Breaking News?

By The Shores Of Silver LakeToday was quite the day for breaking news in the kidlit history world: Scarlet fever wasn’t the cause of Mary Ingalls’ blindness.  Friends linked to articles on USA Today, the University of Michigan alumni newsletter, and–and I’m sure there were more.  In a nutshell, Mary most likely had  viral meningoencephalitis, a brain infection.  And Laura most likely chose scarlet fever for literary purposes because it was an infinitely more familiar disease to her readers.  Plus, it’s a lot easier to spell.

But here’s what I find most fascinating about this: this story isn’t hidden away on some obscure blog only read by Little House fanatics.  It’s all over the place.  Seriously, national news?  On the day after the Super Bowl?

The stories are all a little different, but most stress that these books are fiction, based on history.  And seem to conclude that part of the reason people are so fascinated with them is the reality within them.  I also love this comment by the Beth Tarini, author of the report, because it seems like we are kindred spirits:

“Since I was in medical school, I had wondered about whether scarlet fever could cause blindness because I always remembered Mary’s blindness from reading the Little House stories and knew that scarlet fever was once a deadly disease,” says Tarini, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

“I would ask other doctors, but no one could give me a definitive answer, so I started researching it.”

When I was a kid, I was always curious about the diseases that popped up in books I was reading.  Sometimes, I would look them up, which was much harder to do in the years before the internet.  It’s a fascination that has remained–my best published piece is about tuberculosis in L. M. Montgomery’s work.  This curiosity about medial history seems to be pretty wide-spread–witness how many people were looking up eclampsia after Lady Sybil’s death on Downton Abbey.  Of course, I had already looked that one up after watching Call the Midwife.

For those of us who spend a lot of time hanging out in the past, we periodically get swept away by the “good old days.”    But medical realities always cause us to crash back to earth.  There are many reasons why I’m thrilled to be living in the 21st century, and modern medicine is certainly near the top of the list.  When it comes down to it, I don’t care how exactly Mary lost her sight.  But I do care that a disease took it from her, and that her sister became her “eyes.”  After all, we might not have the Little House books if Laura hadn’t developed those powers of observation and description.  Still, it’s not every day that Laura Ingalls Wilder is in the headlines!  I’ll take what I can get.

Work hard for a living

I never thought I’d get excited about economic history.  Or economics, in general.  But when everything crashed in 2008, I got interested.  I remember being completely transfixed while listening to This American Life’s podcast about the real estate meltdown (A Giant Pool of Money).  And dumbfounded that I was so fascinated.  I started reading the business section of the newspaper.  And I started subscribing to the Planet Money podcast.

A few weeks ago, they posted the following graphic on their blog–all about “children in gainful occupations” according to the 1920 census.  The timing for this piece was wonderful–at work, we’re currently working on an event where we’ll talk about work at the turn-of-the-century.  We’ve made some exhibit changes over the past few years that make business and economic history much easier to teach.  We will talk about jobs at the General Store, Bank or Hotel, but since this is a family-centered event, I want to make sure that we also talk about children working.  We probably won’t delve too deeply into child labor, but I certainly want to talk about the kids of the past that had to earn money for their family’s (or their own) survival.

So, of course, I turned instantly to kidlit history.  Here are a few examples that I’ll be sharing as part of the pre-visit packet of kids earning money–sometimes for their own purposes and sometimes to help the family.  In roughly chronological order:

Meg and Jo in Little Women.  It’s apparent from the very beginning of the book that these girls need to help their family.  Who can forget those immortal lines:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

In Chapter 4, their work is better described.  Meg, at 16, was a nursery governess for four children.  Jo was a companion for Aunt March, as a companion and helper.

Laura in Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years.  First, Laura is a seamstress, earning money to send Mary to the blind school.  Later, she becomes a teacher (and has some horrifying experiences!)

Sara in A Little Princess.  When Sara’s father dies, bankrupt, her boarding school could have turned her out on the street.  Instead, they put her to work.  Miss Minchin tells her:

“You are like Becky–you must work for your living.”

To her surprise, a faint gleam of light came into the child’s eyes–a shade of relief.

“Can I work?” she said.  “If I can work it will not matter so much.  What can I do?”

As a child, I don’t think I got how terrifying this situation might have been.  Of course, the magical dinner that appears later might have helped with that illusion.

Perry Miller in Emily of New Moon and Peter Craig in The Story Girl.  There are tons of hired girls in L. M. Montgomery’s fiction–and of course, we know that before Anne found Matthew and Marilla she was working in a household, assisting with the children.  I think it’s really important to remember that not all of the hired boys and girls in LMM’s fiction are as alone as Sara Crewe appeared to be.  Perry had an aunt whom we occasionally see.  But these were still kids that needed to grow up quickly–Perry was only 12 or 13 when he went to work.

Interestingly enough, the divide between the kids who had to work and the kids who just want some extra money lines up  chronologically.  The books mentioned above are set from the 1860s to the 1890s.  The books below are the late 1890s to the 1900s–a sign of how the world was continuing to change?  That may be a bit of a reach, but it is interesting.

Lucinda in Roller Skates.  She wants to throw a proper Christmas party for Trinket, but needs the money to do it.  She finds all sorts of odd jobs with her neighbors–walking a dog to tutoring English.  There’s this lovely exchange, just after Lucinda is offered the dog-walking job:

“How perfectly glorious!  It doesn’t seem right to earn money so pleasantly.  Mama never paid me to do anything except what I positively hated to do.”

“That’s too bad.  I think money ought to be always earned pleasantly.  Think of how much gayer the world would be if everybody went to work in the morning knowing he was going to do something he enjoyed doing all day!”


Tom in the Great Brain books.  Oh, Tom.  A pint-sized con man.  He earns money in all sorts of crazy ways–tricking kids and adults.  But, that wonderful chapter about charging kids to see a flush toilet?  Yep, we’re totally borrowing that idea for the event at the Village.  Even cooler?  There’s a story of one of the Sullivan kids doing the exact same thing with “our” toilet.

My goal for all this list was to stick with the museum’s time period of 1840-1910–so no Henry Reed or the Melendys or others.  But these are all such good examples of kids entering into the workforce–sometimes by choice and sometimes by necessity.  So often, when we think about the past, we’re using rose-colored glasses.  But so many kids had to work to survive.  It’s a startling thought for many young people, but using these stories is a great way to get started.

And then we can start talking about child labor laws. . .

So, what have I forgotten on my list?  Some friends mentioned Understood Betsy and Five Little Peppers.  I’ve never read the other Betsy, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read about the Peppers.  I was hoping to get a reread in, but I think I’m out of time.  Other thoughts?

Things that make me happy. . .

Staying up past midnight, finishing one of the best books I’ve read all year.  And did I mention that it’s historical fiction?  Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein probably has a very long wait-list at the library (it took me months to get it), but it’s so worth the wait.  British women in World War II–pilots, spies, Nazis, friendship, and some remarkable writing.  The story will take your breath away.  And though it’s not based on a true story, there were plenty of women like Maddie and Julia that served.

Discovering that editors are currently hard at work, getting Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first book, her never published memoir, ready for publication.  Even better: there’s a blog chronicling the work!  The South Dakota Historical Society Press is currently working on transcribing Wilder’s handwritten manuscript.  They’ve spent time at the museum in Mansfield (still one of my favorite author-related museums).  This is good, good stuff, and I’m looking forward to following the blog–and reading the original when it comes out.  The rumors I’ve heard about it is that it’s a much harsher look at her early life, which may cause some fans to be up in arms (much like the way folks reacted when L. M. Montgomery’s journals were published and fans discovered that her life wasn’t all sunshine and roses).  But from a scholarship perspective, we need these kinds of writings to go hand in hand with the fiction we love.

Realizing that I’m going to have to reread Little Women for work purposes.  And bits of Little House.  And possibly Five Little Peppers and How they Grew.  And who knows what else.  Two different fall projects (one on children and work, one of the Civil War in fiction) require such sacrifices.  It’s a hard life.


This year marked the 40th anniversary of my museum’s biggest event of the year, Candlelight.  As part of the anniversary, we created a small exhibit and I researched the history of the event.  One thing that surprised me was how quickly the key elements of the event came together: buildings decorated by community groups, performances by community groups, and candlelit paths.  The core elements of the event are pretty much unchanged since 1972–which is pretty remarkable in this day and age.  And there aren’t many museum events anywhere that last for decades–events have a shelf life.  Audiences change, staff change, sometimes even missions change.  While finishing up this project, I realized that probably the biggest factor that’s led to the longevity of this event is the timelessness of Christmas.  People crave tradition this time of year.

We had a smaller event (the reading list and post about last year’s event) this past weekend which featured Christmas chapters from books set during the museum’s time period.  I read quite a few bits from the Little House books and Betsy-Tacy to guests.  For some little ones, it was their first introduction to Laura and Mary.  Many times during the day, I would read a passage, turn to the visitors and say “Does that sound familiar?”  And they would nod eagerly, their eyes round with wonder.  Though the concept of thinking a very good Christmas was a tin cup, a cake, a stick of candy and a penny is completely out of their realm of imagination, the worry about how Santa would find them is still a big concern for kids today.

Historically speaking, it amazes me how set some of our traditions have been for the past century or so.  Though variations of the legend of Saint Nicholas have been around for centuries, Clement C. Moore’s famous poem, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,”  wasn’t published until 1823.  And the visual we have of Santa in a red suit with belly and beard wasn’t firmed up until Thomas Nast drew a cartoon in 1863, smack dab in the middle of the Civil War.  (side note: Nast was more famous at the time for his political cartoons, which I find fascinating.  Early political cartoons and Santa, all in one artist!)  During the 19th century, there were enormous changes in how we celebrated Christmas (for more on this, check out Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas, which I wrote about last year).  But what struck me on this read-through of some old favorites is how these changes weren’t really thought of as new, but the way it’s always been.

Now, historical purists will remind me that the publication dates on these autobiographical novels don’t match the dates they were set, so it’s entirely possible that the attitudes about Christmas better reflect the 20th century than the 19th.  But let’s just ignore that for right now and see what we can find that’s stayed virtually unchanged over the past century and more.  I had thought about typing out some of these wonderful quote and passages for you, but decided that part of the fun is reading the whole chapter.  So, my gift to you is an excuse to pull out an old favorite!

Worry about Santa finding you?  Check out multiple volumes in the Little House series, including Little House on the Prairie (no snow!) and On the Banks of Plum Creek (no chimney!)

The joy of finding the perfect gift for someone?  Take a look at Anne of Green Gables (puffed sleeves!) or Roller Skates (Trinket’s first Christmas tree).

The worry of not being able to give all you want to?  Probably all of the Little House books and Little Women too (“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”)

The importance of stockings!  Again, Little House and also the later Betsy-Tacy books.

Hinting about something you want and not trusting your family to get it for you?  Why, you simply must read “The Brass Bowl” in Heaven to Betsy (possibly my favorite Christmas passage in the BT books.)

Food, glorious food?  Well, descriptions are all over the place, but Farmer Boy immediately leaps to mind.  The description of the feast almost takes up a whole page.

The fun of shopping, even if you don’t buy?  Why, go no further than Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, which also includes one of my favorite bits about the importance of believing in Santa, even if you are grown up.

I know I’m leaving out many Christmas classics.  What are some of your favorites?  These stories have so much in common, even if they were written decades ago.  And I think they’re going to last just fine into the future.  Even as time and technology hurries forward, some things, especially emotions don’t change much.

And now I must run to do a wee bit of last minute shopping myself.  Merry Christmas to you and yours.  And happy reading!

Armchair Traveling

As soon as I heard about The Wilder Life,I knew it was a must read.  And apparently everyone else knew it was a “Melissa book” because nine million people asked me if I knew about it.  Well, maybe not nine million people, but a lot.  Including some friends I’ve never really considered as “book friends.”

All of that can be a lot of pressure for a book, so I did worry that I might not like it.  What if I found author Wendy McClure annoying?  After all, I’ve never felt a desire to churn butter, something that was almost always mentioned in the pre-publication blurbs.  So I put my name on the library list rather than buying it.  I might have been #1 on my library’s waiting list. . .

Over the past several days, I’ve been engulfed in Laura World (Wendy’s term. I feel like I can call her Wendy.)  Like me, Little House was a huge part of her childhood.  As an adult, she felt a need to revisit the book and took it to a whole new level–doing the research into the “real” story, buying a butter churn, and visiting all of the historic sites.  She does it all with a lot of humor, but that humor is tempered with some real thoughtfulness.  Visiting the real places you’ve built up in your imagination can be really, really hard.

At Plum Creek

Once Wendy started traveling, I had issues putting the book down.  Perhaps it’s because I went wading in Plum Creek in 2009.  And last May, I visited Mansfield for the first time.  Her feelings were very, very close to mine–but she said it all so much better.  If this wasn’t a library book, there would have been pages turned down and underlining and scribbles in the margins (Yes, I’m one of Those readers). 

So, if you’ve ever made a literary pilgrimage, this book is for you.  It’s a strange, wonderful feeling to be walking the same ground as characters that have lived in your head for years.  And it’s something you can only, really do with kidlit history.  As much as I’d like to, I can never really visit Hogwarts.  But I can go to Prince Edward Island and commune with Anne (which I did in 2002–and was the trip of a lifetime).  Or to Walnut Grove, Minnesota and wade in Plum Creek.  And there is a definite different emotional pull to those places you first discovered as a child.  During the same trip to Walnut Grove, I was attending at Betsy-Tacy convention.  I didn’t discover Betsy until my 20s–I hadn’t grown up with her.  But I was with plenty of people that had grown up with her–and who promptly burst into tears when they saw her “real” house for the first time.

These literary pilgrimages are special and unique and a lot of people just don’t get it.  I’m so glad that Wendy McClure totally gets it–and is sharing her thoughts with the world.

A Good Day

On Saturday, I had a pretty magical experience.  It was our annual Girl Scout Day, featuring the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  We scattered beads at campfires, had a full supply of buttons, and were ready to help visitors make sunbonnets, if they hadn’t already arrived wearing them.  We also had a costume contest–and ended up with over 30 participants, far more than I had dared to hope.  It was a fun day!

But for me, there was one moment that was particularly magical.  We had set aside two different half-hour blocks of time for me to read sections of the book.  In the morning, I read “Fire on the Hearth” and “Indian Camp” from Little House on the Prairie.  In the afternoon, I read “School” and “Town Party” from On the Banks of Plum Creek.  Have I mentioned yet that I read this in our historic schoolhouse?

Granted, our school is a wee bit bigger than the one described.  But the desks are similiar.  And the slates.  And the blackboards surrounding the room.  There was a certain moment, as I was reading Wilder’s description of that school. that I looked up at the room.  The girls that were listening almost had this “eureka!” look on their face–they were sitting in desks almost exactly like the desks described in the book.  A slate was in front of them.  Suddenly, the boundaries between fiction and reality, past and present, Minnesota and Texas almost vanished.  Maybe it’s hokey to say this, but these little girls were at one with the book.

As a musuem educator, I wish we could have such powerful moments every single day.  And I think, as a museum, we’re closer to that goal.  As someone who has always loved children’s literature, there is nothing better.  As part of my introduction, I asked visitors how many had read the books.  Lots of hands went up.  And then I asked how many wanted to read the books after Saturday.  Almost as many hands went up.

A good day indeed.

What would you do?

There are many random and unusual perks in being a director of education at history museum.  The latest?  Our annual Girl Scout Day event has a Little House on the Prairie theme.  (any guesses as to who decided that?)  And you can’t have a book themed event without reading parts of the book!

So, I”ll be reading “favorite bits” from the book twice during that event.  Because I’m the boss, it’s really up to me on what to read.  I could just focus on Little House on the Prairie.  Or I could read portions of mutliple books in the series.  Our activites really center on Little House and Plum Creek.  Each reading session will last 30-45 mintues. 

Dear readers, what chapters would you choose?  I figure this audience will be composed of both rabid fans and people new to the series.

Secrets Revealed

The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Classic StoriesIt’s not often that I read a cookbook straight through, but after dipping in to The Little House Cookbook, I knew this was one that I had to read.  It has been out for a very, very long time (1979), and I have a very dim recollection of checking it out at the library when I was a kid.  But I had never gotten around to purchasing it for my library.  After reading it cover to cover, I’m thrilled to add it to my kidlit history shelves!

From a historical perspective, Walker does a wonderful job of talking about the challenges of cooking in the 19th century.  She talks about the shift from hearth to stove.  How to preserve foods.  What could be purchased from a store–and how exciting it was when new products were born.  It’s stuff we try to explain to visitors at the museum on a regular basis, and her introduction to these complex stories is superb.

And from a kidlit perspective–this book is pure magic!  These books spend a lot of time on food.  Quick–how many Little House foods can you name?  I’ll wait.

See?  A lot, right?  I think it is physically impossible to read Farmer Boy and not raid the kitchen.  There are so many wonderful things to think about: fried apples n’ onions, vanity cakes, green pumpkin pie, doughnuts, even something as simple as popcorn just sounds better after reading about it.  And this cookbook has all these recipes and more.  Of course, Laura didn’t include recipes for everything, and Walker’s research skills really show here as well.  She hunted through period cookbooks and tested and tested again to make these recipes possible for modern cooks.  Granted, there are several recipes I have no interest in trying (roasting a whole pig?  umm, no), but the fact that even those recipes were included makes this book extra special.

The Anne of Green Gables TreasuryMy delight in reading this book reminded me of a treasured book from my childhood.  Back in 1991, Carloyn  Strom Collins and Christina Wyss Eriksson published The Anne of Green Gables Treasury.  Picture this: nerdy, 12 year old Melissa on the phone with a friend who also loves Anne.  We’re thumbing through our respective copies together, squealing and giddy.  Finally, we have the answers to so many questions!  A map of Avonlea!  The floor plan to Green Gables!  A tea time menu, complete with recipes for Monkey Face Cookies (which are wonderful!) and Plum Puffs (also quite good)!  Explanations of the clothes!  Oh, it was really, really exciting.

Collins and Eriksson have gone on to publish more Treasuries, including books on The Secret Garden, Little Women, and of course, Little House.  They are all quite good, but in my mind, none of them have had the magic that the Anne treasury did.  Suddenly, almost all of my questions were answered.  It was like these authors had uncovered these secrets that L. M. Montgomery had left buried in the books.

Books like these certainly aren’t for everyone.  A lot of readers may not want to go beyond the page.  But for those that do, I thank people like Barbara Walker, Carolyn Strom Collins and Christina Wyss Eriksson.  They’ve brought me a lot of joy as a reader–and certainly helped grow my love of history.


By Northern standards, the weather we’ve had this last week is Not Much.  By Dallas standards?  Well, life as we know it stopped this week.

On Monday night, a giant ice storm hit.  And the temperature hasn’t made it past 25 since.  Last night, the forecasters said there was a 30% chance of a light dusting of snow.  This is what my backyard looks like right now:

As one friend put it: “light dusting my@#*!”  At any rate,  I didn’t get much sleep last night, and late this morning, I decided that I might as well take a nap.  I mean, what else is there to do?  The house is clean.  I’ve been catching up on the DVR and reading.  Sleep was a way to kill some time (have I mentioned that I haven’t left the house since Monday?).

I had one of those absolutely incredible naps, in which you completely pass out.  And along with it was an incredibly vivid dream.  I came into the living room.  My roomie was on the couch.  I said “Why don’t we make some maple-sugar-on-snow candy?”  And she said “Sure!” And then we went out on the patio and poured maple syrup on the snow.

The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Classic StoriesThen I woke up and started seriously thinking about recreating the scene from Little House in the Big Woods.  I knew we had maple syrup in the house, but I wondered if they didn’t do something else to the syrup before pouring it on the snow.  Conveniently, last May, I had bought a copy of The Little House Cookbook at the museum in Mansfield.  I had never had a chance to really look at it, so after lunch, I plucked it from the cookbook shelf and looked up “maple-sugar-on-snow.”  Sure enough, there was a recipe!  But it was for molasses.  Not the same!  And involved boiling molasses and brown sugar, which didn’t sound very yummy to me at all.

So I put the dream aside, but I kept reading the book.  I have some other literary cookbooks, but this has got to be one of the best.  Walker brilliantly sets the context for what cooking during Laura’s lifetime was like–plenty of information about the technology changes, food preservation issues, and all that.  And a wee bit of wondering if the intense focus on food in the Little House book isn’t perhaps a direct result of the hunger Laura so frequently faced as a child.

I haven’t finished the book yet, and at this point, there aren’t any recipes I really want to try.  But for a fan of the books, this is a must read.

Are there any foods from Little House that you’ve dreamed about?  Any things you’ve always wanted to try?  Any experiments worth sharing?

“Wonder, contentment and more than a little hope”

On Christmas morning, just after hugs were given and coffee was poured, mom turned to me and said “You’re going to love the editorial page this morning!”  This year, the Christmas editorial of the Dallas Morning News featured Little House in the Big Woods!  The complete text can be found here.

Little House in the Big Woods (Little House, #1)The editorial opens by mentioning the power of story, and listing some other favorite Christmas stories of staff.  And then, they wrote “One more book that comes to mind probably isn’t considered part of the Christmas canon, but it still has much to teach us about the spirit of the holiday and the foundation that our own traditions have been built upon.”  They do a brief summary of Little House in the Big Woods, complete with a bit of background on Laura.  They quote extensively the scene when Laura receives Charlotte.  The editorial concludes: “Somewhere in our past, each of us has roots and ancestors for whom something as humble as a pair of mittens or stick of candy would make a sublime Christmas.  And in these days of undertainity and political bickering, it’s never a bad thing to remember: ‘All alone in the wild Big Woods, and the snow, and the cold, the little log house was warm and snug and cozy.’  May we all, like Laura and her family, find wonder, contentment and more than a little hope in this Christmas 2010.”

First, I was thrilled to see Laura get such play in the mainstream press–and it wasn’t even Little House on the Prairie!  And this article didn’t quite descend into the common trap of “look how much simpler thing were–wouldn’t that be better?”  Instead, it really emphasizes the magic of Christmas, no matter what gifts were received. 

Of course, in my world, Little House is definitely part of the Christmas canon!   But after reading more than a few Christmas scenes from children’s literature and as I continue with The Battle for Christmas (a history of Christmas celebrations in the 19th century that is fascinating.  Our current “Christmas wars” have nothing on the 19th century!), I’m struck with the idea that often the most magical part of Christmas is found around the Christmas tree, with friends and family.  It’s the moments that aren’t forced or manufactured. 

Here’s hoping you had a very merry–and the Christmas joy continues as long as you’d like it to!