Resonance   7 comments

What is your favorite childhood book?

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Hard Question

Initially, this question stopped me in my tracks as I thought “It would be easier to say “what books I didn’t read as a child’ then to say what my favorite book was. I was a voracious reader as a child. My parents were huge readers and I grew up in an environment where long dark winters just encourage indoor activities. My mother wasn’t a crafter and she had a rule – you could watch television, but you’d better be doing something else either with your hands or with your brain while you were doing it.

I read a LOT of books when I was a kid.

Not all the books I read when I was a child (which I’ll define as younger than 14) were “children’s” books. My parents rarely said “You’re too young for that book.” If I wanted to read, they let me read. I literally read hundreds of books between the 2nd grade and the start of high school. The thought of picking a “favorite” seemed incredibly daunting.

Little House … in the Frozen Arctic

But after I got done overwhelming myself with my childhood reading habits, I seriously answered the question. While there were a lot of books that could have been my favorite books as a kid, I loved the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Why?

I grew up on a frontier that was not exactly the post-Civil War Midwest prairie, but there were similarities – the need for self-sufficiency, the small communities, the close-knit families, the small-house elbow-to-elbow living, the life-and-death need for frugality, the isolation. Our television news was days old. Thanksgiving programs ran on Christmas and Christmas in January. The world the Ingalls girls inhabited resonated.

A replica of the Little House in the Big Woods

More, my mother was raised about 150 miles north of De Smet, South Dakota, and she did grow up in very much a similar setting — horses still plowed fields in the 1930s, there was no running water, no electricity and no telephone. The neighbors were miles away. The prairie was so flat you could hear the neighbor strike a match to light his pipe on his front porch a mile away.

I read “Little House on the Prairie” first and then learned there was an entire series, so I went back and read “Little House in the Big Woods” and then worked my way through the series. I read them more than once, these chronicled exploits of the itinerant Ingalls family as they endured blizzards of snow and plagues of grasshoppers, rattling westward in their covered wagon across the wilderness and plains of the upper Midwest in the late 1800s before finally settling in the Dakota Territory. I learned my great-grandparents had lived a similar life when they immigrated from Saskatchewan to North Dakota right about the time Laura Ingalls married Almanzo Wilder.

Growing up, I just loved the stories because there was a family connection of sorts and my mother had some of the same experiences – making candy in the snow with corn syrup instead of maple syrup is one I remember.

Unknown to readers at the time, Wilder secretly received considerable assistance from her only adult child, Rose Wilder Lane. While Wilder was an unknown author when “Little House in the Big Woods” was published, Lane was one of the most famous female writers in the United States, having penned novels, biographies of Charlie Chaplin and Herbert Hoover and short stories for magazines such as Harper’s, Cosmopolitan and Ladies’ Home Journal.

Knowing a good story when she heard one, Lane prodded her mother to put her childhood experiences to paper. Wilder had written pieces for rural newspapers, but her literary experience was limited. Lane knew how to make a manuscript sing and hold chapters together, and she used her contacts in the publishing industry to sell “Little House in the Big Woods.”

It was a serendipitous collaboration of Laura’s memories and Rose’s technical expertise as a writer. Lane not only polished her mother’s prose but infused Wilder’s stoic frontier outlook with the joy and optimism that connected with many readers, including me. The author’s secret collaborator also sanitized Wilder’s real-life experiences for an audience of children, editing out the death of a baby brother and replacing stories of murders on the frontier with images of swimming holes and bonneted girls in dresses skipping through tall grasses and wildflowers.

A Writer’s Character Shines Forth

Years later, as an adult, I was surprised — but not really — to discover not only this collaboration, but the political views that gently infused the books. Like many American farmers, including my grandparents, the Wilders were hit hard by the Great Depression and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Both mother and daughter were deeply dismayed by policies they they saw as Americans’ increasing dependence on the federal government. A life-long Democrat, Wilder grew disenchanted with her party and resented government agents who came to farms like hers and grilled farmers about the amount of acres they were planting. My grandparents (both born the year Rose Wilder Lane was born) had similar experiences and similar resentments, especially after FDR’s culling of the dairy herds in 1934 that caused my mother and one of her sisters to get rickets — on a farm that had previously had a surplus of milk to sell for heating coal..

Wilder and Lane both hated the New Deal and thought the government was interfering in people’s lives, that individuals during the Depression were becoming very weak and timid. Learning this explained some of my family stories about my grandfather’s intense hatred of FDR. Although I never knew him, everybody said granddad was an incredibly gentle man, a peaceful fellow, yet he hated FDR, whose biographer insisted everybody loved. That perplexed me until I learned the Wilders felt the same way which made Granddad a whole lot more ordinary and understandable. He wasn’t alone. A rich man’s manipulative biographer hid the stories of real Americans who had reason to hate FDR.

An acquaintance of Ayn Rand and a critic of Keynesian economics, Rose Lane would become an early theorist of the fledgling political movement that would eventually form the Libertarian Party. I don’t think either woman set out to indoctrinate children with their political views. Their beliefs in individual freedom, free markets and limited government just sort of glow from the pages of the Little House books. Lane, as the primary editor, was being who she was, and she and her mother both felt strongly that the pioneers should be examples to people. It was inevitable she was going to flesh out the story by focusing things like free-market forces at work in the general store and farmers being free and independent.

Living in the Past

I wasn’t aware of the politics as a child, though I think my mother might have been. It was a message that very much aligned with her Midwestern background (born Christmas 1923) and the lifestyle that was necessary in Alaska in the 1960s. The Little House world is as familiar as the breakfast table and as remote as the planets in Star Wars. If you had every last log cabin and covered wagon and iron stove needed to conjure this world up, you couldn’t, not completely: it’s a realm that gets much of its power from single things—the lone doll, trundle bed, china shepherdess, each one realer than real.

I wanted to live in one room with my whole family and have a corncob doll all my own. I wanted to wear a calico sunbonnet—or at least have one so I could let it hang down my back by its ties like Laura did. I wanted to do chores because of those books. Carry water, churn butter, make headcheese. I wanted dead rabbits brought home for supper. I wanted go out into the backyard and just grab stuff off trees, or uproot things from the ground, and bring it all inside in a basket and have my parents say, “My land! What a harvest!”

There were a host of other things from the books that I remember I wanted to do, too, such as:

  • Make candy by pouring syrup in the snow. Dad and I did this in a bucket as an experiment. It was kind of fun. I was never a sugar candy fan, so I didn’t really enjoy the product, but the process was cool.
  • Make bullets by pouring lead. I’ve done this with friends who are gun-smiths.
  • Sew a seam with tiny and perfectly straight stitches. This is surprisingly hard to do, but I try to do that when I put the bindings on quilts – no comment on the lack of perfection.
  • Have a man’s hands span my corseted waist. At the time, it didn’t seem creepy at all and I actually have a photo of my mother’s first husband (who was 6’4″) doing just that with my 5’2″, 90-pound mother, sans corset, when they were first married. It didn’t seem creepy at all, and now — yeah. Shudder!
  • Twist hay into sticks to burn as firewood. My god, I’m surprised they didn’t freeze to death. This experiment caused my mother to tell the story of burning cow chips for fuel the winter FDR’s administration came and culled the dairy herds, rendering my grandparents unable to afford coal. I learned a lot about why Grandpa hated Roosevelt just from sharing parts of the Little House books with my mother.
  • Eat salt pork. That was actually a part of our diet when I was a kid. I gag to think about it now.
  • Keep a suckling pig as a pet. My mother left the farm so she wouldn’t have to do that anymore, so I never got to.
  • Chase a horse and/or ox into a barn stall. According to Mom, that’s a really good way to get kicked in the head, so I suspect some poetic license there.
  • Ride on the back of a pony just by hanging on to its mane. Mom did this all the time as a girl. I tried it and the dumb horse refused to move in any direction I wanted to to move. It finally tried to brush me off on a tree and — yeah, not a horse woman. Then Mom got up on the horse and put it through a barrel-race routine without ever even touching his mane and I just ended up feeling inadequate.

Shaped by Thought

Of course, I knew I was separated from Laura’s world by 80 years, but I imagined I could live there — and all before the television show existed. I think the Little House books had a lot to do with sparking my imagination and inspiring me to write the stories I wanted to read. It also, I think, planted seeds of self-sufficiency and individualism that bore harvest in my adulthood. I rejected Ayn Rand in high school when I read Atlas Shrugged. She was too selfish and egotistical for my tastes. And, yet, I go back to a box of old papers where professors commented on my “classical liberal” views. They didn’t say I was a libertarian, but they recognized I wasn’t the typical progressive student at University of Alaska-Fairbanks in the 1980s. I was already liberty-minded without needing to analyze why.

I hadn’t yet read Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom. I’d read a few of Lysander Spooner’s essays. I was a fan of David Thoreau. But I suspect my burgeoning political philosophy was shaped more by the gentle influence of the Little House books than by these stalwart adult treatises to the soundness of the individual to choose their own path withiyt help from the collective while also engaging in voluntary cooperation with like-minded individuals.

And truthfully, I think the Ingalls’ tough-minded keep-going-no-matter-what attitude infuses Transformation Project, even though it’s set 150 years in the “future”. Thank you, ladies, for showing me the way for a much less gentle story that I hope is no less compelling.

So go check out my fellow authors and see what they were reading as children.

7 responses to “Resonance

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  1. I also loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books as a child, and also the ‘Nancy Drew’ series. However, I thought this week’s topic was about whether a big ego hurts writers (this topic is on MeWe)?

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  2. I loved the Little House on the Prairie books, too. And learning about the real history of the families, too. I have a book somewhere that’s the biography of her sister in law, who was the teacher she hated in the books. Her story was interesting, too.

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    • Rose Wilder actually lived with Eliza for a time so she could finish high school (high schools not being in every town in America in those days). I’ve wondered since I learned Rose was the editor of the series if the animosity between Laura and Eliza was real or was the animosity really between her aunt and Rose.

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  3. I don’t remember any political parts of the Little House series! (But I read them long,long ago.)

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    • Even reading them as an adult, you wouldn’t get the vibe that this was libertarian literature. There’s no overt preaching. It’s more in how she presents the characters and how they overcome life’s challenges. That carries the “don’t rely on government, work hard, pursue your own interest while being willing to help others as you can, stay out of the other guy’s business unless you’re invited’ message.

      The one time I felt she asserted it was in “The Long Winter” when she talks about how Almanzo wasn’t 21 yet, so wasn’t supposed to be able to homestead land, but his brothers had helped him to fake his birthdate. It’s in the scene where they’re hiding the grain in the wall. I remember reading that as a child and thinking “Yeah, that’s a dumb rule. There are a lot of dumb rules people ought to just ignore.” Of course, I grew up in Alaska — hotbed of civil disobedience, but rereading it as an adult I thought “Wow, how’d that get past the publishers?”

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  4. This is a wonderful article. I enjoyed learning so much about Rose Wilder Lane. I didn’t know she edited her mother’s books, that is good to know. I did wonder who had edited them so well. I didn’t pick up the political slant when I read them and they were my favourite childhood reads, although I did recognise the hardship. As an adult, I wondered about the lack of frontier murders which I knew must have featured although they are alluded to in parts of the book.

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