“Wholesome” vs. Fiction vs. The Truth

I started reading the Little House books when I was in second grade, after receiving On The Banks of Plum Creek as a gift from a family friend at Christmas. I read them over and over again, both as a child and as I grew older. I knew they were fictionalized to a point. I got my hands on Laura by Donald Zochert by the time I was 11 or 12, so I knew there was plenty that was left out of her life.

I’ve visited her home in Mansfield, Missouri. I visited Almanzo Wilder’s boyhood home in Malone, New York. I’ve bought and read numerous books, including the book of her original stories penned by hand that later became her book. I’m a huge fan of hers.

That said, I have nearly been thrown out of a Facebook group dedicated to the REAL Laura Ingalls Wilder (not the TV show) twice. Both times it was because I brought up the fact that her real life didn’t match what was depicted in the books or the television show.

The most recent discussion was today, when someone brought up that there’s a reboot of the television series in the works. I didn’t often watch the television show growing up as it took too many liberties with the books. It was more about Michael Landon’s agenda (including appearing shirtless as often as he could) than anything related to the books. We often have people come into the group and ask what happened to Albert or if Mary and Adam ever had any other children. None of that existed in the books or in real life, among other things.

Oh no.. itll be horrible … they’ll make Ma and Mary racists …Nellie will be a feminist and Carrie will probably be gay or something… I hope this idea dies …ppl should read books again

They should just create a good wholesome show similar to LH! No reboot!

The show was a fictionalization of fiction. I can remember so many things that I saw that ticked me off because it was nothing like Laura’s life, either in the books or in what really happened.

The depiction of Native Americans in the books has been troubling to some people in recent years. Ma was deathly afraid of them. Her father had traded with them before his untimely death, and the Natives helped her family when she was young, so it’s unclear what precipitated this fear in her. Events in the book Little House on the Prairie are told through the eyes of a child. The truth was, Pa decided to settle in Indian territory illegally, hoping the US Government would force the Natives off of the land there, as they had done in the past. This did actually happen less than 6 months after they left. Their departure had more to do with the person who agreed to buy the far from Pa back in Wisconsin being unable to pay for it.

Which “truth” is the right one to tell? Do we tell it through the eyes of a child or do we tell the truth of the situation? Do we fictionalize it to make it “wholesome?” What if the whole idea of “wholesome” is a complete lie?

Another point is the time between On The Banks of Plum Creek and By The Shores of Silver Lake. That was never published in book form as it was a very difficult time for the family. A baby brother was born and died when he was around 9 months old. The family moved to Burr Oak, Iowa where Pa helped run a hotel and both Ma and the girls helped. If you know the books, there’s a time in Little Town on the Prairie where Pa decries that “no daughter of mine will ever work in a hotel!” Obviously, though, they did. Not only that, but Pa skipped town in the middle of the night to avoid paying debts he owed.

That statement, and the fact that Pa sold Jack the dog rather than the depiction of him being a source of love and protection to the family up until his death, was what got me in trouble the first time and nearly kicked out of the group. People don’t want the actual truth. They want a fictionalized version that appeals to their sense of what is “wholesome.” They want to believe that everything Pa did was right and noble. They don’t want to hear that he sold off the family pet or skipped out on a debt.

In fact, Almanzo’s sister Eliza Jane was a “feminist.” Unlike the mousy, old-maid schoolteacher depicted in the television show, she was a very strong woman. She not only proved up her own homestead claim in North Dakota, but worked with suffragists in Washington DC and in various states. She fought for the right to vote and for women’s property rights.

If you don’t believe gay people existed back then, you would be naive as well. There were many ladies who were “old maids” who lived together and people did question it. Same as “confirmed bachelors.” If people knew, they chalked it up to none of their business for the most part.

One woman this morning used the post to go on an anti-abortion rant. I’ll say the same thing: if you don’t think abortion existed back then, you’re sadly mistaken. Women often knew where there were midwives that would take care of a situation for them if they needed it. If they died because of it, no one worried either. There would always be whispers about things, but other than the gossip, real things that happened weren’t talked about.

What is “wholesome?” To me, it’s fiction; something that has zero basis in reality. It’s a made-up depiction of life that some people think we should aspire to, because it happens to coincide with their values.

I’m currently reading the book above which takes a hard look at some of the things depicted in the books versus reality. It’s a tough read – it feels more like someone’s master thesis than a readable book. However, the information is really good. I’ll get into more of the topics of the books versus reality when I finish it.

3 replies »

  1. I never read those books, but I read Caddie Woodlawn some time at the beginning of time or when I was in grade school, whichever came first. I loved the book. I knew it wasn’t all true, but it was a great story. Trying to read it as an adult is a cringe fest. I haven’t even begun to delve into how much of it was “true” or “wholesome.” And the depiction of the natives was demeaning at best.

    • I did believe the Little House books were the gospel truth for some time, until I read the Donald Zochert book. After that, I had more of an understanding that it was written for a younger audience so some things were left out because of that, and possibly some episodes were too painful (like losing her brother when he was a baby) to really write a children’s book about. What I’m reading now gives even more insight into the writing. Despite the poor record-keeping of the era, there is a lot of information out there. People used to hang onto paperwork and pass letters down through the generations.

      • I once thought about buying a copy of Caddie Woodlawn for a friend’s daughter before I remembered there was a passage about a scalp belt. I’ve forgotten the details, but it was minimized because the scalps were Indians’.

        I found another book for my friend’s daughter.