The values vision set forth by the Little House books is one worth showing our children. But, as adults who live in the long shadow of the little house, we should probably also know something about the trajectory of the stories. This might spare us from unduly romanticizing small living on the big prairie of modernity. And, it might help us raise the right questions about the Little House series (Philippians 1:9-11).
I especially wonder about a deficient doctrine of the church, and, “yes,” I remember that Ma was excited to go to church.
Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.
The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. . .
So, begins Little House in the Big Woods. I listened to my mother read it, plowed through it myself in my elementary years (though I liked Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone better), and have read it to children. I’ve recommended it as a pastor. Still do.
(Sadly, I watched the television series in which Melissa Gilbert played Laura and Little Joe played Pa. I view any admission of having watched television as a sad one).
Given my investment in the Little House series, I was interested to read Judith Thurman’s article, “Wilder Women: The Mother and Daughter Behind the Little House stories,” in The New Yorker. The article focuses on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s complex relationship with her daughter Rose. I found myself reflecting on the influence of the Little House books on evangelicals.
Here is my question. Those of us who were spoon fed the Little House books could easily list virtues the books teach: the importance of the traditional family, loving discipline, hard work, and perseverance. But, I wonder how much we have ever critiqued the series. How explicit is the Gospel, for instance? What do we have to say about the restlessness of Pa? How developed is the doctrine of the church in the series? And, what part does a deficient doctrine of the church play in the direction things took for Laura’s daughter? If we tell our children the Ingalls saga, should we also tell our children the Wilder saga of Rose?
Whether or not you interact with my question. Judith Thurman’s essay, “Wilder Women,” is worth reading. It would be best to click through on that link. But, if you insist on excerpts, it begins:
In April of 1932, an unlikely literary débutante published her first book. Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder was a matron of sixty-five, neat and tiny—about four feet eleven—who was known as Bessie to her husband, Almanzo, and as Mama Bess to her daughter, Rose. The family lived at Rocky Ridge, a farm in the Ozarks, near Mansfield, Missouri, where Wilder raised chickens and tended an apple orchard. She also enjoyed meetings of her embroidery circle, and of the Justamere Club, a study group that she helped found. Readers of The Missouri Ruralist knew her as Mrs. A. J. Wilder, the author of a biweekly column. Her sensible opinions on housekeeping, marriage, husbandry, country life, and, more rarely, on politics and patriotism were expressed in a plain style, with an occasional ecstatic flourish inspired by her love for “the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.” A work ethic inherited from her Puritan forebears, which exalted labor and self-improvement not merely for their material rewards but as moral values, was, she believed, the key to happiness. Mrs. Wilder, however, wasn’t entirely happy with her part-time career, or with her obscurity. In 1930, she sat down with a supply of sharpened pencils—she didn’t type—to write something more ambitious: an autobiography.
Regarding Laura’s daughter Rose:
The transformation of a barefoot Cinderella from the Ozarks into a stylish cosmopolite who acquired several languages, enjoyed smoking and fornication, and dined at La Rotonde when she wasn’t motoring around Europe in her Model T is, like the Little House books themselves, an American saga. Rose’s published writing was sensationalist, if not trashy, but her letters and her conversation were prized for their acerbic sophistication by a diverse circle of friends which included Dorothy Thompson, a leading journalist of the day; Floyd Dell, the editor, with Max Eastman, of The Masses; Ahmet Zogu, who became King Zog of Albania; and Herbert Hoover, despite the fact that he had apparently tried to suppress an embarrassing hagiography that Rose and a collaborator had cobbled together in 1920.
Last June, Anita Clair Fellman, a professor emerita of history at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Virginia, published “Little House, Long Shadow,” a survey of the Wilders’ “core” beliefs, and of their influence on American political culture. Two streams of conservatism, she argues—not in themselves inherently compatible—converge in the series. One is Lane’s libertarianism, and the other is Wilder’s image of a poster family for Republican “value voters”: a devoted couple of Christian patriots and their unspoiled children; the father a heroic provider and benign disciplinarian, the mother a pious homemaker and an example of feminine self-sacrifice. (In that respect, Rose considered herself an abject failure. “My life has been arid and sterile,” she wrote, “because I have been a human being instead of a woman.”)
Fellman concludes, “The popularity of the Little House books . . . helped create a constituency for politicians like Reagan who sought to unsettle the so-called liberal consensus established by New Deal politics.” Considering the outcome of the November election, and the present debacle of laissez-faire capitalism, that popularity may have peaked. On the other hand, it may not have. Hard times whet the appetite for survival stories.
Click here to read the whole thing.