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Family Values, or, Curse You, Michael Landon!
March 2004

Play it Again, Pa

Watch enough Little House, and you’ll notice a lot of things happen more than once. (Like how many times did Mrs. Oleson and Nellie have bread dough, eggs, flour, and a half-dozen other heartland-of-America ingredients dumped on their heads?)  Remember Anna, Laura’s friend who stuttered and everyone made fun of her? Yeah, well, a few years later, James Non-Ingalls ALSO had a friend who stuttered and everyone made fun of him. The Civil War soldier has a drug problem, and, eight seasons later, so does Albert. Carrie falls down a well. So does Nancy. Laura was kidnapped by psychos twice. The Garveys’ barn with their crops burned twice (or maybe once it was destroyed by hail or a tornado or something). Both Pa and Jonathan Garvey had boxing/wrestling showdowns with former athletes past their prime. And Shannen-Brinda-Jenny almost drowns twice. Jeepers. You’d think she’d learn to stay away from the swimming hole.

There’s also the Repetitive Casting Weirdness. Ike Eisenmann shows up a couple times – playing different but similar immigrant characters, even – in between gigs levitating assorted people with Gimpy Olga on visits from Witch Mountain. But especially, I’m talkin’ ‘bout how Matthew Rhino-Face shows up before he’s cast as Albert, weirdly playing young Charles Ingalls, which puts a real egotistical spin on Pa’s adopting Albert. And Michael Landon’s daughter Leslie plays several different characters over the show’s run, ending up as the schoolteacher, Miss Plum. (Nepotism also had its role on LHOTP: Albert and Andy were played by the Laborteaux brothers. Melissa Gilbert and the actor who played Willie Oleson, Jonathan Gilbert, are siblings. But I digress…)

But once there was Repetitive Casting that was more of the wink wink, nudge nudge variety. When Pa and Mary are on the way back from Chicago, where Mary just got kicked to the paved city curb by John Jr., a country boy on the train home offers her a sandwich… and hey, it’s post-pubescent Bobby Brady! See, back a few years, one of Melissa Sue Anderson’s first acting jobs was playing Bobby’s crush, Millicent (She Who Induced Skyrockets When Kissed, and Also Passed On Contagious Diseases At the Same Time, make of it what you will, O Psychoanalysts). Ain’t that cute?

Push! Push! PUSH!

I’ve always been seriously weirded out by how many times Michael Landon had to have all these long, drawn-out scenes of women screaming in childbirth. It’s bad enough when it’s the single episode’s tertiary character, but when it was li’l Half-Pint all writhing around and shrieking in childbed (with the extra-helping-of-weirdness bit about “My baby’s not going to hear me cry… my baby’s going to hear me laugh!”), well, that was a bit much.

Little Inconsistencies on the Prairie

Quite a few things don’t make sense in Little House Land if you’ve watched the whole show. Like during Season 7, Almanzo’s brother Royal Wilder shows up with a pregnant wife, Millie, and two abominably bratty pre-teen boys, Myron and Rupert. But in Season 9, Royal shows up (played this time by, no lie, Chancellor Arnold!) with a nine-year-old daughter (played by Brinda herself, Shannen Doherty! So in some weird way, she and Claire are sorta sisters, which makes Claire’s and Brandon’s flirtation particularly gross. Right? Right?).  After Albert is saved from the evils of morphine, the final voiceover has Laura declaring that he later returned to Walnut Grove as “Dr. Albert Ingalls”… but then two seasons later, Albert has leukemia and dies. Or does he? Huh? What? (Interestingly, there are LHOTP Fans who are so absorbed by this discrepancy that they insist that Albert DOESN’T die and that Millie MUST’VE been pregnant with Jenny, and have actually created a timeline that rewrites the show’s plots to suddenly skip 12 years in the middle of a season to make these things fit it… which I think is giving the show’s writers WAY too much credit. Then again, some of these folks claim Nellie’s full name was “Danielle,” which is equally dumb).  And am I the only one left puzzled by what happened/didn’t happen with Hester Sue and Joe Keagan and their engagement, or why Laura would name the abandoned baby she found “Grace” when later that same SEASON, her Ma has a new baby, also named Grace? So confusing.

Moreover, LHOTP clearly didn’t have any real historians on the staff… or even people who were really familiar with the books, because if they did, then this number of inconsistencies would’ve been unacceptable. (Sure, I’m being super-hyper-critical, as some of the elements were consistent with 1970s TV, but still… it’s more distracting than it is useful to the plot!)

In the 1870s-80s, when the show (and the book series as well) was set, there is mention/appearance of player pianos, the electric chair, the phonograph, and single-family telephones… things that either weren’t invented at the time, or, like the telephone, if they WERE invented, they certainly weren’t available to rural folks on the prairie, or even small Western towns. So for Jonathan Garvey to go spending extra cash, superfluous or no, on a telephone for his wife instead of, say, filing on more land or buying another horse or cow, is stupid. Besides, who would Mrs. Garvey call, anyway, since no one else has phones but Mrs. Oleson? (I know, I know, she calls her mother twice, but still, that’s way too extravagant for the prairie….)

Adults and children alike play football a lot in Walnut Grove, and several episodes revolve around town football games and teams… but at the time, BASEBALL was the game played by most sporting Americans; football as we know it today – and as portrayed by the show – simply didn’t exist.

Mary goes to an optometrist several times for glasses and eye tests… an unlikely extravagance for anyone but the richest of the rich; more likely, she would have gotten magnifying glasses out of a catalogue… if such an expense was even considered necessary. Moreover, there weren’t specialized optometrists then… and certainly not in the American Western Frontier; one doctor would’ve taken care of everything from dental work to veterinary work (like Doc Baker).

Prairie people in Landon Land regularly eat peanut butter and jelly/egg salad/tuna fish sandwiches, cotton candy and chocolate-chip cookies… but peanut butter wasn’t developed until 1890 and PBJ wasn’t a thing until 1901; no one on the prairie was fixing sandwich “salads” with mayonnaise, and they certainly couldn’t afford a luxury like canned fish; cotton candy wasn’t invented until 1897, and chocolate-chip cookies didn’t become popular until the 1930s, and weren’t even called chocolate-chip cookies, but Toll House cookies. The gum that Mary chews when she visits John Jr. in Chicago is in the right town, but about fifteen years too soon (and it’s also dumb that Mary would be so befuddled by “chewing gum,” since “pickin’ chews” from gum trees was a common practice in America for over a hundred YEARS at the time!). And Pa and Ma constantly eating popcorn in bed while reading also bugs, because popcorn in the Little House books was a rare treat, and several of the holiday events in the book depict this very thing! Speaking of holidays….

Individual families didn’t have Christmas trees in their homes, especially not families as poor as the Ingallses; Christmas trees were a German custom made popular by Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, and out on the REAL prairie, there weren’t a whole lot of spare trees to be cutting down for the latest trend in Christmas décor. And there weren’t no evergreen pines on the prairie no how! Pine boughs (if available) might be used for decoration in a private home “out west,” if anything, but not a whole tree. (Gram actually grew up in a little town in South Dakota, about halfway between Walnut Grove, MN. and DeSmet, SD, and when they celebrated Christmases in the 1930s, they had “Russian thistles” for Christmas trees. Essentially? Tumbleweeds.)

In the show, Mary constantly wears plastic headbands and barrettes and hair combs, and all the children wear shoes with laces and dresses with zippers, not buttons. As if. People say things like “Hello” and “okay” and “ya”… but “hello” was actually a word developed in conjunction with the telephone, and wasn’t common in everyday speech (“hallo” and “hi” were more common, but even then, they weren’t typical greetings), and “okay” is a colloquialism that wasn’t used until post-WWI. And only the most backwoodsy-est poor trashy unedjumacated family would say “see ya!” instead of 1) properly pronouncing “you,” especially when elocution was such a big thing at that time, and 2) using a more appropriate and polite farewell. (To say nothing of anyone, much less a girl, exclaiming “Darn!” That’s a swear-word!)

People, even children, regularly kiss, hug, and say “I love you” in the TV version of Walnut Grove, but back in the actual day, no decent woman would kiss a man unless she was engaged to him, embraces were exchanged in private, and, like with crying, it was unlikely that people would show their emotions by gushing “I love you!” (Or, more accurately to Landon Grove, “Love ya!”) Hell, in the Little House BOOKS, there’s even a part where appropriate public behavior re: emotions is discussed:

 Laura stood stock-still for an instant. Even Pa and Ma almost halted, though they were too grown-up to show surprise. A grown-up person must never let feelings be shown by voice or manner. So Laura only looked, and gently hushed Grace, even though she was as excited and overwhelmed as Carrie was. (LTOTP 228)

It would be extremely inappropriate for an unmarried woman to live alone, much less to have an unmarried man over for dinner, like Grace Snider does with Doc Baker, or Ginny Clark’s ma with the woodsman guy. Even for a married woman, having a strange unmarried man in her house when her husband was gone, like Ma does with the Hunky Handyman Chris, would have been a shocking scandal. The real-life gossip in such a small town would’ve made the TV version of Mrs. Oleson look cute and harmless.

A married woman might help/partner in her husband’s store or restaurant, but NO married woman – much less one visibly pregnant – would be teaching school. She certainly couldn’t enroll in school herself if she was married (“A Wiser Heart”), much less take off for a summer seminar, just for the fun of it. No adult woman would take off her shoes and socks to go wading; no WAY would any decent woman show her feet and ankles in public, nor would young girls let their undergarments and petticoats show, either! A woman wouldn’t announce her pregnancy to her family, nor would she discuss “the change” with her husband (“I Do, Again”). A father CERTAINLY wouldn’t make joking implications that the foundling his daughter was taking care of was “hers” (“Be My Friend,” when Pa says the baby “is Laura’s”)And NO woman or teenaged girl would come downstairs in her nightgown, without shawl or wrapper, to a room full of men (“Whisper Country”) especially when she’s the teacher and they’re the parents of her students, for the love of all that’s right and proper! Hell, just having her hair down was licentious enough!

The TV version of Walnut Grove is closer socially to the 1970s than the 1880s. Take the plot about Mrs. Indian and her son Spotted Eagle. Of course, this was on the tail end of the Big Noble Indian awareness movement, with Iron Eyes Cody and all that, however… I’m sorry, but in the late 1800s, ANY white woman that WILLINGLY married a Native American man would be shunned, just as any white woman that WILLINGLY married a black man would be shunned. Even in the most woman-deprived settlements, for a white man to marry a Native American woman was scandalous and “indecent,” but sometimes necessary (although he was expected to chuck his “squaw” if he got hisself a “white woman”). For a white woman, though…? Unthinkable. She would be considered dirty and shameful and un-Christian, as would her offspring. Look at Cynthia Ann Parker; if you ‘d “turned Injun,” you were a heathen, the closest thing to the devil on earth, and if you loved your “Injun” husband, you were the devil AND a whore! Look at my great-aunt Myna, who went to great lengths to cover up the fact that she was part Lakota; no one in my family even breathed a word about it until long after she’d died.

Sometimes it seems like the only historical figures the Little House show got even close to depicting semi-accurately were Jesse and Frank James; I mean, at least Jesse and Frank were alive during the time they show up in Walnut Grove (although that appearance itself is dubious, because the James-Younger Gang did their thing primarily where Laura Ingalls Wilder ended up living out her days: in Missouri, not Minnesota). “William Randolph Hearst” shows up when Dying Dillon/Dylan and the Ingallses are at the Pacific Ocean (which is also stupid, because Laura didn’t see the West Coast and Pacific Ocean until she went to visit Rose in 1917, as depicted in the epistolary Little House book West From Home) and

*eye roll*

offers to “buy” Dillon/Dylan’s remarkable story of courage and persistence in order to finance the group’s train fare back to Walnut Grove… but Hearst would’ve been a teenager at the time, and was mucking about Europe with his mummy; he didn’t acquire the San Francisco Examiner until about ten years after this episode of Little House supposedly took place. Hell, even “Colonel Sanders” shows up in Walnut Grove wanting to start a franchise chicken restaurant, but Harlan Sanders wasn’t born until 1890, and didn’t start KFC-ing until over 65 years later… when the real Laura was in her 80s (and living in the heart of Jesse James’s old territory in Missouri)!

This is NOT the prairie!

The book – and the show – was called the “Little House on the PRAIRIE.” That’s prairie. (\Prai"rie\, n. 1. An extensive tract of level or rolling land, destitute of trees, covered with coarse grass, and usually characterized by a deep, fertile soil. They abound throughout the Mississippi valley, between the Alleghenies and the Rocky mountains. 2. A meadow or tract of grass; especially, a so called natural meadow.) Got that? Flat, rolling grassland. THERE. ARE. NO. MOUNTAINS. WITH. TREES. AND. CHAPAREL. ON. THE. PRAIRIE! The producers of the show couldn’t even find relatively flatish areas in Southern California in which to film?



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