Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Little Libertarian on the Prairie

Sometimes when you come back as an adult to a story you read as a child, you find whole levels to it that slipped entirely past you before. One of the things that has struck me as we've been reading the Little House books to the girls (they're still on the young side, but how can one resist a series about lots of sisters given our family composition) is the grounding in a Christian yet very libertarian view of the world and our place in it.

Laura Ingalls-Wilder's daughter Rose Wilder-Lane was an prominent spokesman of the Libertarian movement in the '30s and '40s, and provided (though to what extent it's unclear) a certain amount of guidance and editing to her mother as she wrote the Little House books.

This struck me with particular force last week when (with a bit of free time during the ice storm) I re-read The Long Winter. Near the beginning (in late summer), Laura and Pa come upon a muskrat nest, and Pa, noting that he's never seen such a thickly built muskrat nest, says that there must be a hard winter coming: animals like muskrats always know.

How do they know, asks the 14-year-old Laura.

I suppose God must tell them somehow, is Pa's reply.

If God tells the muskrats so they can keep safe during the winter, why doesn't he tell people, Laura asks.

Pa's explanation is that people are free and independent. They can build any kind of house they want. And so if they build a house that can't withstand the winter, it's their own responsibility. The muskrat, on the other hand, has no choice in how to build his house. Muskrats don't have freedom, and so they need God to tell them if they need a warmer house that year.

This kind of thought about free will and personal responsibility is sprinkled plentifully (though moderately subtly) throughout the Little House books. Not bad reading for bringing up young conservative Americans, and not (I think) out of an explicit desire to evangelize the young to a point of view so much as because the books are a good distillation of a very freedom and independence oriented period in our history.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

I always loved the Little House books. The only books I may have read more times when I was young are the Chronicles of Narnia. The Long Winter in particular was a favorite. I was surprised to learn that children's lit scholars had some nasty things to say about the Little House books and "gender indoctrination" or some such nonsense. Yeah, 'cause they taught me to be domestic! But I think you may have found the root of that paltry attack! I enjoyed this post. I always think back to the Long Winter when I think about the way seasons cycle--how one winter is mild and the next more severe, even in Texas! ;) There have been occasions when something from the Little House books allowed for a teaching moment with my son. Alas! He is too old to consider reading the books himself. He was interested once, but we missed the moment. Now he is too firmly is "boy" mode, whatever that means, and won't consider reading books about girls. *sigh* I just ordered the whole set from Scholastic because my childhood copies fell apart years ago!

MrsDarwin said...

We definitely need a new set of the Little House books, to replace the dessicated set that currently graces our bookshelf.

Perhaps your son might be willing to read "Farmer Boy" first? No one can accuse it of being a "girly book". :) We listened to it on CD while driving across country, and our three- and four-year-old daughters found it fairly engaging. As for me, I was glad I don't have to be a farm wife 150 years ago -- I don't know if I'd be up to it.

cliff said...

interesting how your reading is eing influenced by your unusual winter... what are your thoughts on "global warming"?

Anonymous said...

Interesting!
I have collected some other books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I wonder to what extent the libertarian perspective is included there?
Also, it may not necessarily be the daughter influencing the mother, but "Pa" influencing "Laura" who then influenced Rose....

Anonymous said...

I've suggested that he read Farmer Boy first. We'll see! :)

Big Tex said...

I'd hardly call that an unusual winter... ice storms hit Texas more often than most people think.

Darwin said...

Lit Chic,
Dunno if it will carry any weight with your son, but I actually read the Little House books (mostly the later ones) quite a few times in my teens. And considering my other interests included anything written about just about any war, model rockets, firearms and boy scouting, I don't think we can chalk this up to effeminacy... ;-)

Cliff,
http://darwincatholic.blogspot.com/2006/06/more-panic-than-heat-gore-on-global.html

Barb,
True enough. I'm also curious to read a couple books by Rose which apparently cover some of the story elements of the Little House books, but more loosely and from an adult perspective. Let the Hurricane Roar aka Young Pioneers apparently tells some of the same stories from the earlier Little House books but from the parent's POV. And Free Land fictionalizes Laura and Almanzo's first four years. I gather both outsold the actual Little House books originally, but have since fallen in to near total obscurity.

CMinor said...

I recently read a Laura biog (will have to look up the title; sorry--in which this issue was discussed. While the young Rose turned away from her upbringing for a time and dabbled in Marxism, it seems she came back to it in midlife. The impression I got was that rugged individualism and whatever you'd call pre-libertarianism were deeply ingrained in both her parents. They initially opposed involvement in WWI, (although they supported the war effort wholeheartedly once we were in it) and didn't think much of many of FDR's policies.

I was amused to read of an incident between the elderly (and normally low-key)Almanzo Wilder and a Dept. of Agriculture inspector during WWII. In order to enforce the wartime price controls, farmers were prohibited from raising more than certain amounts of some crops. Almanzo was pretty much retired from farming at the time but kept a couple of acres for his own use, and the inspector approached him to remind him that he was prohibited from growing more than X amount of crop Y. Almanzo declared that "he'd grow what he d--- well pleased on his own d--- farm" and informed the fellow that he was going back to the house for his gun and would use it on him were he still on the property on his (Almanzo's) return.

I'll check back in when I've located the title of that book.

CMinor said...

Found it--it's Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder by John Miller.

Anonymous said...

I think my son is afraid it'll be like Little Women. (Different genre--I told him not to read that one!) There's a lot of stuff to learn in Big Woods about making bullets & stuff!!

I am a bit curious about how this American "rugged individualism" jives with Catholicism, though it feels a bit sly for me to bring it up. It's something I've been thinking about a lot since becoming Catholic; the two haven't been presented as being compatible in a lot of the books I've read... I'm probably missing something, but perhaps you know what I mean?

DMinor said...

Lit Chic,
Perhaps it depends on the definition of "rugged individualism." While the Ingalls went their own course many times, there are incidents in the books where they survived only with the help of neighbors (Fever and Ague), or helped neighbors. C tells me that during the actual "Long Winter," the Ingalls had a young couple with a baby staying with them. The "rugged individualism" that leaves the unfortunate by the side of the road has no place in Catholicism, or for that matter, Christianity.

MrsDarwin said...

D,
That's really interesting that the Ingalls had a family with them during the Long Winter. I wonder why that fact didn't make it into the book? Now I'm going to have to find that biography that C mentioned.

And you're right that the Ingalls didn't practice strict rugged individualism. I recall that in The First Four Years, Laura and Almanzo had a string of bad luck and Laura had to stay with her family for a bit while recovering from an illness. My impression is that Pa and Ma were willing to help the less fortunate, but didn't have any patience with irresponsible or lazy personal behavior.

Lit-Chic,
Yeah, I can't see a red-blooded young male really getting a kick out of Little Women -- and I say this as one who has read (or at least listened to an abridged version) just a few weeks ago. Funny to think that Little Women is set in about the same time period as Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy. Jo was old enough to have written some of the pieces in the literary magazines that Ma and the girls read, though I don't think Ma would have any truck with romantic twaddle Jo was turning out.

Anonymous said...

In the book Long Winter, the Ingalls family only survives because "young Wilder" and another local boy go after the crop of wheat, and then when the store owner tries to sell it to the hungry town at a hefty profit (supply and demand, folks!) they get angry and convince him to sell it at a more reasonable price, wherupon, he sells it at cost.

In the book, they have a family stay with them the first, mild, winter in Dakota Territory, but then the family moves out to their claim and stay there the whole long winter.

--mandamum

Anonymous said...

We've been listening to the CDs a lot (!) here, as a way to have "quiet time" while the baby naps, so I can get a little quiet paperwork done too.

--mandamum

CMinor said...

MrsD, I think you're probably spot on about Pa and Ma Ingalls' attitude. Mandamum is right, of course, about the couple who stayed with the Ingalls on Silver Lake (I had forgotten;) the Miller Book mentions them taking in another couple who had fallen on hard times during the Long Winter. I got the impression that Wilder left them out of the book partly because there ended up being some strain between the families and partly because she wanted to focus on the Ingalls family's struggle to keep body and soul together and felt the extra folks would clutter up the story. Wilder actually did quite a bit of adapting in her stories in order to create good fiction and perhaps at times for personal reasons. Some characters are composites of two or more people she knew and she completely left out of the books a period of a couple of years the family spent in Iowa and during which a baby brother was born and died.