Monday, July 18, 2011

AICL reader on McClure's THE WILDER LIFE

Editor's Note: Today's post is by a Teacher Librarian, NW of Chicago. She writes:

I have spent a long time pondering your comments about the Laura Ingalls Wilder books because, as you can guess, I loved the books when I read them as a child. However, something happened that put everything in perspective for me. I recently listened to the audio book, The Wilder Life: my adventures in the lost world of Little House on the Prairie, written by Wendy McClure. It is a memoir recording her year of visiting all the places Laura had lived and how she felt about the experience. As a Little House fan, I was riveted. I thought that throughout the book, McClure did an adequate job of pointing out Wilder's prejudices when writing about the Indians. However, toward the end of her book, McClure wrote of this incident:
p. 318

I bought a sunbonnet at the museum store, my sixth one.

"I had a feeling you would buy one on this trip," Kara said, as we walked back out to the car. "I bought something, too." She went through her bag in the backseat and pulled out a feathered headband, the kind they used to sell in dime stores for playing cowboys and Indians. "Picture time!" she said.

I started laughing. "Oh my God," I said. "Yes!" We put on our mythical headgear and took pictures of ourselves standing together in the parking lot. It seemed a fitting way to end the trip.
In my mind, the incident was a totally "unfitting" way to end the book. This scene ruined my empathetic feelings toward the author and illustrated how Wilder's stereotypes are still alive and well.


Wendy said...

The author of this post either overlooked or neglected to mention that my friend is part Lakota Sioux, and seems to have missed the point that both the feathered headband (which was my friend's idea) and the sunbonnet were meant to be ironic. I'm sorry the nature of the scene wasn't clear to a reader.

I welcome any discussion of my book, but I just wanted to point out that the quoted scene had some context that the author of the post did not mention. It's also not the final scene in the book.

(Side note: Debbie, your blog was very helpful to me with my research of The Wilder Life.)

Debbie Reese said...

Hi Wendy,

I got your book in ebook format and am making my way through it. An engaging read, and it is doing well in the market! Are you hearing from LHOP fans?

Once I finish and have some time to reflect on it, I'll upload a blog post.

A quick note about irony: it is much-discussed in my classes at UIUC. Irony and satire are very dependent on context, viewpoint, background knowledge, shared perspectives...

Debbie Reese said...


I hope people don't interpret this as my ego speaking...

I wish you had included a link to my site in your book. (Maybe you did and I missed it?)

Providing your readers with that link would give them the opportunity to delve into Native perspectives on the series. I've included responses to the books by several Native people.

Wendy said...

Hi Debbie,

I didn't mention any websites in the bibliography, just books. During event Q&A's I've directed people to your site, the Birchbark House series, and Michael Dorris's essay about reading the LH books.

What I realized after reading your site and other discussions is that many (maybe most) LHOP fans don't even know the real-life circumstances behind the book and instead mistake the fiction of the novel for historical fact. It's hard to have a productive conversation that way.

Anonymous said...

Wendy, I appreciate the information you added in response to my comment about the headband and sunbonnet scene. You are right, I had completely forgotten that your friend is part Lakota Sioux.

At the time that I was listening to your book, I know I was influenced by Debbie's blog and her post about the picture book, Not Me! by Nicola Killen as well as similar previous posts of hers. Debbie felt that Killen's book perpetuated offensive stereotypes. So, I was taken aback by the scene I quoted. In light of your comments, however, I am going to try to sort through the issue again. I am looking forward to what reflections Debbie might have when she has a chance to read your book.

On a different note, I was extremely interested in your comparison of what was fiction in the LH books and what was fact, or at least most likely to be true. As a child I did think of the stories as mostly factual. Much to my chagrin, I realized I still saw the books as factual. After listening to your book, my rose-colored glasses were definitely removed. And, I think it was long overdue. Months later I am still mulling over your unique experiences and observations.

As for the ending, again, you are right. It is not the final scene. I got stuck there and so it became the ending in my mind. I did listen to the rest of your story and felt a great deal of sympathy for you. If I understood correctly, I think you were expressing how your loss had been what was fueling the firing of your year-long quest. It did take me by surprise, which I think it was meant to do.

I'm sorry if I misinterpreted your book. Because I am still reflecting on your story several months later, it wouldn't be fair to give other readers the wrong impression. So, perhaps a compromise. I can't deny that the scene I commented on in the book still makes me uncomfortable. But I can say that your book was a real eye-opener for me and you gave me new information and new understandings that mean a lot to me. As one of those LH childhood fans, I was forced to take a look at my own tangled attachment to Laura. And as you mentioned, there are a lot of us out there.

Kim said...


I’m a librarian, and I've just finished rereading the LH books for the first time since childhood. I reread them in preparation for moving them to a section of our library where we keep children's literature we don’t recommend for casual or uncritical use with young children because of the stereotypes, factual errors, or errors of omission found in the books in this collection. After having heard about your book on Debbie’s blog, I’ve also just finished THE WILDER LIFE, which I enjoyed for the most part (despite a few reservations I’ll mention later).

Rereading the LH books has been troubling experience for me. Twenty-five years after I first read them, part of me is remembering why I loved them so much when I was a kid. That same part of me is loving them all over again as an adult, completely caught up in “Laura World,” as you so aptly christened that space many of us enter into when reading the books.

Another part of me is horrified that my parents and my teachers let me anywhere near these books as a child, when (like a lot of other young kids who read these books today, I suspect) I most certainly did not have the sophistication or the background knowledge to do anything but absorb and normalize the attitudes presented in them as I devoured them. As you point out in an earlier post to this thread, a lot of adults who read the books don’t even have the background knowledge or the inclination to read them critically, much less lead a discussion with children about the problematic world view they present. Certainly, none of the adults in my life had this discussion with me when I first read them.

As an adult, I’m worried that a lot of people – kids and adults -- are still reading these books without the necessary context and awareness. I feel like the publisher should be adding explanatory footnotes, or libraries and bookstores should be slapping some kind of a warning label on the covers kind of like the warnings we put on cigarette packages here in Canada: “Go ahead and smoke these if you want to, but they’re not good for you” (that’s a very inaccurate paraphrase, but you get the idea). I took notes as I read them this time around, and there is not a single book in the series that doesn’t contain blatantly or subtly derogatory references to either “wild Indians” or “darkies” tucked amid all the wholesome, slice-of-(white)American-life family fare. And, I’d hasten to add, it’s the subtle racism that is the more dangerous, because it’s harder to identify (especially for us white readers, who are not usually very good at recognizing racism in its most subtle forms, particularly when it comes wrapped up so prettily in a beloved children’s classic).

All this to say that I’m glad you’re pointing people to the Birchbark House series and to the Dorris article and Debbie’s blog while doing publicity for your book, and I’m glad you at least mentioned the Frances W. Kaye article in the text of the book, if not in the bibliography. Like Debbie, though, I wish you had pointed people to her blog somewhere in the book. I know you said you didn’t list websites in the bibliography, but you did mention at least 2 other blogs and their authors in the text of the book, and I wish you had done the same with Debbie’s.

I’m guessing a lot of LH fans reading your book won’t have been aware of the historical facts behind the fiction, and have been neither inclined nor encouraged to approach the books from any perspective other than Laura’s. I think you made a good start in chapter 5 of your book, but I guess I just wish that you had made it a bit harder for all of us non-Indigenous readers to continue on in our blissful ignorance by directing us IN WRITING to Debbie’s blog, or Waziyatawin Angela Cavender Wilson’s book chapter, or Dorris’s essay, or Erdrich’s series. As it is now, those of us who don’t attend your publicity events will miss the chance to be exposed to these perspectives. If you’ve got a website, could you post some of these references there to make up for their absence in your book?

Wendy said...

Anonymous and Kim, thanks for responding. Adding a resource page to my site with a more complete bibliography is clearly something I need to do very soon!