Story) or suddenly decided to kill off later in a fit of whatever (Ruby in The Green Gables books.)

Rose Wilder Lane was well aware of this trope. And given that this also allowed Wilder to play up the contrast between well behaved little Mary and rebel little Laura, I have no doubt that a combination of literary concerns, lingering guilt, and anger - along with Mary's probably very real choice to try to please her mother as much as possible by behaving like a lady, whatever economic turmoil the family might be going through, helped to shape the literary character of Mary.

Because, interestingly enough, the character of Mary works because she's not just well behaved: she's also prissy and bossy; Laura doesn't completely get along with her until Mary goes blind and steps into the angelic disabled role.

Rose Wilder Lane, by all accounts, could be hellish to get along with. I can see that.
(no subject) - bayushi - May. 14th, 2010 05:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mariness - May. 14th, 2010 05:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - xo_kizzy_xo - May. 14th, 2010 05:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mariness - May. 14th, 2010 06:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bayushi - May. 14th, 2010 07:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 14th, 2010 01:12 am (UTC)
Hi there -- I saw this on my F/F page, and because I was a Little House addict for many, many years, I feel compelled to reply :)

Have you ever read The Ghost In The Little House? It's a biography of Rose Wilder Lane, and it truly blows the lid off of the "nostalgia" you mention. I never knew, for instance, that Rose and Laura had a very acrimonious relationship; Laura started writing for the papers because Almanzo physically couldn't do much physical work. Rose's jump into journalism -- from what I inferred from the book -- wasn't so much wanderlust as it was wanting to get away from the poverty that colored her childhood, which, in turn, she blamed squarely on her parents and wasn't ashamed to admit it publicly. Pretty heady stuff for a woman during that period.

I haven't read any of the Little House books in awhile, but now, thinking back, you're absolutely correct about Pa. I'm trying to remember when his fortune changed in Dakota, though -- if I recall correctly, that's where the family ultimately settled and they eventually built a bigger house long after Laura had married.
May. 14th, 2010 01:16 am (UTC)
IIRC, Pa's fortunes changed about the year before Laura married, when he started dealing more in livestock than crop-farming. But in the bios I read, he and Ma still ended up selling the farm and living in town, anyway.
(no subject) - mariness - May. 14th, 2010 02:04 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - xo_kizzy_xo - May. 14th, 2010 05:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bayushi - May. 14th, 2010 07:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - xo_kizzy_xo - May. 14th, 2010 08:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bayushi - May. 14th, 2010 08:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - xo_kizzy_xo - May. 14th, 2010 09:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 14th, 2010 09:45 am (UTC)
This was fascinating to read. I didn't even know Little House on the Prairie was a series of books, having only caught occasional episodes on TV when I was little (and the things I remember are moments here and there -- an episode where one of the girls was married on the sly? An episode where a little person was "good at figures" but denied a job at the bank because of the banker's wife's prejudice? Hmm. In the distant foggy past. Mary came in 2nd for a math prize or something, didn't she?)

I think representations of poverty in 19th century texts are really interesting, because there doesn't seem to be one absolute standard, one poverty line to live beneath: it's always a moving target made relative to the communities in which people live. I think of Austen's "poor" women and compare their woes to those of Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City -- they're poor by their friends' standards, not a governmentally established one relative to taxes.
May. 14th, 2010 01:15 pm (UTC)
Uh, I have no idea what happened on the show. I think I've seen a grand total of five episodes, maybe six, and I'm including shows I saw when I was a kid. I don't remember anything that you mentioned but that doesn't mean much. The books are considerably better than the television show - they are really well written, with all kinds of fascinating tidbits about how to make your own bullets and how to build a log cabin house and how to make popcorn over a fire and so on. And I could strongly identify with Laura, who gets angry a lot, partly because she's always told to be ladylike and follow strict standards of behavior that she doesn't agree with. I highly recommend them with the caveat that the books portray a range of racist attitudes towards Native Americans. (The one black character comes across as highly admirable.) Laura Ingalls' mother, Caroline Ingalls, makes a number of disparaging and bigoted statements about Native Americans. Laura and her father have more conflicting attitudes - they admire Native Americans, and occasionally seem to recognize that they are taking away their land, but it can still be problematic. On the other hand, I think it can be instructive as a study of 19th century attitudes - but be prepared, if you read them.

Jane Austen's discussions of poverty always intrigue me, because she ties them so strongly into social class (I'm always reminded of that brilliant line from Emma, where she explains to Harriet that she can meet the rich, and the very poor for charity purposes, but not, gasp gasp, those hard working farmers), and because her "poor" heroines, as you note, are not necessarily that poor. They have adequate food, live in decent to large sized houses, eat well, and can travel by carriage.

On the other hand, while I'm not particularly worried that Anne Elliott, the Dashwoods, or Emma will end up on the streets, I do think that Fanny Price, the Bennetts and Catherine are in considerably more perilous financial straits - especially Fanny. When I'm in a kindlier mood, I remind myself that much of Fanny's attitude stems from her knowledge that she is a dependent, and not that far off from ending up on the streets, and that if none of the Bennett girls don't get married, they are facing an extreme lifestyle decline and actual poverty - Lydia ends up on the edge of that anyway.

Comparing any of the Austen books to the Little House books, though, just really emphasizes how primitive and poverty stricken the Ingalls are - after all, they are living years after the events in the Austen books, but no one in the Austen books needs to build a house or a rocking chair or bullets by hand.
(no subject) - mr_perker - May. 14th, 2010 01:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mariness - May. 14th, 2010 02:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mr_perker - May. 14th, 2010 03:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mariness - May. 14th, 2010 04:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bayushi - May. 14th, 2010 07:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - xo_kizzy_xo - May. 14th, 2010 08:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mariness - May. 19th, 2010 07:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - songdancer - May. 17th, 2010 02:24 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mariness - May. 19th, 2010 08:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - xo_kizzy_xo - May. 14th, 2010 08:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - xo_kizzy_xo - May. 14th, 2010 08:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mariness - May. 19th, 2010 08:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 14th, 2010 03:19 pm (UTC)
Great post! I need to re-read the books. I have to say it has probably been at least 20 years since I read them. I do remember thinking recently, that I am always surprised when I realize that Laura lived in the 20th century. I think she died in 1950 or something like that. Wasn't she born in the 1880's? I never put it together how poor they were. Of course that would be why I always think of the Ingalls as living much longer ago. This is making me want to read the books again as an adult. It's been so long I can't remember them very well.
May. 14th, 2010 04:53 pm (UTC)
She was born in 1867 and died in 1957 at the age of 90. Her entire family was fairly long lived, although, interestingly enough, in a family with four daughters, three of whom married, only one - Laura - had any children. I can completely understand why Rose Wilder Lane chose not to have any more children after the death of her own son, but it would be interesting to know why Carrie and Grace didn't. Fertility problems from malnutrition? A personal understanding - well, from Carrie, at least; Grace may have been too young - of just how quickly even marginal financial security can disappear? I'm just speculating, but it's curious.

And yeah - over on Dreamwidth, kate_nepveu just made the excellent observation that she always thought of the books as Revolutionary War books, and she's right - the Ingalls are shown doing the same sorts of things that they show at Colonial Williamsburg. And even there, the Ingalls are often way behind the Colonial Williamsburg times - despite living in the Industrial Revolution.

One thing that really surprised me was finding out that during These Happy Golden Years, De Smet had a roller skating rink that Laura actually went to - something she leaves out of her careful portrayals of her pioneer life. After its first couple of years, De Smet was not nearly as backwards, rough and primitive as Wilder portrays it.

On the same note, the very middle-class Betsy-Tacy books, set about 30 years later in Minnesota, have department stores, theaters, opera houses, central heating, graded schools, and even the occasional ice box. I get that things can change in 30 years, but the fact that Wilder's books don't show even a hint that these things are a possibility suggests just how poverty stricken her family was.
(no subject) - bayushi - May. 14th, 2010 07:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 14th, 2010 03:24 pm (UTC)
Did you read the Slate article on Tea Party women?
May. 14th, 2010 04:56 pm (UTC)
Just took a quick look.

Sarah Palin likes the Little House books, for what it's worth.
Mar. 31st, 2011 11:12 am (UTC)
Actually, I think that's a difference between "middle-class poor" and "working class (or arguably even lower) poor". I'm more familiar with swedish conditions (which were, in the time period, significantly worse off than american dito) but there's a pretty sharp difference between the established farmers (and even their hired farmhands) and the landless agricultural proletariat.
Feb. 28th, 2014 02:49 pm (UTC)
Very interesting article! (It was linked on this AVClub article.) I only read the first and second books as a child and I had no idea they took place at almost the same time as Green Gables. In my mind they were these awesome stories of self-reliance from, I don't know, 1740 or something, haha. Comparing them to the other works does make the nostalgia seem weirder, since other options were available than living in a hole in the ground!
Mar. 1st, 2014 03:59 pm (UTC)
I had no idea the AV Club even knew I was alive :)

The Little House books do come across as colonial era texts, definitely, and unless you check the dates, it's not at all obvious that Wilder is discussing life during the Industrial Revolution. It certainly wasn't to me.
JJ Lonsdale
Mar. 1st, 2014 11:03 pm (UTC)
Also here from the AV Club!
Great article! You may find yourself getting a bit more traffic now...

I read the books over and over as a child and revisited them in college -- but even at 20 I didn't pick up on how much of their family's dire circumstances were due to Pa's mismanagement, and I love that you have highlighted that. (I'm also a transplant from England, so reading this alongside Oliver Twist, you don't see the Ingalls' poverty as quite so shocking.) I remember thinking it was MONSTROUSLY unfair that, the one time they did manage to get a successful farm up and running, they had to leave the land because the government decided it was still Indian land. (Don't remember which move that was.) I'd love to know if that was foolishness on Pa's part to settle there in the first place, or if it really was a bit of a government swindle. My impression as a child was that Ma gave up quite a lot to be with the man she loved, who happened to have an insatiable wanderlust.

My main point is that I never, NEVER understood why Mary got to go to college, while Laura had to spend her days sewing buttonholes and hating every second of it. Wouldn't it have made more sense for the sighted sister to get the further education -- purely because she's the one who would be able to increase her earning power?

There's a moment that has stuck vividly with me ever since I first read it, when Ma and Laura are sewing Mary's fancy new dress for her to go away to college in. Ma says or does something and Laura inwardly comments that for the first time, she realizes that her mother hates sewing. That was important to me as a child, growing up in Dallas with British parents, and trying to make sense of their reserved behavior vs. the over-sharing behavior of my friends' parents -- here was a parent who hated a particular task but had never let that slip to her daughter until her daughter was pretty much an adult. Considering that moment in the context of your post it takes on even more meaning -- how much of that might have been Ma's resentment against Pa for having spent a life in drudgery she could have avoided by marrying elsewhere, or by Pa choosing different priorities? How much of that might be Laura's resentment on behalf of Ma? Or Rose's on behalf of Laura? Truly fascinating.

Mar. 1st, 2014 11:57 pm (UTC)
Re: Also here from the AV Club!
The book where they have to leave their farm because the U.S. government is giving the farm back to the Indians is Little House on the Prairie. And it was very definitely Pa's mismanagement.

Regarding Mary's education, I think the family had two concerns there: one, what would happen with Mary once her parents died? They wanted her prepared to be able to care for herself. And two, an aspect which the text very definitely glosses over: because Mary was blind, she was eligible for financial assistance from the government, which the family applied for and accepted. They didn't pay for Mary's tuition; the money they were scraping together was for clothes and other necessities.

By the time Mary went off to college Laura had already worked several full time jobs and earned money; the family knew she could support herself.

I like to think that Ma harbored a lot of resentment, and her insistence on staying in De Smet and continuing to carry that little china shepherdess around might support that, but it also might be just me wanting to believe that Ma was resentful.
Mar. 3rd, 2014 09:11 am (UTC)

Re-reading the books as an adult, I picked up on Pa's not at all based in reality optimism. Every year it was "Next year, we'll get a good crop and it will all be wonderful!" But the crops never worked out - in early books he made money by trapping, in later books by carpentry for pay, working on the railway, and livestock. And he was still longing to move further west. I also picked up on his hypocrisy when it came to hunting - he lamented the settling up of land that drove game and fur animals away, while he was one of the settlers shooting up all the animals and plowing over their habitat.

As far as poverty goes - in Little Women, we're talking about upper class 'poor'. The Marches still minister to the real poor - the Hummels, for example, who can't afford food for their children or medical care, and need to beg for handouts. The March's poverty (also due to a financial dud of a father, interestingly) is a more genteel one - they're worried about nice dresses and envying their still wealthy society friends, but Amy attends a private day school, and they can afford doctor's bills and a decent diet. Farmer Boy is not that far off the Anne books in living style - the family works hard, and doesn't spend a lot of money on frivolities, but they have plenty to eat, a buggy, ample clothing, a multi-story house with a fancy parlour and storebought furniture, and occasional treats, and the older kids go to private school when they outgrow the one room schoolhouse.

An interesting comparison books would be the Katy series by Coolidge, set about 15 years earlier than the Little House books. The last two books are mostly set out west (Colorado) in newly settled lands, and while they do emphasize the creativity and make-do attitude of the settlers, compared to those in more settled areas, they aren't showing the level of poverty of the Ingalls.

Mar. 3rd, 2014 02:15 pm (UTC)
Re: Comparisons
Little Women also very much softened the real life poverty of the Alcotts, who frequently lived on handouts until Alcott started supporting the family with her writing. The Alcotts never had a Hannah, for instance, or even considered having one, but Alcott knew that respectable families kept servants, so to keep the family "respectable" she brought in Hannah. The chief differences were that first, Alcott was very much aware of her father's disastrous financial sense, and the book doesn't really try to hide it that much, and second, Bronson Alcott/Mr. March was an intellectual who was able to work more "genteel" jobs when he did work, and also had access to wealthy friends thanks to his intellectual activities. So when Alcott decided to make her family a little less poor, she had examples to draw on. Wilder's example was her not-exactly-wealthy husband.

I have to admit it's kinda fun to note that Almanzo started out relatively well off (compared to the Ingalls), married Laura, and then ended up dirt poor thanks to catching diphtheria and other disasters. The First Four Years suggests just how galling it must have been for Almanzo to hear lectures on responsibility from his father-in-law; until the diphtheria, Almanzo was considerably better off than Charles Ingalls (granted, not saying that much). Afterwards, he was disabled, but despite that, he and Laura - eventually - ended up better off than her parents even prior to the books. It's also interesting that Almanzo shares many of Charles Ingalls' hopeful statements: "Once the wheat crop comes in, we'll be fine! Once the sheep come in...."

I forgot the What Katy Did books, but you're right - excellent example of another family out west who is not nearly as poor as the Ingalls. I do kinda wish I'd spent more time in my original post drawing a comparison with the Betsy-Tacy books, which are set in Minnesota about twenty years later than the Little House books, and make it very clear that Minnesota was not the frontier land Laura was attempting to describe it as. I'm willing to grant that cities in Minnesota sprung up quickly, and nobody in the first few Betsy-Tacy books is poor, but even in the first Betsy-Tacy book it's clear that they aren't on the frontier, and Minnesota hasn't been the frontier for a few decades - i.e., after Laura arrived there. Betsy and Tacy have full access to the Industrial Revolution - fabricated furniture, stoves, doll sets, paper and ink, bicycles, efficient global mail, and so on. Seeing their first car is huge, but that's another indication that no, not everyone in Minnesota was dirt poor. Some people even had the money to invest in the very first cars.
Apr. 28th, 2014 03:53 pm (UTC)
Hey, I know this post is years old but I wanted to thank you for it. I love the books and had never thought to put the Ingalls' poverty into this context.
Apr. 28th, 2014 07:29 pm (UTC)
You're welcome. I didn't see the context for years myself.
( 44 comments — Leave a comment )


xmas me
Mari Ness

Latest Month

March 2017


Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Tiffany Chow