laura ingalls wilder and the bloody benders
April 8, 2010, 9:14 pm
Filed under: children's literature | Tags: , ,

Here’s a fascinating example of the complex, continually negotiated relationship in children’s literature between the adult writer and the implied child reader:

The wonderful Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature posted two years ago part of the text of a speech Laura Ingalls Wilder made in 1937. Wilder insisted that she “told the truth” in her books, but not the whole truth: “There were some stories,” she says, “I wanted to tell but would not be responsible for putting in a book for children, even though I knew them as a child.”

And what was one of those stories that Wilder wanted to tell but did not, for fear of infecting innocent minds? Apparently, her family’s encounter with the Bender family. Wilder recalls the Ingalls stopping at the Bender’s homestead on the trip between Independence and the Little House, seeing young Kate Bender in the doorway, but not entering.

The Bender family, also known as the Bloody Benders, were serial killers who butchered travelers who entered their and buried them in the garden. They killed approximately a dozen people, including a child.

When the bodies were uncovered, the Benders disappeared. Wilder: “The night of the day the bodies were found a neighbor rode up to our house and talked earnestly with Pa. Pa took his rifle down from its place over the door and said to Ma, ‘The vigilantes are called out.’ Then he saddled a horse and rode away with the neighbor. It was late the next day when he came back and he never told us where he had been. For several years there was more or less a hunt for the Benders and reports that they had been seen here or there. At such times Pa always said in a strange tone of finality, ‘They will never be found.’ They were never found and later I formed my own conclusions why.”*

Wow. Considering that a major prevailing theory holds that a vigilante group murdered the Benders, this would suggest that Charles Ingalls was involved in that massacre, right?

Well, maybe not. Because the Ingalls left Kansas in the spring of 1871, and the discovery of the Benders’ crimes wasn’t for another two years, the spring of 1873.

So Wilder was lying! Not about the Bender case – she gets the basic facts right – but about her involvement and her father’s involvement. Laura explicitly includes herself in this narrative when it’s totally unnecessary; she mentions the Benders as an example of a kind of frontier violence she could not include, and the anecdote would work if she framed it as something that occurred relatively near their homestead in approximately the same period of time.

Perry Nodelman cites the adult writer’s reticence to “tell all” a defining hallmark of children’s literature: “Texts for adults don’t usually presume to tell less of the truth than their writers know, as texts for children characteristically do. In telling less than their authors know, these texts represent a holding back, a reticence about saying too much in too much detail that might well leave its traces within the text” (143). And while I think Nodelman is dead on here, I wonder how we might deal with traces of this false subtext, created as an example of what could not be included, when the narrative was imagined in the first place.

Ultimately, this odd lie could be read, I think, as a placeholder for the real elided violence of the Little House series towards the Native populations: this is the story here for which Wilder does not want to be responsible.

*Take a look at this other telling of Wilder and the Benders, typed up by Rose Wilder for the Pioneer Girl manuscript, where Pa tells Ma in front of Laura that one of the murdered victims was “a little girl, no bigger than Laura,” buried alive.

5 Comments so far
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Hey… Just found this. Gonna follow your link and see what Rose said…

Comment by Debbie Reese

I’d be interested to know more of what you think about this incident, Debbie. I agree with your comment at your blog that it’s jarring that Wilder thinks it’s inappropriate to include white serial killers, but images of “wild Indians” are entirely appropriate, even necessary. Why Laura even raises the image of the Benders in her talk, however, considering her insertion in the narrative has to be a total fabrication, is still a mystery to me.

Comment by kathlit

Why do you think images of “wild Indians” are appropriate/necessary?

Comment by Debbie Reese

Oh, I didn’t mean at all that I thought those images were appropriate or necessary, but that Wilder, by including them, seems to think so. I’m remarking on the gap between Wilder very forcefully commenting on what she deems to be inappropriate representations of violence, and her inability or reluctance to consider the violence she and Rose are perpetrating by perpetuating harmful, inaccurate and hurtful images of Native peoples.

Comment by kathlit

Yeah. We’re on the same page. That Rose wanted that story IN the Pioneer Girl manuscript is intriguing. What goes in, who puts it in, when does it come out, who takes it out? Lots of questions… Oh! I’m blogging it momentarily.

Comment by Debbie Reese

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