Sunday, 1 September 2013

Politics and Providence on the Prairie

Laura Ingalls Wilder in Missouri

I'm a late convert to Little House. (Am I really a homeschooler if I didn't read/quote/re-enact the books countless times growing up?) My husband and I read the series to our oldest daughter last year. All three of us discovered it at the same time. 

There were a lot of tears. Most of them were not Eve's. 

The surprise for us was the high (dare I say literary?) quality of the writing. Now, I don't mean that in some high-falutin' way. Our 3-year-old was just as drawn in. But this is the mark of a real classic, in my opinion. We read it on many levels, all of them satisfying (I'd rate The Lord of the Rings, Shakespeare's plays, and the novels of Jane Austen and John Buchan highly in this regard). 

 It turns out our introduction to Little House has come just as the books are showing up in the news again, in a few different ways. For starters, Laura Ingalls Wilder's first draft of the series, her memoir entitled Pioneer Girl, is being made available to the public for the first time. Also, the whole Little House series has just been repackaged into one volume sans illustrations (more's the pity!) to appeal to 'serious' adult readers. 

And finally, this article in the Boston Globe showed up. The writer's big idea is that when Rose Wilder Lane assisted her mother in fictionalising her memoir into children's stories, she did so through a deliberately Libertarian grid, transforming her family's harrowing frontier experiences into shiny, corn-fed propaganda, as a well-aimed blow at the social-welfare progressivism of FDR's "New Deal." 

 Now, I have no problem with saying that Rose was a Libertarian. She was. And Edith Nesbit helped found the Fabian Socialist movement, and Frances Hodgson Burnett used her children's novels to promote Eastern Mysticism. Children's authors do not inhabit some anodyne land of Nursery neutrality. They see the world through one lens or another, just as we do. 

Here's what I take exception to: 
1. Politicising a beloved series of books which has united people from all over the map, literally and figuratively. 
2. Accusing the books of whitewashing the frontier experience. 

 I'm not going to go point by point through the article, but as an example -- 

Lane must have known, as she redrafted her mother’s handwritten memoirs, that this notion of pioneer bravery—and the very real fortitude of the family—would prove an irresistible American theme. The result was a series of books that helped instill a deep national code of frontier values, including the notion that isolated Americans can thrive because the government leaves them to draw only on their personal energies and ethics. It’s an appealing idea, and it has become woven into our image of the pioneers. But it’s not the full story of what happened out there on the prairie. 

She also speculates that Rose made up a canny appeal that Pa Ingall's uses to quell a riot in The Long Winter, calling it "free-market speechifying". She completely misses his point, which was to persuade a foolhardy store-owner to feed the starving community on credit -- not to instruct everyone in the benefits of capitalism. (Indeed, I think most people would agree that the Little House books are remarkable for their lack of overt didacticism.)

The Little House books barely mention the obvious, which is that the impoverished Ingallses never could have gone to Dakota Territory without a government grant: Like most pioneers, their livelihoods relied on the federal Homestead Act, which gave settlers 160 acres for the cost of a $14 filing fee—one of the largest acts of federal largesse in US history. 

Did she read the same books I did? Does anyone want to go count the number of times the land-grant set-up is clearly explained in these stories? 

Woodside contrasts the Little house books, in which Rose supposedly "recast the stoic, sometimes confused pioneers as optimistic, capable people who achieved success without any government help" with Laura's unvarnished original manuscript: 

Wilder’s memoirs offer a picture of the costs and risks of isolation that never made it into the book series: A baby brother who died at 9 months. A miserable year working and living in an Iowa tavern. A pair of innkeepers who murdered guests and buried them out back. Another pioneer couple who boarded with them during the Long Winter whose attitudes were far more whining than stoic. 

What about the horrifically unhappy family Laura boards with as a young schoolteacher? You know, the wife that goes half-crazy with the cold and isolation and waves a knife around at her husband in the night 'cause he won't take her back East? What about the lynching? The child bride? The massacre? The two guys who died in the blizzard because it didn't occur to them to huddle together? The monster locust attack? Pa's inability to make farming any kind of success? 

Surely it is just as possible that Laura and Rose had personal or literary reasons for their selection of certain anecdotes and story-lines over others, rather than primarily political ones. I can't help but suspect that it is Woodside herself who has a political axe to grind. 

Finally and most significantly, Woodside reduces everything to a binary grid: self-reliant versus government-reliant. But there is another option. 

The Ingalls family doesn't have to choose between relying on the government or themselves because, at back of it all, they acknowledge the sovereignty of someone greater. 

In one of the most poignant moments in the series, the Ingalls family bow their heads over their Christmas meal, which is 6 months late due to a freak season of blizzards which has kept an entire community in a desperate and harrowing condition of freezing and starvation for almost half a year (The Long Winter). 

What words does Pa choose to grace this meal? "We thank Thee for Thy bounty."

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post! And it's lovely to see you blogging again :).

    Pioneer Girl sounds fascinating. I haven't touched the Little House books for years owing to overdoses of them as a child (let's just say that Laura Ingalls is to pioneering, entrepreneurial hardihood what Elsie Dinsmore is to sweetness and piety). But I'm glad you enjoyed them and one day I'll no doubt come back to them with adult eyes and a better appreciation ;).