Fatherhood in extremis: Laura Ingalls Wilder & Cormac McCarthy

I finally read The Road — almost the whole thing in one sitting in bed and then finished it off the next day.  It’s pretty harrowing.  I’ve been haunted by that recent article in The New Yorker, “The Dystopians,” about ““back-to-the-land types,” “peak oilers,”… all-around Cassandras, or doomers,” and others who believe the U.S. and maybe the world economy are bankrupt and that we are headed for some more or less minimalist post-economic, post-oil future.  The Road jibes very well with with that ideology, on the more horrific, apocalyptic end of the spectrum (after all, few of the “dystopians” appear believe that we will descend into mass cannibalism).

I was struck by how much The Road has in common with Little House in the Big Woods.  Ingalls’ book looks back at nineteenth-century homesteaders with affectionate nostalgia; McCarthy looks ahead to a dystopian future; but in either case, the whole world focuses to a parent trying to provide for the family by eking out sustenance from the land.

So, Ingalls’ Pa kills bear and deer, harvests wheat, carves wood, builds the cabin and insulates it; McCormac’s father rigs up the cart, makes a tent out of a tarp, kills a threatening vagrant, scavenges food, makes a lantern out of a can of gasoline.  It’s all about survival skills and protecting and getting food and shelter for the kid(s).  (Admittedly, Ma is just as important in Little House as Pa. There is a wife in The Road, but she only appears in one retrospective memory: she tells the dad “They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it,” and then she goes off and apparently kills herself with a sharp flake of obsidian.  Of course nothing at all like this happens to Ma in Little House.)

Basically, for me the narcissistic takeaway of both books was this: If the apocalypse comes, your fatherhood-in-extremis skills are crap and you will not be able to take care of your family. We don’t even have a working flashlight (the girls always leave it on and run out the batteries) or jugs of water in the basement.  God help us if I’m called upon to do something like this on no sleep:

He unscrewed the bottom panel and he removed the burner assembly and disconnected the two burners with a small crescent wrench.  He tipped out the plastic jar of hardware and sorted out a bolt to thread into the fitting of the junction and then tightened it down.  He connected the hose from the tank and held the little potmetal burner up in his hand, small and light-weight.

And no way would I have been able to use that map ripped into little pieces to navigate past the cannibal compound all the way to the sea.

I did get one good tip from The Road: when you first hear the bombs or whatever, immediately turn the bathtub on since the water supply will run out momentarily.  I’m all over that one, am excellent at taking baths.

Another unrelated thought I had about The Road: it winds up with what struck me as a Robinson Crusoe reference, as the father swims out to an abandoned boat and strips it for useful supplies, very much like Crusoe at the beginning of Defoe’s novel; perhaps a little joke or conceit on McCarthy’s part about going back to origins of the novel form.

It could be fun to do a Little House on the Road mashup along the lines of that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies paperback that’s all the rage.

A really good read, for sure, but for 21st-century apocalyptic fiction I’d still give the nod to Jose Saramago’s amazing Blindness (1998, actually; don’t be put off by the movie version which is supposed to be lousy).