Worth Reading: Laura Ingalls Wilder and Racism

May 31, 2008

This essay by Eula Biss, a Chicago writer and artist in residence at Northwestern, was pointed out to me a few months ago, but that was before my blogging days. It’s remarkably well written, and I think it’s worth sharing so I’m giving it permanent space here.

From The Believer magazine, it’s called No-Man’s-Land: Fear, Racism, and the Historically Troubling Attitude of American Pioneers. It weaves Laura Ingalls Wilder throughout, particularly the events of Little House on the Prairie.


With the benefit of sixty years of hindsight, Laura Ingalls Wilder knew, by the time she wrote Little House, that the pioneers who had so feared Native Americans had been afraid of a people whom they were in the process of nearly exterminating. And so as a writer she took care, for instance, to point out that the ribs of the Indians were showing, a reminder that they came, frighteningly, into the house for food not because they were thieves but because they were starving. They were starving because the pioneers were killing all their game. If anyone had a claim on fear, on terror, in the American frontier, it was obviously the Indians, who could not legally own or buy the land they lived on, and so were gradually being driven out of their lives.

It’s a good, albeit long, read.


Hot Off the Presses

May 29, 2008

The news about Melissa Gilbert appearing as Ma in the Guthrie production has gone public.

I feel all important now.

Go Read These.

May 28, 2008

This post on the Pioneer Girl blog leads us to a long, fascinating online article on the Hopp family, as in Jake Hopp, the name-card printer at De Smet. 

And I know I’m late to this party — it was written in 1982 — but I loved this detailed account of Mary Ingalls’ stay at the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School. It’s called “The Mary Ingalls Era,” and it was written by Dorothy Petrucci O’Leary and Catherine Goddard. (Note: Link takes you to a PDF.)

Tuesday Night Wrap-Up

May 27, 2008

Many thanks to Laura Ingalls Wilder fan Rebecca for alerting us to this month-long blogathon on Laura. Much food for thought there. Go take a look! Wilder blogging is everywhere!

On the administrative side of things — I call it administrivia — check the right-hand side of the page for the email link to sign up for an upcoming (we’re thinking Summer 2009) Laura Ingalls Wilder conference in De Smet, South Dakota. I’ve received a lot of emails of interest, so if you haven’t sent yours, please throw your name in the hat to be involved in any and all planning.

The end of the comment contest is almost here! I expect to do the drawing for Pa’s big green book sometime after May 31. But I need to get all the comments in a perfectly random order first, so that might take some time.

For those of you with feedreaders, don’t forget to subscribe to Only Laura’s RSS, right over there too.

Finally, as I thought, Dennis from western Massachusetts — gentleman and scholar that he is — helped out Susan with her ice-house questions.

And I must add — who knew there were that many Farmer Boy newbies in the ranks of Laura fans! I love all of you for your confessions.

What Was Pieplant Anyway?

May 26, 2008

Remember in The First Four Years when Laura tries to make pie for the threshers and she forgets the sugar? Well so does this blogger. And because she’s a food blogger, she knows that the “pieplant” Laura used to make the pie — which for some reason I’d accepted without question,  even though at the time “pieplant” was as foreign a term to my ear as, say, Brangelina — is in fact rhubarb.

I confess, my first thought upon learning that was … Gross. Because unflavored rhubarb? Ew.

My next thought?


It’s OK, We Still Like Her

May 25, 2008

OK, I have to out a fellow Laura fan. Susan Gaissert, who blogs here, has never read Farmer Boy.

But wait! No need to despair. Thanks to the anticipation of her June trip to Malone — her first visit there — she’s mending her ways. And publicly. And educationally. Look at all the things she’s learning. (PS: Dennis? Are you reading? She’s got an ice-house question that I think you might be able to answer …)

Hmmm … got to make those Homesteader applications a bit more detailed

“Learned Helplessness” and Laura

May 24, 2008

[Note from the Claim Shanty: I was out of touch for the past couple of days and thought I’d set my post to upload automatically. Negative. So I’m rejiggering the dates here a bit.]

Today I thought of Laura in, of all places, Subway.

I’m not a fast-food devotee in general. I grew up in an environment where the occasional Friday-night McDonald’s takeout for all seven of us kids was cause for celebration. (This was even before Happy Meals.) I didn’t eat fast food that often; when I did it was usually a Special Occasion. My consumption peaked in high school and early college. Then as I slid into my twenties, I don’t know if it was age or declining food quality — I suspect a combination of both — but my body started disagreeing with anything you could procure from a drive-thru. (Except for McLobster sandwiches from McDonald’s. I don’t know if they’re still sold during New England summers, but they were when I left Boston eight years ago. They were fabulous.) I declared a moratorium on fast food.

Moving to Kansas actually helped in that regard. The nearest McDonald’s is 40 minutes away. Burger King, Dairy Queen, and Taco Bell, 90 minutes. My kids, three and almost six, still only know McDonald’s as “the place with the playground.” But also only 40 minutes away is a Subway. As fast-ish food goes, it’s not that bad. With the kids’ activities the way they’ve been for the past few months, we’ve partaken of the way of the sub quite often.

Today, I wanted a kid-size tuna sandwich. On wheat. With pickles. Just to tide me over till dinner. I was running errands, and the first time I stopped in, the line was out the door. I didn’t want the tuna that bad, so I left. But I was just this side of starving, so on my way out of town, I tried again. Only one guy in line. Score!

I waited patiently behind him while he directed his meat and bread choice. Roast beef. White, foot-long. American cheese. The guy behind the counter began to slide the sandwich over to another worker. We’ll call her Condiment Girl. As Condiment Girl stood poised to add whatever veggies and sauce were requested, the customer laughed slightly. “I have four more foot-longs after this one,” he said. “We have time.”

With Condiment Girl having nothing on which to add condiments, and four foot-long orders now in front of me, I sidestepped. I asked her: “Do you think you could make my sandwich while you’re waiting for him? It’s just a small tuna–”

That’s as far as I got. A third worker — let’s call him Register Guy — stepped forward and said “She can’t do that. She doesn’t know how.” My disbelief must have been tattooed on my face because he clarified: “That’s not her job. She doesn’t know how to make sandwiches.”

Squashing down the obvious response (was this not a sandwich shop?), I said only, with an index finger toward the customer in front of me: “He’s got four sandwiches. Do I really have to …?” I trailed off politely, not thinking it necessary to actually finish that thought. He was clearly in some position of authority, must understand efficiency and pleasing the customer. He’d see the ludicrousness of his thinking. Wouldn’t he?

He would not. He would instead cross his arms in front of his chest, unmoving. And I would turn around and walk right out the door, tunaless.

As I backed out of my parking spot, I thought about a project a friend had been working on for her master’s degree. The topic was “learned helplessness,” about how as more and more jobs — and thus people — became “specialized,” we essentially became more helpless. We can’t fend fully for ourselves, nor can we depend on ourselves. I felt like I could have delivered this scene to her on a platter. Or at least in a Subway bag.

That’s one thing about living here. People who live rurally know stuff. They fix. They build. In some cases they even invent. Most of the time the trip to town — or these days, to Wal-Mart or Home Depot — isn’t worth it. They know how to make do with what they have, and then some.

Just like Laura. And all the Ingallses. Out of kerosene? Make a button lamp. No apples? Try some green pumpkin pie. Want to play checkers? Burn alternate squares into a board.

What would these people have done back then?