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).

10 thoughts on “Fatherhood in extremis: Laura Ingalls Wilder & Cormac McCarthy”

  1. This is how I feel every time there’s a whiff of a tornado in the area. Z panics and makes all of us go down to the basement, where our emergency radio (given to us as a gift, not something we thought to buy for ourselves) invariably picks up some Spanish music channel and nothing else. What IS the Spanish word for “RUN!”?

    There is no water down there, nothing to sit on really, no food or canned supplies or first aid. I figure if a tornado really does hit we’ll just be playing around in our costume trunks or doing laundry, the only two options aside from instantaneous death. Our flashlights never work either, but that is b/c we use them up looking for dog poo after dark. I feel old.

  2. OK, so based on your review of Little House in the Big Woods, we started reading the series. Big Woods was smooth sailing, mostly (I hadn’t remembered all the child beating that happens in that book!) but part way through Praire I found myself wondering if it was possible to edit out entire chapters of the book and have it still make sense.

    How do you talk about this with a four year old? Take this quote from the chapter “Pa Goes to Town” — Mrs. Scott is visiting with Ma:

    “She said she hoped to goodness they had no trouble with Indians… She said “Land knows, they’d never do anything with this country themselves. All they do is roam around over it like wild animals. Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to the folks that farm it. That’s only common sense and justice.”

    [My comment: Was the Mrs. Scott reading Locke?]
    and then it continues…

    “She did not know why the government made treaties with indians. The only good Indian was a dead Indian. The very thought of Indians made her blood run cold.”

    So I say to V, “what do you think about that? Do you think that the pioneers should have the Indians’ land because they farm it?” and V says “Yeah, sure.” So I say “But it’s the Indian’s land, and the pioneers are taking it.” and V says “that’s OK.” obviously compelety convinced by Mrs. Scott.

    So then I launch into a long discussion of native beliefs in the collective ownership of land vs. European beliefs in individual land ownership, and the reservation system, and pioneers pushing Indians farther west and north… and she said with great alarm: “But what happened to them? What happened to the Indians?” and I though “Oh s**t, I really don’t want to be in a discussion about genocide with a four year old, so I told her that some of them died, and some went to live on the reservations, and their grandchildren still live there, and some of them assimilated (not using that word) and that in fact, her great-great-grandmother was an Irquois. And I said that the story of the Indians was a very sad story, and she seemed content to leave it at that.

    I think this discussion ruined her interest in the book, however, because now she won’t read it with me any more.

    Maybe we should wait until she has more of a capacity for critical analysis.

  3. Oh dear. I actually didn’t remember any of that. We just this week started “Little House on the Prairie” and there’ve been only a couple fleeting references to “Indians” so far…. Not looking forward to those conversations… I may be tempted to skip around a little if I can get away with it.

  4. So after positng this, I went looking for some more info on LIW — and I found this:


    So, I’ve decided that Greatgrandma is right. 4 is too young for these books. I think high school might be a better age.

    Stop now before it’s too late!!!

    Actually Ivan, Leah and I had a discussion about whether we thought you would skip around in a book or not, and we decided that we thought you wouldn’t because it would ruin the integrity of the literature. 🙂 Guess we were wrong!!

  5. Another link, another perspective:


    Aftter reading this, I decided I should try to finish out the book so we could discuss the Ingall’s retreat from Indian territory and the supposed moral relief that they find.

    I think that it’s too much cognitive dissonace for a 4 year old, though. She is just getting beyond the “parents are huge godlike beings that are always right” stage. She can’t comprehend the plot line that the parents are doing something wrong and yet are still nice people. Come to think of it, I know some adults who have trouble with the “good people do evil things” concept. It is so much easier to demonize.

  6. So I will continue having a conversation with myself on your blog. A couple of weeks ago V got attacked by a little boy who was screaming “I hate girls” while he hit her. I used LHOP to talk about prejudice and hate and how there is no way to make sense of it. So despite 4 being too young – things happen to 4 year olds that are pretty intense.

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