Mari Ness (mariness) wrote,
Mari Ness

Nostalgia, libertarianism and the Little House books

Well, since I brought it up...some chatter about Rose Wilder Lane and the Little House books.


Some time ago I happened to be reading some biography or other of Agatha Christie that noted that strong nostalgia for childhood memories often masks deep, unspoken anger. (If I recall correctly this is also true for Collette.) In Christie's case, this anger was probably rooted in the unexpectedly early and tragic death of her father when she was only 11, and the resulting negative economic effects on her family. But reading it, my mind flashed, not so much to Christie, but to that most nostalgic work of American children's literature: The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

If you were a girl in America, you probably read all eight books, and some of you may have watched the TV show. (I mostly missed the show, since we lived in Italy when the show initially came on, and when we returned to the States I was indignant to see all of the changes that had been made to some of my favorite books, what with Laura suddenly having a brother and this annoying Nancy person and what was with Mrs Oleson? Some years later I caught an episode and realized that on top of all this, it was just an utterly terrible show, so I'm glad that my fury saved hours of my life. Of course, since I spent that television time watching Thundercats instead we could have a very legitimate debate of just how much of my life was saved, but, moving on.) Reading the books now, as an adult, the most remarkable thing is seeing them for what they are: a celebration of financial failure, and a fierce indictment of the federal government as the source of all evils.

Given the books' beloved status as pure Americana, and the scenes that merrily celebrate the Fourth of July and praise the Declaration of Independence (if not the Constitution) this can be shocking. But Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, were fiercely against New Deal policies, which they saw as supporting industry over agriculture, preventing farmers from doing what they wanted to on their own property, and providing handouts to those who did not deserve it. They shaped the last six books in the series into subtle rants against the New Deal.

When does Pa get into trouble? Whenever he chooses to invest in newfangled equipment, borrowing the money for it, or when he chooses to build a house with "boughten" (in other words, manufactured) planks instead of logs or dirt, or, most critically, whenever the government interferes with him. One ongoing theme of the series is that the family would have been prosperous if only the mean old U.S. government had not forced them out of their family farm in Kansas (or Oklahoma) – even though, as the text makes clear, they were in fact squatters on the land, with no title to it whatsoever. The theme also nicely ignores the fact that the Ingalls could not have been in Oklahoma (or Kansas, where the farm was probably actually located) if the U.S. government had not been running Native Americans out of Oklahoma (and Kansas) to begin with. And that the farm the Ingalls did eventually win and create in North Dakota was made possible only by the U.S. government's removal of Native Americans from the Dakotas.

But even leaving aside the Native American question for a moment, what is remarkable in the books is just how much of an economic failure Pa really was.

For years, I missed this, primarily because for whatever reason, I never realized that the Little House books are set in a time after Little Women (who are, that text explains, poor), and about ten to twenty years before the settings of Anne of Green Gables (who is, as that text explains, poor) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (who does go to live with wealthier aunts); and about twenty to thirty before the Betsy-Tacy books, which take place in the same state as one book(Minnesota), but sound as if they are from an entirely different world.

The Betsy-Tacy books may not be a fair comparison, since they occur later and talk about distinctly middle class characters. But let's look at the other cases, particularly Little Women:

Little Women: The two older March girls start working at the ages of 15 and 17, as a companion and teacher. The girls all own multiple dresses (that they aren't happy with, but moving on) made of manufactured fabric; they own several dolls, a piano (admittedly an old and battered one), several books; they live in a house with at least three stories and several rooms, where the four girls share a bedroom; they have access to paper and ink; and they eat a varied diet with plenty of meat and vegetables. Oh, and they have a servant. Everyone agrees that they are remarkably poor especially since they can't have any presents on Christmas, even though they each receive a dollar. They are very concerned about medical bills with poor little Beth, and about the reality that they cannot have all of the nice things their friends have. They keep their house.

Anne of Green Gables: Anne starts working at the age of 16, as a teacher, after she has gone to the local "college" (more a high school.) Although an orphan, she has a room of her own; Marilla gives her those infamous three ugly dresses and she gets more as the series continues; the household has plenty of books and lamps; she eats a varied diet with plenty of meat and vegetables. There is a hired boy who helps out with the farm and doesn't come into the story much. They keep their house. Everyone agrees that they are poor (which is why Marilla and Matthew were originally trying to find a cheap boy orphan.)

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm: Rebecca's mother against all odds keeps her farm despite its ongoing mortgage issues (an ongoing plot point); Rebecca and her siblings are well dressed; everyone eats well. Everyone agrees that Rebecca is very poor which is why she has to go live with her aunts.

(19th and early 20th century adult literature obviously contains several more examples than this, but I'm focusing on children's literature for comparative purposes.)

Now, let's look at the Little House books:

Over and over, Pa Ingalls loses his houses. Presented as part of his wanderlust, a closer look shows that this is because he is unable to get enough food in Wisconsin as forests are overtaken by farms and hunting opportunities vanish; he is forced off the land in Kansas; he goes bankrupt in Minnesota – more than once. (In Plum Creek he is forced to walk 300 miles to find a job so his family can eat; in the next book he has lost the house.)

The houses he builds in are, even for the period, remarkably small and primitive. For the most part, the entire family lives in one tiny room; in Plum Creek they are living in a hole in the ground which is not nearly as nice as a hobbit hole; reading between the lines shows that the family hated it so much that they were willing to take on a desperate and major debt to build a tiny wood frame house.

It becomes clear that, unless they borrow money, this family cannot afford manufactured products even as the Industrial Revolution is merrily going on. Pa makes his own bullets, locks, furniture, cups, and plates, and digs his own wells. It's all presented as a marvelous model and even triumph of self-reliance, but again, keep in mind that when you are reading about the wonderfully primitive log cabin life of the Ingalls family, it's the 1870s, with trains, bicycles, fine china, newspapers, cheaply mass produced books, candy, subways, and so on. The truth is, the family is so desperately poor that in Plum Creek, the girls do not even dare to ask for a penny to buy needed school supplies. In that same book, Pa suffers because he cannot buy boots, and only Mary gets a (single) new pair of shoes (not snow boots.)

For books seemingly obsessed with food (especially in Farmer's Boy - you get the impression that what Almanzo Wilder mostly remembered from childhood was food), after Little House in the Big Woods, their diet is beyond terrible until Silver Lake, where they feed off supplies left by the surveyors. Just a few years later, they are almost starving. So are others in the town, since the residents were depending upon trains to arrive from the East bearing food, but, as Wilder also writes, several people in the town – including the man who she would later marry – had stocked up on a grain and other foods as the harshness of the winter became apparent. Charles Ingalls did not, because he could not afford to. We read that for the most part, the Ingalls survived on cheap corn meal, supplemented by occasional bits of "salt pork" and hunting. Wilder clarifies that they had to leave their cabin in the Big Woods because the hunting was poor; apparently, their small farm did not provide enough other food. Every single time they encounter abundant food, Wilder writes about it in awe. She also writes about the comparative childhood abundance of her husband in awe, even though it is clear that his family was none too wealthy either - note that his mother has to spin and weave her own cloth for clothing.

Remember, for a moment, that wonderful scene in Little House on the Prairie, where Mr. Edwards meets Santa Claus. (It was my all time favorite bit in the book.) It's wonderful, funny, heartwarming – and then take a look at the presents, and realize how awestruck the girls are over a tin cup, a penny, and a single cookie. Not just grateful, awestruck. Wilder even begs readers to imagine just how marvelous getting all of this for yourself for a present was.

Laura has only one doll, something so precious that its temporary loss becomes a huge tragedy. Partly, of course, she loves the doll, but it's clear as well that this is her only toy. (Before getting the rag doll, she plays with a corn cob.)

And in the books, she begins to work, for pay, at the age of 13. (In real life she began working at the age of 11 in a hotel.) This was not a part time job to earn spending money or gain real world experience; this begins as full time work in a makeshirt hotel for the frequently drunken men who are passing through on their way further west; she later works long, poorly paid hours as a seamstress despite an admitted hatred for sewing. Why all the work? So that she can send a sister, blinded through illness, to college, and so the family can eat. It's not stated in the books, but you somewhat have to wonder how much of Mary's illness and resulting blindness was the result of poverty and poor nutrition, and how much the fiercely intelligent adult Laura resented that her own educational opportunities (she never graduated high school, although she did work as a teacher) were subsumed for her sister. After all, another sister, Carrie, had managed to become a journalist, and had apparently not faced the same financial burdens. (Although apparently the youngest sister, Grace, ended up on welfare, interesting given the anti-government rants in the books and the insistence that only self reliance and living off the grid can result in financial security.)

There is no question that the women in Little Women, Anne of Green Gables and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm are doing considerable physical labor, especially with food preparation (which was no joke before refrigeration) and that, even beyond that, they are expected to get jobs to help the family finances, at least until they marry. (Except for Jo, who merrily keeps up with her career after marriage. Another reason to like Jo.) And poverty, of course, can be a relative term.
But even with this relativity, the Ingalls are dirt, dirt poor.

And this, incidentally is in a book where the actual poverty of the Ingalls was frequently softened.

It's quite possible, therefore, that the nostalgic tone of the Little House books is motivated by anger: Laura's anger that her father's decisions kept her in a life of abject poverty and kept her from getting education for a better career, leading to further poverty; the anger of her daughter (who helped edit and possibly rewrite the books) that this had in turn led to her own childhood poverty and poor teeth; the realization by her daughter that if Laura had only been able to finish school and become a writer and journalist, like her younger sister and daughter, the family might not have been quite so poor* and much of her childhood pain could have been avoided. (Contrary to current legends, women in the 19th and early 20th century did work outside the home and could make money out of it, although their career opportunities were limited. Rose Wilder Lane was one of those women, earning enough money from journalism to travel widely and build her parents a better house.) What anger the Little House books clearly display (aside from Laura's occasional flashes of temper) is limited to fury at the government and government incompetence, and occasional glimpses of Laura's deep envy of the toys and food and fun that other children her age enjoyed.

And in turn, it's possible that that fury contributed to the general distrust of government shared by so many women** today. I don't mean to suggest that the Little House books are the only or even a major cause (Watergate leaps to mind) but when you read childhood books that tell you that the U.S. government is the source of your problems, it's bound to make some sort of impression.

*To be fair, the Wilders' poverty came from other factors, primarily an illness, discussed in The First Four Years, that left Almanzo partially paralyzed and unable to work his homestead and tree claim, forcing the family to head first to Florida and then to the Ozarks, where they spent several painful years trying to develop a family farm, a task made more difficult by Almanzo's paralysis.

** I say women because although I do know some guys who have confessed to reading and enjoying the Little House books, for the most part the books are marketed to little girls.
Tags: anne of green gables, laura ingalls wilder, little house, little women, nostalgia, poverty, rebecca of sunnybrook farm, rose wilder lane

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