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White Fantasy: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Covid, and the Myth of Self-Sufficiency

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White Fantasy: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Covid, and the Myth of Self-Sufficiency

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By Joan Marcus

I know I’m not the only one who used to have apocalypse fantasies, long ago, back before December of 2019. I keep seeing that split-screen meme on Facebook, on the left a picture of Mila Jovovich or some other badass in skin-tight assassin couture, on the right some poorly-dressed schlub—a cat in a Muppet onesie with a plate of cookies on her lap; Jeffrey Lebowski wandering the supermarket in bathrobe and boxers. The caption: “What I thought my apocalypse outfit would be vs. what it really is.”

For me that meme rings painfully true. I never thought I’d be roving the ruined wastes with a buzz cut and an arm cannon, but I did think quite a lot about economic collapse and climate disasters and, yes, global pandemic—that more than anything. I thought about what I’d do if things ever got really bad, how the family and I would get by. I imagined holing up in my house and teaching my college classes remotely. I imagined growing and preserving my own food if supplies got scarce, digging wild ramps in the forest, shooting deer and raising hens. At the time I thought this was my way of easing free-floating anxiety—imagining the worst, then convincing myself I was a survivor.  In retrospect I think it was a perverse form of entertainment.

Survival narratives are great fun. Often in January I find myself picking up one of my childhood favorites, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, a lightly fictionalized account of how the author’s family survived the brutal winter of 1880–81 in Dakota Territory. Most years I read that book cover to cover. Winters are five months long here in upstate New York and you’d think I’d prefer sunnier fare, but Wilder’s book is its own kind of escape. It lets me dream my grey world into something heroic, a narrative in which I, the scrappy pioneer, survive with nothing but mother wit and tenacity to help me through. I read about twisting hay into sticks when there’s no more coal to burn, grinding seed wheat in a coffee mill for sourdough loaves, the storm howling and scouring the house so you can’t even see your neighbors across the street. As though you’re the only people on earth, you and your loved ones alone in your little pocket of endurance. 

So much for life pre-Covid. Real isolation is a lot less fun than reading about it in a kids’ book. Thankfully I’m not hungry—I consider myself fortunate—but like other fortunate people, I’m a bit of a zombie lately, working long days in a little house, not grinding wheat but locked to my screen twelve hours a day, dim and thick-headed, out of shape. “She felt beaten by the cold and the storms,” Wilder says of the fourteen-year-old Laura. “She knew she was dull and stupid but she could not wake up.” I’m rarely cold but I still feel dull, half-awake, beaten by tweet storms and the pulse of electronic info that scours my brain.  

Meanwhile my students begin to suffer in much worse ways. Friends and family fall ill. Some die. Covid hits a nursing home in Massachusetts where one student works, killing twenty-two residents, including a woman she loved dearly. A friend of ours, a teacher in Queens, gets hit bad in March and hasn’t fully recovered two months later. She may have permanent lung damage, this woman younger than I who was perfectly healthy before the virus got her. She was never hospitalized though. Could this be what they’re calling mild illness? Jesus. My older daughter works at a fabric store cutting cloth for online orders and brings home free scraps. She sews masks with a pocket for a coffee filter and a nose bridge of milled sculpture wire. They are excellent masks but they make me panic a little, forever on the verge of a hot flash as I walk through the market, filter sucking against my face with every breath. Endurance, it turns out, is not my forte.   

As a child I would fantasize about traveling back in time with a sack of rice for Laura Ingalls. It seemed cruel to me that her family should spend the whole day grinding wheat when rice can be boiled using melted snow. A rib roast or fat back would have been better appreciated I’m sure, but that didn’t occur to me. My ambition was to introduce a new type of food and educate the Ingalls family in the joys of low-effort cooking. What a smug, late-twentieth-century girl I was, with my convenience foods and my fancy diphtheria vaccination. Then again, perhaps my impulse came from a better place. I was the grandchild of Jewish communists—my grandma remained one until her dying day. “There’s always bread in the Soviet Union,” she insisted. “No one starves.” Why should the Ingallses suffer because their country lured them westward to a place where no one could reach them when times got bad? Why not correct those ills by bending spacetime and sharing my food?

The grown-up Laura would not have appreciated my impulse. She was no fan of government support programs, though her parents had benefitted from the Homestead Act that granted free land to settlers. Wilder despised FDR, saw his New Deal as the sort of interference that robs citizens of autonomy and turns them into whiny children. Her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a widely-published author who collaborated with Laura on her eight-book Little House series, was passionate on the subject. “We have a dictator,” she opined in her journal; to a friend she confessed she’d like to “kill that traitor.” Rose and Laura’s proto-Libertarian ideals are dug deep in the pages of the Little House series. The books are full of references to “free and independent” farmers beholden to no one and nothing but the whims of nature. The message of The Long Winter is clear: no one but ourselves can save us. The trains will stop running and those men in Washington never really cared about us. We’re alone in this fight but for family and good neighbors. But if we all work very hard, twist enough hay and grind enough wheat and have enough faith in ourselves and in God, we’ll come out on the other side of this crisis better than before.

It’s pure fantasy of course, this American myth of self-reliance. It’s also, let’s face it, unapologetically white. Much has been made of the racism in Wilder’s books. In 2018 the American Library Association removed her name from a children’s literature award due in part to her crass portrayals of indigenous peoples and people of color. Laura’s mother’s insistence that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” isn’t the worst of it. Her father disagreed, after all, and readers are meant to listen to Pa, who is wise and unafraid and clearly Laura’s favorite parent. What’s worse is the larger message about westward expansion her books send by including some things and leaving others out. Twice we hear about settlers being removed by soldiers for squatting on Indian lands—once when Laura’s family has to leave the cabin they built on the Osage reservation, again when we hear the story of Laura’s uncle Tom Quiner, who went looking for gold in the Black Hills and had to be marched out of there by soldiers. “Oh, Tom,” Laura’s mother exclaims. “Had you nothing at all to show for all that work and danger?” Tom left the Black Hills with nothing just as Ma and Pa left Osage territory with little more than what they’d brought in—their sturdy, well-built cabin with the precious glass windows, their plow and their crops, all left behind. The child reader feels the loss deeply, how sad it is when the government makes hard-working folks waste a true labor of love. That child might be forgiven for not understanding that these were the exceptions that proved the rule, that the Ingalls family’s life in the west was supported by a systematic campaign of genocide.  

Then there’s the minstrel show in Little Town on the Prairie, in which the men on stage are referred to as “darkies.” Horrible, true, though as a child that word meant nothing to me—it went right over my head that the show was a parody of black entertainers. I’m sure I did understand what I now see as one of the most troubling lines in the Little House series, when Almanzo Wilder, who would later become Laura’s husband, decides during the Hard Winter to make a dangerous trek on the open prairie to find wheat. “I’m free, white, and twenty-one,” he says when his brother tries to stop him.  “Anyway, this is a free country and I’m free and independent. I do as I please.” The word “white” here is entirely gratuitous—there’s no narrative reason whatsoever for that word—and yet there it is.  The freedom to take a big risk, go where you want, do what you want, be brave and manly and save a town from starvation, is apparently a white people thing. I have no idea how I processed this as a ten-year-old. I wouldn’t want my own children reading that line without some adult there to provide critical perspective.

What would Laura, and especially Rose—she of the FDR assassination fantasies—think of our 45th president? Here’s a man who fails to provide any substantive guidance through the worst health crisis in a generation, who tells states it’s up to them to decide how and when to reopen, then tweets “Liberate Michigan,” egging on armed protesters. You could say he’s the Little House fantasy commander-in-chief, the way he encourages us to embrace risk for economic gain, rip off those masks and get a haircut and splash around in the Lake of the Ozarks all free and independent. Until June when, in response to civil unrest after the police murder of George Floyd, he threatens to mobilize the US military against American citizens, calling himself the “law and order” president. Then he starts sounding less like a Libertarian dreamboat and more like a dictator. Would Laura and Rose have minded? I certainly hope so, but I can’t say for sure. Those men in Washington are a royal pain when they tell you how to run your farm but just fine when they clear the way for westward expansion. Certain types of violence—slavery, for instance—have always been necessary to the American myth of self-sufficiency. 

If survival narratives are fun, it’s only because they are finite. Books come to an end and winter gives up the ghost. “It can’t beat us,” Pa tells Laura. “It’s got to quit sometime and we don’t.” Well. Here it is deep springtime, nearly summer. Wild irises bloom in the ditch behind my house and Covid’s on the rise in twenty-one states.  This is what happens when you don’t have steady, proactive central leadership, when your president downplays the threat and testing is botched and tracking doesn’t happen and you miss your chance to control the spread. We’re in this for the long haul, with all manner of hardship headed our way.

Today in my small upstate city, a thousand of us march to the police station. I’m in my most comfortable pandemic outfit—oversized tee and elastic-waist harem pants, cotton mask with a good, thick filter—trailing in the back of the pack with other middle-aged folks where we can maintain distance. There’s little risk here. The cops give us a wide berth. I don’t see any police on the street at all, just a few cruisers at far intersections blocking traffic to make way for us. At least 70% of the protesters are white. As America hobbles toward apocalypse I am neither heroic nor self-reliant, just dazed with grief. We reach the station and take a knee for George Floyd. My breath feels oppressive under my mask, the cotton plastered to my mouth and nose. Deal with it, I tell myself. Suck it the hell up. Plenty of air is getting through that filter; no one’s knee is on your neck. I feel the pavement hard under my shin. I just keep going.

About the author

Essays and stories by Joan Marcus appear in The Sun, Fourth Genre, The Georgia Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Smart Set, The Laurel Review, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. She is a two-time winner of the Constance Saltonstall grant for upstate New York writers. She lives in Ithaca, NY and teaches fiction and narrative nonfiction at Ithaca College.

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