Saturday, August 10, 2013

Going Galt On The Prairie

So I've been reading Little House, Long Shadow, by Anita Clair Fellman, ever since it got mentioned over on Histioriann's Blog (See here), which is intriguing me to such a degree that I am considering pitching a class to our university, Major Authors: Laura Ingalls Wilder.

All we need to justify one of these classes is to make the argument that an author had a major influence on American or world literature, and Fellman is making that argument in her text.

Contrariwise, I could do it as a Special Topics class.


That's not what this post is about.  As I'm reading, I'm scrounging up all the books and articles that Fellman references, or as many of them as I can find, via my limited venues (we have shiny new libraries here at our working class university and our ex-factory town, but not so many books or journals). Recently I was pleased to find that our public library had a copy of Let the Hurricane Roar, the novel which Rose Wilder Lane wrote, based on stories she gleaned (borrowed) out of her mother's manuscript Pioneer Girl.

Published in 1932, Lane's novel is a reactionary rejection of Roosevelt's New Deal, much more nakedly so than The Little House Books, though it is treading very much the same ground.  Its main characters even have Ma and Pa's names -- Charles and Caroline -- and their dug-out cabin is on (Wild) Plum Creek; Charles goes into debt in anticipation of a bumper wheat crop which -- yes -- is destroyed by grasshoppers; and the nearest neighbors are Swedes, who speak no English.

But Lane speaks through Caroline's point of view, and she has one message to make clear, which she spends the book banging like a drum.

(This is not to say the book is not enjoyable -- it is.  As most of us know by now, Lane and Wilder created the Little House books together; reading Let The Hurricane Roar shows two things.  First, Lane had plenty of talent as a writer.  Second, Wilder must have had plenty as well.  This book is not half the book her mother's were.)

Early in the story, as Charles and Caroline set out for the West -- alone, traveling all alone by themselves in a wagon, across the prairie -- Lane makes the point of telling us that whenever they need food, Charles shoots game, and whenever they need sugar or flour or tea they stop at a town, and he gets a job and works until he's earned enough to buy it for them.

(Not like those slackers in 1930, who expect soup kitchens and the dole!)

Then he gets a job driving for the railroad, and Caroline keeps house in a sod shanty he builds for her, by himself, in two days.  She doesn't like the women in town, who have cut their hair short and don't wear corsets, and run the cookhouse, "coarse, blowzy women," so she stays away from them.

At the end of the summer, the working men on the railroad are bitter, because their wages have all gone back to the company store.  There are riots.  "Men were killed."

(I love that passive verb.)

"But Caroline knew Charles could take care of himself.  He had earned enough money for the winter's supplies and for tools and seed."

How is that Charles has managed to earn money above what they need to live on, while the other workers have not?

Well, Lane elides right past that point, which is basically how she's going to handle every sticky point we encounter.

For instance: Caroline is pregnant.  When Mrs. Baker, the woman who runs the cookhouse, finds that Charles intends to take his pregnant 16 year old wife off to winter all alone on the prairie, she tells him he's crazy.

"That child, in her condition? You want to kill her?"

Caroline, realizing they'll lose the land if they go East at this point, rejects Mrs. Baker's intervention firmly.  After all, Mrs. Baker is a floozy who doesn't even wear corsets.  And that short hair. Tsk.

Also, obviously they don't need doctors.  "Childbirth is natural," Caroline says firmly.

So off they go.  And of course despite the blizzards and the wolves and the locusts and the outlaws and Charles having to go East to get work, everything is fine.

Caroline does not die in childbirth.

No outlaw finds her alone in her cabin while Charles is gone for a year and rapes or kills her and her infant son. (Luckily she has a gun, y'all!)

She doesn't freeze or starve.

Charles isn't lost trying to find his way home across the prairie in a blizzard.

And they never need anyone's help -- or, well, no help they don't pay for.

For instance: Caroline gives the nice cowboy who gives her a lift home from town a dollar for the ride.  And she lets Mr. Svenson cut her hay for "shares" in payment for taking her letter to town.  And so on.

And, in fact, the one time that Caroline turns to the community for help, she receives a nightmare of rejection.

This is toward the end of the book: after the grasshoppers, after Charles has gone East to find work, after  she learns that her Swedish neighbors are not "real" Americans (bitterly disappointed because the country won't feed them with a spoon, as Lane puts it, they are giving up and going East to be "hired men," the losers).

She goes to town, thinking she will board with someone.  Everyone treats her -- well -- like a customer.  Like someone trying to rent a room.

Somehow she is shocked by this.  Though I can't think why.  She has no community with these people -- she's never even met them.  Why should they treat her like part of their community?

She retreats to her dugout and survives the winter on grit and backbone, like a good Ayn Rand heroine.

Charles shows up in the nick of time, for a heart-warming closing scene, complete with the baby popping out of the woodbox, little curl so cute on his forehead.

                                                          ****   ******    ******

The thing is, this is a nice Randian fantasy, but it is fantasy.

In fact, those farmers who went out to the territories went in groups, in wagon trains, for obvious reasons.

In fact, farms were seldom far from towns, and again for obvious reasons; and were dependent on the towns.

In fact, farm houses were built close to other houses, again, for obvious reasons. (Fellman speaks of how four farm families would locate their houses at the adjacent corners of their quarter sections, in order to be near one another.)

In fact, farmers were a close-knit community, working together to break the land, to raise their houses and barns, to care for their animals and each other.  No one "did it alone" except lunatics, crazy hermits living up in the woods. Those were the people you heard tell about.

In fact, as Mrs. Baker made clear, only a fool would take his pregnant 16 year old wife off alone to winter on the prairie. In fact, without a midwife or a doctor to help, a woman stood a good chance of dying in childbirth. (Hell, even with the midwife.)

But Rose Wilder Lane wasn't writing history; she was writing a myth: a story she wanted, in 1932, to get us to believe, which was the myth of the independent American, pulling himself up by his bootstraps, who didn't need anyone's help, much less the government's, who would only be lured off the true path, and weakened, and destroyed, by taking that help.

That's the smoke she's selling in this story; and in the Little House books too; and the audience loved it, then as now.  This book was well received at the time; and it's still on the shelf at my hometown library.

Looks pretty well read, too.

The problem with the story she was selling was the country she was selling it to.  Like our country now, it was seriously broken.  The Great Depression was really just getting started; the New Deal, which would dig us out and keep us out (until the GOP broke the country again), was also just getting started.

If Lane and her fellow Libertarians could get enough people to believe that not only shouldn't you and your community work together, but y'all couldn't work together, they could crush that new world under their heels properly.

And -- to give them credit -- they managed the task, though it did take them some time.

Update:  Something I meant to mention & forgot: Indians.  In Wilder's books, the treatment of American Indians is at times problematic. (Fellman's book deals with this in some detail.)  Lane's novel erases them. If there is any mention of Indians at all in the novel, I missed it. Caroline worries about outlaws and claim jumpers, wolves and the cold; Lane describes the railroad and the horrible rude people in the town and the bizarre behavior of those foreign Swedes; but Indians?

Not a word.

You would think those Dakota prairies had been as empty of people as the moon.

Update II: See also this article by Christine Woodside at the Boston Globe (via Feministing): "Little Libertarians on the Prairie"


Releeh said...

Nothing like a story about a farmer's wife surviving alone through "grit and backbone" to remind me of the Lawson poem/song "Past Carin'"
A fantastical level of self-reliance isn't good for the psyche!

delagar said...

Good link, Releeh.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I just re-read little house in the big woods a few weeks ago, for the first time since early childhood. I was struck by how engaging it was, but also how abundant the lifestyle seemed. It's interesting to think about that in this context.

Historiann said...

Thanks for the link--glad to hear you're enjoying falling down the Wilder/Lane rabbit hole!

BTW, don't miss The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure. I'm sure students would enjoy the book too, as it's all about questions of audience, public history, and fan fiction (or fan fantasy) too.