- Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder's Impact on American Culture
Don't get her wrong: Anita Clair Fellman loves the Little House books. She shared the series with both of her sons, reading as slowly as possible, struggling against tears, willing the books never to end. She can't wait to introduce her well-worn, boxed paperback set of the books to her grandchildren. But it's also clear that the "long shadow" of the title refers not only to Fellman's assessment of Wilder's monumental influence on American culture but also to what she plainly regards as the darker side of that influence.
Fellman's book is itself a monumental undertaking, many years in the making; it is an innovative blend of literary criticism, historical analysis, and reader response theory. The first half of the book engagingly recounts the creation of the Little House books, calling attention to the ways in which Wilder, and her collaborator daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, deliberately deviated from the historical truth of young Laura's life to shape the series in a libertarian and individualist direction. The second half of the book offers an extremely impressive survey of the ways the Little House books have been used in schools, read in homes, [End Page 70] and disseminated throughout popular culture. Fellman is scrupulous in making disclaimers about what she can and cannot hope to achieve through this magisterial work: her study can "never be more than suggestive"; she lacks "postelection polls in which voters tell us that they were guided by the lessons of the Little House books" (4). But the case she constructs here, in its painstaking accumulation of detail, is compelling.
The book's central argumentative chapter, "Revisiting the Little House," documents the numerous ways in which Wilder and Lane reshaped events from Laura's own life to highlight the themes of individualism, self-sufficiency, and anti-statism. Although the Ingalls family socialized frequently with relatives during their time in Wisconsin, Little House in the Big Woods portrays the family as living in almost complete isolation, with holiday visits a rare treat. In The Long Winter the family lives alone, whereas they actually shared a home with another couple; Pa is praised for his ingenuity in figuring out how to burn hay and grind wheat, whereas all the De Smet families used these strategies to survive. Most shocking (to me), the Dakota Territory actually provided the funding to pay for Mary's college education, with Laura's earnings contributing only toward Mary's incidental expenses. What?! It wasn't Laura's unremitting, selfless toil that put Mary through college, but the government?
Fellman notes that Wilder and Lane had valid artistic reasons for making many of these changes: "the demands of the novel form would have compelled changes, both in the interests of drama and in the convention of a focalizing character through whose eyes the reader sees the story" (117). It is not "the deviation from the facts that is noteworthy here," Fellman argues, "it is the pattern of the deviation" (117): This pattern reveals Wilder and Lane's desire to portray the Ingalls family through the lens of a Turneresque mythology about the American frontier and to transmit the libertarian, individualist values dear to their own hearts.
Why this is problematic, according to Fellman, becomes clear in the second half of the book. The Little House books have become a staple of the American elementary school curriculum (less so in recent years, as concerns have been raised about the books' depiction of Native Americans); they are included in numerous basal readers, shared in classroom read-alouds, and featured in social studies units on the pioneer experience. Wilder and Lane both insisted that the stories were true, with Wilder claiming that for every story in the series, "all the circumstances, each incident are true." Lane concurred: "They are the truth and only the truth." (78). Taught in the classroom as American history, "their mythic view of the past often receives the...