The newspaper Asahi Shimbun’s locator map showing De Smet, South Dakota, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home as a young woman and where an Asahi Shimbun reporter attended a Little House pageant.
This is an unofficial translation of an article by Daisuke Nakai, which originally appeared in Asahi Shimbun, a daily newspaper in Japan. Nakai is based in New York and this summer visited Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house sites in South Dakota. His article addressed how the Little House books influenced the United States and Japan. A word about the weird text at the bottom: I have not been able to remove this formatting. Any coding whizzes, please contact me.
The “Little House” books, which portray the life of a pioneer family overcoming hardships and living strongly, are masterpieces of children’s literature, and still highly popular. In the US, many people consider them to be part of their heritage. At the same time, the way that the books were written, and the political thoughts that lay behind them, is also receiving more attention.
The population of De Smet, South Dakota is about 1000 people. It is surrounded by the prairie, literally making it “Little Town on the Prairie”.
Many tourists come to this small town every year, to see the place where Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author and main character of the Little House books spent her youth, and got married. In particular, the annual pageant on the prairie draws Thousands of people each July.
Darla Cosie, who brought her grandchildren to this year’s pageant, says “the attraction of the books is family members helping each other through good and bad times. It is also a way of learning the history of how South Dakota was born”. Chad Miersma, who came from neighboring Minnesota says “As a Christian, the wholesomeness of the books are something that we can enjoy as a family. You can feel the respect that people had for each other in those days”. Mr. Miersma read the books when he was a boy, and now his daughter Cadence, is reading them over and over.
Not only in De Smet, but in other places that the Ingalls family lived, there are various exhibits and facilities introducing the way of life of the time, showing the high interest in the books. Many people were also drawn to the books by way of the TV drama series based on the books.
Nami Hattori, who is a member of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Society, and who has written “A Journey to the Little House Books” in Japanese says “In Japan, the books are thought of as children’s books, but in the US there is a tendency to see them as portraying an ideal America, and the way that they are read is somewhat different from Japan”. Laura Bush, who was also a Librarian, has said that they were some of her favorite books, and Ronald Reagan is said to have “teared up while watching the TV series at the White House”.
The Little House Books were originally considered to be “facts”, written by Laura according to her memory. However, along with the rise in popularity of the books, research has been done on the actual life of the Ingalls family, and it has been found that some characters were fictional, and others have been left out.
In addition, the role that Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s daughter played in writing the books has also been attracting attention. After the two women’s death, drafts of the books and letters between them have become public, showing that Rose, who was a journalist and a writer, added on and edited Laura’s drafts. Now it is widely regarded that the books are “novels written as a collaboration between Mother and Daughter, based on real experiences”.
As Rose grew older, she became more of a Libertarian. Libertarianism is a way of thought that puts the greatest emphasis on freedom of the individual, and in her political writings she shows her dislike of “big government” very strongly. Her “adopted grandson”, Roger Lee McBride, who inherited the rights to the books, ran as the Libertarian candidate for president in 1976, and said that Rose “was one of the people who influenced him the most”.
At the time, the Libertarian Party did not make much of an impression on American Politics, but recently Libertarian principles are having more influence in the Republican Party. Former Congressman Ron Paul, who gathered support from young people in the 2012 Presidential Primaries, is the most obvious example, but Congressman Paul Ryan, who was the Vice-presidential candidate that year, is also said to be influenced.
Perhaps reflecting Rose’s political beliefs, in the Little House books the independence of the individual is often stressed. Anita Clair Fellman, Professor Emeritus at Old Dominion University, who has written about the influence that the books have had on American culture in “Little House, Long Shadow”, points out for example that the distance from where the Ingalls family lived to the nearest town is continuously portrayed as farther than it actually was, and how Pa’s jobs as a carpenter where he received wages are not mentioned very much, leading to the image of “Pioneers living on their own” becoming stronger. During the latter half of the series, the family saving money so that Laura’s blind sister Mary can go to college is a one of the main themes, however according to Christine Woodside, a journalist who is writing a book about the relationship between Laura and Rose points out that actually the Dakota territories paid for a scholarship, with the money the family raised going to Mary’s living costs. Ms. Woodside says “in other passages as well, the good role that the government played has been edited out. When government does appear, it doesn’t understand the needs of the pioneers”.
One reason that both women raise, is the time that the books were published. It was the same time that President Franklin Roosevelt was pushing forth the New Deal to strengthen social security, but Rose was strongly opposed to the New Deal, claiming that it “intruded on the freedom of the individual”, and Laura, who had long been a supporter of the Democratic Party left it because of Roosevelt’s policies.
“If you read her diaries, you can tell that Rose at least was thinking of the books as a way to signal her political beliefs” says Professor Fellman, who explains that both traditional conservative values, such as the importance of families and values, and more Libertarian thinking, that show a dislike of government are in the series. She says ” I believe that the books had a role in creating a way of thinking that has continued in American Society and is now being seen for instance in the Tea Party movement”.
The Little House Books are a series that Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867~1957) wrote based on her childhood. They are the eight books starting with “Little House in the Big Woods” (1932) about her childhood in Wisconsin, and ending in “These Happy Golden Years” (1943) where she marries in South Dakota, and “The First Four Years” (1971) Which was published after her Daughter, Rose Wilder Lane (1886~1968) passed away. In the 1970s and 80s, the TV Series “Little House on the Prairie” was produced, and it became a huge hit in Japan as well as the US.