Teacher and Writer
LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE
A Review of 2017 and what we can learn from the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder
31 December 2017
December is the time of year when journalists, newspapers, news channels and social media look back and review the year that has just passed. As I watched one of these reviews with my brother-in-law in Germany on one of the more distinguished TV channels last night, we were both rather taken aback to hear one of the presenters introduce his commentary with the words: “2017 war ein Scheißjahr.” (Which means exactly that: 2017 was a shit year.)
One may frown about the use of language, uncommon in the usually dignified ZDF heute journal, but the essence of the statement remains true. To name but a few of the events that shaped the year and dictated the headlines: terror attacks and wars continued across the world; Trump reigned for a first, troubling year; Catalonia tried to exit from Spain; Brexit negotiations proceeded chaotically and erratically; right-wing extremists rose to worrying heights in several countries, including my own; the Grenfell Tower disaster raised big questions and left few of us untouched; integrity was hard to find in politics where even a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize could not be relied upon to do or say the right thing.
Few statesmen or stateswomen have shown proper leadership, and even Angela Merkel has not yet succeeded in forming a coalition of stable, democratic parties who should unite in the face of the rise of the right, rather than indulging in silly in-fighting, thus adding to the discontent of many and enabling the further rise of extremists.
What has possibly been most noticeable is the loss of decorum and integrity in the use of language. Trump’s insecure style of leadership rewards sycophants (some of his minions have flattered him in rather sickening terms), while he repeatedly lies, manipulates and rants. His verbal duels with the other narcissist on the political world stage, North Korea’s leader, are of an inanity not even found in the Kindergarten fights of toddlers. At least the latter do not have access to nuclear weapons.
Politeness has gone out of the window. In the age of social media facts are often not checked any longer – ‘fake news’ has become the new buzzword and few controls are in place to get a story right before online publication and proliferation. Politicians are verbally attacked to an extreme that makes me wonder why anybody would choose this career. Whatever people may think about Theresa May (and I totally disagree with her stance on Brexit): does any human being really deserve to be torn apart and ridiculed by the press for having a coughing fit during a crucial party speech? Or for holding a wine glass by the bowl rather than the stem?
It may well be one of the biggest challenges of education these days to teach school children how to navigate news channels and information; how to separate real from fake news, or meaningful political debate from inane gossip; how to read between the lines; how to see the difference between those they can trust and those who try to manipulate them; how to find role models of integrity, decorum, helpfulness, selflessness and polite use of language. In the age of social media and information overload it is hard to find your own inner compass and your own authentic voice if you are constantly trying to keep up with the crowd.
Maybe it was in search of such role models that I felt drawn back to Little House on the Prairie, the TV series of the 1970s, which I watched with my sister when we were both children. Many people of my generation will have grown up with this series, and I certainly know that as children we very much enjoyed the stories of Laura and Mary and their parents Charles and Caroline. Spirited little daredevil Laura was so much more engaging than her big sister Mary who was unfailingly compliant and obedient – lovely but a little boring. And the parents, hardworking and humorous Charles who always had a twinkle in his eye, and Caroline, the sensible wife who kept him grounded, were the parents everybody wanted to have: with just the right dosage of moral guidance and principles, tempered with a sense of fun and adventure and Pa’s joyous violin play. We enjoyed becoming part of the family life, the adventures with wolves and Indians, the school lessons, the fights with spoiled brat Nellie Oleson and so much more.
As a discerning adult who, over the past few years during school holidays has re-watched the entire series with the next generation of nieces and nephew, taking much pleasure in their delight, I can see the weaknesses of the TV adaptation: the sugar-coating of some of the harder episodes in the life of the Ingalls family, the sentimentality of some of the scenes. When one of my nieces got hooked on the books of the real Laura Ingalls, which I had never read as a child, I got interested in finding out more about the author who, at the age of 45, had started writing little columns in newspapers and who later, at the age of 65 and encouraged by her journalist daughter Rose, began to publish several books about the adventures of her childhood in post-civil-war America. They were written for children and are still much read in US primary schools, but even as an adult I have enjoyed their simple charm very much over the past few weeks.
These delightful books provided a much needed antidote to the unsavoury reality of so many events in 2017 and to the decline of morality and integrity in politics and language. The simplicity of this farmer’s daughter who recalls vividly so many details of her family’s journey west, their pioneering adventures In Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota and South Dakota, their poverty, struggles with the elements, unimaginably hard winters, grasshopper plagues, crop failures, illness and death, reminds us of what really matters in life. Nobody wants to turn back the wheel of time – Laura herself often praised the modern technical inventions that made a farmer’s life so much easier than her parents could ever have imagined.
Nonetheless one cannot help but wistfully wish that some of the truths held dear in Laura’s family still had the same value: respect for parents, a loving family life, calm evening entertainment without the distractions of the modern age, proper neighbourly spirit, modesty and gratitude for the simple pleasures and amenities of life. Nobody who has read the books or watched the series will ever forget Mr Edwards, the neighbour and larger-than-life character who braves the elements and risks his life on a hard winter’s night to bring some joy to the Ingalls farm on Christmas day, surprising the girls with a hand-carved mug and a sugar cane from Santa. The girls never forgot these special presents and their donor.
As an educator who has dealt a lot with wealthy, entitled youngsters who want for nothing, yet always want more, I found my niece’s fascination with these stories incredibly eye-opening. “Poor little rich children” was the expression Laura Ingalls Wilder used in her old age for the young generation who “have so much that they have lost the power to truly enjoy anything” – and that was in 1944. I wonder what she would think about some of the Christmas presents piled up under Christmas trees in 2017.
Plenty has been written by Laura Ingalls Wilder and about her, and I am still reading and reflecting and rejoicing. There is so much to learn from this family history that is often seen as prototypical for the pioneering spirit of the first white American settlers: from their tenacity, their courage, their faith and their warmth and helpfulness. As they started afresh, again and again, with all their worldly belongings packed in their wagon, gradually moving west and facing so much adversity, they always preserved their pride, their dignity and their love for family and neighbours. It was a different world, but one of timeless values.
I have written down a number of quotes from Laura’s books and essays, but if I had to choose one of them as a suitable motto for 2018 it may well be an extract from her essay It depends on how you look at it, first published in the Missouri Ruralist in 1919, almost 100 years ago:
Why should we need extra time in which to enjoy ourselves? If we expect to enjoy our life we will have to learn to be joyful in all of it, not just at stated intervals, when we can get time, or when we have nothing else to do.
It may well be that it is not our work that is so hard for us as the dread of it and our often expressed hatred of it. Perhaps it is our spirit and attitude toward life and its conditions that are giving us trouble, instead of a shortage of time. Surely the days and nights are as long as they ever were.
A feeling of pleasure in a task seems to shorten it wonderfully and it makes a great difference with a day’s work if we get enjoyment from it instead of looking for all our pleasure altogether apart from it, as seems to be the habit of mind we are growing more and more into.
And the following words also resonated with me. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote them for her speech My Work, delivered in the 1930s when she reflected upon the value her writing had given her.
Running through all the stories, like a golden thread, is the same thought of the values of life. They were courage, self reliance, independence, integrity and helpfulness. Cheerfulness and humor were handmaids to courage.
In the Depression following the Civil War my parents, as so many others, lost all their savings in a bank failure. They farmed the rough land on the edge of the Big Woods in Wisconsin. They struggled with the climate and fear of Indians in the Indian Territory. For two years in succession they lost their crops to the grasshoppers on the Banks of Plum Creek. They suffered cold and heat, hard work and privation, as did others of their time. When possible they turned the bad into good. If not possible, they endured it. Neither they nor their neighbors begged for help. No other person, nor the government, owed them a living. They owed that to themselves and in some way they paid the debt. And they found their own way.
Their old fashioned character values are worth as much today as they ever were to help us over the rough places. We need today courage, self reliance and integrity.
When we remember that our hardest times would have been easy times for our forefathers, it should help us to be of good courage, as they were, even if things are not all as we would like them to be.
The pictures show the real Laura Ingalls Wilder (bottom) and Melissa Gilbert as young Laura (top) in the TV series. The quotes are taken from A Little House Sampler. A Collection of Early Stories and Reminiscences. Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane (ed. William Anderson), New York 1989