It is the 150th year of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birth — and a good time to check back on one of our favorite childhood series.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
“Little House On The Prairie,” the children’s series that chronicles the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family has been a childhood favorite for many ever since it was published in 1935. And it turns out that 2017 is a good year for another look at the books as we are in the 150th year of Laura’s birth. And many publishers have celebrated with a wealth of new material, both fiction and non. WEEKEND EDITION books editor Barrie Hardymon is with us to give us a literary lay of the land – or of the prairie, I should say. Hi, Barrie.
BARRIE HARDYMON, BYLINE: Hi.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of course, I loved these books as a child. What do you think has kept them so relevant and fascinating for generations of kids?
HARDYMON: Well, I loved them, as well. And I think that they’ve been around for a long time. And partly, it’s just the pop culture of the television series and the way that we talk about them. But it’s also because they’re really beautifully written. And they tell us a lot about our early history.
I will say that 150 years on, it’s probably time for a real look at that history, which I think is now sort of happening. You know, we’ve sort of revered them as this homage to, like, the American pioneer spirit.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The settlers going out and conquering the land.
HARDYMON: Exactly. But they were also – you know, they – these were white settlers on the American prairie in the 19th century. And they believed that they had a right to the land that the Osage Indians were already on. So, you know, woven through the tales is the history of, you know, Manifest Destiny, which is incredibly problematic to a 2017 readership.
We really see that in the character of Ma, who – you know, when she talks about the Osage Indians, she’s really de-humanizing about them. And it’s – you know, to contemporary readers, that can be pretty chilling.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Speaking of Ma, though, I understand she’s getting her own book?
HARDYMON: Yes. And that’s actually kind of a good thing. So Sarah Miller has a new book. She’s a wonderful historical novelist. The book is called “Caroline” after Caroline Ingalls. And it covers roughly the story of the second book in the series. This is where the family up and moves from the little log house in Wisconsin to the Kansas territory. And, you know, the Ma of the books, as you probably remember, is kind of tough. She’s…
HARDYMON: You know, she’s not the favorite parent the way that Pa is. She’s prudish and hard. And, you know, she takes Laura’s doll away. There’s all this kind of stuff that happens. But she’s also loving. And she does protect the children from what is a really harsh existence.
Now, in the book, she – Sarah Miller really addresses right away what is problematic about Ma. She is distrustful. And she is scared of the Osage Indians that they meet in Kansas. But there’s a kind of sympathy for Ma that I think is understandable. She’s in her 20s, which is probably a thing you didn’t think, right?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: No, no. She always seemed, of course, like an older woman.
HARDYMON: Exactly. No, she’s in her 20s. She’s got two little girls. She’s jolting across the Kansas prairie. She is pregnant. It is crazy town. And so there is this kind of like, wow, it was – you know, the harshness of the life in this book is really detailed. And looking at her in that way I think addresses many of the problems of the original series.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. What else is new on the “Little House” landscape?
HARDYMON: Well, so there’s a bunch of things. But I think the most interesting thing that’s coming out now is a new biography. And it’s a really well-done historical biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. It’s called “Prairie Fires.” It’s written by Caroline Fraser. And she’s had all this wonderful access to new manuscripts and letters and, you know, like deeds of land and financial transcripts. Who doesn’t love following the money?
So she’s really sort of solved a lot of the mysteries of, you know, this woman and how she lived. There is a little surprise in there, which people who are real buffs may know, about the relationship between Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, which is this incredibly fraught mother-daughter relationship, where they really wrote these books together – so tightly together in this almost incestuous way, where Rose is saying, no, mom don’t include that kiss with dad. Or, you know, we really need to soften up what’s happening with – we can’t have the grasshoppers and the prairie fires at the same time. So you’re really getting to look into the editing process and also, like, you know, what it might be like to edit with one’s mother.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think it’s important to revisit this? I mean, do you have a feeling about how we should regard the original series in 2017?
HARDYMON: Well, I think it’s interesting that this is happening at the same time that we’re looking back at our, you know, our history of Confederate monuments and how we should remember those because the thing is that this is a painful and true history. Should we read it to our children – I think is maybe the question that we should ask ourselves. And when should we read it to our children?
And I think reading more about this time will give you those answers because if you’re able to fill in for yourself – and for anybody who reads them – what was really happening at the time, you’re getting a fuller picture of what is an amazing story of these people who did amazing things and also these people who did very, very problematic things and said very, very uncomfortable things. So, you know, I think as we look back, it’s important to acknowledge them. We should not hide them. But we should put them in context.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Barrie Hardymon is WEEKEND EDITION’s books editor. Thank you very much for that.
HARDYMON: You’re welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL CAINE ORCHESTRA’S “LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE”)
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