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.
Fortnightly Book, March 29
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