For generations of Americans, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of growing up on the American Frontier provided not just a backdrop to their childhood, but also their education in pioneer life and American history and values. Wilder’s stories give us a powerful vision of self-reliance and victory over adversity as well as a cozy picture of family life. What we forget is that Wilder’s books are fiction; historical fiction, to be sure, but not strictly autobiography and never were intended to be. In recent years, several books have been published that attempt to fill in the true story of Wilder’s remarkable life.
Published in 2014, Pioneer Girl: the Annotated Autobiography is Wilder’s first draft of her memoirs, the source content for what would become the fiction series we’re familiar with. This non-fiction book, however, has episodes and perspectives that were edited out of the fiction series, written as it was for children and heavily influenced by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Pioneer Girl is also packed with annotations, giving cultural context to her memoirs with newspaper stories, census records and factual background that will inform and round out the tales told in the fiction series. For the casual reader, this book might be a bit much, but true fans will thrill to the details given of Laura’s life.
Last year, Caroline Fraser wrote Prairie Fires which was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2017 by the New York Times Book Review. Like Pioneer Girl, Fraser makes Wilder’s stories real and gives them background. She also has drawn on unpublished memoirs, letters and records to illuminate and contextualize Wilder’s entire long life. Fraser works to flesh out such idealized characters as Pa, eulogized in fiction as hardworking, resilient and ever cheerful. In real life, Charles Ingalls was morally ambiguous, put his family in harm’s way more than once and attempted to settle land he knew belonged to the Osage. Fraser puts the whole story of Wilder’s life in larger context, a context Laura herself may never have been aware of. Wilder’s life is both harsher and more exhilarating than the sanitized version presented in her fiction.
If the above sound a bit heavy, try The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure, an irreverent exploration of Laura’s life as well as a travelogue to her home sites. This is McClure’s journey through “Laura World” as she calls it, a personal exploration of what the Little House books meant to her growing up and how she confronts the reality of Laura’s life as it actually was. Along the way she has hilarious adventures and meets fellow pilgrims who are also exploring what Laura’s life meant to them.
The dark and cold of winter reminds us of our mortality and the fragility of our survival. These titles explore the winter world through the adaptations living creatures make to survive it.
Naturalist Bernd Heinrich’s book, Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival, focuses on the ways that animals survive the cruelties of extreme cold. Because cold changes the substance most essential to life, water, animals must modify their very biology to survive harsh winters. Heinrich lives in Maine and Vermont and uses these locations to see for himself how his animal neighbors survive. He uncovers nests of overwintering bugs and cozy beaver lodges; he watches fluffed up birds search for food through the snow. His awe at their adaptations is evident in every page.
If reading Winter World makes you want to explore more in depth and technically the way animals survive the winter, try Life in the Cold by Peter Marchand. Marchand takes the concepts poetically meditated upon by Heinrich and takes them apart scientifically. For example, there is an equation that demonstrates the energetic advantage of huddling. (Also suitable for a Valentine’s card for your favorite geek). Marchand also covers plants and their survival mechanisms in the cold. This one’s pretty technical, but if you’re science oriented and a nature lover, you just might love it.
For those of us humans who find winter survival challenging, not for its physical rigors, but rather the mental ones, Winter: a Spiritual Biography is a balm for the soul. This is a collection of essays and poems from around the world that discuss how the barrenness of winter can be life giving to our spirituality. Rather than extolling the coziness of the season, these writers praise the brutality and harshness of the season. John Updike’s essay, “The Cold”, for example appreciates winter for the insight it gives us into our frailty and need for civilization. He wrote the essay for a Brazilian newspaper after a Brazilian friend observed that Brazilians do not understand the cold. Contributions from Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard and others cover spirituality, nature and philosophy as illuminated by the winter season.
We are all familiar with the Thanksgiving story—either from making paper hats to retell it in second grade or from watching A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. While the accuracy of those depictions could be debated, there’s a reason the story has caught on as it has. At its heart, the story of the first Thanksgiving contains the distillation of the first colonists’ experience in North America: struggle to adapt to the new climate and its fauna, encounters with the native peoples, learning to appreciate the bounty the land had to offer. What is left out of the story, however is just as important: the conflicts among the colonists themselves regarding both how people should be governed and how God should be worshiped and the hostility and racism felt towards the Indians. The historical fiction titles featured here also explore these topics in a more full and meaningful way.
Caleb’s Crossing is by the extraordinary author Geraldine Brooks. Australian by birth and a journalist by training, Brooks has written several exceptional fiction titles that bring to life various historical eras. Based on a true story, Caleb’s Crossing is the story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard---in 1665. She lyrically explores what led him to Harvard and what he experienced there. The story is told from the point of view of a minister’s daughter on Martha’s Vineyard who also goes to Cambridge, under less auspicious circumstances, and narrates his experience of a culture alien to his own.
The harsh reality of untamed North America comes alive in Kathleen Kent’s The Wolves of Andover. This is a prequel to her earlier novel, The Heretic’s Daughter, which recounted the famous Salem witch trials. Martha Allen, serving as a domestic in her cousin’s home, develops an attraction to fellow servant, Thomas Carrier. Thomas is taciturn and there are rumors that he played a part in the recent English Civil War. When assassins come looking for the executioner of Charles I, Thomas must take heed. You will be immersed in Kent’s blending of historical fiction, romance and suspense.
Anya Seton takes on the story of Elizabeth Winthrop, in The Winthrop Woman. Elizabeth married into the Winthrop family, whose patriarch, the unbending John Winthrop, was the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Winthrop called her “his unregenerate niece” for her scandalous behavior. Seton tells of her daring to befriend the banished Anne Hutchinson, attempting to save an Indian tribe from annihilation and, following her heart. This is truly romanticized history, but an engaging read nonetheless, that focuses on some of the divisions among the English settlers themselves.
This town has a secret...
Small towns are naturally horrific—everyone knows your business, there’s always a creepy legend or two and the history of the town encroaches uncomfortably on the present. Authors have been exploiting this for thrills since Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home and the film Wicker Man. Here are some of my favorites to add to this type.
Brendan Duffy’s first novel House of Echoes checks many horror boxes: young family, derelict house, imaginary friend (or is it?). The Tierneys leave Manhattan after losing their jobs and finding their children the victims of bullying. They move to the Swannhaven estate, hoping to transform it into an Inn. Strange things happen... This novel has a very slow, atmospheric build, which I happen to enjoy, but other readers might find tiresome. It’s not the most original story, but I do think it is a well-done gothic tale which some have compared to The Shining. It does share that novel’s remote setting and claustrophobic feel.
S.J. Bolton is primarily regarded as crime writer, but Blood Harvest has enough of a whiff of the supernatural to classify it as horror. Its setting is superbly described: Heptonclough is a remote English village on the moors that maintains some disturbing ancient traditions. The Fletchers’ build a new house, sandwiched between two churches and on the edge of the cemetery. They find their welcome to town is less than warm, and more disturbingly, their two children are convinced they see a woman haunting the cemetery. Told in alternating chapters from the viewpoint of 10 year old Tom Fletcher, the new vicar who is reopening one of the churches and Evi Oliver, Tom Fletcher’s psychiatrist, this novel keeps a quick pace, in line with Bolton’s crime roots.
If you prefer the fast passed chills of Blood Harvest, to the slow build of House of Echoes, the Niceville trilogy by Carsten Stroud is for you. The tagline of the first novel is, ”Something’s wrong in Niceville..” Niceville is a town in an unnamed Southern state that has more than its share of crazy characters, crime and supernatural events. This first book takes place over the span of 36 hours and introduces dozens of characters and plot lines, from the horrific to the humorous. If you like Nicevile, I recommend getting next titles, Homecoming and The Reckoning, in quick succession, because it is easy to forget the intricacies and characters Stroud lays out. Like Blood Harvest, this may be more of a crime thriller, but it definitely has more than a hint of horror woven in.
Banned Books Week
Banned Books week is an initiative by the American Library Association “to teach the importance of our First Amendment rights and the power of literature, and to draw attention to the danger that exists when restraints are imposed on the availability of information in a free society.”1 The Office of Intellectual Freedom of ALA, which sponsors Banned Books week, provides resources to libraries of all types who find items in their collection challenged by community members. Although the week is called “Banned Books Week,” it is really about books that were challenged in certain jurisdictions, most often school districts, rather than books actually banned, for example, by governments.
Every year, titles are challenged for sexually explicit content or for language. While I don’t agree with limiting access to books based on these criteria, I can understand the impulse. The challenges I find most interesting, though, are those that are challenged because they present different worldviews. For example, in 2016, the most commonly challenged books were challenged for having gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender content. Not necessarily that they were sexually explicit, mind you, just that they had content that presented a LGBT worldview.
For example, Drama by Raina Telgemeier, is a graphic novel about a middle school girl and her involvement in the school play as well as her middle school crushes. Two of the characters are gay and share a kiss on stage. This content was deemed “sexually explicit” and challenged at several middle schools. When you think about it, though, it’s not the sexual content; it’s the worldview presented. Some of the challenges made this explicit, challenging it for “having an offensive political viewpoint.” Is acknowledging that there are gay middle schoolers an offensive political viewpoint?
The most challenged book of 2016 was This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki. Like Drama, it was challenged for having gay characters, not necessarily sexual content. This One Summer won a Caldecott award, which is usually given to books for younger readers, although the age range goes up to 14. The attention given to the book was probably due to the assumption by many readers and librarians that, as a Caldecott winner, it was for younger children. The authors, responded to the challenges by saying:
“We worry about what it means to define certain content, such as LGBTQ content, as being of inappropriate for young readers. Which implicitly defines readers who do relate to this content, who share these experiences, as not normal, when really they are part of the diversity of young people’s lives….The main character of This One Summer, Rose, is often afraid, confused, exposed to things outside of her comfort zone, things she doesn’t completely understand. We believe that is part of growing up. Life is often upsetting. But upsetting things in books are not actually happening in real life, but at a safe distance. You can read about an experience outside of your own, and gain the opportunity to better understand someone who it happens to in reality. You get to experience some of those emotions, without a personal price.”2
I find challenges based on worldview interesting because doesn’t all literature present a different worldview? Isn’t that why we read, to hear someone else’s story? Moby Dick advocates whale killing; Pride and Prejudice presents marriage as a business transaction; Little House on the Prairie says little girls should sit quietly. That’s the worldview presented in those stories, but we read them exactly for that worldview, even when there is an element to it we find offensive. Literature has always been about presenting others’ stories in a way that makes us acknowledge universal human truths or, at least, to appreciate the author’s perspective on universal human truths.
The lesson of Banned Books Week is that we will find something offensive, but in a free society, it is our right and privilege both to be offended and not impose our offense on others, even as they don’t impose them on us.
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