I didn’t really expect to write much about the politics or ideology of the Little House books, as I normally avoid these things, but it’s turned out to interest me more than I’d expected. Ideas about liberty, independence, and responsbility are not only deeply embedded in the stories and lives of the characters; they are also made explicit to some extent as they are passed down from parents to children. Wilder doubly passes them on to us.
That’s what got me so interested in the final scenes of Farmer Boy. A similar episode from the Ingalls family occurs at the beginning of The Long Winter, one I think is worth unpacking on the record if only so I remember it myself.
At the end of the summer before the long winter, Laura is helping Pa make hay. It’s her first time helping on the farm, and while they’re mowing Laura and Pa find what will be the first in a series of harbingers of a hard winter: a muskrat house with especially thick walls. Pa explains to Laura that the thickness of the walls indicates the harshness of the winter to come, and she asks how muskrats can know what the weather will bring.
“I don’t know how they know,” Pa said. “But they do. God tells them, somehow, I suppose.”
“Then why doesn’t God tell us?” Laura wanted to know.
“Because,” said Pa, “we’re not animals. We’re humans, and, like it says in the Declaration of Independence, God created us free. That means we got to take care of ourselves.”
First, how interesting is it that Pa basically uses the Declaration of Independence as a religious document? And I don’t mean that in the glib way often used to talk about certain segments of the contemporary American polity. Pa isn’t using the religious elements of the Declaration to support its political validity, nor is he talking about the Declaration as a sacret political text. He is actually using the language of the Declaration, rather than a Christian religious text, to explain to Laura part of the relationship between man and God. And he immediately equates freedom with personal responsibility.
He expands on that idea when Laura asks if God doesn’t also take care of us humans.
“He does,” Pa said, “so far as we do what’s right. And He gives us a conscience and brains to know what’s right. But He leaves it to us to do as we please. That’s the difference between us and everything else in creation.”
“Can’t muskrats do what they please?” Laura asked, amazed.
“No,” said Pa. “I don’t know why they can’t but you can see they can’t. Look at that muskrat house. Muskrats have to build that kind of house. They always have and they always will. It’s plain they can’t build any other kind. But folks build all kinds of houses. A man can build any kind of house he can think of. So if his house don’t keep out the weather, that’s his look-out; he’s free and independent.”
Free will means freedom to fail; if we want the choice of living in a log cabin in the woods, a sod hut on the prairie, or a claim shanty on a homestead, we have to face the possibility that come winter our shanty might let in too much cold and snow. Only beings without the ability to direct their own lives can be protected.
Meanwhile, Almanzo has refused to be such a being himself. He is only nineteen but has lied about his age in order to take a homestead of his own. Pa describes homesteading as a bet: the government bets a man 160 acres that he can’t stay on a piece of land and make it productive for a certain number of years. It’s a dangerous bet for the homesteaders. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you may lose everything you own, and even your life. Anyone who’s read this far knows how risky life was for settlers in the West, and anyone who goes on to finish The Long Winter will end up with an even bleaker picture. The government creates rules for homesteading that are meant to minimize that risk, including an age requirement. But Almanzo doesn’t feel the least bit bad for violating it:
None of the rules worked as they were intended to. Amanzo knew that men were making good wages by filing claims that fitted all the legal rules and then handing over the land to the rich men who paid their wages. Everywhere, men were stealing the land and doing it according to all the rules. But of all the homestead laws Almanzo thought that the most foolish was the law about a settler’s age.
Anybody knew that no two men were alike. You could measure cloth with a yardstick, or distance by miles, but you could not lump men together and measure them by any rule. Brains and character did not depend on anything but the man himself. Some men did not have the sense at sixty that some had at sixteen. And Almanzo considered that he was as good, any day, as any man twenty-one years old.
The same ingenuity that lets folks build different kinds of houses allows them to bend the rules and go against the spirit of the homesteading law to funnel land to wealthy investors. And because Almanzo has a human mind that can reason and possesses free will, he refuses to be stuffed into a one-size-fits-all muskrat house, even if that puts him in danger. And it puts him in more danger than most; he faces the additional risk of getting caught facing the risks everyone else does.