Little House On The Fountainhead?

Illustration for article titled Little House On The Fountainhead?

The beloved Little House books have sold sixty million copies worldwide. It would suck if they turned out to be Libertarian propaganda.


When I was in second grade, we studied the "Little House" books. I don't mean that we read them, although we did; rather, the entire year's curriculum was centered around the series, just as first grade's had been "birds" and third grade would be spent studying the local native American tribes who'd lived where we now ate graham crackers and learned multiplication. Even twenty years ago, the "Little House" curriculum was considered old-fashioned, and after the veteran teacher's retirement, both classes would adopt the "Dinosaurs" lesson plan already in effect across the hall. But I loved it. We sewed sunbonnets and cooked green pumpkin pie. While our teacher read the books aloud, we took turns passing around the antique coffee grinder like the one Ma used in the stories.

Even then, I hated the soppy Michael Landon TV series, with its sickly 70s colors and lurid plotlines. That wasn't what Mr. Edwards looked like! And Pa certainly didn't have feathered hair. For that matter, it seemed strange that the show should be based on the grim Little House on the Prairie which, despite its musical name and heightened drama, had nothing, to my mind, on the domestic details of Little House in the Big Woods, On the Banks of Plum Creek, and Farmer Boy.


According to a piece in the New Yorker by the superb biographer Judith Thurman, though, this may have been a provident choice; whether Landon knew it or not, the hardships of 'Prairie' were a far more accurate reflection of Laura Ingalls Wilder's later life. And that of her daughter and co-writer was hardly more romantic. As Thurman tells it,

The Wilders' life on a shrinking frontier was considerably bleaker than even the Ingallses' had been. The first decade of their marriage, as Laura later recalled, was a period of almost unrelieved calamity and failure. Their infant son died. Drought and hail destroyed their crops, and they struggled to pay the interest on their heavily mortgaged house and equipment. Then the house burned down. Almanzo had a stroke, brought on by diphtheria, and he never fully recovered from the paralysis. Virtually destitute, they embarked on a series of futile peregrinations, by train and wagon, across the Midwest, with a wretched interlude on the Florida Panhandle. In 1894, they were uprooted by one of the worst depressions in American history, and headed for the Ozarks, which had been touted by promoters as yet another promised land. They struggled for years to eke out a living from the rocky soil.

By the time Laura wrote her first memoir, they were hard up, supported by daughter Rose, "a frumpish, middle-aged divorcée, who was tormented by rotten teeth and suffered from bouts of suicidal depression" and made a living as a "hack writer." Rose's involvement - and maybe authorship - of the books is pretty much acknowledged nowadays, even as it's understood that her mother would have provided the detail that contributes so much of the series' richness. Rose provided narrative structure, polished the writing, embellished when necessary. But it was surely understood, even by Rose herself, that the involvement of a jaded urban sophisticate wouldn't appeal as much to Depression-era America as the memoir of a real pioneer woman.

Indeed, the series is nothing if not a paeon to old-time competence and thrift. Thurman says of the long-suffering Ma,

She made all their clothes and linens, recycling the scraps for her patchwork quilts. She baked the bread, churned the butter, blacked the stove, and restuffed the pallets that they slept on with fresh hay. Even when it was twenty below, she did the washing for six people, pressing with heavy flatirons laundry that had frozen stiff. When her husband was away on some urgent survival mission (Laura recounted how he once walked three hundred miles to find work as a field hand), she fetched the wood and pitched feed to the horses, then waited up for his uncertain return, knitting in her rocker. Informed summarily that she would be packing up, yet again, to start over in a new wilderness, she protested feebly but acquiesced.


This emphasis on self-sufficiency may not have been a coincidence: by the time she collaborated on Little House, Rose had already become fiercely political, and would come to be known as one of the "founding mothers" of the Libertarian movement. Infuriated by what she saw as the infantilization of the New Deal, Rose was surely glad to have such a bully pulpit for the spread of her message, organically housed in the context of another era's privations. But although she was considered suspect enough to be on the FBI's radar, no one seems to have taken any exception to the books.

So, does the series promote the agenda? I wouldn't say so. And frankly put, here's why: even as a child, I thought Pa was something of a crackpot. At first glance, sure, Ma's the disciplinarian and Pa's the fun-time, fiddling parent. Certainly they share the brunt of the hard work. But by, say, By the Shores of Silver Lake, you start wondering, why can't he just keep still? Sure, the peregrinations are fun, narrative-wise, but is town really all that bad? No one else is moving so often, and while one's certainly willing to believe that any pioneer faced a barrage of challenges, it becomes pretty clear that this family isn't typical. If Rose sought to portray her grandfather as an independent spirit who refused to be beholden to the government (who kicks them off the prairie) or the system, she succeeds. She probably viewed this as heroic; to many readers, it feels irrational and selfish. And while the article points out that the books also served to further the interests of Reagan and his ilk, I think he must not have read the books his beloved TV show was based on. In the show, the Ingalls family lives in town, Pa is a pillar of stability who takes in random orphans, and they are indeed a model of family values. In fact, the dynamic is complex, their lives challenging, and the narrative is fraught with tensions. I'd be hesitant to append my political philosophy to it - but I'd certainly read it to my kids.


Wilder Women[New Yorker]

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I reserve judgment about the libertarian agenda, but Little House on the Prairie definitely contributed to my body issues.

Does anyone remember the part where the Aunts and Ma were talking about how Pa could span Ma's waist with his hands when they were first married? Yeah. I couldn't even do that as a 7 year old and held the image as the barometer for a perfect body shape for years.

I guess Ma was like that before all the goose fat and venison...