Thursday, February 20, 2014

Infant Mortality

Infant and child mortality is a big issue in Theodosia and the Pirates. The death of Gampy, Theodosia's son, is an event that casts a long shadow. It's not something she gets over. The death of a child is not something anybody gets over, no matter how well adjusted they seem.

The thing that made me think to write about this now is that I recently had a new comment on a very old hub of mine. It was an article entitled Misconceptions About Teenaged Mothers. I wrote that article long before I started writing my novel, Theodosia and the Pirates, but I have been obsessed by Theodosia Burr Alston for years, and I did mention her in the article. I mentioned both Theodosia and Laura Ingalls Wilder as examples of successful teenaged mothers who had respectable educations, good relationships with their fathers and who did not overpopulate the planet with their children, despite having a first child while yet a teenager.

I've had lots of comments on that hub over the years, but because after the Panda Google Update traffic to that site plummeted, the stream of comments dwindled down to zero for a couple of years. Then recently someone left this comment:

Your information about Laura Ingalls Wilder is really not very accurate. Her father did "interfere" in her courtship, and greatly disapproved of the age difference between her and her future husband. He made them wait until she turned 18 to marry. She did indeed have her first child at 19. While not supervising her child when she was about 3, the child managed to burn down the house- this was right after Laura had her second child, who died.
     Did the kid die because she was young? Probably not, it was a common occurrence of the time- but interesting that you would fail to mention it. Also, Rose, the child that lived (and who burned down the house) reportedly grew up to be a seriously depressed and unhappy woman, who blamed her unhappiness on her childhood of poverty and her relationship with her mother. Rose also made references to her mother not being a "grown-up" while Rose was a child, and this greatly distressed Rose.
      Read "Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder" rather than Wikipedia for a slightly more factual accounting of her life.
I never even bothered to mention the birth and death of Laura's second child because to me it was such a common thing that a baby died shortly after birth and never had a name, so that it never even occurred to me at the time.  In the Ingalls family, all the baby boys seemed to die in infancy. The reason Ma and Pa only had girls was because when a boy was born to Caroline Ingalls, it did not survive long. Laura's baby boy died the same way. When Rose Wilder Lane gave birth in 1910 -- in a hospital -- to her one and only son, that baby died as well. 

I don't think it was Caroline's fault at all that her son died. I don't think it was Laura's fault that her only son died, and I do not think it was Rose's fault that her son died as well. The idea that any of these deaths could have anything to do with neglect is something that would only occur to a modern reader, who has no understanding of infant mortality or how prevalent it used to be.

When I was studying linguistics, some of the field workers I met said it was common for aborigines in the Amazon  not to name their child until it was three, because they didn't consider them people until they had a pretty good chance of survival. And this linking of personhood with survival rate is also a consideration when looking at statistics on life expectancy. If you include all those nameless babies who died before they even had a chance to live in the statistics, it paints a confusing picture of how long people actually lived who survived infancy and childhood. When they tell us aborigines have a life expectancy of forty, we need to ask if they included the little ones who were never named in the list of people's whose lives were averaged.

But Gampy was named. He survived infancy. He was ten when he died. He was named Aaron Burr Alston. Yet he named himself Gampy, because he loved his grandfather!

Was it Theodosia's fault that Gampy died of malaria? Of course, not. Did she blame herself? Probably. Most mothers do.

But the other thing to consider is this, that if he had been a slave child on her husband's plantation, rather than a free son of a rich owner, he probably would not have died at ten. He probably would have died within two weeks of birth, unless he happened to have the immunity to malaria built into his system

In my novel, Theodosia and the Pirates, I let the fictional character, Hattie, make that observation.

The sad thing about infant mortality is that while it kills individuals, it makes populations stronger and healthier. That is why the slaves could stand the heat in the swamps, but the South Carolina free militiamen fell like flies when mustered in the summer of 1813.

If you want to learn more about this, read Theodosia and the Pirates. I changed the timing of some of the events, but there is enough truth left in the story for it to matter. After you read the novel, you will also want to do some investigation of your own into the historical background.


  1. That person was picking at straws. Even though her children's books were sanitized to appeal to a juvenile audience during a time when gritty stories were not en vogue, there was definitely several occasions where both Ma and Pa advised Laura to finish her schooling and wait until she was 18 to get married. Even in the books she was definitely 18 when she got married, so I think this person is getting their knickers in a twist over nothing.

    1. I did not even address that point in my answer to the commenter. I gave Laura's correct age at marriage and at the birth of her daughter. Laura even finished her schooling early and became a certified teacher quite young. Nowadays that would be impossible. I just wonder how she could think that the fact the second baby died had anything to do with how old Laura was when she married.

    2. Laura was a very educated person, and spent every minute of the day studying when she was not helping around the house. Yes, the age was eighteen, and not sure why you have to cover everything in a hub. The youngest professor I have heard of here in the US was eighteen and she was teaching at a college in New Orleans, but her case was very rare. She had been home schooled and went to college when she was eleven, so this was not an ordinary case.

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