Racism in the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder

This conversation is one that comes up regularly. As a historian, educator, interpreter, and lifelong scholar of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I have commented on this topic hundreds of times, and will continue to encourage intelligent, fact-based discussion rooted in the real events of United States history. In fact, a few years ago I developed an hour-long presentation entitled “Why Does Ma Hate the Indians?: Responding to Loaded Questions in First-Person Interpretation.” In it, I open discussion on the topic with a focus on how interpreters and other educators can navigate the most difficult aspects of our collective history while remaining true to the facts–not only the facts of the individual being interpreted, but also the context within which that person functioned–while facilitating essential discussion about historic issues which continue to plague our modern society.
I am of the conviction that banning work such as the Little House series of books is counterproductive. I am also of the conviction that changing Wilder’s text would be dishonest to readers and to history. Laura’s not here to make that decision whether or how to change the character as written. Remember, too, that these are novels–works of fiction–and the portrayal of the character Caroline isn’t necessarily a true representation of the real person. However, it is quite likely that many of Laura’s relatives and other people Laura knew held racist beliefs and may have acted in oppressive ways. The mere existence of the Homestead Act is proof that white supremacy was policy, and often rule of law, in the US. Millions of people were complicit, and most of them probably didn’t give it much thought in terms of the disastrous impact it had on Indigenous Americans. 
Furthermore, I am of the conviction that any reader who finds Wilder’s work too upsetting to continue reading (or sharing with others) has every right to put the book down and never look at it again. I’m never going to admonish someone for drawing the line and saying they simply cannot bear to read something that is painful to them. 
But: we who are educators, fans, and interpreters of work such as Wilder’s have an obligation to those we engage with about that work. If we are educators, we particularly owe it to those we serve to have honest, intelligent, and meaningful discourse. We simply MUST acknowledge the racist content, the events and socio-political motivations that underpin the content, and recognize the pervasive damage that resulted from those beliefs and actions in real life. Downplaying or brushing racism under the rug only serves to continue the oppression. 
Ultimately, it’s not our work to alter, and we shouldn’t change what Wilder said no matter how ugly it is. Rather, we should–MUST–be willing to hash it out. 
Believe me, I’m not afraid to say that there is a lot of ugly stuff in certain portions of the books. I discuss it regularly in my public presentations. But I still don’t think the work of any author or artist should be altered by other people. We don’t have to like the character or the narrative. But it isn’t ours to change. 
What IS ours is a duty to learn from the past and work to improve our society with a goal of achieving total equality. So let’s be honest about it, have the dialogue, and work to improve things for the current and future generations.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/realize-classic-books-childhood-racist/

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.

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?

Dakota Gatorade

Haymaker’s Punch, Switchel, or Ginger Water?Perhaps we of the 21st century would liken it to Gatorade, Dakota-Style. I’ve tried it many times in many recipes. It’s a startlingly pleasant yet curious concoction which some might call “an acquired taste.” 

Call it what you will, but here’s a little background on this go-to refreshment for hardworking farmers in the heat of summer. Just ignore the part of the article that tries to claim no one had ice.If the events in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s FARMER BOY are any indication, I think those “Wilder boys” would vehemently disagree: 


http://www.free-times.com/restaurants/switchel-up-your-summer-sips-052516

Here She Comes…The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder!

All day today, LauraLand has been abuzz with news items, excerpts, and interviews with author/editor/LIW historian William Anderson‘s newest work, The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Harper), which hits shelves tomorrow. I’m eagerly anticipating my copies from various sources (yay, interwebs, for making it possible to place orders at multiple non-profit museum shops even when the museums themselves are not yet open for the season!). Have you ordered yours yet?

Here’s Bill’s selection on the use of Laura’s work in the 1948 Japanese Re-education program, which he submitted to TIME Magazine:

Read a Moving Letter From Laura Ingalls Wilder on the ‘Things Worthwhile in Life’

And here is an interview with Bill, conducted by Caroline Fraser, and published today in Slate:

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2016/03/the_selected_letters_of_laura_ingalls_wilder_interview_with_editor_william.html

Remember, one of the best ways to show your #LoveForLIW is to support the non-profit museums that preserve her legacy with archives and artifact collections. Your book-buying dollars go further when you spend at these sites, rather than purchasing at mega-marts and corporate conglomerates.

The always delightfully friendly and helpful Amy Ankrum, Director of Walnut Grove, Minnesota’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Tourist Center, was kind enough to take my order directly over the phone. When I spoke with her today, she said the books were due to arrive in the afternoon, and mine would go out in the late mail. If past experience is any judge, I can expect my copy will be in my hands before the week is out!

You can reach Amy and her very knowledgeable staff:

Toll-free phone: (800) 528-7280 (within the U.S.) or: (507) 859-2358

330 8th Street

Walnut Grove, MN 56180

email to:   lauramuseum@walnutgrove.org

Online Gift Shop: http://www.walnutgrove.org/store/

SELECTEDlettersLIW2016WTAcover

Other Laura museums to purchase from:

Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, DeSmet, SD:

(800) 880-3383 or (605)854-3383    or email to:    info@discoverlaura.org

103 Olivet Avenue

DeSmet, SD 57231

http://shop.discoverlaura.org/The-Selected-Letters-of-Laura-Ingalls-Wilder-900.htm

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Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum, Mansfield, MO:

(877) 924-7126     OPEN NOW! Season is 1 March to 15 November 2016.

3068 Highway A

Mansfield, MO 65704

http://www.lauraingallswilderhome.com/?post_type=product

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Little House on the Prairie Museum, Independence, KS:

(620) 289-4238   or email to:   Lhopmuseumks@gmail.com

2307 CR 3000

Independence, Kansas 67301

(Open 7 Days, April through September, Friday/Saturday/Sunday in October)

Donationshttps://secure.squarespace.com/commerce/donate?donatePageId=55d0cb2be4b0b18c963be80f

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Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum, Burr Oak, IA:

(563) 735-5916   or email to: museum@lauraingallswilder.us

3603 236th Avenue

Decorah, IA 52101

http://store.lauraingallswilder.us/t/museumlauraingallswilderus/books

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Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Pepin, WI:

(715) 513-6383 

306 3rd Street (State Hwy 35)

Pepin, WI 54759

http://lauraingallspepin.com/Websites/liwmuseum/images/Documents/Paver_form_rev2.pdf

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Almanzo Wilder Farm, Burke (Malone), NY:

(518) 483-1207   or email to:   farm@almanzowilderfarm.com

177 Stacy Road /PO Box 283

Burke, NY 12953

http://almanzosgeneralstore.com

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Spring Valley Methodist Church Museum (Wilder family site), Spring Valley, MN:

(507) 436-7659    or email to:   wilderinspringvalley@hotmail.com

221 W. Courtland Street

Spring Valley, MN 55975

http://www.springvalleymnmuseum.org/wilderlinks.html

 

2015-06-24 18.55.14

Little Bessie says: “Please support your favorite Laura Ingalls Wilder museum…or, in this case, ALMANZO Wilder museum!” (Almanzo’s bucolic birthplace at Burke, NY is also known as Almanzo Wilder Farm. And it’s also home to a bunch of Little Bessie’s friends…)

2012-07-16 16.49.58

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society in DeSmet, SD, is also home to DeSmet’s First School, where Laura and Carrie attended during the now-legendary Hard Winter of 1880-1881.

2012-07-09 16.33.22

A setting of Laura’s Rosebud Chintz dinnerware on display at Burr Oak, IA.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Protected: Vanity Fair notices The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Shenanigans ensue.

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“Be a Decent Human Being.”

Rex Huppke has an excellent weekly column at the Chicago Tribune. I read it yesterday, as I do every Monday. I’ve been reading it since it began a few years back, and his words never fail to resonate. After over two decades of working with the public, and often in large corporate-structure retail-and-service-industry positions, most of which had far more in common politically with the dreaded Dilbert-style cubicle farm than many of you may realize, I can tell you quite frankly that Rex knows of what he speaks. People need to be treated like, well, people. If more bosses/managers/supervisors took his theories to heart, a lot more people would love their jobs. 

And it is SO SIMPLE. 

Rex’s philosophy, in 5 words? “Be a Decent Human Being.” His column, I Just Work Here, focuses upon best strategies to navigate all manner of workplace interactions, and his advice has this nifty feature wherein it always translates well to everyday life. Rex offers a self-deprecating sense of humor which alternates with self-aggrandizement, tongue squarely planted in cheek.

This deft combination makes me grin with each new installment; I honestly look forward to reading his take on whatever aspect of workplace politics or “can you believe there are still people who need to be told this?” which he elects to discuss in a given week. And, while he certainly has no idea who I am, his column has become such a fixture of my routine that I feel confident in declaring he’s not some self-absorbed business guru with a byline, but, rather, the 21st century counterpart to another favorite writer of mine: Laura Ingalls Wilder. And because of that, it seems perfectly logical that I think of him as some long-lost college buddy from that class that time, who I haven’t talked to in ages but would seek out at the reunion if I even bothered to go. My buddy Rex, you remember… 

Wait, what? What does this MBA-type business column guy have to do with…did you say, Laura Ingalls Wilder? 

Yes. Yes I did.

What does my imaginary buddy Rex have to do with Laura, you say? Well, nothing. And, everything.

You see, Rex Huppke is the kind of writer who talks to his readers like, well, people. And he relates to them in everyday terms, discussing everyday issues, with honesty, humor, and solid intentions to make a positive impact on the lives of those people. As someone who has spent a good three quarters of her life learning anything and everything I can find about the multi-faceted Mrs. Wilder, to the point where I now spend much of my professional life in a newish-to-me career presenting educational first-person interpretation programs as the author whose friends knew her as Bessie, I am of the conviction that she–Laura– did much the same in her own work, nay, in her life, as the humble Rex does today.  

How so, you say? Let’s see…

Laura took bad situations and turned them into experiences, learning what she could and striving for better. She did a lot of tough, down-in-the-trenches work. She knew better than to count her chickens or rest on her laurels, even if she did occasionally express herself in cliché. She did her best to help, and to inspire, others. Whether writing a poultry column for the St. Louis Star, or penning a quick note home to her beloved Manly, describing the wonders she witnessed at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition while visiting with their daughter, the up-and-coming Rose Wilder Lane, Laura had meaningful thoughts to share, and was known to share freely when she felt it mattered. Laura took education seriously, so much so that she sometimes sounded apologetic for never having been “graduated from anything.” Yet, she was so self-educated that she became known locally as an active clubwoman who read voraciously and encouraged her neighbors to share their intellectual persuits in the Eastern Star, the Athenians, and “Justamere” Club. On a regional level, her farm columns for the Missouri Ruralist offered tips on progressive farming and housekeeping as well as underscoring civic duty and fostering tolerance of one’s adversaries. Eventually, her mildly fictionalized series of children’s books became a fixture in homes and classrooms across the country–and are translated and enjoyed in dozens of languages around the world.

But all of this homespun goodness can be boiled down to a pretty simple philosophy and approach to one’s inner life and outer responsibilities. Do your work, but find joy in simple pleasures. Do everything to the best of your ability, but don’t be afraid of failure. Stand up for what you think is right, but allow yourself to feel empathy for others, even if you disagree. In short, Rex and Laura offer the same message, albeit in different contexts and different centuries: Be a Decent Human Being. And any person with a philosophy like that is well worth knowing. Or, at least, admiring publicly for a moment.

Find Rex Huppke’s work here:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/chinews-ask-rex-huppke-i-just-work-20130507-staff.html

https://www.facebook.com/RexWorksHere

Twitter: @RexWorksHere