Some years ago, I was in Borders when I saw this new cover for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter. I hated it on sight. Out of the Little House series of children’s books based on Ingalls Wilder’s childhood (and at least co-written by her daughter, libertarian Godmother Rose Wilder Lane!), only The First Four Years rivals this one for bleakness. Though still a children’s book, The Long Winter is basically about seven months of frozen hell in 1880s South Dakota. A memorable passage describes Laura being weak and stupid from hunger as, again, the snow piles outside endlessly and everything is grim and awful.
Now, the familiar to me Gareth Williams cover is also too sweet-looking for the fight for survival plot of the book. But at least it’s old, and it suggests a story that is older still — it is sweet, demure, and not 2014. (The first edition of the book might have had the best cover, actually. It feels dark.) The family of photo-real people laughing uproariously as they huddle in their cabin is weird. It is telling little 10-year-olds that yes, there’s nothing different in this book! You won’t even notice that it’s set 150 years ago. They are just. Like. You.
The Ingalls family wasn’t like you and I. I grew up homeschooled by libertarians. My parents’ home was initially in the country, but now it is almost suburbia. There is still a bubble of farmland, though. Not to mention my parents’ nearly 12 acres. All of that, and I still always knew my life wasn’t the same as the Ingalls. And that was the damn point. My life also wasn’t Caddie Woodlawn’s, or Anne Shirley’s, or the damn spoiled Boxcar Children’s. And that is why I wanted to read their stories of pioneer life, of being a dreamy Canadian orphan, or just living in a boxcar and cooking wonderful-sounding vegetable stew and getting all your dishes from the dump. I wanted to read about different lives — girls who hid escaped German soldiers, or little mischievous Scandinavian children going to school. Why would I want a heroine or hero who was too relatable? (This was another reason “playing house” baffled me. Building a fort was naturally different. And playing school was a novelty for me, but not most kids. What the hell was “house”?)
A libertarian railing against potentially-sensible marketing, yes I know it’s silly. And maybe tricking kids into reading historical fiction could lead to them liking history. But it itches at me to see this kind of thing, this laziness, and this belief that children can’t possible suspend disbelief enough to realize that there were times that were not now, and those times had people living in them who were very different in many ways.
(A version of this modernizing should be awful, but isn’t when you look up the history of it is the anti-corset/proto-feminist dialogue by Marmee in the 1994 Little Women film, as well as the anti-slave dialogue by Meg. You think it’s just an awkwardly shoe-horned in piece of 1990sness, so that the audiences won’t be totally bewildered and alienated by the archaic and pious characters. Turns out, the real Louisa May Alcott grew up in a family of radical intellectuals who palled around with Henry David Thoreau and were mad enlightened. Indeed, the reason the last half to last quarter of the book Little Women is so inferior to the beginning is that Alcott was reluctantly goaded by her publisher and fans to marry off the heroically spunky Jo. I like Little Women a lot, I yearn for the Little Women that might have existed in a different market, written by a more honest Alcott.)
Along these same lines, I didn’t even read the Babysitter’s Club books (mostly because their subject matter seemed unbelievably boring), but I was deeply annoyed when I read how they were to be updated for modern readers. Ten-year-old girls can’t be expected to understand that once there were not iPhones, but cordless phones. That there were, shit, I don’t know, scrunchies and those weird saddle-leggings, not jeggings and whatever the fuck tweens wear now in their hair. There were even typewriters for writing on instead of computers. Holy fuck, the children’s heads will explode if we keep that in.
Many kids are not going to spend their entire tween and teen years mooning about the past with aching fascination as I did. That’s fine. But is it necessary to coddle them too much when they’re faced with the reality that yes, these books are from the past? Is it necessary to remove mentions of perms, as they apparently did from the Babysitter’s Club books?
(It also disappoints me that the American Girl books and (painfully expensive) dolls have moved so far into modern, boring stories. The whole point was girls — from plain WWII-ready Molly, to sassy colonialist Felicity, to runaway slave Addy — who were from a different time in American history. Overly tidy history, life lessons, standing up for what you believe in, potentially-anachronistic girl power!)
Now, an ironic twist on this complaint is when books are misleadingly old-fashioned in their packaging. The paperback covers for L.M. Montgomery books are all thematically similar: raised lettering, cursive, beautiful heroines staring out to sea, or at something distant. They look soothingly pastoral, but also a bit soppy. And they’re not 1984, nor were they meant to be anything too hard or masculine or sad. But Montgomery, based known for Anne of Green Gables, does not have the reputation for wit — even sarcasm! — and poignancy that she deserves.
Anne Shirley of Green Gables was sweet and bouncy and carrot-red of hair, but Emily Byrd Starr, who only got three books to Anne’s eight, was a much more realistic heroine (though Anne did grow up to worry that her husband was cheating on her with a sexy blonde). An orphan (what star of childhood fantasy books isn’t?), Emily has writer ambitions. She has a creepy relationship with an older man who, Forever Young Adult is not kidding here, kind of grooms her to be his lover. She spends the entire third book in the series being horribly depressed in what feels like a relatively modern fashion. (Montgomery suffered from this as well, and it was recently revealed that she actually died of suicide in 1941).
And through it all, Emily is often funny. And Montgomery, though she writes romantic descriptions of the landscape that try my patience on occasion, is an amusing narrator as well.
And you would never, ever think this if you looked at the covers of her books.
So, yes, romantic lady writers of the teens and ’20s are secret humorists, and pioneer days weren’t as jolly as they might seem. People — both fictional and real — were not the same as they are now, and neither was society, culture, technology, or expectations for certain individuals. Yet, in books that are 80 or 150 years old, you can kind a relatable, understandable, humorous, same kind of spark that exists in characters and in people today. That’s why both history and literature are magic and enough to save me from misanthropy forever more. But that also means folks should leave the damn ’80s perms alone, and marketers shouldn’t imply through a cheap, hacky cover that a seven month winter was just as much fun as sitting inside and watching the latest cat clip on Youtube.
Seriously, this was the winter Ingalls Wilder was writing about.