Prairie Fires: Kicking Nostalgia in the Tender Bits

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder cover
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

My earliest bookstore memory is of going to the mall (remember when malls had bookstores? Good times) and leaving with two books. One was the first Garfield collection. The other was Little House in the Big Woods.

Thus began a childhood reading the Little House series til the paperbacks disintegrated. I’d read them through probably at least twice a year. My poor patient field spaniel became my baby, stuffed into the wheelbarrow I’d converted into a covered wagon, as we lived the pioneer life every summer. Every few days, we’d pack our belongings into the wagon and migrate to a new homestead in the yard, following the lead of the Ingalls family. I swept my dirt floors clean with handmade brooms, and made a mattress stuffed with dried grass. I longed for real maple sugar candy and Indian beads. I wanted to make hay in the sunshine. I fully identified with that dark-haired, headstrong little pioneer girl.

Still do, actually.

Eventually, I outgrew the books. Other series replaced them in my regular rotations. But I still harbor all the warm fuzzy feels, and sometimes I remember my favorite bits and get transported back to those happy times.

So reading Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder was sort of like watching that grass fire leap Pa and Ma’s hasty fire break and burn the cozy little log cabin to the ground.

Pa, rather than being an enterprising pioneer whose misfortunes were due to circumstances beyond his control, turns out to be a man who had a disastrous knack for making foolish financial decisions. Laura had to get a job as a child because her family couldn’t make homesteading pay. Shit got a lot more real than she ever let on. Domestic violence and attempted murder were things she witnessed all too frequently. Babies died a lot, including her Ma’s, hers, and her daughter’s.

And speaking of daughters: her darling Rose was probably an actual psychopath.

There are always myths involved with fictionalized versions of a life, but the foundational myth of the Little House series, that rugged pioneer folk don’t need no help from the gubmint, proves to be a gigantic lie. Libertarians would probably scream in horror finding out the truth behind the Wilder myth, but I doubt they’ll read this book. And if they do, they’ll probably pretend Caroline is a lying librul shill. Too bad for them she’s got the sources to prove her claims.

So yes, this book kicks childhood nostalgia right in the teeth. But it’s worth it. It’s fascinating learning how the Ingalls really lived. Caroline is so very good at tying together historical events and providing social context. We get a bitter but compelling taste of the real pioneer life, and get to see how pioneers fared as the Old West ended and the 20th Century began. We learn how Laura’s life went after the books ended. We get to gawk at the utter shit show that is Rose Wilder Lane. And there are new, older, wiser fuzzy feels as we survey Laura’s legacy.

If you were even a casual fan of the Little House books, or if you want to see the rugged individual American myth busted, this is a book you need.

You also need Ana Mardoll’s review of it. Trust me. It makes excellent companion reading to this book.

Prairie Fires: Kicking Nostalgia in the Tender Bits

Me and White Supremacy: “We Must Call a Thing a Thing”

We’re reading Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy. Today, we’re covering Part I: What is white supremacy?


If we’re going to combat a thing, we need to know what that thing is. Layla defines it clearly and simply:

White supremacy is a racist ideology that is based upon the belief that white people are superior in many ways to people of other races and that therefore, white people should be dominant over other races.

Okay, so we know that’s bullshit, right? But we’re swimming in a society that reinforces that idea. Our classics, our companies, our entertainment, our government all are overwhelmingly white. Conscious and unconscious bias upholds systems and institutions built – and too often maintained – by that erroneous belief.

Layla hopes that by “exploring and unpacking what white supremacy looks like at the personal and individual level,” we’ll be able to change those systems and institutions. If enough of us commit to doing this work, chances are good we’ll at least be able to better help bend them toward justice and equity.

Next, we have to confront this truth:

White supremacy is far from fringe. In white-centered societies and communities, it is the dominant paradigm that forms the foundation from which norms, rules, and laws are created.

None of us are exempt. None of us are exceptions. It’s just like men living in misogynist societies hold some misogynistic ideas and participate in misogynistic institutions no matter how egalitarian they wish to be. The sooner we accept that, the more effective we’ll be at changing it.

She points out that yes, the most overt expressions of white supremacy, like chattel slavery and apartheid, aren’t legal now, but unequal treatment hasn’t stopped. “[W]hite supremacy continues to be the dominant paradigm under which white societies operate.” We can’t flinch away from that truth anymore.

Feminists should be able to understand this pretty easily. Coverture is dead, women can vote, marital rape is now a crime, and discrimination on the basis of sex is officially illegal. But none of us pretend women still don’t face serious problems. We don’t declare sexism dead just because the most glaring overreaches of the patriarchy have been ended. We know there’s a lot of work still to do. It’s the same deal with white supremacy.

So listen:

White supremacy is a system you have been born into. Whether or not you have known it, it is a system that has granted you unearned privileges, protection, and power. It is also a system that has been designed to keep you asleep and unaware of what having that privilege, protection, and power has meant for people who do not look like you. What you receive for your whiteness comes at a steep cost for those who are not white. This may sicken you and cause you to feel guilt, anger, and frustration. But you cannot change your white skin color to stop receiving these privileges, just like BIPOC cannot change their skin color to stop receiving racism. But what you can do is wake up to what is really going on. I invite you to challenge your complicity in this system and work to dismantle it within yourself and the world.

We can do this. The question is, will we?

Me and White Supremacy: “We Must Call a Thing a Thing”

Rosetta Stones Has an Exciting Future In Store!

Since leaving the now-defunct Scientific American Blogs Network, Rosetta Stones has settled happily into its sweet summer cottage. It’s been all about earthquakes lately: we’ve talked about the most recent Oaxaca quake, and checked on Puerto Rico’s still vigorous earthquake sequence. We’re going to be exploring the fault zone this sequence seems to be related to soon. It’s very groovy!

I know it looks like it, but I swear Rosetta Stones isn’t turning into Dana’s Earthquake Emporium. I’ve got a review of one of the best Mount St. Helens books of all time loaded up – you’ll see it this Thursday. I’m having a subterranean homesick blues spell courtesy of giving old photos new life in Adobe Photoshop Express, so we’ll be stopping by some of my favorite Arizona geological haunts. And I’ve got some very hawt books about Hawaii volcanoes to tell you about!

But summer doesn’t last forever, and the sweet summer cottage is only an ephemeral home. What happens when the season ends?

Continue reading “Rosetta Stones Has an Exciting Future In Store!”

Rosetta Stones Has an Exciting Future In Store!

Me and White Supremacy: “Welcome to the Work”

We’re reading Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy. Today, we’re covering Part I: Welcome to the Work and A Little about Me.

You’ve decided to make a difference, to not just be “not racist” but actively anti-racist. You’ve got this book. The introduction didn’t scare you off. It’s a good start!

So now we’re getting to the gritty stuff. Fighting racism means recognizing the fact that we ourselves perpetuate racist systems, that we benefit from a social structure built by white supremacists, and it’s up to us to dismantle it. Thankfully, Layla Saad is going to give us some much needed guidance.

She gives us a good, concise introduction to the social conditions we face, and reminds us that the issues with racist people and institutions that we white folk are only now waking up to have been there all along for Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC). And then she says something about the work that bears repeating here:

This work is not about those white people ”out there.”

It is about you. Just you.

I’m putting that in bold, because so many of us resist it. “I’m not part of the problem! I’m part of the solution!” We believe that so strongly that we refuse to see where we’re complicit. We let our hurt feels take over when BIPOC folks try to gently call us out on problem behaviors. We get angry, we deny, we disregard, and we hurt the people we thought we were going to help. Sometimes, we even get so upset we stop doing the work.

We need to do better. We need to own the fact that we, by virtue of being white people born and raised in a civilization designed and built by white supremacists, are part of the problem. We have to work on fixing ourselves right here, not “those white people ‘out there.'”

Still with me? Good. Let’s continue.

This is where those of us who thrive on recognition and like to think the best of ourselves get some really bad news:

This work sounds overwhelming, intimidating, and unrewarding. I won’t lie to you: it is. You will become overwhelmed when you begin to discover the depths of your internalized white supremacy. You will become intimidated when you begin to realize how this work will necessitate seismic change in your life. You will feel unrewarded because there will be nobody rushing to thank you for doing this work. But if you are a person who believes in love, justice, integrity, and equity for all people, then you know that this work is nonnegotiable. If you are a person who wants to become a good ancestor, then you know that this work is some of the most important work that you will be called to do in your lifetime.

Yeah, it really is.

Layla takes a moment to introduce herself. She’s a Black British Muslim woman who has only experienced overt racism a handful of times, but has been subjected to daily microaggressions throughout her life:

And those indirect messages—from being treated slightly differently by schoolteachers, to hardly ever seeing fictional characters or media representations that looked like me, to understanding that I would have to work a lot harder than my white peers to be treated the same, to understanding that my needs were always an afterthought (why could I never find a foundation shade that matched me exactly while my white friends always could?)—painted an indelible picture in my mind. A picture that taught me this: Black girls like me did not matter in a white world. I will spend the rest of my life tearing down this picture and painting a new one that reflects the truth: Black girls matter. Everywhere.

This is the kind of stuff we white folks just don’t notice, because we don’t have to. We aren’t treated as “other” because of our skin. We see people who look like usin media, in STEM, in the halls of power. Makeup, skin and hair products that match our traits are everywhere. Heck, even adhesive bandages are made with us in mind!

Those are things we must train ourselves to notice. They are things we can and must help change.

Layla now lives in the Middle East, and she has a paragraph’s worth of privileges she can claim. But white supremacy still impacts her life. That’s why she does the work to help dismantle those systems, and why she’s showing us how to do our part. She’s our inside guide.

And now, we have a lot of work to do.

Me and White Supremacy: “Welcome to the Work”