by Deborah Kent
From the Editor: Many Federationists know Deborah Kent Stein as an occasional contributor to these pages and a leader of the Illinois affiliate. I first met her when she entered Oberlin College, where I was an undergraduate. Neither of us knew much about the NFB at that point in our lives, and I, at least, was busy staying away from other blind people in case their problems and oddities might rub off on me. Through the years, however, I continued to hear scraps of news about Debbie, who was making a name for herself as a successful author of books for young people.
We met and became friends at the 1988 NFB convention in Chicago. Steve Benson, president of the host affiliate that year, brought Debbie to my room so that we could get to know each other. He wanted me to convince her that the NFB was a fine organization and that she should become active. We had a wonderful evening, and Debbie did become active. Her NFB work has largely been with blind parents and blind children and students. As of May of this year, she has also become the editor of Future Reflections, the NFB’s quarterly magazine for parents and educators of blind children.
But Debbie also continues to maintain an active life as a professional writer. She recently contributed a chapter to a book titled Unseen Childhoods: Disabled Characters in 20th-Century Books for Girls, edited by Helen Aveling (London: Bettany Press, 2009). We are delighted to have the chance to reprint Debbie’s chapter in a somewhat abbreviated version without the footnotes and bibliography but retaining the publisher’s British spelling. Now meet Mary Wilder and Susan Oldknowe:
For me, as a blind child growing up in the 1950s, books were scarce and precious commodities. I lived in a quiet New Jersey suburb, where nothing exciting ever seemed to happen, and reading opened the door to the life of adventure that I craved. In my favourite books young heroes (and, better yet, heroines) explored the wilderness, championed the oppressed, and battled daunting enemies. I longed to live in such stories myself.
Time and place melted away as I joined each exploring party and rescue mission. Yet one sliver of reality never completely disappeared. All of the adventurers I so admired could see. Didn't blind people ever have adventures? Weren't they interesting enough to be portrayed in fiction?
For a number of formative years the only blind character that I encountered in my reading was Mary Ingalls in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series. To my mind Mary embodied the worst possible image of a blind girl. While her sister Laura scrambles through life finding adventures, Mary sits in her rocking chair. She is protected and loved, but most of the time she remains so passive that she barely exists at all. I felt that the world expected blind girls to be much like Mary Ingalls. We were supposed to stay out of the way, to sit on the sidelines, and to leave real life to others.
Then, when I was eleven, I discovered a very different blind character, Susan Oldknow in LM Boston's novel, Treasure of Green Knowe. The novel is a fantasy in which a modern boy meets his eighteenth-century ancestors, Susan among them. Susan's mother sees her daughter as a burden and a family disgrace and tries to keep her out of sight, but Susan does not let her mother's attitude define her. She seizes every opportunity to stretch toward independence and engagement with the world. Susan has plenty of spirit, and she is not always sweet. In fact, sometimes she is even angry over the way that her family treats her. Unlike Mary, Susan is never passive and resigned. When adventures come her way, she springs into action.
Both the negative stereotype reflected in Mary Ingalls and the positive, self-directed image of Susan Oldknow played important roles in shaping my identity. Mary Ingalls showed me what I might become if I yielded to the fears and beliefs of others. Susan demonstrated that I was not alone in imagining that a blind girl could be bold and adventurous--somehow, an English author named LM Boston had conceived of the same idea.
Mary Ingalls in the Little House Books
In the Little House series, first published between 1932 and 1943, Laura Ingalls Wilder tells the fictionalised story of her childhood and adolescence on the American frontier of the late nineteenth century. Throughout these books, beloved by generations of readers in the U.S. and overseas, Laura's family is shown to be caring, courageous, and boundlessly resourceful.
Laura, the main character, is the second of the four Ingalls girls. Her older sister Mary appears in nearly all of the books and plays an important supporting role. In the first three volumes--Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, and On the Banks of Plum Creek--Mary is fully sighted. In the first chapter of the next book in the series, By the Shores of Silver Lake, we learn that Mary has just lost her sight due to scarlet fever. Mary then appears as a blind character in four of Wilder's books--By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years.
From the beginning, Wilder establishes the fact that Laura and Mary possess very different personalities. Laura is adventurous by nature, while Mary is retiring and domestic. Laura firmly believes that her older sister is prettier, more capable, and in general a better person than she is herself. For the most part she holds Mary in great admiration, but on rare occasions she reveals a flash of resentment. In a scene toward the end of Little House in the Big Woods, Laura accidentally tears the pocket of her dress and reflects that Mary would never be so careless. She goes on to observe that:
Mary was a good little girl who always kept her dress neat and minded her manners. ... Mary looked very good and sweet, unrumpled and clean, sitting on the board [seat] beside Laura. Laura did not think it was fair.
When Mary becomes blind at the age of thirteen, her response is totally in character. Wilder describes Mary's convalescence after the scarlet fever attack:
She was able to sit up now, wrapped in quilts in Ma's old hickory rocking chair. All that long time, week after week, when she could still see a little, but less every day, she had never cried. Now she could not see even the brightest light any more. She was still patient and brave.
By the time that Mary recovers, the rocking chair is no longer Ma's, but hers. It is her refuge of comfort and safety. Whenever the family moves to a new location, Mary's rocking chair is one of the first pieces of furniture to be put in place. Once it is set up, Mary sits patiently while the rest of the family unpacks and sets the new house in order.
Even before Mary lost her sight, Laura perceived her as patient and good. Her blindness only accentuates these traits, which were already strongly embedded in her character. In one regard, however, Mary's blindness brings about a radical change. As a sighted child she kept busy helping with endless household chores, but her blindness renders her nearly incapable of playing a useful domestic role. This shift is apparent in an incident which occurs early on in By the Shores of Silver Lake. Pa plans a trip to Kansas, a journey that will require him to be away from the family for two months. Ma assures him that she will have no problems managing the household in his absence, since Laura and Carrie will be there to help her. In this statement she discounts any possible help from Grace, her youngest daughter, who is only a toddler. Her comment also dismisses any thought that Mary, once her mainstay, can be of help any longer. Now that Mary is blind, she and her baby sister share the same status.
Over time Mary resumes some family responsibilities. She learns to sew, to make beds, and to wash dishes. She helps to care for little Grace, rocking her for hours in her lap and telling her stories. In The Long Winter, when the Ingalls family is besieged for months by one blizzard after another, both Mary and Laura perform tasks essential for everyone's survival. They spend back-breaking hours each day grinding wheat into flour in Ma's coffee mill and twisting hay to make "kindling sticks" to keep the kitchen fire alive. But when Ma takes in a stream of boarders, it is Laura who helps with the mountains of cooking and cleaning. Mary never lends a hand, staying upstairs with the younger children.
Not only is Mary shut out of opportunities to be useful at home after she becomes blind, she is also excluded from a variety of recreational activities. In The Long Winter Pa makes a checkerboard and checkers out of wood. The family fills the winter evenings with lively games--everyone, that is, except Mary. It never occurs to anyone that Pa could make a board with raised squares so that Mary would be able to join in the fun. In another scene in the same novel Pa plays the fiddle and encourages Laura and Carrie to learn the waltz. He exclaims proudly that both of them are going to be fine dancers some day. Mary, meanwhile, sits by the stove, listening quietly to the music, her hands folded on her lap. No one suggests that Mary too could learn to dance, and Mary never asks for a lesson. Mary's exclusion from the dancing lesson implies a far deeper exclusion--as a young woman who is blind, she is no longer seen as a sexual being.
In By the Shores of Silver Lake, Pa tells Laura and Carrie to stay away from a nearby railroad camp, where rough men use vulgar language. Laura and Carrie receive further admonitions from Ma, who cautions them not to walk where the men might see them. No such warnings are extended to Mary; there is no likelihood that she might venture near the camp or become a temptation to the workers. Both the pleasures and the dangers of sexual expression are outside Mary's sphere.
Mary's patient acceptance of exclusion is completely in keeping with the role that she is given by her family and the community after she becomes blind--that of moral example. A conversation between Ma and Reverend Alden, a visiting preacher, reveals their belief that blindness has made Mary especially virtuous. Ma tells the preacher that Mary is a great comfort to her and marvels that Mary has never once repined. Reverend Alden replies that Mary is a lesson to all of them. He goes on to say that "a brave spirit will turn all our afflictions to good." Thus he implies that Mary's patient acceptance of her disability will help to build character in those around her.
Just as Reverend Alden suggests, Mary's blindness furnishes Laura with the opportunity to learn self-sacrifice. In By the Shores of Silver Lake, the Ingalls family sets off by wagon to a new home in Dakota Territory. The children spend long hours each day confined to the jolting wagon. Laura yearns to get down and walk beside the wagon for a while, but she does not express her wish out loud. She is certain that Mary would not be able to walk fast enough to keep up with the wagon; therefore Mary does not have the option to get down and walk, and, because Mary cannot get down, Laura feels it would not be right for her to do so herself. Silently she endures her discomfort and continues to keep her older sister company.
Mary's blindness presents Laura with a far greater challenge: a shift in the family's expectations about her future. Until Mary lost her sight, her parents had hoped that she would become a teacher. However, a teaching career is out of the question for her as a blind girl. Laura, the next daughter in line, is therefore expected to become a teacher in Mary's place. Laura has no innate gift for teaching and no wish to spend her life inside a classroom. Nonetheless she accepts her fate with fortitude; uncomplaining, she studies for her teaching certificate.
By the standards of her family, Laura has a rebellious spirit that must be brought under control. With uneven success Laura strives to emulate Mary's goodness. In Little Town on the Prairie, she confides to Mary that she wants to be just like her. She laments that she can never come close to the example that Mary sets every day. Mary modestly denies that she is as good as Laura thinks she is and admits that she sometimes has angry thoughts. However, she nearly always manages to keep these thoughts to herself, safely hidden away.
The reader is never told what triggers Mary's secret angry thoughts. One possibility might be her exclusion from school upon the loss of her sight. Before the scarlet fever Mary was an eager and diligent student. Blindness automatically interrupts her formal education. Each night Mary listens intently as Laura and Carrie do their homework. With their help and encouragement she learns their lessons beside them, but no one considers that Mary could go with her sisters to the school in town and learn orally with the sighted pupils. Though Mary's mind is as agile as ever, her blindness somehow precludes her from sitting in a one-room schoolhouse. The whole family is thrilled when Reverend Alden describes a special college in Iowa for blind students. When Ma asks the reverend about the cost, Laura thinks her voice sounds "choked and hungry." In one scene Mary sheds her usual stoic decorum and bursts forth with a torrent of enthusiasm. She exclaims:
Oh, I do care about [going to school]. I want it more than anything. There's so much to learn, I always wanted to go studying on and on. And to think that I can, if we can save the money, even now that I'm blind. Isn't it wonderful?
The Ingalls family works with single-minded focus to save for Mary's education. Laura redoubles her commitment to teaching, knowing that her salary will help Mary fulfill her dream. Of the four sisters, Mary is the only one to go away from home to study. Homebody though she is, she is willing to leave her family (and the ever-present rocking chair) and venture into the unknown.
Mary leaves for the school in Vinton, Iowa, midway through Little Town on the Prairie. At this point she largely drops out of the narrative, though there are occasional references to her weekly letters. These letters--though never quoted directly--assure the family that Mary is making excellent progress. She reports that she has learned to run a sewing machine and sends home samples of her fancy beadwork. She is even studying the organ. Thrilled, Pa buys an organ and has it shipped to the Ingalls' Dakota homestead as a surprise for Mary when she comes for a visit.
Mary is away for three years, only once returning to spend a summer with her family. During this visit Laura and Carrie are struck by their sister's increased independence. When Carrie asks Mary if she had been afraid, riding home alone on the train, she replies: "Oh no, I had no trouble. We like to do things by ourselves at college. It is part of our education." The family observes that Mary seems much more sure of herself, moving freely around the house instead of sitting quietly. When Pa brings in her trunk, Mary unlocks it "quite as if she saw it." After Mary hands out presents to her parents and sisters, Laura reflects: “Mary had often smiled, but it was a long time since they had heard her laugh out, as she used to when she was a little girl. All that it had cost to send Mary to college was more than repaid by seeing her so gay and confident.”
Despite Mary's accomplishments, however, Ma and Pa foresee a bleak future for their eldest daughter. At the end of Mary's visit Ma shares her thoughts with Laura. She points out that Mary will return home to stay when she finishes the programme at school and that she might never again have the chance to travel. She tells Laura that it is nice for Mary to have these wonderful experiences and the opportunity to make new friends. Ma concludes: "She will have it to remember." Mary's education is not seen as a springboard into a future of productive work or one of marriage and children. Instead, it is a gift of sweet memories to help buoy her through the empty years that stretch ahead.
At the end of These Happy Golden Years, Laura prepares to marry her sweetheart, Almanzo Wilder. The First Four Years, based on a manuscript left unfinished at Laura Ingalls Wilder's death, chronicles the early years of Laura's marriage and the birth of her daughter Rose. Mary's name appears only once in this final volume of the Little House series--in a passing reference to her rocking chair.
Susan Oldknow in Treasure of Green Knowe
LM Boston published six novels in the Green Knowe series, of which Treasure of Green Knowe (1958) is the second. Green Knowe is an ancient house in the English countryside, alive with memories of its past inhabitants. In The Children of Green Knowe, seven-year-old Tolly visits his great-grandmother, Mrs. Oldknow, at Green Knowe during his school holidays, and she tells him stories about the children who lived in the house long ago. In Treasure of Green Knowe, Tolly returns on his spring holiday and hears another set of stories. This time the central figure in Mrs. Oldknow's tales is Susan Oldknow, who grew up at the end of the eighteenth century. Susan also makes brief appearances in An Enemy at Green Knowe and The Stones of Green Knowe, but Treasure of Green Knowe is the only book in the series in which she plays a major role.
Tolly first hears of Susan when he asks about the patchwork quilt on his bed. He learns that it was made for Susan by her grandmother. Tolly's great-grandmother goes on to tell a short story about the quilt. She explains that Susan's grandmother loved quilting and made a patchwork quilt for Susan's mother Maria. However, Maria had refused to have a patchwork quilt for her bed, preferring satin or lace. Offended, the grandmother declared that Susan could have the quilt some day when she married. On hearing this suggestion,
Maria said Susan was hardly likely to get an offer of marriage, but if Granny liked to go on making patchworks, Susan could have them in bundles of a dozen. Susan wouldn't mind how old-fashioned anything was.
For some reason which Mrs. Oldknow does not yet reveal, Susan's mother does not hold Susan in high regard. Soon Tolly gathers other clues about Susan's history. He opens a chest in his great-grandmother's room and discovers a box filled with exotic sea shells and polished stones. At the bottom of the chest he finds the model of a sailing ship, the Woodpecker. Mrs. Oldknow explains that these were gifts to Susan from her father, a sea captain who was often away from home for a year at a time. Susan cherished all of her father's presents, especially the Woodpecker, a model of his own ship.
Finally Tolly comes face to face with Susan's spirit in the doorway to the music room (Mrs. Oldknow refuses to use the word "ghost" to describe the ethereal children who share the house with her). When he tells Mrs. Oldknow about this brief meeting, he comments that Susan is somehow different from the other spirit-children he has met. He feels that she looked at him as if he wasn't there.
At this point Mrs. Oldknow explains that Susan was blind from birth and goes on to tell more stories about her childhood long ago. She begins her first story about Susan with a clear statement that sets the tone for everything that follows: "What is really hard to believe is that her mother and old Nanny Softly did everything they possibly could to keep Susan from learning to find her way about." The reactions of each member of the household, upon learning that baby Susan is blind, reveal both character and social milieu. Maria, Susan's mother, laments: "Whatever shall I do with a blind daughter--I can't take her into society--she'll never be married--there will be no pleasure in dressing her--she won't even be able to dress herself, and we'll have her for always."
According to the grandmother, "It was a judgment on Maria for her flighty life, and though the child would be little more than an idiot, she would try to see that it was at least a Christian one." Sefton, Susan's spoiled older brother, is secretly delighted to learn that Susan is blind, sure that she will never compete with him for money and favours. Caxton, the butler, "would pinch her cheek and talk baby talk when Susan's father or mother were present," but "when only Nanny Softly was there, he would say, `It should have been drowned like a kitten.'"
Old Mrs. Softly, the children's nanny, is the person who spends the most time with Susan and has the most devastating impact on her life. “Nanny Softly rocked and wept and clasped the child to her featherbed bosom and said at least the poor little thing wouldn't be without someone to love her. What bumps her poor dear little head was going to get! But she would watch her day and night and never let her out of her sight. Her old Nanny Softly would always be with her”.
Wisely, Mrs. Oldknow points out to Tolly that Nanny's relentless coddling was far worse for Susan than her mother's indifference, "because though it was good for her to be loved, it was dreadful never to be allowed to try to do anything herself." True to her word, Nanny hovers over Susan constantly with an endless litany of warnings and reassurances. Nanny fetches Susan's toys, buttons her shoes, and ties her hair ribbons. She even feeds Susan at the table so that she never learns to use a knife and fork. Nanny does her best to convince Susan that the world is a very dangerous place that Susan cannot possibly negotiate on her own.
In all the busy household of family and servants, only Susan's father, Captain Oldknow, believes in her innate abilities and understands her need to explore. He recognizes that Nanny and Maria are mishandling Susan grievously, forcing her to be helpless when in fact she is full of eagerness and curiosity. Each time he returns home from one of his ocean voyages, he is pained to see that nothing has changed. The situation makes him feel helpless himself. He longs to make life better for his daughter but does not know what to do for her.
LM Boston, in the voice of Mrs. Oldknow, places the attitudes of Susan's family within their historical context. Mrs. Oldknow tells Tolly that in those days Braille and schools for the blind were not available. If a blind person was poor, she or he had to live as a beggar. Blind people from wealthy families were "prisoners with servants." The captain, for all his good intentions, has no guidance, no positive example to follow. He is entirely on his own.
Boston is remarkably insightful in her descriptions of Susan's early life. She recognizes the critical need for a blind child to explore through touch and conveys a poignant sense of Susan's deprivation. To prevent Susan from falling or breaking things, Nanny Softly keeps her strapped in a chair most of the time. Her only toy is a large wooden doll, which is also tied to the chair. Mrs. Oldknow points out that no one wants a toy that is tied to her. With mischievous approval she adds, "It was a wooden doll, and [Susan] could hit out nicely with it, and once Nanny Softly caught a good rap over the head." Susan is liberated from the chair only when someone leads her through the house by the hand.
In leading her they were impatient, because their idea was to get her quickly where they were going, while Susan's idea was to feel everything possible on the way there. Everything was to her most mysterious, because she only felt a bit of it as she was dragged past, a ledge or a knob, a fold of curtain, or perhaps she felt nothing, but there was a different smell or a hollower sound. She had no idea how big things were or what shape. They stuck out of space like icebergs out of the sea. For this reason she enjoyed the continuous pleasantly shaped stair rail and liked to draw her fingers along the banisters as she went up and down, pushed and pulled by Nanny Softly.
Captain Oldknow encourages Nanny to let Susan touch things but meets with solid resistance from her. Nanny is determined to break Susan of her incorrigible habit of "fingering" everything within reach. If Susan had her way, Nanny insists, everything in the house would be lost or broken. Susan's hands and clothing would always be dirty, and Susan would be sure to injure herself. The captain appeals to Maria, urging her to teach Susan to do things for herself. Maria retorts that teaching Susan would require an angel's patience--patience which Maria lacks in abundance. Maria reminds the captain that Susan's grandmother teaches her about religion, and that is the only education she will need.
Despite their best efforts, Maria and Nanny Softly are powerless to quench Susan's natural curiosity. Mrs. Oldknow tells Tolly: “[S]he wanted to catch everything in the act of being real. She even put her finger in the candle flame to see what being burned was like.”
Because her experience has been so severely limited, Susan has large gaps in her knowledge about the world around her. When she hears frogs croaking in the moat, she pictures them as little men dressed in suits of wet leather. When Captain Oldknow tries to tell Susan about his life at sea, he is aghast to discover that she does not understand what a river is or what he means when he uses the word "float." To help Susan understand what a boat is and how it floats on the waves, Captain Oldknow gives her a model of the Woodpecker, which she can play with in her bath. However, he is painfully aware that she needs far more than a few toys to nourish her ravenous mind.
When Susan is seven years old, Captain Oldknow hires Jonathan, the seventeen-year-old son of a neighboring pastor, to be her tutor. At first Jonathan is doubtful that he can teach Susan anything. The captain urges him to teach her orally and to use his imagination. Above all he tells Jonathan to answer Susan's questions and to make sure she understands his answers. Despite Sefton's mockery and his own misgivings, Jonathan finds Susan to be an apt pupil. Taking the captain's advice, he answers her questions and reads her stories out loud.
Even so, the captain longs to widen Susan's world still further. The following year, during a stop at Barbados, he strikes upon an unconventional solution. He buys Jacob, an eight-year-old slave recently brought to the Caribbean from Africa. The captain promises Jacob his freedom if he will be a companion to his blind daughter in faraway England. Thus Jacob comes to Green Knowe and transforms Susan's life forever.
Like Susan, Jacob possesses immense curiosity and a vivid imagination. The children take to one another at once and instantly become fast friends. At their first meeting Captain Oldknow sends them to play in the garden together. When he looks out the window, he sees them marching along the paths playing a newly invented game. He exclaims to Maria that this is the best thing he has seen in years and that Susan is playing like any other child at last. Conveniently, Nanny Softly falls ill soon after Jacob's arrival, and the children are left to their own devices.
With Jacob as her mentor, Susan's education truly begins. The contrast with her earlier life is dramatic. Mrs. Oldknow tells Tolly: "Susan had always been taught to walk as carefully as if it were the most difficult thing in life not to fall, in a world beset with water, fire, staircases, high windows, open doors, and pits." Jacob has no such apprehensions. With his liberating guidance, Susan explores her surroundings and learns to walk freely through the house and garden. She gets her dress muddy as she turns somersaults on the lawn. She learns to climb to the top of the tallest beech tree at Green Knowe, pretending that she is perched in the rigging of the Woodpecker. In response to Susan's eager questions, Jacob captures frogs, birds, hedgehogs, and other creatures to show her. Jonathan, the tutor, is inspired to teach Susan her letters, shaping them with bread dough.
Confident and independent, Susan becomes a full-fledged player in the dramas of the household. Sefton has seized every opportunity to humiliate Jacob. Susan helps Jacob to retaliate through a series of nettling pranks. Sefton never thinks to suspect her. He does suspect Jacob, however, though he can prove nothing against him. When Sefton forces Jacob to climb into the chimney like a chimney sweep, Susan rushes to her friend's defense. She flies at Sefton and kicks him squarely in the shins.
Finally, Susan and Jacob work together to rescue their friend Fred, the gardener's son. Thirteen-year-old Fred has been caught poaching rabbits and will be hanged or sold to a press gang for service in His Majesty's Navy. The children hide Fred in an underground chamber and smuggle food to him until he can make a safe escape.
As Tolly's visit draws to a close, he asks his great-grandmother what happened to Susan and Jacob when they grew up. Mrs. Oldknow tells him that Jacob became a groom at Green Knowe, caring for the horses and driving Susan in her carriage. On a trip to Barbados with the captain, he married a woman of African heritage and brought her back to England with him. Susan married Jonathan, her former tutor, "and had lots of children, who could all see." Jacob's wife served as their nanny. Susan and Jacob remained the best of friends all their lives.
Unlike Mary Ingalls, Susan is granted a happily-ever-after ending, complete with marriage and family. She grows up and takes on the responsibilities of motherhood with the help of a nanny, as befits her era and social class. The statement that all of Susan's children could see hints that the ending would have been less happy if any of them had been blind and that blindness is not entirely acceptable, even for the enlightened Mrs. Oldknow. Within its context, however, the comment seems intended as further assurance that Susan led a fulfilling life and made a positive contribution to the family.
A Choice of Virtues
The Little House series and Treasure of Green Knowe are books by twentieth-century authors that portray children of earlier times. Mary Ingalls and Susan Oldknow are shaped by the eras in which they lived, when opportunities for blind people were severely restricted. Yet the girls grow up in very different environments, within very different philosophical frameworks.
On the American frontier the Ingalls family lives by the Protestant ethic of hard work and fortitude. For the most part Mary's blindness exempts her from hard work; she is no longer expected to be an active, contributing member of the family unit. But Mary is cast in a new role--she is a model of patience. For the Ingalls family, and apparently for Wilder herself, patient acceptance is one of the highest possible virtues. Wilder refers frequently to Mary's patience and goodness, as though these traits are almost synonymous. Mary's willingness to sit on the sidelines in her rocking chair is never portrayed as laziness. Rather, Wilder conveys her admiration for Mary's graceful acceptance of her fate.
As a blind child reading the Little House series, I was appalled by Wilder's depiction of Mary. Mary's silent acceptance of limitations and exclusion collided with everything that I aspired to achieve in my own life. To me her uncomplaining patience was not a sign of goodness, but of an infuriating passivity. What on earth was so enthralling about that rocking chair of hers? How could she be so content to sit on the outskirts of life? Why did she relinquish her right to play an active part in the world? Why didn't she seize every opportunity to prove that she could still be useful and active, whether or not she could see?
Almost as distressing to me as Mary herself was the attitude of her family. Mary's parents and sisters love her deeply. Yet no one in the family challenges the assumption that blindness has put an end to Mary's active participation in life. When it comes to including Mary in the full range of family and community activities, the Ingalls family shows a profound lack of will and creativity. This is ironic, since their very survival on the frontier depends on their ability to find solutions to unexpected problems. The Ingalls family is endlessly resourceful when it comes to building shelters, gathering food, traveling where there are no roads, and having fun in spite of hardships. Somehow, though, this can-do spirit founders before Mary's blindness. Instead of tackling the challenge of blindness with pioneering resilience, the Ingalls family falls back on time-honored beliefs, equating blindness with helplessness. To their credit, they never treat Mary as if she is a burden and are never embarrassed by her presence. But their gentle, almost reverent treatment of her helps only to ensure her isolation. When they see her patience as admirable, a manifestation of goodness, they quietly justify keeping her in a special place apart.
At first I thought that Mary's experience at school would transform her perspective on life and would awaken her family to new and endless possibilities. In fact, Mary makes dramatic changes, even travelling hundreds of miles alone on the train. This is an amazing feat for a girl who previously would not rise from her rocking chair to unpack a trunk. However, to my vast disappointment, Wilder strongly hints that Mary's school years are an aberration. When she completes the program, she will return home, where sweet memories of friendships and adventures will help her bear with patience the empty years before her.
When I was growing up, I knew that, despite their relative newness, the Little House books were considered to be classics. People had already been reading about sweet, passive Mary Ingalls for years, and they would go on reading about her for countless years to come. It dismayed me to realize that the majority of these readers probably accepted the author's view of Mary without question. They would carry away the image of patient Mary in her rocking chair, glowing with goodness. I feared that the image of Mary Ingalls would reinforce some of the worst stereotypes about people who are blind.
In Susan Oldknow, I felt that I had found a kindred spirit. Susan is an explorer, stretching out her hands to discover her surroundings despite the reproofs of Nanny and her mother. It is not her blindness that holds Susan back, but the stifling behavior of the people around her. Susan's experience resonated deeply with my own. I too had heard endless warnings about stairways, fire, sharp objects, and myriad other components of daily life. Like Susan, I had learned not to take most of these warnings as truth but to test reality for myself. Fortunately, like her, I had significant people in my life who believed in me and who made sure that I had the opportunities I needed.
In striking contrast to Mary's life on the frontier, Susan is a child of Regency England, growing up amid servants and luxury. Her father sees Susan's blindness as a difference that need not define or hamper her. He does not expect or want her to sit patiently with folded hands; instead, he seeks to help her engage with the world. As he points out to Jonathan, her tutor, it is only a matter of finding creative approaches to her education.
The approaches to blindness in Treasure of Green Knowe and the Little House books represent two distinct philosophical views of humanity. The Protestant ethic which rules the Ingalls family regards human nature as intrinsically bad, although humans can be saved from evil by resisting temptation. Mary Ingalls could easily be tempted to anger and self-pity (clearly regarded by Wilder as negative emotions to be overcome), but she rises above such impulses and holds to higher ground. Captain Oldknow is guided by the philosophy of Rousseau and other Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century. Rousseau and his followers saw human nature as essentially good and believed that organized society had a corrupting impact on the child's innate purity. Susan Oldknow is an innocent, a pure child of nature, untainted by the materialism of her mother and brother; she embraces life with eagerness and joy. Her father delights in her spontaneity and encourages her spirit of adventure in defiance of the strict rules that govern the behavior of proper little girls of her era.
Jacob, Susan's invaluable teacher (Boston's version of Helen Keller's Annie Sullivan), is a child of nature himself. Jacob spent his early years in Africa, among the lions and elephants, and he still carries a host of animistic beliefs. When Susan and Jacob are at play, the garden at Green Knowe bears a passing resemblance to Eden. Captain Oldknow selects Jacob to be Susan's mentor because he is a free spirit, full of playfulness and imagination. Despite the hardships of slavery, Jacob is morally and emotionally intact. His nature has not been twisted by the constraints of uppercrust English society. As an outsider to that world, he is able to appreciate Susan for who she is and to meet her with intuitive understanding.
Although Susan is very different from Mary Ingalls, she too shines with a kind of goodness. She is loving and loyal. She has not learned affectations and judges others on their merits rather than their social status. Her lifelong friendship with Jacob is a case in point. Susan is free from racism and is outraged when others treat Jacob insolently. Perhaps, if she were sighted, Susan would have been as arrogant and self-absorbed as her brother Sefton. Her blindness allows her to follow a very different path.
In a sense both Boston and Wilder idealize their blind characters, investing them with virtues that stem from their disabilities. Yet as a blind girl, trying to find friends and heroines in books, I found Mary Ingalls cloying and rejoiced upon meeting Susan. I cheered when Susan kicked Sefton and celebrated when she climbed to the top of the giant beech tree. I thrilled as she discovered that her life brimmed with possibilities. Susan was learning exactly what I myself wanted to believe and wanted the rest of the world to know.