Sunday, July 06, 2008

Laura Ingalls Wilder: "All I have told is true..."

In 2005, James Frey's "memoir" A Million Little Pieces was exposed as fraudulent. This was a big story, especially when Oprah challenged him about it. In 2008, Margaret B. Jones "memoir" called Love and Consequences was exposed as untrue. She presented it as her personal story, but the things she described did not happen to her. She made it up.

In 2006, Random House (publisher of A Million Little Pieces) offered a refund to readers who felt they had been defrauded. To qualify for the refund, the consumer had to sign a sworn statement saying they had bought the book because they believed it was a memoir.

A few days ago, I posted "Selective Omissions, or What Laura Ingalls Wilder left out of LITTLE HOUSE." If you've read the comments, you know that there are questions about why Wilder included the story about the Benders in her speech. The Ingalls family was no longer in their little house when the Benders came under suspicion and then disappeared. As noted elsewhere on this site, Laura was a toddler when her Pa took the family to that little house. Yet, the Laura in the book is not a toddler, she's a girl.

Calling attention again to what Wilder said in her speech:

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.

All those stories Wilder tells about Laura... How much of that 'memoir' is similar to Frey and Jones and their "memoirs"? Given how dearly-loved Wilder and her books are, I think some of you (most of you?) who are reading this are furious that I'd even suggest that Wilder did the same thing Frey did... Course, he did tell some whoppers on page after page, so her memoir isn't quite like his, yet, she certainly misrepresents American Indians in her book.

What does it mean to be defrauded? Must a reader be an adult before being defrauded matters? Is it the case that courts are willing to say "adults can get a refund for being defrauded" but that kids who believe Wilder's stories to be true do not merit a refund? Obviously I don't mean for any child to be issued a refund...

But! If you're a teacher or librarian, I hope you'll give this some thought, even if the suggestion infuriates you. As an educator, your responsibility is to the children in your school, not to Laura Ingalls Wilder or her books. Rather than read her books as literature, perhaps it is time to use them with older children, as items in critical media or critical literacy lessons.


Anonymous said...

Is it misrepresentation if that's how she remembered things?

jpm said...

I think one of the key points in what Debbie & others are saying is that LIW seems to remember things differently at different times, and reports things differently in her books than in other venues. Besides, LIW has acknowledged that she fictionalized.

I recall that as a child I took the descriptions of life she depicted in the Little House books literally, believing they were essentially autobiography. It was only as an adult that I became aware that these were works of fiction.

Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Library said...

Children do take what happens in books literally. Last year I was on a short visit to Switzerland to go to Heidi country with a little girl who believed every word of the story, no matter how often we reminded her-- to protect her from disappointment-- that it was a story, not a true book. When we walked up the path to the fake village of Dorfli, she wanted to know with every step whether Heidi might have stepped on the same footprint of grass.

I'm a full-immersion reader, myself. I still take everything I read literally, even as I know with my adult mind to measure it against various standards of reality.

What writers do is shape the books they write, even when it's nonfiction. I have a friend who wrote a memoir of her husband's death and her early widowhood. I wasn't in the final draft. "How could I not be in the book, I was THERE!!!!" I practically shouted. So she wrote me in-- presumably without changing the shape of what she wanted to tell. She has many many friends (and siblings, and relatives various). Not everyone and not every event was in the book, they couldn't be. I have been thinking ever since about the selected nature of nonfiction, and memoir; and fiction; and memory, and reality. Books are made artifacts.

Sorry for the long post, especially as I'm not ready to draw conclusions.

Miriam B.
Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Library