Not on your life.

Tonight, while plugging away at yet another assignment for my graduate classes, I took a few minutes to check email. There, among my Google alerts, I spotted a phrase that stopped me in my tracks, and I simply HAD to respond. The headline on the Huffington Post (and numerous other outlets that immediately picked it up as well) declared: “Laura Ingalls Wilder Would’ve Voted for Trump.”

While I can ignore a lot of wild claims and misguided mythology about my favorite Gilded Age American, I could not ignore this one. No. I had to respond, and quick. Accurately. With evidence culled from the better part of three decades of study. So I did. And here it is, published all over the ‘nets on HP, and numerous other websites that ran the original piece, as well as on FaceBook and Twitter. 

MY COMPLETE RESPONSE:

Not on your life. You cannot use dialogue and prose passages from Wilder’s fictional work–much of which was heavily edited by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who is now considered a “mother of modern Libertarianism,” but who had some ideas which were very different from her mother–to decide what Laura Ingalls Wilder thought about life and classes and myriad other topics.

Laura Ingalls Wilder tells us in her own non-fiction writing that she objected to harsh language (“Swearing is such a foolish habit” was the topic of one of her published “As a Farm Woman Thinks” columns at the Missouri Ruralist from 1911to the mid-1920s), and she certainly had a high regard for women as people, not as the objects our President Elect’s speech and behavior would indicate he perceives women to be.

While there was certainly race and class bias in Wilder’s work, and much of it is indeed racist by today’s standards, Wilder’s choice of “Indians” rather than “Native Americans” has everything to do with the fact that the term “Native American” was not in use in such context in the 1930s and 1940s when she was penning her novels. While I will not defend her sometimes racist language, I will point out that she often re-considered her own beliefs and set about to correct them when the need arose. In fact, when specific language in the opening paragraphs of her first novel, LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS, was questioned by a reader who objected to the implication of Indians not being counted as people, Wilder responded with an apology, (“of course they are people”), and directed the publisher to correct subsequent editions.

Further, as a farmer whose livelihood depended upon NOT being taken advantage of by commercial farming interests, she was much more likely to vote for a candidate who did not appear to be making inroads for bilionaire cronies. Wilder believed in self-sufficiency, yes. But she did not approve of greed and avarice, nor deception or malice. She was frugal, but she was also loving and generous to family and friends. She believed in honesty. She also believed in lifelong education, starting several clubs in her local area of Mansfield, Missouri, for the betterment of citizens through educational pursuits. She held several positions in her community, including Worthy Matron of her local chapter of the Eastern Star. She also was the very efficient and successful Treasurer for the Farm Loan Association, where she helped struggling farmers borrow the capital they needed to succeed in their farm endeavors. She is remembered for handling over one million dollars in loans over a decade of tenure and having not one case of default on any of the loans she originated. That hardly sounds like someone who would approve of Mr. Trump’s ruthless attitude, nor his habit of refusing to pay contractors for the work they completed in good faith.

Nowhere in the President-Elect’s speech or behavior do I see any evidence that he values such qualities that Laura Ingalls Wilder prized, and lived by.

There is other, overwhelming, evidence to support the idea that Wilder would decidedly NOT vote for Donald Trump. There is a wealth of well-researched, historically-contextualized biography and literary criticism that would shed light on the subject. You should read some of it. I recommend anything written by John E. Miller, Professor Emeritus of History at South Dakota State University, as your first reference. Miller and other scholars demonstrate that, while certainly human, and as such, naturally flawed, Wilder was someone who had integrity.

Having myself studied Wilder, her life and works, in great detail for over 25 years, I can say with confidence that Wilder would much prefer a dignified, rational, level-headed, experienced, and fiscally conservative candidate for any elected office. Several come to mind. Donald Trump doesn’t make it anywhere on that list.

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The “new” ROOTS: Historical Fiction Done Right. 

Old Sturbridge Village, in their Facebook feed today, asked guests for their impressions of the new ROOTS. I’ve been watching it closely this week and comparing to both the novel (all 899 pages of it!) and the original 1977 tv “event.” I have vague recollections of the original playing on our console tv in the living room; as an adult I read the book several years ago and have watched the 1977 miniseries in parts, but not recently. So the prospect of a new production piqued my interest, and this week I am making a rare point of scheduling tv time specifically to view it uninterrupted.

“Your name is your spirit; your name is your shield.” Screen shot from my initial viewing . Melanie C. Stringer photo.


 It’s an emotional journey to watch the horrors of slavery in such vivid detail at any time, and despite years of study in American history and reading numerous well-documented scholary works devoted to the enslaved people who built much of what became America, it never gets easier. And never ceases to hold my attention.

Here are some of my preliminary thoughts, albeit in rough form, halfway through the series. I’ll be updating this post later in the week, when I’ve had a chance to take in the entire production. (Episode Three airs tonight): 

My initial reaction? It’s quite good, and clearly reflects four more decades of scholarship. That’s key, and makes me very happy. I went into the first viewing not knowing what to expect nor having any insider information about the production aside from the tidbit that LeVar Burton was co-producer. A good sign, but no guarantee. 

First, the violence is graphic and unflinching and it accurately reflects much of what I have read in primary sources for decades. The on-screen warning about the content, strangely, emphasizes the “language of the time” and mentions violence secondarily, as if to acknowledge that today’s audiences are far more offended by hate speech than by senseless brutality…perhaps because, in 2016, we often are. I couldn’t help noticing that the voiceover reading the warning pauses before completing the statement with, “…and violence,” as if a mere afterthought. I was glad to see, however, that the warning was revised for Episode Two to include “sexual violence,” likely due to the fact that rape, while implied in the first installment, is more blatantly illustrated in the second part. The brutality of slavery is inescapable and authentically delivered. Even those who direct their own employees–the actual perpetrators of the most direct violence–sometimes wince at the execution of their own directives, almost stunned at ruthlessness, and that seems deliberately telling. Male characters are at times shown reacting with visceral, uncontrolled shudders and cries, and are protective of the women who, it must be said, are often–but not always–portrayed as stoic by comparison.

The story still feels extremely male-centric, but that is unavoidable given the source novel’s content. The 2016 version is, however, more inclusive of women’s experiences than the 1977 version. Women, such as those on the ship during the horrific middle passage, play key roles in attempting escape and make their own decisions when given the opportunity. However, the women portrayed are not generally prone to behaving in ways that society of those times and places would squelch, and still tend to publicly defer to men as their cultural environment dictates. We are not left feeling the female characters have been transported to colonial plantations straight from a seminar at Berkeley. With the exception of the occasional Disneyesque overacting of a few extremely young actors, the cast feels genuinely of the times and places where the ROOTS story unfolds.

While we’re on the subject, I’m glad that most of the actors are relatively unknown, so that the story feels more genuine as opposed to the “star-studded” casting of the previous version. 1977’s miniseries of course starred the unforgettable and, at the time, unknown LeVar Burton as young Kunta. Burton’s portrayal was so compelling it may have worked against him ever since, being typecast to the point that he had to get creative with other projects to live it down. But the 1977 version made the mistake of leaning on celebrity. Perhaps it was necessary to draw in viewers during a time when segregation and bussing were still fresh in our minds and precious few black performers were given any semblance of respect. But the casting that first time around was loud and disjointed. It featured not one or two, but numerous well-known actors from 60s and 70s tv shows. Robert Reed and Ed Asner, Moses Gunn, Lorne Greene, Esther Rolle, as well as OJ Simpson, Cicely Tyson, Sandy Duncan…the “celebrity” element in the original always felt like a huge distraction and undermined the gravity of the story. It’s hard to relate to Lou Grant as serial rapist slaver captain, or pixie-cut Sandy Duncan looking like Peter Pan in panniers. Thank goodness this time the cast are fresh and strong and ego-free. Further, a good deal of the once-rampant historical mythology of American slavery has since been rectified; some very questionable “scholarship” made more than one appearance in the first attempt at ROOTS as cinema.

My personal copy of Alex Haley’s ROOTS: The Saga of an American Family. Melanie C. Stringer photo.

That is not to say there aren’t problems with the new version. However, they (so far) tend to be somewhat minor:

Some scenes seem to be invented for this version, although they still fit with the storyline, so that may not really be a problem. I read the novel, and the differences don’t seem to have interfered much with the heart of the story or the characters (remembering that the novel itself is heavily-researched but still historical fiction).

Some of the actors, especially the younger or tertiary players are occasionally too modern in their posturing. “Missy” stands out as very unconvincing and entirely a product of the 21st century. Overall, the dialogue is good but includes a few anachronistic expressions (notably: “Are you okay?” and “I got this.”) which I took to be ad libs by actors caught up in the action of some very tense and charged scenes. The costumes are decent but not without some glaring fit problems on gentry and especially on “Mrs. Waller.” There’s a scandalous lack of petticoats on wealthy, otherwise well-dressed women. I spotted some drawers on little girls long before they were commonly worn. While the cinematography is stunning, it’s pretty obvious that they filmed far from the initial 18th century American setting in Virginia; credits indicate Louisiana and it shows prominently in the landscape of swamps and cypress that look more Bayou than Tidewater. 

These problematic details are triumphantly overshadowed by the key actors, all of whom are consistently outstanding. I am particularly impressed by everyone in the Kinte family; the casting was superb, and Malachi Kirby’s face alone tells the entire story. Indeed, his physicality is so engrossing, so convincing, so utterly in the moment at all times, that the viewer is liable to believe he IS Kunta Kinte, and not just a highly-skilled, extraordinarily gifted actor. It is safe to say one might watch the entire first two episodes with the sound muted and still feel every nuance of Kunta’s experience.

The Boston Globe ran a quick piece on ROOTS this week, and Globe staff writer Matthew Gilbert and I clearly agree on the caliber of acting:

“As Kunta Kinte, Malachi Kirby projects both intelligence and naivete, the latter as he asks “Why don’t they run?” upon seeing slaves in the fields for the first time. His performance, as he maintains the body language and speaking patterns of Kunta’s African youth, is strong enough to hover over the entire miniseries, even though he’s only in the first two parts.”

(Full story here

https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/2016/05/30/newcomers-give-roots-strength/zFdK0G5yrORilvqv4iguZJ/story.html

The rest of the primary cast in the first half–Omoro and Binta, Belle, Fiddler (hey, Forest Whitaker, I almost forgot that’s you playing him!) and teenaged Kizzy–are all fantastic. Kunta’s parents, Omoro and Binta, exude love and a hopeful yet strict and protective relationship with each other and their son. Fiddler’s resolve, and paternal, almost reflexive guidance of the “ornery Mandinka” evolves into a loyalty unmatched by any other. Belle’s steady but firm demeanor with the ungrateful invalid Kunta is impressively gentle as she stands her ground but does not relinquish her sense of duty and, later, love. Kizzy is her Fa’s daughter, and the viewer knows it. I see numerous well-deserved awards and powerful leading roles in the near future for these fine talents. 

The more I ponder the question, however, the more I come back to this: 

Damn! It is really, really well done! 

You see, I’m a skeptic with a long history of finding major flaws with a lot of historical fiction. I’m the gal who needs to read the book before watching the movie, every time. It’s just a RULE of mine. And, very often, historical fiction is poorly-researched and dwells too much in the land of the time it was written rather than the era it is alleged to portray. Yep, I’m THAT person. It’s hard to please me when it comes to mixing my two favorite things–history and literature–and I say this, knowing full well how that must sound to anyone who knows that I’m a historian who travels the US presenting educational living history in the persona of one of our country’s best-known authors of historical fiction, Laura Ingalls Wilder. 

But I digress.

I watched the first episode three times in immediate succession to make certain I absorbed every moment as thoroughly as possible, and couldn’t find a hitch. Rather, I kept finding more details that served to enrich the storytelling. While the second installment had some jarring modernities, it still held well for the most part. Caveat: what is UP with that tune playing at Kunta and Belle’s wedding, anyway? Far too 21st century-pop-song-with-a-tempo-change for my taste. Worse, it took away from the authenticity of the scene, serving to make Kunta’s objection to broom jumping sound like a PSA instead of a natural reaction to a phony “tradition.”
But, if that’s the worst I can find in the first four hours of this labor of love, then all signs point to the next four being more than worth the wait.

In case it wasn’t clear, I’m looking forward to the next two installments. How about you?

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Just How Cold Was It? 

17 February 1936: The coldest temperature recorded in South Dakota history. 58 degrees BELOW ZERO, at McIntosh, SD.
Author Laura Ingalls Wilder would, a few years later, immortalize a different weather system, known as the Hard Winter of 1880-1881, in her book, THE LONG WINTER. In that book and others, Dakota winters were described as experiencing temperatures in the -30s or -40s (Farenheit); sometimes, she said, the thermometer would simply freeze and no longer work at all.
In this age of central heating, snow tires, fiberglass insultion, Polartec  cold-weather gear, and satellite weather forecasting, extreme temperatures of that nature will still make us shudder. Imagine facing an air temperature of -58F  without our modern comforts, and compounded with the reality of food and fuel being in very short, often sporadic, supply. I’m willing to bet even the bison (what few remained on the High Plains at the time) felt their dense wooly coats weren’t quite adequate.

By the time of this 1936 event, Wilder had long since moved out of the state, but her sister Carrie (Ingalls) Swanzey was living 242 miles to the SW of McIntosh, in the somewhat milder Black Hills region at Keystone, South Dakota. I hear from the folks at the Keystone Historical Society that winter in the shadow of Mt. Rushmore is certainly snowy, and at times blustery, but nothing compared to the legendary whiteout blizzards of the Hard Winter. Perhaps someday this New Hampshire native (who’s shoveled a fair amount of snow and chipped countless inches of ice off her driveway over the years) will brave a little jaunt to Dakota in one of the months that ends in -uary. Maybe.

Stay warm!

The Myth of a Myth: Brushing Your Hair 100 Times

This is my favorite entry of The Pragmatic Costumer. The writer, Liz, makes excellent points about how the modern brushes and shampoos/conditioners/styling products simply do not reflect historic methods, and marketing has actually changed how we style our hair over the decades.

I’ve had my own odyssey with hair care as I’ve aged, and always hated styling products. Transforming myself into a reasonable facsimile of a woman in the 1890s goes far beyond getting a great dressmaker. Grooming takes center stage, and is very different than most 21st century women would find comfortable. I make some small compromises, but endeavor to be as authentic as possible.

When I was in the early stages of planning my first-person presentations, Meet Laura Ingalls Wilder, I began growing my hair. I was putting together many necessary elements for a portrayal that was as close to accurate as possible, considering that Laura herself left behind great descriptions of her clothing when she was a teenager, but little of her appearance as a married woman with a half-grown child, a farm full of hard work and a flock of chickens to tend. I wanted my wardrobe and grooming to be as close to what she and other women of her taste and means and practical needs might have done as possible, but also to maintain a level of practicality that would translate for travel and everyday life. I knew I had a challenge. I have always had very oily, straight but unevenly-textured, mostly fine (but tons of it) hair. So, with the help of a great hairdresser and some experimentation, I expanded upon my earlier commitment to reduce damaging habits and products.

I had first eliminated any products with alcohols or silicones and other plastics about 15 years ago, and rarely touch even gels or other styling products. But to get my hair to maintain a healthy apppearance and grow well without split ends, I had to commit to regularly scheduled trims. That is simply a fact for certain hair types like mine. I also had to put the hairdryer down. More often than I wanted to. And, I had to buy better tools. But, by also by following a few more of the “always” and “nevers” of hair care, I found I could grow it to be the healthiest it has ever been since I was about seven years old. Here are some basics:

-ALWAYS brush hair before going to sleep. NEVER sleep with clips, barrettes, braids, or hair ties in your hair (it tugs and tears at the hair as your head moves on the pillow).

-NEVER use shampoos or conditioners which contain sulfates. You don’t need a lather to get it clean! Sulfates dry your hair and encourage breakage.

-NEVER use a brush in wet hair. A wide-toothed comb is gentler.

-ALWAYS avoid a hair dryer when possible/practical. If you must use one, get one with a “cold shot” setting and only use that setting. It will lessen damage.

-NEVER let your hair loose if the weather is very windy. The tangled mess will be difficult to untangle without damage; not worth it!

It took me 5 years to get to a length that works for all aspects of my life and isn’t too impractical for everyday. I compromised by keeping the length at the lower middle of my back, and use a carefully-matched switch to add realistic (and historically-accurate!) volume to my 1890s hairstyle.

Photos to follow!

The Pragmatic Costumer

A Tiny Bit of Historical Hair Care for the Modern Woman

Young Teenage Girl with Sausage Curls, circa 1860

I have very greasy hair and always have. It’s also fine, but dry at the ends, so I have to cleanse it every day yet hydrate it with heavy creams. Recently, I’ve delved into the world of alternative haircare. In my case, I’ve taken up co-washing, which uses conditioner as a “shampoo” that doesn’t strip hair as badly as regular shampoo. It’s basically alternative hair care for casuals, but so far, it’s been working pretty well! A lot of alternative haircare methods remind me a lot of pre-20th century haircare methods. Before the great hygiene shift created by 20th century marketing, women didn’t just style their hair differently than we do; they cared for their hair differently, too.

Lotta Crabtree, an American Actress
One of her defining physical features was…

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