Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"Little House on the Prairie", or "The Story of an Obsession"

I've loved the "Little House" books by Laura Ingalls Wilder for as long as I can remember. Little House in the Big Woods and a picture book about a goose named Petunia are the the only books I can specifically remember being read aloud to me when I was little, although I know that my mother read to me a ton. (I didn't like being read to once I could read, and don't actually remember not being able to read, but I imagine at least the Petunia book must have been before I could read.) The Little House books are the only books that I've read aloud over and over myself. I read them to several babysittees as a teenager, read them to the children I nannied my first three years in Germany, read the first three to Marie when she was a toddler (I got SO tired of Big Red Barn and suggested Little House in the Big Woods when Marie was only 18 months old. Sometimes I only read a page or two at a sitting, but she would bring me the book and say "Read Laura!" It took over a year, I think to get through the first one, but I read all of it), read all of them to Jacob when he was about six, and am now reading them to Lukas and Katie. (We're reading The Long Winter at bedtime at the moment, and Farmer Boy during the day.)

With the exception of Little Town on the Prairie, which I had to replace about six years ago after it had a sad run-in with a child of mine, I have the yellow-covered books, which I got a few weeks after our house burned down nearly 30 years ago, to replace the ones I'd had before the fire. My grandma and I went to bookstore after bookstore before we found the paperbacks with yellow covers, as most of them were blue at that time. (Now they're different colored checks. If someone wants to send me a yellow-covered copy of Little Town on the Prairie, I'll send you a blue/yellow-checked copy in exchange!)

I remember a reading challenge at the county library when I was maybe 10 or so: read all of the books and then answer several pages of questions. I sat down and filled in the whole thing on the spot and got a nice red bookmarker in return. It's possible that someone could stump me with some question, but I bet I could find the answer within a few minutes, without using the internet.

Laura's life has always been a place for me to hang dates on. Just recently I was reading a biography of Hudson Taylor to the children and the date of June 1865 was mentioned, at which point I annoyed my children by saying, "Oh, Mary was five months old, and Laura wasn't born for over another year and a half!" But I will now always remember that Hudson Taylor was about 35 years older than Laura. The American Civil War ended when she was just over a year old. My great-grandma was born when Laura was 31 and Rose was not quite 12 and they were living in Missouri. Laura was nine when the U.S. celebrated its first Centennial. She was born 104 years, one month, and three days before I was, and died only 14 years before I was born. When I was little, when I realized that Laura didn't die until my mother was over six years old, I just could not understand why she hadn't gotten to meet Laura in person! (I'd figured out time, but not space, apparently. But my mom did get to meet Tennessee Ernie Ford, which is pretty cool.)

I've also read several different biographies about Laura and know about quite a few discrepancies between her books and her actual life. Although even her daughter argued that the books were 100% autobiographical, even Laura herself didn't claim that. She wasn't even consistent WITHIN the series with some things, such as the age differences between the sisters and when their birthdays were.

The irony that the silly illustrations on that bottom right-hand book, an actual biography, look more like the TV show characters than the real people is not lost on me. The least they could have done was made Jack a bulldog and given Pa a beard...

Here's some more of my Laura paraphanelia, including time-lines I wrote out as a child:

Although I love to complain about discrepancies in a movie or TV show based on a book (I'm the worst person to sit next to when watching something made from a book), I also loved the TV shows. I think it was on Monday nights, I'm not sure. Whichever night it was, it was the only night that I ever did my homework, since I couldn't watch TV until my homework was done. I was completely aware that the TV shows were made up, only very loosely based on the books in the early seasons, and not taking much more than the characters' names in later seasons, but as long as I knew that they were totally ficticious, it was easy to enjoy them.

Over two years ago, we borrowed the DVDs of the first season of the TV show, and still haven't finished watching them. I admit that I was struck with how very corny some scenes were, but I still liked them, even after not having seen them for probably 15 years or so. I used to watch them in Germany, with Norwegian subtitles. (I got pretty good at reading Norwegian!) Once while we were watching, Jenna, five or six at the time, said something that made me think she was a bit confused, and I said, "You know that those are just actors, right? That's not REALLY Laura, it's just a girl dressed up like her and pretending to be her." Jenna nodded and said very earnestly, "Oh yes, I know--back then, they didn't have color TV!" When I said that "back then", they didn't even have black-and-white television, her mouth dropped open: she was literally speechless with shock.

One thing I noticed was how often people cried, especially Pa. Practically every episode (maybe EVERY episode...), there's a scene with dreamy music and Pa with glistening eyes and a wobbly jaw. So it cracked me up while reading some trivia about the TV show that in Iceland, the show came to be nicknamed "Crying in the Cornfields" because of all the crying men.

In the last several weeks, I've spent far too much time reading about the books (didn't find anything new), about the real people (not much new-to-me information), about the TV show (almost all news to me), and about other movies (completely news to me). And then watching some of the movies.

The Michael Landon pilot of Little House on the Prairie was actually pretty good, I thought, not as different from the book as the later shows were. Some of the children watched that with me, over several days, in 13 7-10 minute slots on youtube. The Indian costumes were amazingly awful and I will never understand why Michael Landon didn't wear a beard (probably because then it would have been harder to see his jaw trembling in emotional scenes), but we liked it.

Then we watched a Disney mini-series made in 2005, also on youtube in lots of little bits (32, to be exact). I suspect that if I didn't know the books so well and weren't familiar with the TV show, I might have liked it better. But Laura's blonde hair irritated me through the entire thing (and they even had a scene during which she complains about having brown hair!!), she and Pa are constantly siding against Ma and Mary, there is a TON of added Indian stuff (including Laura playing ball with an Indian boy, but NOT seeing the papoose and begging for it), Mrs. and Mr. Scott were awful characters (especially Mrs. Scott), and to top it off, it ended all wrong with the soldiers actually coming and Pa saying that he wouldn't leave. The actress that played Laura seemed to be imitating Melissa Gilbert half the time, rather than being Laura. And there was no baby Carrie, which was accurate to reality, but then Mary and Laura should have been four-five and two-three (not around 10, which is what they look) and Carrie should have been born the day that the older girls went with Pa to the Indian camp. The wolves were better than in the pilot show, as were the Indian costumes, anyway.

And then I found Beyond the Prairie: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Maybe it could have been a tiny bit decent if they'd at least left out that word "true", since it was anything but, but I doubt it. I guess the point was just that it was more accurate about Laura's life from the age of 15 or so than the TV show was (which certainly isn't saying much), and it was pretty awful. Okay, I didn't see all of it, only the highlights, but if the highlights are at all representative, it was terrible. Shortish, loose blonde hair, when the fact of Laura's brown hair is all through the books and when as a teenager, she wore it in a very long braid, until she was old enough to put it up. If her hair had never been mentioned in the books, fine, then the TV people can do what they like (although NO self-respecting woman in that time and place would have worn her hair loose in any case), but it WAS mentioned, quite a few times. "Laura" is constantly tilting her head dreamily to one side and then to the other, with a stupid "sweet smile" on her lips, and "Almanzo" was such a dorky looking wimp who couldn't figure out what to say that I was rooting for her to turn him down. Except that she was so awful, she deserved him. The only good thing I saw in the clips was Pa's beard, which was on the short side, but at least was existent.

So much to the movies. But I was wondering why I love the books so much. I love the descriptions (not one of the movies has Laura helping Pa build the door in Indian Territory--what a shame!) and the way the people relate to each other. I love it that Laura and Mary are so thrilled to get a tin cup AND a stick of candy AND a penny for Christmas, I love how Laura loves Charlotte and Ma helps rescue her. I was also saying to a friend recently, while trying to figure out myself why they mean so much to me, that they're a part of my cultural heritage as a United States-ian. I don't identify with my citizenship a whole lot (and generally refuse to say "American", as that ought to be a geographical term, not a political one), but I don't want to give it up, either. (And I could: I'm eligible for German citizenship, but only if I renounce American.) I'm descended from people who weren't afraid to go where nobody they knew had gone before, and they couldn't look it up on google earth before they went, either, nor skype with their relatives back home once they arrived. Part of that is part of who I am.

I've still never gotten to visit a single "Little House" site. My mom and my sister Ruth went to DeSmet some years ago, though, and Mom sent me a bunch of photos.
The girl coming out of this replica of the Brewster school is my sister. :-)

Incidentally, there are still arguments about who really wrote the books. Laura's daughter Rose was almost definitely involved in some way, but I totally disagree with the people who think she essentially ghost-wrote Laura's books. Laura had been writing for local newspapers long before she wrote the first book, so was already a writer in her own right. To me the biggest argument againt the idea that Rose actually wrote the books is that her own books are so very different. I only own one book (which my grandma got at a garage sale) by Rose Wilder Lane, Old Home Town, and have read one other, Let the Hurricane Roar. Let the Hurricane Roar is even loosely based on Laura's parents, but doesn't read anywhere near as "real".

1 comment:

  1. Yikes! Just wrote a big long comment on here and the computer ate it!! Ach!

    Basically it was all about how I could have written the above post, how we could be some obsessed twins seperated at birth!

    I read the yellow covers at the school library growing up as I never owned a set till after I was married. They are now read to the children who come through my home and have pride of place on the guest bedroom windowsill in their little box cover thing.

    Anyway, I can't type it all out again now......gotta go make breakfast for my hungry crew! Thanks for the walk down memory lane.