Who needs a welfare state?

Deborah Friedell

  • The Little House Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
    Library of America, 1490 pp, £56.50, August 2012, ISBN 978 1 59853 162 6
  • The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ by Wendy McClure
    Riverhead, 336 pp, £10.00, April 2012, ISBN 978 1 59448 568 8

After the Vietnam War – or so the story goes – a little girl whose parents had fought the Communists in Laos was resettled with her family in St Paul, Minnesota. They didn’t like it. St Paul seemed noisy and expensive, and they worried about crime. But the little girl watched Little House on the Prairie: she knew there was a Minnesota town called Walnut Grove where girls in long dresses ran through tall (California) grass, and townsfolk gathered for spelling bees and barn raisings. She persuaded her parents that it was where they should be. The actual Walnut Grove had been dying, without even enough people to support a small grocery store. Now more than 250 Hmong live there, and run two grocery stores.

Little House on the Prairie was Ronald Reagan’s favourite television programme and also, by some accounts, Saddam Hussein’s. It was based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s eight novels, which have now entered the Library of America as The Little House Books: the first Tea Party favourites to join its ranks. Rose Wilder Lane, who wrote the books with her mother, intended them to be a defence of ‘the self-reliant, the independent, the courageous man’ whom she saw ‘penalised from every direction’, but especially by the New Deal, which was ‘killing what, to me, is the American pioneering spirit’. She told a friend that if only there were a politician on the scene she really admired, ‘I would make a try at killing FDR now.’ Four years ago, when the New York Times interviewed Sarah Palin’s relatives, the Little House books were the only ones that anyone could remember her having liked. Caroline Fraser, who edited the books for the Library of America, points to an essay in National Affairs by Meghan Clyne, a former Bush speechwriter, which argues that ‘much as the Tea Party renewed Americans’ appreciation of the freedoms that are our birthright, a historical-appreciation movement built around Wilder and her fellow pioneers could help Americans recover the habits of self-reliance’ – that is, by scrapping ‘Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security’ and ‘food stamps or other nutrition benefits’. The books are a fantasy of self-sufficiency in its most charming form.

In The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of ‘Little House on the Prairie’, Wendy McClure, a children’s book editor, details her obsession with what she calls ‘Laura World’. She visits the Big Woods in Wisconsin where Wilder was born; the places where Wilder’s parents farmed – never successfully – in Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota; then Missouri, where Wilder moved when she married, and stayed. McClure’s mother dies, and immersing herself in Laura World becomes a way of mourning her own childhood. She makes candy by pouring syrup on snow, twists hay, buys molasses (at Whole Foods) and prowls eBay for a butter churn, but none of it satisfies. What she’s really after is a state of mind: ‘Sometimes Laura World wasn’t a realm of log cabins or prairies, it was a way of being. Really, a way of being happy.’ She wants the confidence of the Ingalls family, who never seem to doubt that they’re leading the best possible life, competent and productive, unfailingly cosy.

When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly: ‘What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?’

‘They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,’ Pa said. ‘Go to sleep, now.’

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting. She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.

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