Jul 17 2017

Working With Wilder: Reflections on Mark Athitakis and “The New Midwest”

Athens

It is evident after reading The New Midwest: a Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt (2017) that Mark Athitakis has read a lot more books on the Midwest than I think I’ll ever be able to get around to, so I am somewhat hesitant to comment or critique his book too much. But when it comes to the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder I think I can offer some constructive reflection linking both authors.

The Little House books are some of the earliest books I remember my mother reading to me and my siblings in the mid-1980s. So I found it a little strange to encounter Athitakis’ confession that he was “conditioned to think” of the books as “written for girls,” (p. 37).

Yes, the characters of Laura, Ma, Mary, Carrie and Nellie are all girls, but I never felt the books were “girly” or “sissy” or what have you. But on the other hand, I get what Athitakis is getting at. I wasn’t quoting passages from the books and the television show in the locker-room after football practice.

I’m pretty sure that, even in “the late 1970s and early 1980s,” when he was growing up, Mr. Athitakis doesn’t mean he was conformed to believe all fiction written by women was therefore written for women. I don’t think he was taught that in school, nor do I interpret him as saying that he did. But, what is an interesting question, is whether he (and I and others of our generation) grew up assuming that when fiction prior to the 21st century contains females as its principle characters, did (and do) we initially assume such fiction was written more for women than for men?

Upon some reflection, the question doesn’t pan out. Think about it. I’ve never heard of a male reader characterize Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) as a “girly” book, nor have I ever heard of girls complaining that Rowling’s Harry Potter series were too “manly” to be read. My mother’s favorite book by Wilder is Farmer Boy (1933), which is a retelling of the boyhood of Wilder’s husband Almonzo Wilder. Perhaps gender is pretty arbitrary.

But what about when the author, particularly for a children’s book, is a woman and the principle character happens to be a girl? Are there examples in this context that have traditionally not been considered too feminine for male readers from the last 300 years?

On this issue I must confess I’ve never been impulsively tempted to read Little Women (1868) (or Little Men for that matter). Super-reader Andrew Lang once confessed in Adventures Among Books (1910) of his childhood love for Brönte’s Jane Eyre (p.10). And, if we accept the experts general agreement that fairy-tales were originally and principally told by women to children, then one can say Charles Dickens’ confession of his desire to marry Red Riding Hood counts as an answer in the affirmative to the proposed question above (see “A Christmas Tree” (1859)).

The Midwest: a dream by David Lynch #bookshelf #books #Literature #midwest #twinpeaks

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Athitakis’ comments (pp. 37-38) on the plotlessness of Wilder’s first book Little House in the Big Woods (1932) is an important observation. As Laura Wilder said later in life:

For years I had thought that the stories my father once told me should be passed on to other children. I felt they were much too good to be lost.

And so I wrote Little House in the Big Woods.

That book was a labor of love and is really a memorial to my father. A line drawing of an old tin type of father and mother is the first illustration.

“My Work.” A Little House Sampler. By Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane. Edited by William Anderson. Lincoln, NE. 1988. NY: Harper Collins. 1995.  176–77.

But one should compare and contrast the sixth book in the Little House series The Long Winter (1940), whose narrative is strongly plot-driven–yet also full of psychological stress and spiritual strength to endure a fierce series of blizzards in the winter of 1880-81, strangely not unlike Stephen King’s The Shining (1977), although it takes place not in the Midwest but in Colorado, and Michael Punke’s The Revenant (2002), a novel of the Northwest but one that starts out in Midwest Missouri.