Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mortify Me! Scandalize Me!

Have you ever indulged in something that you know is simply going to tick you off, merely to enjoy a sense of outrage? I have that personality quirk in abundance, and I have just seen it rear its lovely little head again today. For, you see, I have just requested Constructing the Little House: Gender, Culture and Laura Ingalls Wilder by Ann Romines from our inter-library loan system.

I came across this title innocently enough. I was trying to find that beloved and oft mentioned volume in the Ingalls Family's petite library, Millbank. What was it about this novel that provoked the emptying of a slender purse for its purchase, I had often wondered. And why not Pride and Prejudice instead? So, in dabbling a bit over at, a search turned up the aforementioned scholarly treatment of the LIW books by one Ms. Romines. Fascinating! Then I read the reviews. And that's when the real fun began!

An excerpt from a review by Jennifer Smith in California: The major problem with the book, and the deal breaker as far as I was concerned, is that Ms. Romines leans heavily on the current academic "women's studies" line of woman as victim of patriarchy and outdated Freudian concepts of feminine and masculine. When Ms. Romines discusses such topics as the Oedipal undercurrents of Farmer Boy, or the "intensely romantic", "potentially incestuous" relationship even the very young Laura shares with her Pa, one wonders what sort of imagination Romines has. Ma is presented as little more than a woman beaten into submission by male dominance and her repressed feelings of resentment. Pa is presented as a pervert, haystacks become phallic symbols... it goes on and on like this.
[I knew a girl at Vivian Webb in Claremont, CA named Jennifer Smith who was particularly brilliant -- could this be she? Of course, there were a million Jennifers born in the 1970's and "Smith" is the stereotypical common last name: "A Mrs. Smith. A widow Mrs. Smith -- and who was her husband? One of the five thousand Mr, Smiths whose names are to be met with every where." Thus spoke Sir Walter Elliot in Jane Austen's Persuasion. Still, this seems to me an especially insightful and skillful review -- one that could have easily been penned by the Jennifer Smith of my memory.]

Another review, this one from Denise Shearer in Maryland, points out: For example, in LHITBW, on the trip to town, Ms Romines would have her readers believe that Pa's motives in urging Ma to buy some cloth for a new apron, and teasing her that he will pick out the pattern if she doesn't, is somehow his way of exercising his 'male' control over his wife, rather than what clearly comes through to the reader of LHITBW as his desire to make Ma happy by buying her something she doesn't expect - a surprise gift! There is nothing in Wilder's narrative to imply that his motives are anything less.
[Charles and Caroline Ingalls always seemed, to me, to have an ideally balanced and sweet and loving marriage. What woman would not want to be married to a "Pa"? And what man would not want a help-meet like "Ma"? Whether this relationship is the product of Laura's sentimentality in her old age or is accurately represented in the "Little House" books seems to me irrelevant. You cannot infer from the books themselves anything in their marriage that was dysfunctional or aberrant -- and if that was Ms. Romines sole source for this claim, then I cannot see how she has a leg upon which to stand.]

The other reviews were scalding and indignant and scintillating, too. And I started to think to myself, "I have to read this book!" But, of course, I did not want to buy it. So, since our library system does not carry it -- surprising, considering the subject matter -- I requested an inter-library loan.

Will this book disgust and enrage me? Probably. But, there is something very fun in raising one's own hackles in response to the rampant slaughter of cows held most sacred. It is an intellectual challenge to re-evaluate my own positions and reactions to a piece of art or literature or theology or music in light of desecration, and I have always found my original appreciation of beloved masterpieces strengthened after witnessing the assaults upon them. For instance, after viewing the cinematic atrocity of Patricia Rozema's Mansfield Park (1999), I was better able to articulate why the original novel matters so much to me. Being able to know exactly why I rejected Rozema's portrayal of what is arguably Jane Austen's greatest novel has made me a more worthy reader of it. It is almost as if I now deserve its splendor more, having had the gut-wrenching, yet ultimately cathartic, experience of seeing its themes and heroine ripped to shreds on the big screen.

There are some things that are so inarguably good and wholesome and wise that it seems inconceivable that anyone should see anything twisted and dark while prodding the deeper layers. I see the "Little House" series by Laura Ingalls Wilder as one of those things. No matter how many times I read those wonderful books of my childhood, I can only marvel more at their strong spirit of determination, family love, indomitability, rugged individualism, optimism, and dogged humor in the face of privation. Of course, these themes are the ones most likely to be frowned upon in this miserable age of defeatism, fractured families, submersion in stress, weak-kneed blame-shifting, pessimism, and cruel humor in the suffocating embrace of material wealth. So, it is really no wonder that someone out there just couldn't resist applying today's skewed lens to a vision of the past. It is sort-of a shame, but also sort-of very funny, and I look forward to reading the copy my intrepid librarian will round up for me (perhaps from Frederick MD, where Ms. Shearer vowed to donate her copy to the public library).


Arielle said...

I was also very disappointed with the movie version of Mansfield Park. You had to expect that it would be very difficult to find someone in this day and age willing to portray Fanny Price as she was written.

Mark said...

I often think that those in the "intellecual" community have way over-stetched in their interpretation of what is simply a life lived by those who are, generally, innocent. The innocent know right from wrong, but do not dwell on the wrong; they dwell on the right, and live their lives in accordance with it.

Tom Lehrer, the satirical singer song-writer, once described one of his songs as "obscene . . . or as they say in New York, sophisticated." That quote, I believe is descriptive of the problem with the Romines book: Romines point-of-view comes from the obscene, while Ingalls came from innocence.

Only in dwelling on those things that are wrong can you re-interpret others' writing or behaviour (from afar) as being illicit. To Wilder, for example, a haystack was a haystack (I have no doubt). To Romines it's a phallic symbol?

Or am I missing some point?

Justine said...

Nope, Mark -- I think you are nailing that point right on its head! I like your innocence vs. obscene contrast.

Or, to turn around a Freud quote (apropos, considering he is the father of most of this nonsense), "Usually, a cigar is just a cigar."

I just pity people who live with this warped point of view. Their lives must be rather miserable.

Flicka Spumoni said...


I just realizes my post of a few days ago didn't go through. Perhaps I wasn't logged in...

Anywho, Happy Belated Birthday! You did make another full revolution around the sun on the 13th of this month, right?

Justine said...

I did -- and I know yours is coming up in about a fortnight!

Ooh ooh, the library got in my copy of Romines's book yesterday. I'm taking it on the plane down to L.A. this afternoon. I'm sure I'll be chortling into my beverage service selection all the way down.

And, Arielle, I forgot to post earlier that I think your comment wins for understatement of the year. "Very disappointed," is an almost British way of expressing the turbulent emotions that that movie thrust into the breast of any (decent) Austen fan: betrayal, white hot fury, disgust, revulsion, searing pain, temporary fantasies of revenge, etc. Yea, an' I, too, was very disappointed.

Flicka Spumoni said...

I just finished "Persuasion" on DVD during a four hour glucose tolerance test I had to take recently. (I passed with flying colors, thank God)

Persuasion was a masterpiece. Haven't read the book yet - but the movie was in keeping with Austen's superlative character developement, the way she questions long held dogmas, and high moral stadard,
and her vision of "Passionately Romantic" love.

Arielle said...

Persuasion is an excellent read. I don't think I've seen the movie, though. Of the adaptations I've seen, I enjoyed Emma (with Gwyneth Paltrow) and Sense & Sensibility (with Emma Thompson & Kate Winslet) - but I may have seen the movies for those before I read the books. I've yet to see an adaption of Pride & Prejudice that I really liked.

As for an understatement - I suppose I did take it rather stoically. I'd suspected from the get-go that they would not remain faithful to the character of Fanny Price - the fact that they tinkered with other characters as well wasn't unexpected, either!

Justine said...

Arielle -- you cannot tell me that you saw the A&E P&P (1995) and were not blown away . . . can you? I thought that Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle were practically perfect in every way! To me, that is the high mark to which all past and future portrayals of P&P are held.

Was that the Amanda Root Persuasion from 1995, Flicka? I rather enjoyed that one myself.

And, speaking of enjoying, I am thoroughly enjoying Constructing the Little House: Gender, Culture and Laura Ingalls Wilder. It is actually a highly readable book; and, though I disagree with almost everything Ms. Romines has written, I am delighting in her minute examination of the LIW books. I may have to buy this book, because the 3 week inter-library loan does not allow for the subsequent re-readings I am sure to wish to indulge in (nor does it allow for the highlighting and marginalia I so ache to scribble).

Arielle said...

I've never seen that one, Justine - in fact, I was not even aware it existed! Seeing as how I really like Colin Firth (I own Bridget Jone's Diary because of him) I guess I need to get my hands on that ASAP! Thanks for the tip. =)

Anonymous said...

Hello, I started reading this blog tonight because it hit on a search I was doing for Millbank. I too am interested in finding out what this book was about, and what made it so special.

If you were able to find any information on it I would appreciate if you would blog about it or e-mail me

I've enjoyed your blogs, especially the one on Pa's fiddle...One day I will get to see it.

Thanks for your time,
Susan Anding
Tyler, TX