Saturday, September 29, 2012

Songs of the Free and the Brave

A new look at The Little House Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
If Wilder's pioneer families are resourceful, government is depicted as meddling and incompetent—a contrast that emphasizes the importance of providing for oneself. Indeed, Washington's bungling is blamed for the Ingallses' forced departure from Indian Territory in "Little House on the Prairie," and in "The Long Winter" a family friend denounces politicians who "tax the lining out'n a man's pockets" and "take pleasure a-prying into a man's affairs." Fear of debt hangs over these stories like a dark cloud; to be "beholden" to anyone is a mark of shame. The only respectable path to subsistence—let alone comfort—is hard work. "Neither [my parents] nor their neighbors begged for help," Wilder explained in a 1937 speech. "No other person, nor the government, owed them a living."

But no man in Wilder's stories is an island. When people fall on desperate times—and they do constantly—Wilder's pioneers exhibit one of those other "values of life": "helpfulness." There is a sacred code of neighborliness, and Wilder's heroes are those who forgo their own safety to the benefit of others. In "The Long Winter," for instance, Almanzo and a friend make a near-suicidal trip to find wheat for the starving residents of De Smet. In "On the Banks of Plum Creek," a prairie fire threatens to destroy the family's home. Knowing Pa is away, a neighbor, Mr. Nelson, rides to the farm to help Ma, beating back the fire with wet sacks. After he leaves, Ma remarks: "There is nothing in the world so good as good neighbours."

Wilder told these stories because she thought New Deal-era America needed the pioneers' "old-fashioned character values . . . to help us over the rough places." These values are timeless and highly relevant today, when questions of dependency and self-reliance have become urgent in American political life. (Read entire post.)

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