Born February 7th, 1867, Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder would have been 150 years-old today. Even though she was born two centuries ago, her stories still tickle the fancies of young readers and bring to light questions of goodness and faith. There's something worldly to these children's books that I continue to sift through while on tour with a musical about the author's life.
Thanks to a friend on Facebook who shared it with me, I read the NYTimes article about Laura, which was published today. The article brings to light some political undertones to the novels. In an America today which is so divided, I find some hope in Ingalls's writing of the past, even if it may not strictly be in line with my Democratic, liberal views. In LITTLE TOWN ON THE PRAIRIE, Ingalls writes:
"The crowd was scattering away then, but Laura stood stock still. Suddenly she had a completely new thought. The Declaration and the song came together in her mind, and she thought: God is America's king.
She thought: Americans won't obey any king on earth. Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences. No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself. Why (she thought), when I am a little older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn't anyone else who has a right to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good.
Her whole mind seemed to be lighted up by that thought. This is what it means to be free. It means, you have to be good. 'Our father's God, author of liberty--' The laws of Nature and of Nature's God endow you with a right to life and liberty. Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God's law is the only thing that you gives you a right to be free."
As I read this from the backseat of our van, I was struck by this young girl's insight: it is our responsibility, as individual citizens, to uphold what is just, right, and humane. Regardless of political party, we Americans must obey and answer to our conscience. Our history is covered in the blood of oppressed people. We will never be able to clear our conscience, but it is our duty to continue to progress and do better than those before us. We are free, and because of that, we are the only ones who can hold ourselves accountable for our actions.
Now, whatever "God's law" may be for any individual, I believe one common truth resonates throughout humanity-- we are all one. We are the same. For me, "God's law" is the belief that everyone has the right to worship as they want, love whom they want, and express themselves truthfully. The key to all of this is that when we exercise our freedoms, we do not inflict harm on others. Freedom is a gift, and "With great power, comes great responsibility." In her children's novel, Ingalls summarizes exactly what that responsibility is-- we have to be good.
It's almost as if another young female autobiographical, historical writer responds to Ingalls in her own diary:
“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”
Like Anne, I have to trust that goodness will win out in the end, but like Laura, I must hold myself accountable.
On her 150th birthday, I thank Laura Ingalls Wilder for making me think and for making me continue to ask the difficult questions.