Libertarians on the Prairie

Now that I have the blog going at a more regular pace, I plan to post again about the books that I read and how much they shed light on my central research question: what is the best way to describe the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder? I actually read a brand new book about Wilder during the spring semester, but never was able to do a blog post about it.

The book is Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books by Christine Woodside. It was published last year by Arcade Books. Woodside is a writer and editor of journals and books about the nature and the wilderness. She lives in Connecticut, not the Midwest, but she has a lifelong fascination with the Little House books. She will be giving the keynote speech at LauraPalooza this July in Springfield.

An article in Politico last fall reveals quite a bit of her argument. Woodside recognizes that one reason for the Little House books’ popularity and staying power is their attractive presentation of American individualism. She argues that Wilder’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane was the source of this vision: she “transformed the whole of her mother’s life by removing many parts and changing details where necessary to suit an idealized version of the pioneer story.” (p. xvi) Furthermore, stories in the Little House books “outlined the basic tenets of libertarianism: freedom, property rights, ‘spontaneous order,’ (which means that left alone people make ethical chioices), limited government, and free markets.” (p. xix) Woodside argues that Lane was the one who was responsible for placing libertarian ideas into the fictional lives of the Ingalls family.

To do this, Libertarians on the Prairie traces the process by which the Little House books were written. As readers of this blog know, Wilder wrote first drafts in longhand on lined paper and gave them to Lane. Lane then typed them, editing, making changes, providing plot and narrative structure, and adding dialogue. Wilder reviewed the typed drafts, making additional changes and at times overruling Lane’s alterations. For the first several Little House books, Wilder and Lane lived on the same farm property in Missouri, but for the final five books their residences were distant, so there is correspondence that can be used to track changes. Lane also poured out her thoughts and feelings into diaries and long letters to friends, so that Woodside can narrate the development of her political ideals during the time that the books were written.

The book ends by describing Lane’s connections to other Libertarian leaders. Lane became one of the founders of this movement in political philosophy during the middle of the twentieth century, along with Isabel Paterson and Ayn Rand. Roger Lea MacBride was Lane’s adoptive grandson and heir; he cast an electoral vote for the Libertarian candidate for President in 1972 and ran for President on the Libertarian ticket in 1976. Rose also donated to Robert LeFevre’s libertarian “Freedom School” north of Colorado Springs, Colorado, which later named a building after her. Charles Koch attended that school during the 1960s; he went on to become co-founder of the Cato Institute and Americans for Prosperity.

Libertarians on the Prairie should succeed in bringing its argument about the Little House books to a popular audience. Previous scholarly books about Rose’s contributions—William Holtz’s The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane—and the books’ political ideas—Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Impact on American Culture—are longer, denser books. Woodside’s book is much more lively and readable. Furthermore, to my knowledge Libertarians on the Prairie breaks new ground in several areas. The book is the first to link the Little House books and Lane to the Freedom School and thereby to the Koch brothers. Woodside also does a good job considering the impact that keeping the secret of Rose’s contributions to the books may have had on Rose and her relationship with her mother.

However, The Ghost in the Little House and Little House, Long Shadow also provide more nuanced arguments. I think that several of Woodside’s arguments ultimately fail to convince. First, her assertion that Rose did more editing and shaping on the final two books than the earlier ones is disputed by John E. Miller, author of the most scholarly biography of Wilder (<a href="/2016/04/26/becoming-laura-ingalls-wilder/"Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend). That book suggests that Rose did less on those books. While Miller’s work appears in Woodside’s bibliography, it is not engaged in the text.

In addition, while Libertarians on the Prairie is meant to be about both Wilder and Lane, it’s mainly about Lane. Lane’s life drives the narrative, and Lane’s point of view dominates the book. I think this is somewhat understandable since Lane left many more sources. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the book ever seriously considers Wilder’s political ideas; Woodside at times seems to deny that Wilder had political ideas of her own. I also don’t think that the book engages the Wilder’s reasons for writing the books.

Finally, it may be that the libertarian, individualist side of the Little House books is overemphasized in the book. Woodside does at times recognize that there are other things that draw readers to the series, especially the books’ loving descriptions of nature and wilderness which first attracted her. I think that there is also a countercurrent of interdependence running through the books as well.

There is one passage in the book that particularly interested me in terms of Wilder’s faith. It is a description of life at Rocky Ridge Farm in the late 1920s when both Wilder and Lane lived there: “Saturdays and Sundays were like any other days; they seemed to hold no special purpose for either. I see little evidence that they were going to church.” (p. 47) Apparently, Lane mentioned a conversation with Wilder on Easter Sunday, 1928 in a letter Lane wrote to a friend. So on Easter Sunday, Lane was writing a letter and Wilder was reading her mail, and this may mean that Easter Sunday was not treated as particularly special. I emailed Woodside about this passage, and she was very gracious in her reply. This reminds me that I will probably have to do at least some work in Lane’s papers to find what I might turn up about family religious practices while Rose lived with her parents.

At any rate, I think that Libertarians on the Prairie mostly provides new insights about Lane’s life, not about Wilder’s. I think that anyone interested in understanding the collaboration between Wilder and Lane in the writing of the Little House books should probably not read Woodside’s book without also reading Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, which provides an alternative to Woodside’s assertions and a deeper understanding of Wilder and her contributions to the novels.

On the other hand, it is always fascinating to see what different readers bring to and see in the Little House books. I’m glad that I read Woodside’s book, and I’m looking forward to hearing her speak in Springfield this summer. And I’m open for comments.

(All page numbers are from Christine Woodside, Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2016.)

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