The Little House on the Prairie TV series. Photo: Getty
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Little House on the Prairie and its contested political legacy

With her books, Laura Ingalls Wilder forged a myth of the American pioneer.

We could perhaps blame Ronald Reagan for the fact that Laura Ingalls Wilder isn’t better understood. In the 1970s, he told an interviewer that Little House on the Prairie, loosely inspired by one of her novels, was his favourite TV show. He used to well up watching its moralising tales about the homesteading Ingalls family, led by the often shirtless Pa (the star and producer Michael Landon). But the show was far removed from the focus of the eight original Little House novels, in which a girl called Laura recounted her life from childhood to marriage, witnessing the eviction of Native American tribes, the coming of the railroad and the agricultural destruction of the prairies that set in train the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl. In the 150th year of Wilder’s birth, I headed to her former farmhouse for the annual celebratory Wilder Day to try to assess the writer’s place in modern American identity.

There are Amish men in their horse-drawn buggies along the edge of the freeway as you drive to Mansfield, Missouri. It is still farming territory and according to the US census bureau, one of the 100 poorest towns in the US. In the visitors’ car park of Rocky Ridge Farm museum, Wilder’s fine stone house on a hill, there are large Mennonite family groups – the women in floral home-sewn maxi dresses, their hair in modest buns. This corner of the Ozarks is still defined by the culture of the white pioneer settlers who arrived 120 years ago.

When Wilder and her husband, Almanzo, moved here from South Dakota in 1894, she was still in her twenties. They had lost their original farm as a result of drought and crushing debt in the aftermath of the 1893 Great Panic – a banking crisis far worse than the 1929 Wall Street Crash. With a 100-dollar bill hidden in her writing box – all that they had left – she, not Almanzo, bought the land on which they built Rocky Ridge Farm; and it was here she wrote her novels, intertwining fact and fiction.

Since then the house has become a site of pilgrimage. Many visitors see Wilder as an all-American patriot of traditional values, while liberals claim her as a proto-feminist who refused to say “obey” in her wedding vows, and whose stories celebrated a dark-haired rebellious little girl who hated being “ladylike” and “good” like her angelic, passive sister Mary. There are Wilder sites of interest all over the Midwest, from Wisconsin to South Dakota; she wrote about real places and events, carefully editing out the worst suffering, such as the death of her infant brother Freddy.

Stepping inside the beautiful wood and stone home – the kitchen counter was made for Wilder’s tiny 4ft 11in frame – is profoundly moving. This is a girl who had lived much of her life in poverty; it wasn’t until her sixties that she began writing down her family memories. It was an exercise in what Wordsworth called “emotion recollected in tranquility”. But the timing was anything but tranquil – the Wall Street Crash had wiped out her and Almanzo’s savings for the second time. Between the appearance of her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, in 1932, and her last, These Happy Golden Years, in 1943, she became a bestselling children’s writer, a success partly helped by General MacArthur putting the sixth Little Prairie book, The Long Winter (1940), on a list of postwar reconstruction literature for Japanese and German schoolchildren.

Wilder’s comforting tales proved globally popular during the austerity of the 1940s – the books are full of endurance but also moments of great feasting, and the descriptions of celebratory baking are particularly appealing. A number of schools and libraries were named after her, notable the children’s reading room in Pomona, California, which keeps the original handwritten manuscript for her seventh novel, Little Town on the Prairie. What satisfaction for a woman, still girlish with her silver hair, who had never finished high school.

At the Wilder weekend, I meet many children, especially young girls with bonnets and long, Laura braids, all fans of the books, who’ve come with their parents to watch displays of traditional crafts such as spinning. I meet three generations of one family – grandmother, daughters and granddaughters – who argue playfully over who gets to be Laura. It’s a similar attitude to that described by Chicago writer Wendy McClure in The Wilder Life, written with a sense of self-aware fun in aftermath of the 2008 economic crash, when urban women were rediscovering the world of the Little House books and having a go at quilting and butter making. And it’s the same way that austerity fashion and knitting found a new generation of enthusiasts in Britain.

I spot the actor Dean Butler amid the craft stalls – he played the heartthrob Almanzo in the late Seventies/early Eighties TV show. The Little House series was “never cool”, he says, but he thinks that, like The Waltons, its celebration of family values and decency was valuable in the aftermath of Watergate and the oil crisis. I’m taken aback by the strength of his concern about what’s happened to his country: “I think America needs things like Little House more than ever before. We have become so caustic in our rhetoric to each other. The politics in this country right now are absolutely poisonous. In my lifetime, and I’m 61, I have never experienced the vicious hostility that exists between people.”

Throughout the day I hear traditional folk songs such as “Old Dan Tucker” being played on Pa’s actual fiddle in a fiddle-off contest. This is the power of the stories: the way they bring history alive with a seductive good-heartedness. The biographer Pamela Smith Hill, the author of a 2014 annotated version of Wilder’s original memoir Pioneer Girl, thinks the reason Wilder remains underrated is because of the deceptive simplicity of her prose. She highlights a passage in The Long Winter, Wilder’s darkest novel, in which Laura’s dreamlike state as starvation and the freezing temperature take hold captures the perceptions of a child with hypothermia.

The trouble over Wilder’s legacy is two-fold. First, there’s her family’s politics. Her daughter, the journalist and pulp writer Rose Wilder Lane – hugely influential in the 1930s and 1940s – was one of the so-called “godmothers” of libertarianism along with Ayn Rand. Rose was undoubtedly instrumental in getting her mother published, though she also plagiarised Laura’s manuscripts for her own, now largely forgotten, books and became increasingly unhinged in her rantings about Franklin D Roosevelt, Jews and her love of Mussolini. Most contemporary scholars feel that Wilder was deeply uncomfortable with her daughter’s more extreme views.

But there remains a dilemma over the perspective of the Little House books themselves, as Butler hinted, in an America battling anew over Civil War memorials. As early as the 1950s Wilder amended one phrase in Little House on the Prairie from “no people” to “no settlers” after a reader complained about the line: “There were no people, only Indians.” The Osage Nation, whose land the Ingalls occupied illegally, continues to condemn the novels, which view its expulsion as a romantic farewell.

Professor Frances Kaye, who teaches Plains literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was unusual as a child in the 1950s for rejecting the Little House stories. She remains concerned about the way the novels, with their descriptions of Native Americans as wild savages and their celebration of white Christian manifest destiny, are still held up as moral exemplars to young children. “I think Wilder was writing as honestly as she knew. Pa explains, ‘This is the way it always goes. Settlers move in, the Indians move out.’ And Laura says, ‘Why?’ And he says, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s just the way things are.’ I don’t think she was an Indian hater… But we tend to teach books about race that show normative white views and make white people feel good about themselves.”

Kaye is unimpressed by the feminist defence of Wilder as an important, rebellious voice in pioneer literature. “Certainly in terms of working with the Indians, as missionaries, as matrons, as schoolteachers, white women got a lot of power out of the disempowering of native people. That’s not something that you can be happy about… If we don’t recognise that then we’re still justifying imperialism and colonialism. Native people are still more likely to be in prison. That’s because of this dispossession.”

On the plane to Missouri I looked out and saw the moon and the Milky Way shining over the landscape of freeways and towns that grew up just in Laura’s lifetime. Born in 1867, she died in 1957, a few months before Sputnik. The Little House books capture ordinary lives that were witnesses to a massive transformation. It is possible to love them but also to challenge their underlying mythology. Wilder’s stories will continue to draw readers to the Rocky Ridge Farm, where she is remembered with such love. “They could not be forgotten, she thought,” writing about Ma and Pa at the end of Little House in the Big Woods, “because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”

Samira Ahmed’s documentary “Laura Ingalls’s America” is on BBC Radio 3, Sunday 10 December, at 6.45pm

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world

Credit: The Bureau/Film4 Productions/British Film Council
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Lean on Pete builds on the proud history of horses in film

Cinema’s equine love affair is in no danger of dimming.

The mane attraction in cinemas next week is Andrew Haigh’s film adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel Lean On Pete, the story of a teenage boy and the horse he rescues.

If there’s any justice, audiences will gallop rather than trot to see it. Anyone who hasn’t read the book could be forgiven for expecting an inspirational, uplifting tale. Maybe, like the kid in Carroll Ballard’s beautiful, dialogue-light 1979 film The Black Stallion, the hero of Lean On Pete will train his four-legged companion to be a champion racehorse. But that isn’t how things turn out. Not even close. Haigh’s picture has more in common with Au hasard Balthazar, Bresson’s plaintive 1966 study of the sad life of a donkey, or Ken Loach’s Kes. Boy and horse help alleviate the other’s loneliness and suffering, at least in the short term, but they reflect it too.

That’s also the role of the horse that 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) finds tied up in Fish Tank, and attempts to liberate. As its title suggests, Andrea Arnold’s 2009 drama is not short on nature metaphors; there’s also a dog called Tennents, and a carp that meets a sticky end. To be honest, the horse is probably pushing things a bit. Don’t you see? It’s really Mia and she wants to set it free because she herself yearns to be emancipated! Yeah, yeah, we get it. But such objections count for little next to the sheer physical might of a horse on screen. There’s no getting around it. Did you ever see a horse that didn’t exude awesomeness, magnificence and film-star charisma? They’ve got what it takes.

Trigger was first out the gate. Though when Olivia de Havilland rode him in The Adventures of Robin Hood, he was still going by the name Golden Cloud, which sounds uncomfortably like an obscure sexual practice. Roy Rogers coughed up $2,500 to buy him, then changed the animal’s name when his co-star Smiley Burnette remarked that the beast was “quick on the trigger.” It stuck. Trigger and Rogers first appeared together in 1938 in Under Western Stars. Down the years, other horses sometimes stood in for him, so estimates vary as to how many appearances the horse-formerly-known-as-Golden-Cloud actually made. You’d need a photo finish, though, to tell the difference.

A horse plays a vital part in Valeska Grisebach’s recent Western, a tense and mysterious study of German labourers working in Bulgaria. The title demands at least one horse, I suppose, as well as the various macho stand-offs that occur in the course of the film, but its presence introduces an air of nobility and calm amidst the general lawlessness. “Horses make everything alright,” says a character in Willy Vlautin’s most recent novel, Don’t Skip Out On Me, and you’d have to agree. When the horse in Western is imperilled, you know trouble is a-coming. Look what happened in The Godfather.

Horse sense tells you these creatures have got to be respected. In the sort-of Bond movie Never Say Never Again (essentially a second adaptation of Thunderball, made possible due to complicated copyright reasons pertaining to the original novel), there’s a nasty stunt in which a horse leaps from a great height into the ocean, hitting the water upside down. There was a furore about it at the time of release in 1983 and it tends to be excised on those rare occasions when the film is screened today. Quite right, too. The filmmakers’ cavalier attitude toward animal safety really takes the Seabiscuit.

Equine enthusiasts aren’t short of cinematic opportunities to indulge their passion—everything from National Velvet and International Velvet to War Horse, Phar Lap and The Horse Whisperer. Among the various incarnations of Black Beauty, allow me to flag up the 1994 version, adapted and directed by Caroline Thompson, the pen behind Edward Scissorhands. Sadly it has no trace of the stirring theme music from the 1970s television series (surely a contender for greatest TV theme ever) but there is ample compensation in Alan Cummings’s gentle Scottish lilt, which gives Beauty’s internal monologue the ebbing rhythm of a bedtime story. Human roles are shaved bare but David Thewlis gets the sweetest moment, when Beauty steals his doorstep sandwich, gambols about with it victoriously, then showers him in a confetti of crumbs.

Jockeying for position with all these movie horses, though, are some that don’t exist anywhere except in the imagination. I’m referring, of course, to the invisible ones on which King Arthur rides through medieval England in Monty Python and the Holy Grail while his servant follows nearby, clapping together two halves of a coconut shell. This was the ultimate case of necessity being the mother of comic invention, since the budget wouldn’t stretch to actual horses. It’s just a shame that when Arthur later encounters three fabled knights, their catchphrase turns out to be “Nii!” rather than “neigh.”

Lean On Pete opens 4 May. Western is on release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.