Wednesday, September 26, 2012

"There is nothing in the world so good as good neighbours."

The Library of America has just published The Little House Books, all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books in two volumes. I don't believe I ever read most of them but I do recall reading Little House in the Big Woods—the one about the family's time in Wisconsin—in grade school. I probably should read them. Everyone seems to think they are good and the Ingalls' family experiences seem very like those my Skaggs and Whitney ancestors had during the same times.

From Meghan Clyne's review of the new collection:
The fictionalized account of a girl's transformation into a young woman is also the story of America's growth and maturation. Wilder's stories for children document the Westward Expansion and explore surprisingly grown-up themes—the nature of self-government, the responsibilities that go along with freedom and what it means to be an American.

Essential to understanding those themes is the fact that Wilder wrote the "Little House" books during the Depression and New Deal, at a time when she saw the nation sliding into an unhealthy dependency on government. In addition to educating American children about a crucial period of their history, Wilder wanted to show them a freer way of life. "Self reliance," she explained in a speech in the winter of 1935-36, is one of the "values of life" that "run[s] through all the stories, like a golden thread." ....


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." .... [more]
Book Review: The Little House Books - WSJ.com