A Little Noir on the Prairie

“A 12 year-old girl whose cousin wants to kiss her does not normally threaten him with a knife; she laughs and kisses him, he’s her cousin. Or if she’s shy or doesn’t like him she just escapes, and the incident is not important enough to mention.”

By the Shores of Silver Lake
By the Shores of Silver Lake

[Rose Wilder Lane to her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, in a letter about the editing of the upcoming By the Shores of Silver Lake, part of the “Little House” series]

Last week, I wrote about A Wrinkle in Time, the children’s book that, in retrospect, probably had the greatest impact on the adult I was to become. Today, I stumbled upon a brief Slate article that reminded me of another  series that I read and adored as a youngster: the “Little House” books.

No, I don’t intend to blog about YA books every week, but the synergy was inescapable. Especially since the Slate article interested me less in the editorial collaboration between mother and daughter and more in Ms. Lane’s efforts to stifle and censor the truth of her mother’s stories.

As a writer of historical crime fiction, I face a formidable obstacle: the nostalgic reimaging and reimagining of our historical truth by later generations—generations that want to “remember” the past through a rose-colored looking glass of wishful thinking.

Sign for the Kooskia internment camp in IdahoWorld War II? The greatest generation. Never mind the corporations that backed Germany, the black market dealers, draft evaders, Japanese-American internment camps and the rampant anti-Semitism and institutionalized racism that characterized much of American life.

As I’ve often mentioned in panels and in interviews, the past was life, warts and all. For every beautiful Art Deco building or green, undeveloped pasture, for every Glenn Miller tune and I. Magnin hat, for every “please” and “thank you”, there was ugliness and brutality and inequality and unfairness and injustice. And much of it was not only tolerated and accepted, but perfectly legal.The Golden Gate Bridge, 1940

If we write only half the story, we add to the injustice by either romanticizing or demonizing the human experience. Even “escapist” entertainment—to me, at any rate—should be plausible and truthful about life and the endless capacity for good and evil of which human beings are capable.

After all, isn’t that our reference point?

So I read the editorial letter by Ms. Lane with disappointment, if not surprise. I’d known of her extremist political ideology. If she were around today, she’d probably be an Ann Coulter acolyte.

“Here you have a young girl, a girl 12 years old, who’s led rather an isolated life with father, mother, sisters in the country, and you cannot suddenly have her acting like a slum child who has protected her virginity from street gangs since she was seven or eight.” 

In seeking to minimize (and she does this in two separate sections of the letter) her mother’s brave attempt to prevent child molestation—and note how she implies that such things would be expected for a “slum child”, such a casual and crass example of economic elitism—Rose Wilder Lane not only silences the historical truth of her mother’s experience, but both admits to and silences a truth women have always faced: once they hit adolescence, they are targets. And in cultures that encourage it or turn a blind eye toward pedophilia (particularly in “slums”, according to Ms. Lane), such targeting can occur very, very early.

Little Town on the Prairie
Little Town on the Prairie

Ms. Lane also seeks to censor some of the economic and labor woes that her mother witnessed. The idea of crooked businessmen—and getting revenge on such—is not something for a children’s book, she insists. It doesn’t matter if it happened. Instead, Ms. Lane often underscores nature as the enemy throughout the series: the drought, the grasshoppers, the winter so long that the family nearly starves. In her defense—and in the passage that stuck with me more than any other in any volume—she allows a moving description of the disappearing birds and wolves and wildlife of Silver Lake as the little town on the prairie is built, when even that minuscule development by today’s standards  is shown to have a dramatic effect on nature.

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about the disappearing expanse of prairie with a profound sense of loss, and I’m grateful that her daughter let that come through.

No, I don’t fault Ms. Lane for staying on target with her audience, for manipulating facts, for  conflating characters and events and all the other things one has to do to present a salable narrative. What worries me is what she chose to omit. She omits the story about Laura’s cousin. And she omits the warning that Laura’s Pa gave her concerning the men who worked on the railroad. And I’m afraid there Ms. Lane reveals her own prejudices as well as those of her time period, the rose-colored editorial glasses of a 1938 conservative.

Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura Ingalls Wilder

“But Pa’s warning to stay far away from all those workmen because they’re dangerous seems to me far-fetched. There’s no motive for the men to do them any harm, except a degenerate one, and there was not enough sexual degeneracy on the frontier to make it typical at all.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder was a pioneer, a strong woman and a determined one.  And I wish we could have heard her full story.