Thursday, July 03, 2008

Selective Omissions, or, What Laura Ingalls Wilder left out of LITTLE HOUSE

In 2001, I began some in-depth research on Laura Ingalls Wilder and Little House on the Prairie. I came across an article about a speech she gave on October 16, 1937, at a book fair in a Detroit department store. Her speech was published forty years later (September, 1978) in the Saturday Evening Post. I read the speech and was astonished at what she said. Moreover, I was astonished that none of the material I'd read to that point (and since) has commented on that speech... She said:

Every story in this novel, all the circumstances, each incident are true. All I have told is true, but it is not the whole truth. There were some stories I wanted to tell but would not be responsible for putting in a book for children, even though I knew them as a child.

And here is an extended excerpt. I'm adding bold text to set off the portions of the speech I want you to pay particular attention to:
There was the story of the Bender family that belonged in the third volume, Little House on the Prairie. The Benders lived halfway between it and Independence, Kansas. We stopped there, on our way in to the Little House, while Pa watered the horses and brought us all a drink from the well near the door of the house. I saw Kate Bender standing in the doorway. We did not go in because we could not afford to stop at a tavern.

On his trip to Independence to sell his furs, Pa stopped again for water, but did not go in for the same reason as before.

There were Kate Bender and two men, her brothers, in the family and their tavern was the only place for travelers to stop on the road south from Independence. People disappeared on that road. Leaving Independence and going south they were never heard of again. It was thought they were killed by Indians but no bodies were ever found.

Then it was noticed that the Benders’ garden was always freshly plowed but never planted. People wondered. And then a man came from the east looking for his brother, who was missing.

He made up a party in Independence and they followed the road south, but when they came to the Bender place there was no one there. There were signs of hurried departure and they searched the place.

The front room was divided by a calico curtain against which the dining table stood. On the curtain back of the table were stains about as high as the head of a man when seated. Behind the curtain was a trap door in the floor and beside it lay a heavy hammer.

In the cellar underneath was the body of a man whose head had been crushed by the hammer. It appeared that he had been seated at the table back to the curtain and had been struck from behind it. A grave was partly dug in the garden with a shovel close by. The posse searched the garden and dug up human bones and bodies. One body was that of a little girl who had been buried alive with her murdered parents. The garden was truly a grave-yard kept plowed so it would show no signs. The night of the day the bodies were found a neighbor rode up to our house and talked earnestly with Pa. Pa took his rifle down from its place over the door and said to Ma, “The vigilantes are called out.” Then he saddled a horse and rode away with the neighbor. It was late the next day when he came back and he never told us where he had been. For several years there was more or less a hunt for the Benders and reports that they had been seen here or there. At such times Pa always said in a strange tone of finality, “They will never be found.” They were never found and later I formed my own conclusions why.

You will agree it is not a fit story for a children’s book. But it shows there were other dangers on the frontier besides wild Indians.

Some context for why that speech is--to me--astonishing. In Little House on the Prairie, Wilder presents Indians as frightening and menacing. Through Mrs. Scott, she tells us about an Indian massacre. Three times, Wilder's characters say "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." And what about the terrifying tone at the end of Little House on the Prairie, when Pa stays up all night and the entire family listens to Indians "howling" for several nights in a row?

According to Wilder, it is "fit" for children to read about "wild Indians" but it is not "fit" for them to read about serial killers who are white, nor is it "fit" for children to read that Pa killed someone in order to protect his family from harm.

Wilder's speech was reprinted in 1988 in A Little House Sampler, edited by William T. Anderson. A Little House Sampler is cited in eleven other books (according to Amazon), and yet, nobody commented on the Bender's, or Wilder's decision not to include that story.

Think about that omission and what it means. I invite your comments, and please take a minute to read about racism in the Little House books (links below).

Update, July 5, 2008

A librarian in Kansas wrote to point me to info on the Benders, who are quite well known as serial killers. She writes:
The Bloody Benders, as they were called, represent one of Kansas' most enduring mysteries. They appeared to be a family of well-organized killers who robbed and killed unsuspecting travelers who ventured into their home/inn for a meal and whose bodies dropped through a trap door in the floor under the chair in which they were seated. Here is further information from our state historical society: Bender Knife.

There is a museum in Cherryvale, KS, which has items from the Bender home and a wreath of human hair from their victims, as well as a roadside marker near Labette, KS: The Bloody Benders.

And, another person has written, pointing me to a graphic novel called A Treasury of Victorian Murder: The Saga of the Bloody Benders.


For further reading:
Posts about racism in Little House on the Prairie series


12 comments:

Traci said...

Greetings!
I am a Chickasaw scholar who teaches American Indian Studies at Arizona State University.

I read these books as a child and have read this post with great interest! Your critique and reframing of the stories is most exciting!

Keep it up; I will continue to read with interest!

Prairie Rose said...

I have been much more puzzled myself as to why Laura included this story in her Book Fair speech at all than to why she would have left it out of her books.

Laura referred to Little House on the Prairie before she had written it as her "Indian story" -- it would have been a little difficult to leave the Indians out of the Indian story... Also, the "Little House" books are historical fiction based on the experiences of one little girl's growing up years. I personally feel like Laura is a lot "fairer" to the Indians in her books than many people in recent years have given her credit for. I am of Shawnee descent and proud of my Indian heritage and have devoted much study into the lives of my ancestors; and yet I read Little House on the Prairie and have no issues at all with this story... she's simply relating what her own experience was. There were in that time period Indians who were kind and gentle and fair, and Indians who did terrible things to white people, just as there were in that time period white people who were kind and gentle and fair, and white people who did terrible things to Indians. I just don't think we can pretend the bad things never happened or slant history by banning or criticizing books that tell the truth from one individual's experience. Other individuals would have had different experiences; some wrote about it, some didn't. But enough on that --

The Bender story? It doesn't even fit historically into the time period the Ingalls family was there. I don't think Laura remembered this at all. But why does she say that she does? That is what I've often wondered about. I personally think that Rose and/or Laura uncovered the Bender story in their research for Little House on the Prairie and as neither seemed particularly aware of the historical details (Laura apparently even thought they had lived in Oklahoma rather than Kansas, as she and Rose went looking there for the location once), I think they didn't realize that the Bender story took place after the Ingalls had long since left Indian Territory.

The Ingalls family left Kansas in September 1870, right after the birth of Carrie. It wasn't until Feb 1873 that the first victims of the Bender family disappeared, and it was spring 1873 when the Benders themselves came under suspicion and disappeared. There is no possible way Pa could have been involved in this. There were articles in the New York Times throughout the decades as various people were caught and thought to be Benders, and finally a dying man confessed he'd been part of a vigilance committee that had killed them. I think somewhere along the way, Laura or Rose read these stories and thought they took place during the Ingalls' stay in the area.

But why Laura would act as if she remembered this all happening when it simply couldn't have has always puzzled me. And why tell such a gruesome story in a speech that surely must have included children as its attendees? I have no idea what she was thinking to have done this.

I think nobody has commented on this story in published works because nobody quite knows what to make of the whole thing. :) But plenty of people have wandered onto Laura discussion groups and asked and the discussions have been held many times. The LIW world hasn't been strangely silent on this piece of information; you've just apparently never stumbled upon the internet LIW community. :)

equa yona(Big Bear) said...

Prairie Rose,Thanks for the additional info and for the generous perspective on LIW. I suspect she is a product of her era and was probaly told that if she wandered off the "wild indians" would get her, or some such. Truth is, white folks out west were very afraid of Indians in those days and I would be surprised if her writing didn't reflect that. It seems to me that white folks are STILL awfully afraid of Indians if you look at the police response to the protest near Marty, SD; over 40 cars carrying state police, two cops per car, plus sherriff and local cops. For a peaceful protest! Makes Laura seem pretty mild by comparison.

Calicomama said...

This is all fascinating. I am a "lightweight" Little House researcher who is interested in the shady line between "reality", what Laura and/or Rose thought was reality, and what ended up in the books. The more you look at the historical details (aka, where the family was at a specific point in history), the more things don't quite fit. My recent interest has been the idea that the Ingalls were almost surely illegally squatting on Indian land (the Osage Diminished Reserve) during the period that would become the Little House on the Prairie. I wish I had more energy and more knowledge of Indian policy to make sense of all this!

Prairie Rose said...

Yes, the Ingalls family was definitely illegally squatting on the Osage Diminished Reserve -- Laura pretty much comes right out and says so in Little House on the Prairie. Pa says, "If some blasted politicians in Washington hadn’t sent out word it would be all right to settle here, I’d never have been three miles over the line into Indian Territory."

Charles Ingalls never filed on a homestead claim in Kansas because the land wasn't yet open to settlers; it was still Osage land. However, Charles and the other settlers mentioned in the book had heard that the land would soon be open, and they knew it would go fast. The best way to be sure of getting a good piece of land was to get there before it was open for settling, and that way as soon as it was available, they could file their claim -- first come, first served, so to speak.

However, it looked like things were going to take a different turn, and the Osage weren't going to be pushed into giving up their land. A meeting was scheduled to discuss what the final outcome would be in August 1870, but it was delayed so the Osage could go on their annual buffalo hunt.

Carrie was born August 3, and the Ingalls family left Indian Territory as soon as Ma could travel, probably late August or early September. However, another piece of information that helps us put together what really happened is that Pa also received word that the man he had sold his farm in Pepin to couldn't pay up.

It's not sure whether Pa truly believed the deal with the Osage had fallen through and he left solely because he thought he had to, or whether they were so worried and upset at the tensions with the Osage that when this information came through Ma thought it was providential and they'd best return, or whether they knew things with the Osage were going to be settled soon in the settlers' favor but with the buyer of the farm defaulting on his payments, they didn't have enough money to sustain living there and were therefore forced to return for financial reasons. Regardless of the reason, the Ingalls family packed up and headed back to their Pepin farm before the September meeting, where the Osage reluctantly signed a treaty forcing them to move to new land, purchased from the Cherokee, thus opening up their territory for settlement by the whites.

As for historical accuracy and what was published in the books, I think it's important to understand that Rose -- in her own works -- cared little for facts and wrote whatever she thought would make the best story. The Little House books aren't purely autobiographical and weren't meant to be -- but they are of course historical fiction, and I believe Laura provided the historical and Rose provided the fiction. :) In some cases, particularly in Little House on the Prairie because she was only 3 when the family left there, Laura didn't have all the facts. While she did do research to try to learn what she could, she was probably forced to do some guesswork when it came to dates and specific locations.

Debbie Reese said...

Note to prairie rose:

Please post links to the online community you reference (that has discussed the Benders). Thanks!

Debbie Reese said...

Responding to prairie rose's post:

Prairie Rose notes that the Ingalls had already left Kansas by the time the Bender's were exposed as killers, and she wonders why Laura Ingalls Wilder says Pa was in the posse.

Laura made it up.

As noted elsewhere on this blog, she was not the little girl she describes in LITTLE HOUSE.... at the time they were there, she was a toddler. The stories she tells are based on what? Mary's experiences?

I wonder... if this book were published today and these discrepancies were pointed out, might she suffer the sort of backlash Frey received?

Dana Stemig said...

I think it is important to remember two things about Laura Ingalls Wilder's writing of the Little House books. 1) The books are historical fiction. They were never intended to be taken as historical fact. That is why they are fiction and not nonfiction. 2) People often think that they remember things that are told to them often enough. As was pointed out, Laura was too young at the time of the first several books to have remembered many of things incidents. I believe that it is very likely that she wrote the books from her memories of the stories that were told to her.
I love the Little House books but I realize that, like all historical fiction, the facts are often changed to fit the story. That does not mean the stories are bad. As an elementary school teacher librarian, I teach my students the meaning of historical fiction as a genre and the difference between fiction and nonfiction.
I recently listened to an author tell about a book that he wrote that was a collection of short stories that had their beginning in actually incidents from his childhood. He changed the names and some of the incidents to fit the story he was creating. Some family members did not understand that the work was fiction and felt that he was telling lies about his own family. When individuals accuse Laura Ingalls Wilder of falsifying the stories she wrote, they are making the same mistake that his family made. Fiction is fiction and does not fall under the same expectations of accuracy as nonfiction.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know Mrs. Scott's given name?

Daniel Gerken said...

Four years late to the conversation here, but...

Regardless of the historical facts of the Benders event, it seems to me the critique "It is 'fit' for children to read about 'wild Indians' but not serial killers who are white" still stands. The question is not about what the writer experienced firsthand (or not) nor even her personal beliefs, but rather the systemic beliefs (of white culture) about what is appropriate to talk about and what is inappropriate. Such an omission admission definitely seems to reveal a racialization of violence. What would the reception have been if the Benders were portrayed as being Osage? Would the episode then have been fit to include? One (me) wonders if it wouldn't in fact garner the tacit approval of the dominant white discourse.

Additionally, "nor is it 'fit' for children to read that Pa killed someone in order to protect his family from harm" inquires into the imaging of the white frontiersman as a godlike being. To imply that the admission that such a nobly romanticized figure had at times to resort to homicide, whatever the justification, might tarnish that image and unsettle the readership provokes some perhaps discomfiting implications regarding what qualifies as acceptably white in portrayals of heroism.

Tonia said...

Let's remember these books were based on a time where most white people were afraid of Indians.

David Siebert said...

I remember reading this book as a child of around 10 years old back in 1975. It is funny but I can still remember how I felt when the Ingalls had to leave their home. I felt bad for for both the Ingalls and the native americans. I remember feeling that that Pa seemed to have respect of the native americans, Ma had fear, and Laura want to play with the children.
At least that is how I remember it. Of course those are just old memories of what a child felt long ago.