I recently finished rereading “The Ghost in the Little House,” a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, Rose. In the process, I was reminded that Rose, a lifelong writer, left plenty of fingerprints on the “Little House” series of books created by her mother.
While the basic stories were written by Laura, it was Rose who edited and sharpened them into the form we’ve come to know and love.
More importantly, the book cast an interesting light on how life appeared to a person whose childhood, repeating the hardscrabble life of her mother, involved moving from one failed farm to the next. At the age of 47, in the middle of the Great Depression, she wrote about those early years in the preface to a book of her short stories:
“It was a hard, narrow, relentless life. It was not comfortable. Nothing was made easy for us. We did not like work and we were not supposed to like it; we were supposed to work, and we did. We did not like discipline, so we suffered until we disciplined ourselves. We saw many things and many opportunities that we ardently wanted and could not pay for, so we did not get them, or got them only after stupendous, heartbreaking effort and self-denial, for debt was much harder to bear than deprivations.
“We were honest, not because sinful human nature wanted to be, but because the consequences of dishonesty were excessively painful. It was clear that if your word were not as good as your bond, your bond was no good, and you were worthless. Not only by precept but by cruel experience we learned that it is impossible to get something for nothing; that he who does not work can not long continue to eat; that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children even unto the fourth generation; that chickens come home to roost and the way of the transgressor is hard.”
Seen from the vantage point of our own Great Recession and, most recently, the medical and economic turmoil caused by COVID-19, such a statement may help to put things in clearer perspective. To Rose, the Great Depression was not so much a hardship as it was a harsh but valuable lesson. Life, to her, was never easy. To expect it to be so was a dangerous mistake.
As a child of the frontier, Rose Wilder never looked to the government for help. She strongly opposed President Roosevelt’s New Deal, claiming it could only weaken individual resolve and lull Americans into a posture of dependency.
But she was equally critical of those who trusted the free market system to solve the nation’s woes, calling their faith “blind” and “naïve” since it ignored the existence of human greed and duplicity. What was needed, she felt, was a resurgence of individual initiative coupled with a scaling back of expectations. Only when individual citizens learned to live responsibly and to make intelligent choices would the ills of the nation be healed.
She concluded her preface with the following:
“Now some of us seem to see, in our country’s most recent experience, an unexpected proof that our parents knew what they were talking about. We suspect that, after all, man’s life in this hostile universe is not easy and cannot be made so; that facts are seldom pleasant and must be faced; that the only freedom is to be found within the slavery of self-discipline; that everything must be paid for and that putting off the day of reckoning only increases the inexorable bill.
“This may be an old-fashioned, middle-class, small-town point of view. All that can be said for it is that it created America.”
Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.