One frontier: two different worlds

One frontier: two different worlds

One frontier: two different worlds

The comparison between the two approaches to American life and values represented by the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Little House on the Prairie series) and Bess Streeter Aldrich (A Lantern in Her Hand and its sequel White Bird Flying) opens some significant, and possibly uncomfortable, differences that lay at the root of the contrast of the families’ fortunes, despite living in the same time period and region.

One of the more revealing contrasts is the approach the families took toward matrimony. Sometime in the 1870s, Caroline Ingalls married Charles Ingalls against the wishes of her family, who responded by cutting her off financially and professionally, beginning a long slide to the bottom for herself and her children. Her granddaughter, Rose Wilder Lane left extensive documents which were eventually made into a prequel to Laura Ingalls Wilder's books and which detailed the history of familial opposition, the marriage, and the ensuing adult sibling rivalries and jealousy that eventually resulted in her parents and grandparents being banished to the frontier to live in penury. In contrast, when Bess Streeter Aldrich’s grandparents (pseudonyms William and Abby Deal in the books) were confronted by a romance between her eldest daughter (Streeter Aldrich’s aunt) and an unsuitable young man, they simply sent their daughter away to boarding school a year early. Margaret "Deal" eventually married a man whose property and professional standing more accorded with her parents’ taste.

There are several important differences expressed in the approach of the different parental sets. Both sets had certain shared reasons for finding the young man in question problematic – uneducated, unskilled, and without career prospects – and felt twinges of social conscience for judging someone who patently lacked opportunity, and intelligence in the case of the Streeter family, as inadequate for joining their ranks. Rejection felt un-American exactly because it distilled to the subject of rank.

The indecisive response of Caroline Ingalls parents, who politely expressed their unhappiness to a teenager who simply did not care, until the situation escalated irreversibly was an un-elitist approach to the problem. Conversely, the Streeter parents’ decision to remove their child completely from the scene was a doubling-down on the “elitist” approach. Streeter Aldrich discussed the extent to which she knew her grandparents had agonized over the decision, worrying about the “snobbish” message it would send to their children. Ultimately, they decided that being exclusionary was preferable to risking that their daughter live a life of teenage motherhood, poverty, and unfilled potential. One of their reasons was that they knew their other children possessed the strength of will and character to become very successful, and they feared that too great a difference in life decisions might create fertile ground for destructive jealousies and rivalries.

There might have been a knowledge gap that created the difference in responses. It is entirely possible that the Streeter family, despite their greater poverty, knew about resources, such as boarding schools, that the Ingalls Wilder family did not. After all, Grandmother Streeter, the daughter of an impoverished Scottish aristocrat, came from a family which if they had not lost their fortune would, in all probability, have sent their children away to such schools. This is not what occurred, though, and she and her siblings were homeschooled on the American frontier. Therefore, while the knowledge gap might have been a factor, that it was a significant element is doubtful.

Perhaps the most striking difference, one which might also be responsible for why Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books are famous but those of Bess Streeter Aldrich have languished in obscurity, lies in the histrionic nature of the books’ content. Despite occurring at the same time and in the same region, the books are worlds apart. Certainly, Ingalls Wilder’s books are cinematic; there are panther hunts, Native American uprisings, racing unbroken horses, becoming lost in blizzards, or running out of food in the middle of winter. All of these episodes contribute to a film-like feel and an exotic sense of “long-ago-and-far-away.” 

Conversely, the life and society described by Bess Streeter Aldrich is mundane in comparison. Instead of living in the shadow of imminent massacre or marauding outlaws, Grandmother Streeter’s life consisted of balancing bills and bickering with her children over which universities they would attend. In the 1920s, while the Wilder family endured yet another crop failure and the shame of being unable to afford a university education for their brilliant daughter Rose due to earlier financial mis-planning, Grandmother Streeter’s primary interest was curtailing her university-student granddaughter’s ceaseless partying. Grandmother Streeter’s life would be entirely recognizable today as there is nothing exotic or foreign about it.

In the 1920s, a technological gap had opened between the contemporaneous families, the Streeters and the Wilders. Grandmother Streeter lived in a world where her children and grandchildren ran errands for her and drove her around in cars – even her eldest brother, the one for whom the loss of the family estate hit the hardest as the heir apparent, came to visit her and proudly showed her his car. For them it was a symbol that they had successfully recaptured within one generation what their parents had lost. In contrast, Rose Wilder Lane revealed that her father, Almanzo Wilder, was still using a mule team to plough his fields since he could not afford a tractor. Her parents' attitude was one of fatalism: they were just unlucky, with their history of continuous failure at almost every endeavor. To their credit, they did not believe society owed them a way out of their problems (though the same did not apply to their wealthier extended family), but there was an ongoing refusal to learn from previous mistakes. 

While the stuff of Ingalls Wilder’s books makes excellent films and can carry a television series, one would be hard pressed to extract five minutes of interesting cinematic material from Streeter Aldrich’s works, even though they were completely contemporary to Ingalls Wilder’s life events. The chasm of public interest that lies between the books represents an appetite for excitement. No matter how secure the path to success was, and still is, it is boring in comparison to stories of wild, unsettled lands where the exoticism of locale romanticizes the grinding poverty. This is not to say that the Streeter family’s life in the early years, the decades immediately after the loss of their fortune and descent into poverty even worse than the Ingalls’ family’s, was not grinding: it was. But their daily grind was different because it was in service to lifting themselves out of their dire situation. While the Ingalls Wilder families took a "get rich quick / get lucky" approach, Streeter Aldrich's family relied on slow, steady building, a brick-by-brick, stone-by-stone model. For this reason, Bess Streeter Aldrich’s books are better as role models for the ideal American, providing as they do a paeon to the worthiness of ambition, discernment of judgement, the imperative of individual choice, and, above all else, patience in achieving success.    

 

             

Mary Lucia Darst

Mary Lucia Darst
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