Little Fibs on the Prairie: Non-Fiction vs Fiction

Thoughts on the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, their fabrications, and the nature of non-fiction stories.

In the neverending battle to better myself, I’m currently taking two Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for the next couple months. This is an amazingly helpful post on the what MOOCs are, and the ones that are available for Fall 2014. I’ve never taken an online course before, and even though we’re only just over a week in, I’m really enjoying myself. As they’re not for credit, it’s more about taking the initiative to learn and grow, and to talk with other people – usually thousands of peeps from all over the world! It’s pretty cool getting to chat about stuff I love with others, and in such a warm environment. I’m taking “How Writers Write Fiction”, which I hope to help with my writing, and then another one that’s sure to be helpful because learning always is, but is indeed more for fun: “Laura Ingalls Wilder: Exploring Her Work & Writing Life”.

Now, I haven’t thought about the Little House books in years. But they were far and away my absolute favorite book series when I was little, and I would read them over and over again. Some older readers may be surprised to learn that Laura’s universe expanded a bit to include her great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and daughter in “Little House” books of their own. I devoured those, too, of course. So I have – or had, rather – a strong nostalgic love for this series, and was utterly heartbroken to learn that a great deal of it was made up.

I read a biography on Wilder for an elementary school book report, and the author kept saying all these things about her life that weren’t in the book, and things that couldn’t be right, because the books were different! I even crossed out actual bits of text, I was so sure of its wrongness. Let me be so bold as to say I wasn’t a stupid kid, but it was still difficult for me to understand that the Little House books were in fact fiction, not nonfiction. And I haven’t read them since.

It’s curious to realize how wounded I was to learn this, and how my impressions of the books changed afterwards. I had figured the other series, the ones not written by Wilder, were mostly made up, because they were written decades after the fact and by different authors. I was cognizant enough to understand they were merely inspired by the stories told to Wilder, who wrote them down, and actual historical records. But the actual Little House books, the original series, were presented as truth, at least as far as I understood.

As I’m still in the process of taking this course, I don’t know exactly the ratio between fact and fiction, but what I have learned is that Laura Ingalls Wilder was a storyteller, first and foremost. She altered the truth to tell a better story. Jack the bulldog, for example, did not die peacefully by the shores of Silver Lake, but was traded with the horses when Charles “Pa” Ingalls sold them in Kansas. The Ingalls also was not a fiercely independent farming family, always determined to head west, but actually had a great deal of collaboration with friends and family and moved back and forth in the midwest, from Wisconsin to Kansas to Missouri to Minnesota to Iowa and the Dakota Territory. Over the course of writing and rough drafts, Wilder found the fictional lives she had created for her family to be much more compelling, and even in the later books, which have a more mature tone and feature her strongest memories, she kept up that impression.

So what’s true, and what’s not? And why does it matter so much? Perhaps because it feels real – no one alive today can explain accurately what went on during the late 1800s/early 1900s, and so we must rely on history and historical stories to tell us what life was like in the those days. Granted, LH is indeed categorized as “Fiction”, but virtually no child pays attention to the title pages beyond rushing past them to get to the story. Though I’m sure the thought grazed the back of my mind in terms of wondering how she could remember so much, particularly the dialogue. Younger me probably understood the concept of creative leeway, but I still believed that the overall events actually occurred, and it was indeed a bit of shock to realize how much was fabricated and how much was left out. I don’t necessarily feel betrayed anymore, but I certainly trust it much less, especially when considering that people I loved may not have really been like that at all, and aren’t so much people as characters. I’m reminded of The Things We Carried by Tim O’Brien, (in)famous for its semi-autobiographical nature and the author’s refusal to disclose how much of it really happened. I suppose you might consider the issue as toying with reader’s emotions – whether O’Brien’s fabricated story about the slaughtering of a donkey or LIW giving Jack the bulldog a poetic death scene. We feel sad or happy on a deeper visceral level than if it was fiction – that’s, of course, not to say true emotions cannot be invoked by fiction, but when you think it’s real, that alters your perception and how you read the story. When you find out that it was basically a lie, it does hurt.

That being said, I don’t think it’s strictly important to explore a writer’s life in order to appreciate their work more fully. I believe an author’s work should stand on its own merits, the biographical details unnecessary in most cases. In fantasy, sci-fi, etc., this is especially true, as you know going in that most of it was made up; though the best stories incorporate real life themes and realistic characters, knowing about the author’s life usually doesn’t make it any more or less interesting (e.g., J.K. Rowling has an astounding “rags to riches” tale in terms of writing the Harry Potter series, but that hardly affects the books’ content). For standard, realistic fiction, though, I am sometimes curious to know if the writer had any life experiences that mirror those of the story – for example, John Green’s A Fault in Our Stars; he himself did not have cancer, nor anyone in his family, he was inspired by the life story of one of his friends. In this case, the full fictional nature was accepted because he had done his research and pulled off a respectful story without necessarily experiencing it himself.

Interestingly, I only “doublecheck” realistic fiction, because it’s a writer’s trope to “write what you know”, and the many, many books that are published every year often feature plots or characters based on real counterparts. I enjoy reading autobiographies and memoirs in any case, and if someone turns their life into a book, even a fictional one, that is still fascinating to read. (Some examples: Chicano, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, No-No Boy, etc.) It’s when something is presented as being true and there’s no immediate evidence to the contrary, that it takes a different emotional turn.

LIW did an amazing job portraying her family in such a way that left little doubt to its verity, and made her life feel accessible and alive to generations of children. And that’s also probably what makes finding out the truth about the LH books so conflicting, because it’s part nostalgia, part finding out Santa Claus isn’t real. I mean, for most media, we do tend to accept it and take a sort of “innocent until proven guilty” route, where we don’t disregard anything without evidence. My mom was distraught when I informed her that one of her favorite television shows, House Hunters, was a well-fabricated lie (the people have already selected a house before going on the program), and more so when she found out the Chairman of Iron Chef America, purportedly the nephew of the Japanese chairman of the original Iron Chef, is actually an actor. Notice the nature of these two shows: they are called “reality TV”. Yes, everyone knows reality television isn’t all real, but we buy into the idea because it seems real – those are real people doing real things. We deliberately forget the concept of editing and acting and directing, and focus only on what we want to see. The same can be said of realistic/historic fiction books – it may say “fiction”, but the content contained therein could conceivably have really happened, and so many of us believe it, especially if it is a true fact that the author truly lived a life similar to the one they wrote about.

In all honesty, the merits of a literary work should be able to stand on its own; the writer’s background shouldn’t matter. It all boils down to whether you believed the content was true before learning about the author, resulting in either crushing disappointment, satisfied affirmation, or pleasant surprise. Hence why I titled this piece using the word “fibs” – it’s not quite as damning as “lies”. Wilder was simply trying to tell a good story, and she certainly succeeded.

As I continue in this class, I can’t wait to visit these books again, especially knowing what I know now. Nostalgia may be a powerful emotion, but I’m interested in reading them with older eyes, a much more open mind in regards to the facts of writing and editing, the biographical and historical information I’ve learned and will learn from this course, and modern awareness of social issues. (The “pioneer days” are ridiculously hyped and glorified, and the LH books have their share of racism and sexism that I wasn’t aware of when I was younger.)

I’ll probably post more thoughts and writings from my MOOC courses over the next couple months. If anyone is interested, it’s not too late to sign up for one!

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