The National Catholic Review

The Little House on the Prairie series—in book, television and, now, DVD—has long captured the imagination of readers, writers and teachers. Many readers look back on the collection with great affection and nostalgia, believing the writing suggests a simpler time. In the introduction to Little House, Long Shadow, Anita Clair Fellman (chair of women’s studies and associate professor of history at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.) admits that she “was not a devoted fan of the stories in childhood.” But when the time came for her to read books to her own children, she was “determined to foist” the books on them and in doing so became “captivated.” Her involvement with the works became personal and political, in part because “the emotional appeal of the series is formidable.”

One of her many theses is that the Wilder stories have enduring appeal because they represent the American ideal of self-reliance. In her quest to find answers about the works’ influence, her studies often led her into other people’s memories of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s collection. It is important to note that even though the first book in the series was published in 1935, a time when the cost of owning children’s books was prohibitive, the books have never gone out of print, remain best sellers and are among the most frequently used texts in schools.

The Wilders—both Laura and her daughter Rose—were acutely aware of the ways in which America’s Great Depression paralleled life on the frontier. The authors advocated less government interference in the personal lives of America’s citizens because they wanted to believe that most citizens, when left to their own devices, could better regulate the local community than could a government based hundreds of miles away. And so the novels served as morality tales, whereby the “good” people made sure the “bad” people got their comeuppance.

The books’ popularity has led to the stories’ being adapted for stage and television—both as a series and a mini-series (in England and America)—and as a cartoon by the Japanese. From the first publication, teachers and families have read Little House on the Prairie aloud as a form of entertainment. (Ronald Reagan was a huge fan of the television series. According to Fellman’s research, he watched it nightly while eating dinner from a television tray in the family quarters of the White House.)

Some educators have even used the collection as a starting point to teach reading, history, math and social studies. Students make sunbonnets, log cabins from cardboard boxes, and participate in other activities featured in the various stories. There are online groups devoted to endless discussions of the way the television series deviated from the books. To scrutinize such a beloved text in a scholarly fashion is risky. The great strength of Little House, Long Shadow is Fellman’s willingness to present the multiple sides and arguments, gently nudging the reader to keep context in mind.

Even though the works were written in the third person, many readers assumed the stories were the tales of a truthful narrator. There is always the question of whether or not Laura’s recollections were composites, reliable narrative, or fell under the heading of “remembering as an act of imagination.” During the first years of publication, the narratives were classified as non-fiction because they were being written down by Laura Ingalls Wilder, who had lived through the migration to and settling of the American Midwest. Her stories were taken to be autobiographical rather than representational. She was given some license to omit the painful details, such as the death of her infant son. As scholars gained greater access to family history, the books are now classified as “historical fiction.”

More information about the complicated and multi-faceted relationship between Laura and her daughter Rose has also come to light with scholarly inquiry. Letters and assorted family documents have established that Laura wrote the stories while Rose edited them, found the publisher for them and took care of the various literary duties associated with the writing life. Each woman apparently resented the symbiotic work relationship, finding it difficult to give the other credit. The two women seemed closest when living great distances apart. There is plentiful speculation that their difficult relationship is the basis for “Pa’s” role as the dominant parent in the books. The lives of women and the problems women faced are often ignored, presumably because they were considered unimportant during the years the books were initially published (1932-45).

Political correctness has also prompted educators to reconsider the books. Whites were not the first people to view most of the territory about which Ingalls writes, and teachers have had to find ways to balance historical accuracy with the fictional license taken by the authors. (Louise Erdrich cites the works as childhood favorites and is working on her own correlated series, told from a tribal perspective.)

Anita Clair Fellman argues convincingly that Laura Ingalls Wilder has had a significant influence on American culture, children’s literature and readers worldwide. Fellman’s research is impeccable. She delves into the questions of what would have constituted literal truth in the works, why readers still find resonance in the works, and whether the works should be taken off school reading lists for reasons of racial sensitivity.

Little House, Long Shadow will appeal to the reader who values accuracy as much as imagination. Fellman’s judicious interpretation and critique of the Little House series reminds readers that works of literature often reflect the social and political mores of their time. She celebrates individuality—that most American of ideals.