Prairie Fires: Chapter 13 (Part 3)

[Prairie Fires Content Note: Racism, Settler Violence, Nazis, Child Abuse]

Prairie Fires: I started and stopped a Little House deconstruction awhile back, but the subject matter stayed with me. This book--a new and informative expose on Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane--was recommended to me so I picked it up on a lark. I was not prepared. This is a record of my live-read on Twitter.

Prairie Fires, Chapter 13

(Tweet Link: Part 11) #PrairieFires Part 11, and here we need to revisit some of Rose's stuff from last night because holy shit. @Shaker_aphra has noted that the Pittsburg Courier, the African-American paper where Rose landed a column, was a big deal.

@Shaker_aphra And it's a BIG paper. 3rd largest AA paper by circulation, IIRC. It was the paper that invented the "Double V" campaign.

@arthur_affect has read about some of her columns there. It's... not good. He has also found an amazing article about her time at the Pittsburgh Courier.

@arthur_affect  Her first column was her going into detail about how racist she’d been to black servants and staff her whole life but now she’s suddenly become woke
@arthur_affect  You want to talk White Feminism™   She wrote a column about segregated restaurants and said “You know, in my youth respectable women weren’t allowed to smoke in restaurants — but we just kept doing it until finally they had to change the rule.
@arthur_affect  She gets in a back and forth with another columnist because she objects to a book review talking about “Negro literature for Negroes” saying that’s like “blonde literature for blondes”

Rose Wilder Lane was that white person. And it is worth noting that she's still virulently anti-Semitic and believes in conspiracy theories about Jewish people ruling the world and destroying America from within.

The New York Times does a profile on her and I want to make a grim joke about their penchant for profiling Nazis but apparently she's decided that no one hates Hitler more than she does. Which is peak white non-Jewish libertarian woman. "Profiled in the New York Times as “on strike against the New Deal,” Lane portrayed herself as a Revolutionary War hero, opposing George III’s onerous taxation to the end." She keeps linking King George III to FDR, hence the patriotism stuff in Little Town which Laura allowed her to put in.

"She spoke of herself as having “two sons in the Army,” refusing a ration book, and stockpiling hundreds of pounds of pork and jars of preserved fruits and vegetables, not for the war effort but as a one-woman resistance movement." SHE DOES NOT HAVE 2 SONS IN THE ARMY. She knows a guy in the Coast Guard (John Turner) and she knows a guy in Albania (Rexh Meta) and neither of them are her sons in any sense--not biologically, not legally, not financially, not anything.

I don't know what she plans to do with hundreds of pounds of pork and canned goods. Eat them all herself? She doesn't believe in charity, so she won't give it to people. Ten dollars says it'll spoil and go wasted. But way to stick it to the government. In the NYT profile, Rose says she's given up writing fiction to avoid taxation. No one will buy her work and she's out of family material to ransack, so this is like "you can't fire me, I quit". The NYT uncritically reprints a lot of lies she tells about local government and conditions.

The New Republic goes around afterwards and fact-checks everything she says, proving it all to be false. "The New Republic took up the challenge, fact-checking her accusation about the hogs, among other charges. Danbury representatives of the Department of Agriculture denied that there was a feed shortage in Connecticut. The Bridgeport plant likewise pronounced itself baffled. The magazine concluded that “Unfortunately, to Mrs. Lane the truth seems to be identical with any allegation that will further her own little private revolt against the war effort."

They literally printed that "the truth", to her, is whatever agrees with her ridiculous beliefs.

"But there was one member of Lane’s close circle who was neither perturbed nor alarmed by her politics, who in fact supported her beliefs wholeheartedly. That was her mother." LAURA, WHY. WHAT ARE YOU DOING. Laura reads Rose's non-fiction libertarian Discovery of Freedom and is enraptured. She starts urging everyone she knows to read it. (This is a departure from her policy re: Rose's fiction, which was to never comment on it at all.)

"Describing the family’s difficult early days at Rocky Ridge, Laura assured Kilburn that “What we accomplished was without help of any kind from any one. There was no alphabetical relief of any description and if there had been we would not have accepted it.”" This is so false it hurts. The family was repeatedly bailed out by Almanzo's rich relatives. Laura also accepted food and charity from others, like the passing Russian lady.

She knows this! It's fascinating how she can just elide all the charity she's received in her life as "[no] help of any kind from any one".

Laura believes that safety nets disincentivize work: "Now here we are at seventy-eight and eighty-eight … paying taxes for the support of dependent children, so their parents need not work at anything else; for old age pensions to take care of those same parents when the children are grown, thus relieving the children of any responsibility and all of them from any incentive to help themselves." Because children only work to support their parents?

"Wilder even went so far as to claim that she had stopped writing to avoid increasing her tax burden, as her daughter had." THIS IS A LIE. "She told the Kansas City Star in 1949: “The more I wrote the bigger my income tax got, so I stopped. Why should I go on at my age? Why, we don’t need it here anyway.” A Social Security number was never issued to her."

If she never got a Social Security Number, is she even paying into social security? Who knows. Not Laura! Laura rails against government assistance when her entire life has been about government loans and government homestead acts.

She never sought to explain the contradiction between her denunciation of New Deal programs and her praise of the Federal Farm Loan program she had worked for and borrowed from. Favorable terms on those loans were themselves federal assistance, subsidized by the government. And again, so were the lands given away by the Homestead Act, one of the largest federal handouts in American history. Why were homesteads and federal loans acceptable, while programs sponsored by the Roosevelt administration were not? Wilder’s inconsistency may be explained in part by the stark contrast of ambitions and scale. The Farm Loan program was a model of modest, community-based effort, hiring local bankers and, at least in Mansfield, a secretary-treasurer who was herself a paragon of rural farming. On the other hand, the massive New Deal programs brought in intimidating outsiders intent on inflicting top-down discipline, typified by the officious note-taking bureaucrat whom Almanzo ordered off his property with the threat of his shotgun.

Every step of her life, every stage of her existence has been living off government charity to white people. But Social Security was a step too far. Why? Was it because it benefited non-white people as well? Be very suspicious of white people who pull up the ladder as soon as they've got theirs and don't want non-white people to have the same safety nets.

Fraser notes that Laura was probably raised thinking that the family's highest value was self-sufficiency. I think that's probably true! But Laura is also in her 80s and capable of seeing that was a lie. She's a nationally known author. She has researched her family extensively. She has worked government loans. She has run for office. She is one of the most privileged people in the country at this point, despite her relative poverty.

Everyone is capable of looking back at their childhood and realizing that what their parents told them was true and what was actually true did not match. In fact, Laura has excelled at doing this, in her heavy edits to protect Charles from any censure. But when she went back and took out all the bits from her book where Charles needed help, she appears to have decided that those edits affected reality, not merely her legacy. So she can say her family never accepted help from anyone--no charity, no government--and this becomes "true" to her because she wants it to be true.

She is self-deluding, but deserves no sympathy for it. She is nurturing her classism and racism against harsh reality. Over and over, her family proved that "self-sufficiency" is impossible. Charles couldn't. Almanzo couldn't. James Wilder (Almanzo's father) couldn't. Eliza Jane, Mary, Carrie, Grace... none of them could do it. Laura and Rose couldn't either. Laura doesn't care about facts. She wants self-sufficiency to be real and achievable, so facts must stand aside. I get the impression that she blames Almanzo (and possibly Mary) for the weak links in why their families couldn't achieve the dreams she wanted.

Laura starts buying into Rose's conspiracy theories about everyone being against her crummy writing. "The New Dealers are in control of most publishing houses in New York and because they think Rose’s “Discovery of Freedom” teaches ideas contrary to their plans, they are working against its publication and distribution. Even the publishers of the book are trying to stop it." Please also recognize the anti-Semitic whiffs coming off any conspiracy theory about an elite cabal controlling The Publishing Houses.

Laura arranges to donate Pa's fiddle to a museum. In a poignant twist, they later discover that the fiddle was a cheap imitation and not the "Amati" (a famed 17-century Italian violin maker) Laura had thought. I... I feel there's a metaphor in there somehow, about how Laura's childhood and recollections and memoirs aren't the golden standard they've been marketed and labelled as. (It's unclear whether Charles knew the fiddle was a fake; there was an "Amati" label in it, and he could've been cheated. Then again, you'd think he would know.)

Carrie sells the last of Charles' houses and MY GOD CARRIE EBAY THAT SHIT. "A room upstairs was still packed full of jumbled Ingalls possessions—books, photographs, and furniture—when the sale was completed." Carrie dies, leaving Laura as the last survivor of the family. Not surprisingly, Laura has consistently been better fed than the rest of them. "Like her father, Carrie Ingalls Swanzey had juggled many odd jobs, trying to get by. She had been a pioneering newspaper woman, a homesteader, and a miner’s wife. Like her father and husband, she left barely enough to pay her bills."

It's really noteworthy to me that, despite having multiple houses on their property (80 acres? or more?), Laura never invites Caro, Mary, Carrie, or Grace to live with her, afaict. Occasionally Grace and Carrie write her begging for clothes, which she sends. But she doesn't seem to send back money or offer a place to live. And, look, nobody owes their family a living. But I say that as someone who believes in taxes and social safety nets. If you don't want social safety nets and don't want to help your little sisters, you're... basically saying it's fine with you if they starve to death. And you gotta think that it was hard for Carrie and Grace to write begging for clothes. Carrie doesn't even beg Laura directly; she asks Laura to ask Rose for clothes. Laura relents and sends some of her own.

Almanzo longs to move to apartments in town--I'm not sure how much he's doing farmwork, but it's not nothing, there's a mention that the farm has to be looked after constantly lest nature reclaim it. Laura tells him to decide which of his tools he wants to get rid of (downsizing to move into town) and he can't so he never brings it up again. My heart hurts.

People write Laura and she writes back. "Wilder shared with adult correspondents that some of the names were made up, but kept up the fiction that “Nellie Oleson” was a real person rather than a composite character, saying vaguely that she had moved back east." People send her fan fiction, pictures, drawings, stories of their own. I feel a stab of sorrow that no one sent, like, erotic slash pairings.

Laura's publisher plans a reprint with illustrations. The illustrator goes on a trip around the country, meeting Laura and seeing all her old houses (or the sites of the houses, at least). He talks to people in De Smet, who tell him Laura's stories are "our lives, we lived them." I'm struck by how these books made gazillions for the publisher and Laura and Rose, but how little of that reached the people in the pages. The non-Ingalls. It's almost... predatory, in a painful way. De Smet is idolized and fetishized, but they see almost none of these profits, outside of a smattering of determined tourists.

Outside of Rose's book, Laura basically stops talking about politics because the Ozarks are peaceful and she doesn't care. Got mine, etc. But then I hit this paragraph. "Wilder’s books were about to be given an extraordinary role. In postwar Japan, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, five-star general Douglas MacArthur, tasked with rebuilding a nation reduced to rubble, found Wilder’s model of cheerful, stoic endurance a useful tool." OH. FUCKING. NO.

Okay, first of all I need you to know that Douglas MacArthur was basically the WORST okay. "To instill positive views of Japan’s former enemies, GHQ launched a “Gift Book Program,”" and Long Winter is on the list. Aya Ishida translates Long Winter for Japanese readers. It becomes a huge hit and taps into the country's hardships with winters and food shortages. (This is honestly better than I feared; I was afraid MacArthur was going to make the book required reading or something. At least this is just "Japanese readers liked it". Phew?) Laura starts receiving fan mail from Japan and is thankfully gracious and not a total asshat. Good.

The Wilders negotiate a reverse mortgage on the property, selling the farm for the right to live there until they die. I guess Rose doesn't get the house. Detroit names a library after her (a pretty big deal!) and she donates her handwritten manuscripts of Long Winter and Happy Golden Years.

Laura starts relying heavily on the kindness of neighbors to help her and Almanzo. WHAT ABOUT YOUR RUGGED INDIVIDUALISM, LAURA. "In late July 1949, Almanzo suffered a heart attack. Neta Seal began spending occasional nights sleeping on the screened porch at Rocky Ridge, and she stayed with him while Wilder ran errands in town. Lane did not come." Almanzo dies and it's genuinely sad. God, he worked so hard his entire life, harder than anyone should have to. Hard up until the end, while his wife and daughter railed against any kind of retirement--even as Rose longs for servants of her own.

We here take a break. I think this book has flipped on my depression and that's annoying. I feel sad for no good reason and I blame Laura. It's really distressing reading about people who emerge from trauma to become horrible people, because I think part of me is like "oh god, is that my fate?"

Let's finish Chapter 13.

The year is 1949. Almanzo has died. Rose stays a week with Laura but then leaves again. She's remodeling a house again and has remodeling to do. In her letters to Laura she talks about "what it meant to know the difference between right and wrong. “Forty or fifty years ago I used to be bothered, trying to figure out what people meant by conscience, what is it, why don’t I have one, whatever it is?” Lane wrote."

I've given up trying to feel emotions about Rose.

"Wilder was undecided about staying at Rocky Ridge, and friends urged her to consider living in town. She seems never to have entertained the thought of moving east to be near her daughter. “I’m not sure they got along too well,” one Mansfield neighbor recalled." I think it's fascinating that these two women, only 20 years apart in age, can be so close, love each other so much, and hate each other so deeply. They would probably make a poignant movie or TV series.

Laura starts relying heavily on neighbors. Like, a lot. To sleep near her, to care for her, to deliver groceries for her. Maybe she's tipping/paying them? But for someone so bound up in never accepting charity, it rankles.

"There are neighbors just across the road and just a short distance to the side. Groceries are delivered to the door; mail every morning to the box by the road; my fuel oil tank for my heater is kept filled with no trouble to me and electricity and telephone ready to my touch. The house is warm and comfortable. Two boys from the neighbors on the East come every day to see if there is anything they can do for me and a taxi from town is on call to take me wherever I wish to go. Friends from town, only 1/4 mile away, come often to see me."

Sounds nice, Laura. Do we wanna count how much of that is available because of taxes, governments, and charity? Utilities and deliveries are made available to everyone regardless of whether your little shitty ass farm is 'profitable' to get to. Roads weren't organized and paid for by you. Those friends are being charitable to hang out with you and/or send their boys to look in on you.

Another library gets named after her. "She declined to make a recording to be played at the event, but she sent another treasure: the handwritten manuscript of Little Town on the Prairie." These are important later for proving her ownership of the material.

Back in New York, they're going all out to republish Laura's books with pretty pictures and covers and typesetting. They also correct a few mistakes, like this one: "There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no people. Only Indians lived there." A mother had written in, rather upset, and pointed out that the passage clearly contrasts "people" with "Indians", marking them as mutually exclusive groups.

Laura apologizes for the 'mistake' which was not her 'intent'. "Nordstrom passed along the author’s response. Wilder told her editor, “You are perfectly right about the fault…and have my permission to make the correction you suggest. It was a stupid blunder of mine. Of course Indians are people and I did not mean to imply they were not." (I don't see an apology in there.) "The passage would be revised in the 1953 edition to read, “There were no settlers.”"

"Nordstrom asked Wilder to reconsider the minstrel scene in Little Town in which Pa and others put on blackface and sing “Skidmore Guard,” referencing “coons” and “darkies.”" Laura is okay with cutting "coons" but insists that the scene itself, and "darkies" is not offensive. It is 1949, and even were it not Fraser points out that "Frederick Douglass had denounced blackface performers as “the filthy scum of white society” a century earlier, in 1848." i.e., 100 years before.

I hate Laura, I just do. Deal with it. She's a racist asshole and even when white people are coddling her and like "heeeeeeyyyy girl, can we maybe cut this scene" she digs her heels in and wallows around in her racism. And the book notes that these are the first time she's hearing about these problems, despite hundreds of fan mails that she read personally and responded to. So what the fuck, fellow white people of the 1940s and earlier?

The Horn Book devotes an entire issue to the Little House books. "Also included was a long biographical piece about Wilder, emphasizing the books’ “incorruptible decency” and “steadfast morality” as emblematic of American pioneer values." And this is why I said waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay back at the beginning of this that we need to make it clear these are white books for white people. Because when we say ~Americans~ that implies white people are the only Americans who count.

"In 1954, the ALA devised an entirely new prize: the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, a bronze medal to be awarded to authors who had made a “substantial and lasting” career contribution to American children’s letters. Its first recipient was its namesake."

Town women start coming by to do Laura's chores out of the kindness of their heart. "Neta Seal, Irene Lichty, and other ladies continued to help with chores and cleaning, calling her every morning and evening to check on her." A reminder that Rose's libertarian position is that Laura should've been left to drown in her own shit.

"Early in 1955 she fell and cut her head badly. Seal spent night after night sleeping at Rocky Ridge to care for her. Wilder’s notes dwindled to a few words but captured her gratitude." And like??????! Nobody should feel obliged to go play nursemaid for their mother. Some mothers are toxic af, and I'm not going to take that position. But. Rose is a bestselling author, as is Laura, and Rose is pouring all her money into a house. Pay your help. Are these women being paid? They apparently just seem to be really nice? God, I hope they were being paid. Or I hope to god they looted the silver cabinet.

A Kansas City Star reporter comes to interview Laura about her writing process and how the stories came into being. "She had begun her career by penning several stories, sending them to her daughter, who felt “they might be the basis of a picture book but nothing else.… She told me to put some meat on the bones and then send the stories back and she would see what she could do.”" I do love the irony that Rose didn't realize she was sitting on a gold mine in her mother.

Laura is taken to a hospital for several weeks (she has diabetes) and her younger 'friends' (nursemaids) from town visit every day to bring her water because she dislikes the hospital water. By Laura's 90th birthday, they're regularly spending nights and evenings with her to watch over her. "By this point, Virginia Hartley and Neta were taking turns staying by Wilder’s side throughout the night, spelling Lane, who tended her mother during the day."

Laura dies 3 days after her birthday. She's buried next to Almanzo and everyone is very sad. She outlived her family by quite a bit, presumably because she was consistently richer than they.

Thus ends chapter 13.


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