As a child, I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books.
I began them when I started third grade. When people ask about formative books, I think first of this series: of these books that I read when I walked around the house, that I carried to the dinner table, that I pored over during recess, and that I bugged my teacher to put on her curriculum even as the school year was ending. But I put off writing about them for a long time as it seems that I can’t bring myself to re-read them.
I still can’t.
Wilder’s semi-autobiographical children’s novels follow the pioneering Ingalls family as they move from Wisconsin (Little House in the Big Woods) to territory that was in reality an Osage Indian reservation in Kansas (Little House on the Prairie). The family then departs for Walnut Grove, Minnesota (On the Banks of Plum Creek), where they live in a house made of sod, then to De Smet, South Dakota, the setting of By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years. One book, Farmer Boy, follows the childhood adventures of Almanzo, Wilder’s husband, as he tends to livestock, does chores, eats cake, and tries to get along with siblings in upstate New York. The Ingalls family (and the Wilders) sew their own clothes, endure blizzards, illness, and locusts, and still manage to find love, and joy, and adventure with family.
I say that the books are semi-autobiographical because despite the fact that the main character has Wilder’s name and the family travels roughly along the same paths that Wilder’s family did, the novels are very much fiction. Liberties were taken with Wilder’s real life story. And to a certain extent, this is acknowledged. Little House in the Big Woods, after all, opens like this:
Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.
The book has the opening for a fairy tale, with one solid fact thrown in—sixty years. Reception of the series—and certainly my feelings about it when I was young—concentrated on the harsh pioneer life, on details about playing ball with a pig’s bladder or making a doll out of a corn cob. I know I also identified with the setting of the story because I lived in the flat, cold middle of Canada (albeit in a city, in a house with indoor plumbing and heating). I know I also wanted to be resourceful and plucky, like the Ingalls family. I wanted to make my own bread, sew my own clothes, churn butter, and plant things.
(Basically, I wanted to do crafts and ride in horse-drawn buggies—but to have other modern conveniences.)
More recently, however, writers and scholars have turned their attention to the fictive-ness of the books—and to the mythmaking. Some memorable characters, the handsome Cap Garland, for example, are made up. More important, Pa Ingalls’s reasons for dragging his family across large swathes of Kansas and the Dakotas are elided. Pa Ingalls and his family weren’t benign settlers pitting their ingenuity against the dangerous wild; they were invading Native American territories. They had to do it on their own because they weren’t supposed to be there.
Indeed, Caroline’s Fraser’s 2017 book, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, looks at the ways that Wilder’s books not only diverged from the realities of her life but made that life into one of the shaping narratives of American identity. The book also examines how Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a follower of Ayn Rand, extensively rewrote her mother’s books, often twisting facts to reflect Obectivist values.
But Fraser’s is only the latest in a series of sources that made me re-examine my feelings about the series. Among those:
Louis Erdrich’s books Birchbark House books, written from the perspective of Native Americans and set at around the same time as Wilder’s books;
Scholar Debbie Reese’s blog, “American Indians in Children’s Literature,” in which she talks about the depiction of Native Americans in the Little House series and in other books. This is just one example.
It was a conversation about Wilder’s books that Dr. Reese shared on Twitter that initially made me question what kinds of books from my childhood I wanted to give to my own child (which I talked about here) and, more important, why exactly I wanted to share them.
Does reading the Little House books lead to a greater understanding of history? Not on their own. Would it lead to my daughter understanding me or my life better?
Would it bring us closer?
If that were true, would this I want this particular story connecting us?
I am at a loss. I don’t know how to reconcile my memories, my newer knowledge, and my feelings about what is best to do right now. I have been told I should talk these issues out with kids, but so far I haven’t mentioned Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series to my daughter. I’m not actively hiding them. But I’ve chosen to put different books in front of her and to have her explore what she likes on her own. In any case, it’s likely that she’ll encounter them without my interference. She’ll be older.
By then, I hope I’ll be better prepared to talk about them.
In fourth grade, I read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden. I owned a mint-green Dell Yearling paperback copy that I must have bought with my allowance money. It was a book that likely inspired my childish love of the idea of England, of the idea of gardens and nature.
In The Secret Garden, ten-year-old Mary Crawford is sent to England after her parents die in a cholera epidemic in India. She finds herself at the Yorkshire estate of her uncle Archibald, a widower with a tragic past.
Mary is described as an unpleasant child: sallow, thin, spoiled, unsmiling. She is used to ordering people about and having no other children to play with. But once she’s in Yorkshire, the maid Martha begins telling her tales of her family, especially her mother and Martha’s animal-loving brother, Dickon. Mary soon finds herself shunted outside to play, where she befriends a robin and grumpy gardener Ben Weatherstaff, and learns about a secret enclosed flower garden on the estate. Being outdoors improves Mary’s physical stamina and mental outlook: she starts running around and jumping rope. And once she finds the key and the door to the secret garden, she begins poking around in the earth.
She also meets Dickon and, later, her ten-year-old cousin, Colin, an invalid whose cries echo through the manor. She soon gets Colin out of the house and into the garden. Being outdoors enacts a transformation of Colin’s health and gives him a channel for his autocratic tendencies. Soon the children are running around singing, chanting, and speaking odes to the healing magic—sorry, capital M Magic—of “plain” English food, English weather, and English gardens.
Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in England in 1849 but spent a large portion of her adult life in the United States—moving first with her family to Knoxville, Tennessee, then Washington, DC, and ending her days in Plandome Manor on Long Island in 1924.
In addition to The Secret Garden, she was best known for her children’s novels Little Lord Fauntleroy and A Little Princess. Burnett was also a prolific author of plays, serials, and novels for adults. Her work was successful enough that she was able to spend time in Paris, across Europe, and at a home in Bermuda where she wintered. She also became interested in Christian Science, Spiritualism, and Theosophy, and the effects of those beliefs can be seen especially in the last quarter of The Secret Garden.
As a kid, I remember skipping over those “spiritual” sections a lot, although I can’t say it affected my enjoyment of the book. Our Language Arts teacher, Mrs. Stephenson, had similar feelings when showed us what I think was probably the 1975 BBC miniseries adaptation. She said she liked it, although she mentioned the magical-spiritual garden stuff being very hokey.
Hokey is perhaps not the word I’d use today.
I’d love to say that tiny Mindy read The Secret Garden and was able to identify the shitty colonial ideology of the book.
But no, the opposite happened: the book helped make me an Anglophile in my stupid, stupid youth. I loved this idealized version of England with chatty robins and wild animals tamely following Dickon around the moors. I tried to speak with a Yorkshire accent. I wanted to like things described in the book, such as good thick porridge (even though in reality I didn’t like porridge, unless it was Taiwanese rice porridge), currant buns (I disliked currants), the chilly outdoor air (we were in Canada and it was often more than chilly), and running around in it (no). I even wanted to like gardening, though in my personal experience my parents’ and grandparents’ suburban Canadian vegetable patch was pretty terrible and certainly didn’t involve sweet-smelling flowers or fresh healthy air. Clearly I was willing and able to endure a lot of cognitive dissonance around the realities of what I liked and wanted in life versus the ideals described in The Secret Garden.
One thing I could not love even as a child, however, was Colin. And on re-reading the book, well … if anything, he’s worse.
It is very clear to me as an adult how much love and attention the narrator lavishes on Colin. He is often described as “beautiful.” He has a “beautiful smile.” He’s “quite beautiful in spite of his thinness.” His eyes are “beautiful” and strange, and he has long, thick lashes.
Despite not being introduced until the second half of the story, he takes over most of it; Mary—remember Mary? The girl we start off following and the one who finds the whole damn secret garden?—has no more than a few lines of dialogue in the last quarter of the story. Colin, by contrast, talks for pages and pages.
“The Magic in this garden has made me stand up and know I am going to live to be a man,” Colin says at one point.
After spouting off in kind for a few more paragraphs, he has Ben Weatherstaff, Mary, and Dickon sitting cross-legged in a circle with him:
“Now we will begin,” he said. “Shall we sway backward and forward, Mary, as if we were dervishes?”
“I canna’ do no swayin’ back’ard and for’ard,” said Ben Weatherstaff. “I’ve got the ’rheumatics.”
“The Magic will take them away,” said Colin in a High Priest tone, “but we won’t sway until it has done it. We will only chant.”
Colin becomes the expert on Magic—even though he’s not the one who came up with the idea. But Dickon and Mary and Ben Weatherstaff accept his leadership. He’s a budding cult leader, complete with questionable medical ideas, “beautiful”/hypnotic eyes, and an imperious manner.
In Colin the most annoying parts of Burnett’s spiritual-colonial enterprise are personified. The boy is often also described as a “the young Rajah.” Mary says:
Once in India I saw a boy who was a Rajah. He had rubies and emeralds and diamonds stuck all over him. He spoke to his people just as you spoke to Martha. Everybody had to do everything he told them—in a minute. I think they would have been killed if they hadn’t.
The “Rajah” epithet sticks because Colin is bossy as fuck. He is the master of the house while his father is away—and never stops reminding people of the fact. But what does it mean that Colin is continually compared to a young, spoiled non-Englishtyrant, when in fact, being cooped up in England on his own estate has made him the dictator that he is?
In the characterization of Colin, we run up against the fact that so much of the book depends on comparing India unfavorably with England, even as the book exploits Indian things that it finds convenient. The children cobble together a spiritual practice by referring to animal charmers, “fakirs,” transplanting Mary’s childish colonial cultural observations and bits from Colin’s books, mixing in the idea of the pastoral, and trying to mash all of these things into a kind of magical—sorry, capital M Magical—English-ness.
I live in Manhattan now, in an apartment.
My upstairs neighbors are renovating, so all morning I’ve been trying to write some sort of conclusion to this piece between the whines of drilling and the thump of a sledgehammer being taken to the walls. My life is the opposite of bucolic, and at times like these, I find myself wanting to agree with Frances Hodgson Burnett—an Anglo-American, city-loving socialite writer—that there is no location more magical and desirable than a great, green garden in England.
But that place is largely a myth—a nation-building tale from another time—and I don’t think the the rulers of that place would particularly welcome me.
This summer, I spent some time re-reading Anne of Green Gables, a book that I turned to frequently in my childhood. It was easy to fall into it, but it also made me think of the lessons we learn—the habits we form—when we are young readers.
In Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beloved classic, middle-aged siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert decide to adopt a boy to help them with their Prince Edward Island farm. But as the result of a miscommunication, instead of a sturdy boy the Cuthberts end up with red-headed Anne Shirley, whose unself-conscious chatter and vivid imagination soon win over shy Matthew and uptight Marilla.
The novel follows Anne as she befriends “kindred spirits,” including her bosom friend the neighbor girl Diana Barry, attends classes at Avonlea village’s one-room schoolhouse (and breaks a slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head for calling her carrots), accidentally puts salt in a cake instead of sugar, dyes her hair green, dreams of dresses with puffed sleeves, and excels when she attends teacher’s college.
Anne is a daydreamer, but intelligent and hard working. Throughout, Anne learns and matures, but the book also charts her progress from mistrusted stranger in town—an orphan—to being a member of the community of Avonlea.
Anne of Green Gables, published in 1908, was Canadian writer Lucy Maud Montgomery’s debut. It met with instant success, and Montgomery went on to write nineteen more novels, including five more in the Anne series, a few books that focus on Anne’s friends and children, and the Emily books.
In many ways, Anne of Green Gables is about the commonplace—village life and growing up. But it is also about the power of imagination and storytelling. Anne’s parents die when she is a baby and she is taken in by a Mrs. Thomas, who, according to Anne, is “poor and ha[s] a drunken husband.” Young Anne helps raise the Thomases’ four children, and when the husband dies after falling under a train, she goes to Mrs. Hammond, who has eight children. Of Mrs. Hammond’s family, Anne says, “I’m sure I could never have lived there if I hadn’t had an imagination.”
Anne takes refuge from the real danger of her early life in stories, and it is through making stories that she gains friends in Avonlea. After an absence from school, for instance, Montgomery writes:
Anne was welcomed back to school with open arms. Her imagination had been sorely missed in games, her voice in the singing and her dramatic ability in the perusal aloud of books at dinner time.
(By the way, one of the pleasures of re-reading Anne of Green Gables comes from appreciating the things that the girls do to entertain themselves in the early 1900s.)
But there is clearly tension between the everyday and the imaginative. Marilla constantly disapproves of Anne’s “heathenish” thoughts, and when Anne and Diana dream up a Haunted Wood including a ghostly child who lays its cold fingers on people, both Marilla and Diana’s mother object.
Indeed, what Montgomery calls a sign of Anne’s maturity involves favoring more realistic literature—a movement encouraged and endorsed by Anne’s beloved teacher, Miss Stacy. Anne tells Marilla:
She found me reading a book one day called The Lurid Mystery of the Haunted Hall. It was one Ruby Gillis had lent me, and, oh, Marilla, it was so fascinating and creepy. It just curdled the blood in my veins. But Miss Stacy said it was a very silly, unwholesome book, and she asked me not to read any more of it or any like it.
As for her own writing, Anne says, “[Miss Stacy] won’t let us write anything but what might happen in Avonlea in our own lives, and she criticizes it very sharply and makes us criticize our own, too.”
Anne is told again and again to turn her imagination to less sensational channels: to favor realism over the gothic or fanciful—that there is a moral superiority to the more realistic even when it comes to imaginative play.
I read Anne when I was maybe in fourth or fifth grade, and distracted by the other delights of the book, I didn’t give a lot of thought to Miss Stacy’s edicts on literature.
But I probably absorbed them, because they were aimed at me—at young women readers. Later in life, Miss Stacy’s message was reinforced by similar sentiments in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. In Alcott’s classic, it is Professor Bhaer who is horrified by the “blood and thunder” tales that Jo March writes, causing her to change the direction of her work. And in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (a book that I love and on which I wrote my undergraduate thesis), Henry Tilney lectures avid novel-reader Catherine Morland after she imagines his father (and her holiday host) to be guilty of all manner of gothic horrors.
Within these classic, realistic novels about young women by Western, Christian women writers, the idea that realism is somehow fitter—somehow morally and aesthetically superior—is a refrain. And sure, part of this is to defend the work that these women are already doing; it is in the lady novelist’s interests to claim that her own works can be harmless—even beneficial to her readers. Fiction is, after all, a “pack of lies,” and creating a world inside a book is tantamount to challenging God. And accepting money for these labors sure doesn’t help the woman writer’s cause.
Realism, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to build a world—it seems less like an untruth. Realism, then, looks to the unschooled eye more genteel, less subversive, less deceptive, more ladylike, more socially acceptable.
But it is also interesting how drawn both Anne and her author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, are to the “fascinating and creepy”—which itself hints to the reading habits that Montgomery formed as a young reader. Montgomery’s most famous books after Anne, the Emily series, contain light supernatural elements. (For that matter, Louisa May Alcott also wrote sensational stories under her pen name A. M. Barnard.)The title of the first Emily book likely intentionally follows the naming scheme of the Anne books: Emily of New Moon. Like Anne, Emily is also an orphan raised by dour, older people. It’s Anne! But with dark hair and violet eyes! And, as it turns out, psychic visions.
For young me, reading about Emily after Anne—to read a similar narrative about a similar character by the same author only to have the book veer into the supernatural made me uneasy. And that was both because, well, ghosts and seances and any hint of the unknown, and also because it put my relationship with Montgomery’s “wholesome,” realistic books on unstable ground.
But it didn’t disturb enough for me to stop reading the rest of the trilogy or Montgomery’s other (sometimes disturbing) books. Because even though I was unsettled by Emily, I found it fascinating. The capacity was in me to enjoy these books—and in Montgomery to pen them.
I wonder what would happen if women weren’t told so often what to write; if they weren’t faulted for imagining the fantastic and the supernatural.
Now, I think about what would have happened to my outlook—to my reading habits—had I read Emily before Anne, if my expectations for Montgomery’s work had been different. Would it have made me more open to reading more frightening, more sensational, more “thrilling” books? Or maybe I am seduced by the idea of another me who is somehow braver because she can enjoy things that frighten her; a me who enjoys fewer limits on her reading on her imagination who lets her mind go farther, if even in a small way.
When I was in (maybe) first grade, children’s book writer Robert Munsch came to my school and performed The Mud Puddle.
In the story, Jule Ann puts on clean clothes—pants, shirt, socks, shoes—and goes outside on a sunny day, only to be jumped by a seemingly sentient mud puddle. She returns to her house, sopping and dirty. Her mother washes her until she’s squeaky clean. She puts on new clothing. But the mud puddle is waiting for her.
Munsch performed it without consulting a script, using a huge paper doll and paper clothes, to illustrate the story to a crowd of elementary school kids. He was exuberant and rubber faced. By the middle of his performance—I remember so clearly the giddiness, the joy—all of us were rolling around on the library floor, helpless with laughter.
It is maybe one of my favorite memories.
Munsch is probably best known for books such as The Paperbag Princess, the story of an unglamorous royal who, using her wits and determination, saves herself in more than one way, and Love You Forever, a divisive—usually deemed either heartbreaking or obsessive—story that follows a mother and her boy until the son is a grown man and the mother is frail and old.
Munsch is not as well-known in the United States as he is in Canada. Nevertheless, Love You Forever is one of the bestselling picture books in North America of all time.
When he came to our school, he probably would have been early in his career as a children’s writer. The Mud Puddle was his first book. He performed a couple of other stories—we were a delighted audience. I don’t remember what they were.
There is a lot I don’t remember clearly or accurately. That troubles me, because this column is about, among other things, the impact of my childhood recollections. I say I was maybe in first grade when I saw Munsch perform. I say it is one of my favorite memories. But the truth is that my recall of it is piecemeal. I didn’t know it was Robert Munsch who read to us at the time. I had no idea who he was. I don’t remember being told that we’d get a special treat that morning or afternoon. If my parents asked how my day was, I probably forgot to tell them.
But even as I write this, I’m trying to put it back together, trying to figure out when I remembered—when I knew, when this story grew to greater personal significance. I pulled up pictures of my first elementary school, Betrun E. Glavin, on Google maps and learned from an architecture site that it still stands, that its “design avoids ornamentation beyond the beauty of its limestone facing.” That it was built “to express the learning philosophy of open spaces and individual progress without need for external distractions.”
I can remember the outside of the building with its tetherball poles and climbing structures—now replaced. The sunken library in the middle where Munsch read to us. I found a picture from 2014 of my third-grade teacher, Ms. Copp—she looks very much the same. She was interviewed on the closing of her parents’ garden center and convenience store, a store my friends and I biked to buy candy and Wacky Packs. I can’t find my first-grade teacher, though. Although now I realize that she was probably very young when she started teaching us.
There are later, more defined memories of my fifth-grade teacher, Monsieur Campbell, reading us The Paperbag Princess in French. (By then I was at a different school.) There is one picture where Princess Elizabeth flatters the dragon—and M. Campbell pointed out how the dragon was checking his nails, preening. By then I think that Robert Munsch was a household name in Canada, but I don’t think I made the connection that he was the person who’d come to perform for us long ago.
I suspect that it wasn’t until Munsch began to appear regularly on a children’s television program that I figured out the truth. By then, I knew his name, and even though I was supposed to be a cynical teen, I made time to watch it. He wasn’t even the headliner. The host was a clown named Piccadilly Circus. I can’t recall her whole schtick, but I think there was some mime involved. I don’t remember the name of the show. I’ve tried Googling variations of “CTV,” “children’s program,” “Piccadilly Circus,” and “Munsch” to see if I can find clips on YouTube.
This morning, I wiled away an hour on Musipedia trying to place the theme—a fairly well-known classical piece for piano. I can play back the tune on the keyboard, but the title remains elusive.
Chasing down every thread leads to another thought, another flash of recollection, another small part of my life. These fragments seem like loose ends. But as I gather the memories of this one person—one storyteller—together, I see how all these bits appear at so many stages of my youth, how they are woven into all aspects of my childhood. How astounding that one person’s stories permeate the texture of so much that I do and don’t remember.
A more recent memory: last year, my daughter brought home a copy of Moira’s Birthday. The book, first published in 1987, was in her class’s library. She thought it was very funny, and she asked me to read it out loud to her—she knew that it was a book that should be read out loud.
“For my birthday, I would like to invite Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5, Grade 6, and Kindergarten,” Moira tells her mother.
When her mother balks at the number of children involved, Moira goes to her father. “For my birthday, I would like to invite Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5, Grade 6, and Kindergarten.”
Her father tells her she can have six children over. But when the day of the party comes around, who shows up? Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5, Grade 6, aaaaand Kindergarten. The joy in the book—in most of Munsch’s books—is in establishing the rhythm of storytelling and humor, then changing it up. It’s in the repetition of elements (Grade 1, Grade 2, etc. etc.), followed by absurd variation.
Afterward, we had a good time looking up people reading Munsch’s other stories on YouTube. My daughter still sometimes brings that book home.
My husband tells me that I read Moira’s Birthday differently. That become more animated. I yell. I exaggerate. I tell him that when I read them, I guess I’m performing them the way they’re supposed to sound—I’m reading them like Robert Munsch.
But it’s funny, because I think I still sound very much like me.