(Note: this was originally posted on July 4, 2008. I may repost it every year, I think it sums up my feelings on Independence day).
I live now in Maine, but I grew up on the prairie, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. North of Sioux Falls about sixty or so miles is the small town of De Smet. When I was in third grade I started saving my allowance (50 cents and later on a buck a week) to buy books by Laura Ingalls Wilder (they were less than $5 a book, hardback). I was just eight when I bought my first one (On the Banks of Plum Creek) and the people at Courtney’s Books and Things would expect me every four weeks as I had saved up enough for the next book. I completed the collection in less than two years (my favorite: The Long Winter). The wonderful true stories of the Ingalls family moving from Wisconsin to Kansas, Minnesota, and finally being part of the group that founded De Smet stimulated my imagination. Laura wrote the books as children’s books to tell her story of growing up in the 1870s and 1880s as part of one of those families who were moving west, on the frontier and ultimately homesteading. I was as a kid a true Laura Ingalls Wilder fan, those books (which still sit on my shelf, I’m glancing at them now) were perhaps one of the greatest outside influences on my thinking as I grew up. Besides coloring how I look at life, they even affected music I liked at the time (Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond, Laura by the Newbeats), and to this day my answer to the question “what historical figure would you most like to have dinner with” is Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Oh, I hated the TV show, they veered far too far from the real story).
I still re-read those books every few years. One thing I notice now, which I didn’t at the time, is how utterly dirt poor they were, especially in the early books. They were living on less than the basics. Christmas was a few bits of candy sometimes, and even as she got older and the family was more settled, they still lived what we would consider on the edge of poverty. Mary caught scarlet fever and went blind. They barely survived the brutal winter of 1880-81. Yet in the stories her life seems magical and wonderful. Clearly they had something — a close and loving family — which added a richness that goes far beyond what material possessions can offer.
Pa, her dad, who loved to play the fiddle and one summer had to walk hundreds of miles away to work and earn enough money for the family to survive, hated to be closed in, and constantly was on the move to strike out somewhere new. First it was to leave stuffy comfortable Wisconsin for the wild plains of Kansas. When the government pushed them off their land, they came up to Minnesota, then west to Dakota. He wanted to live free of constraints, in a place where he could make his own way. He thought South Dakota was getting too crowded and wanted to move on to Montana. But ma (Caroline) said no more moving, and Charles Ingalls and family remained in De Smet.
Two of the values which stand out in these books are family and a desire for freedom. While these values are universal, they get expressed with an American flair. Family as a source of strength is something most Americans hold on to, but with divorce rates at 50%, and modern demands and materialism as it is, it becomes hard to do that. Still, one sees in the books that a caring, loving environment, where parents give support, encouragement, and time to their children, means more than all the toys, gameboy and DVDs in the world. That is a value we’re losing; the material prosperity of the last century has yielded a kind of spiritual poverty. It’s hard to describe what that means exactly, but it’s something one can’t help but be struck by in reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books.
I suspect that in our modern, wealthy, materialist world, a lot of children (and adults) get so caught up in the possessions game that they don’t recognize that true happiness comes not from what we have, but from within, helped by friends and family around us. Possessions can give a mild rush, but like a drug it wears off. Unfortunately, this American value is perhaps the most endangered. People are living from rush to rush buying new possessions, and that addiction is choking off the true path to happiness. Are most of today’s plugged in possession laden children happier than Laura was? I doubt it. Those who are happy are likely happy due to their family and friends, not their stuff.
Prototypically American is Charles Ingalls’ desire to live completely free, and through hard work build a life for himself and his family. The idea of a whole continent laying ahead, with dangers and challenges, spurred generations of early Americans to leave everything behind (no remaining in contact by e-mail or phone), risk it all, to try to make something new. The desire to be free. (The cynical side of me has to add that, like today, Americans saw their conquest as being good — it’s good when American power expands and it’s good for others to be forced to adopt the way of life. But in reality this lead to the destruction of numerous cultures, a low tech holocaust that most Americans still don’t recognize).
Still, inherent in this American view of freedom was: a) a willingness to risk; b) a willingness to work hard and take responsibility for your life; and c) a willingness to work with others. Towns worked together, neighbors helped each other, there was perhaps by necessity a link between the raw individualism of Pa Ingalls and the communal spirit of much of what he and others of the time were engaged in. There isn’t a contradiction here — he was freely choosing to help and allow himself to be helped, such was the culture of that time and place. America at its best represents freedom, individual responsibility, and a sense of cooperation and community. A communal form of freedom is uniquely American, and it to is under assault from the growing sense that freedom simply means being able to amass all the wealth one can and do whatever one wants without a sense of responsibility for the community at large. On the right this gets exhibited as an embracing of the free market and capitalism, on the left this gets exhibited as simply handing the problem to government. Both sides are missing something important; the issue isn’t how to deal with common problems, the issue is fostering a sense of community, a sense that people want to work together to solve problems.
I’ll wrap up by saying that I urge everyone out there to buy the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. If you have kids, it’s a necessity. But even if you don’t, you’ll learn something about our country, our values, and also what we’ve lost by reading the wonderful tales of a young girl growing up poor, but in a close knit family on the northern plains. The times have changed. Urbanization, complexity, and prosperity make the kind of wide open life style Pa Ingalls so coveted impossible. Mobility separates families; my mother and one sister is in Sioux Falls still, the other sister in Las Vegas. On my wife’s side we’d have to travel to Syktyvkar, Russia, Moscow, or Neuwied, Germany. But as my sons grow with all their days free, with both parents working, and a comfortable lifestyle, I know that my goal is to instill the values incorporated in the Little House books.
And when I think about America and what I value in this country, I think about how a desire for freedom, a willingness to work with community, and an emphasis on love and family define the essence of this country’s core values. I think we’ve drifted, and the modern complex superpower reality makes it hard for us to truly hold on to those values. But more than any flag, song, war or monument, they define what is great about America, and we need to find a way to express those values in a 21st century reality.