by Doctor Science (who can't seem to log in the usual way via Blogger, goshdurnit)
The polar vortex many Usans are experiencing reminds me of one of my favorite, formative books, The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read the whole Little House series many times while I was growing up, and read it aloud twice, once for each Sprog, while *they* were growing up. I love the whole series, but The Long Winter was always my favorite.
In recent years, I've learned that the Little House books are considered libertarian manifestos, supposedly shaped by LIW's daughter Rose Wilder Lane to show the Ingalls family as icons of self-reliance. This boggles me, because when you actually read the Little House books carefully -- reading them aloud, for instance -- you can't help noticing that Laura's family was *never* self-reliant. They always depended on store-bought food, especially cornmeal, flour, and salt pork, and they got their land through the government's Homestead Act. One of their watchwords was "Free and Independent" -- but that was an aspiration (or a comforting platitude), not an accurate description of their lives.
The Long Winter, in particular, is about how individual self-reliance isn't enough. As a friend pointed out to me, it's essentially a post-apocalyptic story, about how people stay alive after the failure of a critical technology. In this case the technology is the railroad: when the train can't run, it cuts off the town of DeSmet, Dakota Territory, from its food supply -- because they were not self-reliant or independent.
The Ingalls family is particularly poor, so they're reduced to burning marsh hay for fuel, and eating bread made from wheat they've ground themselves in the coffee mill. I use a mill like theirs for grinding spices, and always think about Laura and her family when I do. Meanwhile, other people in town are better off, and Almanzo Wilder (Laura's future husband) and his brother Royal are concerned to save their seed wheat from being eaten as the whole town heads toward starvation.
In February, when the town's food has almost run out, Almanzo and his friend Cap Garland make a risky trip to a distant farmer to buy his stock of 60 bushels of wheat. The money is fronted by Mr. Loftus, the grocer, and they end up paying $1.25/bushel. When they get the life-saving food back to town, everyone is overjoyed -- until they learn Loftus is asking $3/bushel for the wheat.
Loftus was not going to back to down. He banged his fist on the counter and told them, "That wheat's mine and I've got a right to charge any price I want to for it."In the end, Loftus sells the wheat at cost, making no profit at all -- and Mr. Ingalls works out a rationing system, where each family gets to buy only what they need, so that no-one starves.
That's so, Loftus, you have, Mr. Ingalls [Laura's Pa] agreed with him. "This is a free country and every man's got a right to do as he pleases with his own property." He said to the crowd, "You know that's a fact, boys," and he went on, "Don't forget every one of us is free and independent, Loftus. This winter won't last forever and maybe you want to go on doing business after it's over."
Threatening me, are you? Mr. Loftus demanded.
We don't need to, Mr. Ingalls replied. "It's a plain fact. If you've got a right to do as you please, we've got a right to do as we please."
What do you call a fair profit? Mr. Loftus asked. "I buy as low as I can and sell as high as I can; that's good business."
That's not my idea, said Gerald Fuller. I say it's good business to treat people right."
Mr. Loftus looked from Cap to Almanzo and then around at the other faces. They all despised him.
This isn't a picture of libertarian independence. This is communitarianism, damn near socialism. Yes, they repeat the mantra "free and independent", but that's not how they *live* -- and that's not what keeps them alive.
As I re-read the books aloud to the little Sprogs, I also noticed that one way the Ingallses really were "free and independent" was nearly the death of them.
Every family in DeSmet is living in its own building for the winter, and none of them are very well insulated -- they're all built of imported wood and tar paper. As a result, there's a constant grinding effort to get enough fuel to keep them from freezing to death and to have enough left over for cooking.
What they *should* have been doing is imitating the earth lodges of the Mandan tribes they'd displaced. These solid buildings could hold up to 30 or 40 people each, warming the space so they needed only a single fire. Even without an earth lodge, the settlers could all have moved into the hotel together, sharing warmth and resources. That's how you stay alive in the High Plains when you're actually on your own, without access to the markets and industry further East.
The fascinating thing about re-reading the Little House books as an adult is how much you see the very ambivalent reality of the frontier through the screen of young Laura's not-always-reliable narration. Adult!Laura, who's telling the story, puts in things that contradict young!Laura's ideas, or the words that adults are saying -- as in the passage I quoted above, where Pa says they're all "free and independent" while arguing for a communitarian solution to their problem. The fact that many people apparently think the books *are* a libertarian manifesto makes me think they may be the most mis-read of American novels. I guess that's what happens when the hero is an unreliable narrator saying things Americans really *want* to believe.