For the last few weeks, I have catalogued the flaws of the American “spirit” as represented in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series and the unsuitability of the family as role models. Recognizing the inadequacy of the Ingalls-Wilder family as representative of an ideal American way of life and society is important because, due to a long-running TV show and ongoing cultural references, as well as alternative schooling options that are directly modeled on the series, the family has accrued a level of unjustified mythologization. The proponents of the series claim that it teaches solid values, e.g. family, self-reliance, hard work, frugality, etc. Consequently, it is remarkable that another autobiographical set of books, A Lantern in Her Hand and White Bird Flying by Bess Streeter Aldrich, a contemporary of Laura Ingalls Wilder, have gone largely unnoticed. A Lantern in Her Hand and White Bird Flying are a study in the organic evolution of a community and how the values espoused by different families and individuals eventually led to inequality of outcome, despite sharing the same opportunities.
The main benefit of the Aldrich books in comparison to the Ingalls-Wilder books is that the Aldrich family were the diametric opposites to the latter in that they did not struggle with honesty, integrity, or the subtle resentment that permeated the world of the Little House on the Prairie. In exchange, the family of A Lantern in Her Hand possessed many traits which the Ingalls might have found unsettling: the Streeters were ambitious, brutally honest – brutal because it extended into their personal lives and relationships, as well as their business dealings – and ethically self-interested.
Just like the Little House on the Prairie, A Lantern in Her Hand opens in the late 1880s with the story of Bess Streeter Aldrich’s grandmother. The daughter of a fallen Scottish aristocrat, “Grandmother Abby Deal [Deal was the pseudonym for the Streeter family]” had one goal: to see her children succeed in life and, thereby, rebuild the family’s fortunes. This particular goal was one that she had inherited from her mother, who when her husband’s estate collapsed had salvaged one particular thing: the family’s library. Without a qualm, the family had surrendered their jewels, horses, carriages, and castle, but they took the books, bringing them with them across the Atlantic and overland to the American plains where they sought a fresh start. The family settled in the Midwest at exactly the same time as the Ingalls family did but with even fewer practical goods in terms of ploughs, oxen, or even basic experience in agriculture.
Over the generations, the books became a talisman for the family, a marker that differentiated them from the broader community who found the family confusing. The majority thought no further than next harvest season and sowed their fields to the maximum, often with immediate profit; the Deals, however, planned “irrationally,” for example planting trees and tending them for several years before ever breaking the soil for crops. Almost seventy years later, this decision benefited the family with the occurrence of the Dust Bowl – a natural disaster which contributed to the Great Depression and further ruined the contemporaneous Wilder family. One could say that the difference expressed was the contrast between profit and prosperity, the imbalance between the quick buck and wealth. There is a lesson applicable today in a time where we are inundated with rhetoric regarding “income inequality” and “opportunity inequality.”
A Lantern in Her Hand is a journey through the struggles of a family forced to (re)start from scratch. Streeter Aldrich explained repeatedly that her grandmother viewed her life through two lenses: in one her goal was to recapture the family’s glory and status; in the other it was imperative to avoid the mistakes and weaknesses that led to the original downfall. Fewer than five years after the family moved to the prairie, William Deal, Bess Streeter Aldrich’s grandfather, died unexpectedly from heart trouble, leaving his widow with five children. The survivors immediately experienced a decrease in financial wellbeing, especially in comparison to their closest neighbors and friends. The social comparison is important, not merely for the historical story, but also because it maps to many of the complaints and discontents found in modern society.
At the time of William Deal’s death, Abby Deal had mandated that all of her children would be sent to boarding school back east since she deemed the local schools inadequate and, using the books brought from Scotland, had taught the children herself until they were old enough to be sent away. Upon being left a widow, her primary goal was that their education not suffer, and she restructured their lives around this principle. For the next twenty years, she chose to live in greatly reduced circumstances in order to provide uninterrupted private education for her children, who became, in order, banker, society wife, lawyer, opera singer, and academic.
While it is unsurprising that once her children launched their careers, they assumed the responsibility for keeping their mother in prairie luxury, consisting of hired help, indoor plumbing, running water, electricity, and a radio (it was still only the early 20th century after all), there was a marked divergence between her quality of life and that of the neighbors. Within the community, four families, including the Deals, were the first settlers and had therefore been able to claim the largest and best parcels of land. However, over the course of three generations, the families ended up in very different circumstances economically and socially, demonstrating that equality of outcome is not guaranteed by equality of opportunity.
Following her husband’s death, Grandmother Deal sold some of their property to the neighbors in order to fund boarding school and professional training. She rented out remaining fields to tenant farmers, or worked with hired hands. In comparison, her nearest neighbors and close friends, the Rinemüller family, had a very different ethos, one which was anti-education and entirely focused on land acquisition, whether or not that land was actually arable. In the early years, the difference was mutually beneficial: Grandmother Deal sold her excess parcels to her friends and then hired their teenage sons, who left school as soon as they reached the minimum age, as laborers and tenant farmers.
All the while she endured the subtle criticism from the community that she, a widow with two able-bodied sons, was putting them through preparatory school whilst consequently living in dire poverty. Yet fewer than twenty years later, such a chasm had opened between the families that, despite the ongoing friendship of the first generation, the second and third had an employer-employee relationship, as the Deal family remained professionals and the Rinemüller family continued to leave school with minimal qualifications.
Following World War I, the third generation Rinemüllers became the first to graduate from high school. In comparison, the Deal family was almost seventy years ahead of the Rinemüllers in terms of multi-generational professional qualifications and having the material and financial wherewithal to maintain their prosperity. Fundamentally, the books are a parable on the principle that outside of a commitment to freedom and responsibility, there is no safety net that can be spread to protect a community from the divergence that eventually opens amongst the constituent individual members on the basis of personal values, ones which are unshared by others.
More comparisons coming up!