Monday, December 28, 2020

Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page

She taught millions of young readers respect for family and the self-reliant pioneering spirit. She wrote from the perspective of a daughter of Nineteenth Century settlers, because that is who she was. Her books most definitely do not reflect the attitudes of a Berkley Feminist-Third World Studies major, so the ALA canceled her, striking her name from their life achievement award. Wilder’s life is chronicled and the petty posthumous controversies of the professionally offended are also addressed in American Master’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page, produced and directed by Mary McDonagh Murphy, which premieres tomorrow on PBS.

Frankly, Wilder should be considered a feminist icon. She endured years of subsistence farming with her beloved Almanzo, in a marriage that was considered a true non-hierarchical partnership. She sold her first book at the age of 65, with the help of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Lane, the great libertarian journalist, who wrote
The Discovery of Freedom truly deserves her own American Masters profile, but it is a pleasant surprise to see her treated relatively fairly by Murphy’s battery of talking heads.

Throughout the program, Lane is given full credit for editing her mother’s
Little House novels, giving structure the narratives. During their lifetimes, both denied Lane’s involvement, in Lane’s case because the public’s generally low regard for children’s books could have damaged her own literary career, but there is ample evidence of her editorial contribution in their surviving correspondence. However, Prairie to Page perversely concentrates on each and every minor deviation of the books from the events of Wilder’s life. Honestly, this glorified fact-checking becomes tedious, especially when the real story seems to be how closely they actually hewed to her verifiable biography.

Murphy also gives Wilder’s critics more than ample time to complain about Wilder’s depictions of Native Peoples. Yet, their grievances, including the notorious smoking gun passage: “There were no people. Only Indians lived there,” which Wilder agreed to rewrite in the 1950s, sound more like sloppy writing or the exotic fascination of a young girl than anything truly sinister. Wilder critics like Linda Sue Park come across like delicate orchids, who should keep themselves hermetically sealed in a bubble, to prevent themselves from reading anything that might potentially offend their fragile self-images. Or perhaps they could just grow-up and act like mature adults, who understand not everyone sees the world precisely as they do. Honestly, the mere fact Wilder can now be considered “controversial” is in itself a telling commentary on contemporary Cancel Culture.

Nobody can deny Native Peoples faced profound hardships during this period. So did settlers, like the Ingalls. Living on the frontier with what little the 1870s had to offer was a precarious proposition for everyone. Readers come to understand this in vivid terms from Wilder’s books. For that reason, they should be due for a popular renaissance, now that we as a nation are facing challenging times. Smart readers of any age can parse books for their insights and disregard what is dated. Honestly, it is just sad that the ALA has so little faith in young readers—and it is frustrating that Murphy gives so much time to the cancel chorus.

Of course, she also covers the enduring popularity of the 1974-1984 TV series, including interviews with surviving cast-members, the most notable being Melissa Gilbert. Tess Harper and Amy Brenneman provide further star power, reading the letters of Wilder and Lane, respectively. However, she overlooks the 1975 Japanese anime, as well the
Young Pioneers TV movies that were based on Lane’s novels, but clearly inspired by her mother’s life. Their shared cultural footprint is indeed significant and worthy of the American Masters treatment. Unfortunately, it is not always clear whether Prairie to Page agrees.

Admittedly, more
American Masters installments should question the presumptions of its subject, but Murphy and company are constantly trying to score “gotchas.” There is no question Wilder lived a genuinely hardscrabble childhood, so what difference do a few superficial details make? Prairie to Page is okay from a biographical perspective, but the commentary is problematically one-sided (nobody really “defends” Wilder, but plenty attack her), which makes it hard to recommend. Fans will still probably be interested when it debuts tomorrow (12/29) on most PBS outlets—and it should hit the PBS app the next day.