Left to Her Own Devices
By Elizabeth YaleJanuary 27, 2015
THE FIRST THING I ever read on the internet — this was 1994, the summer before ninth grade — was Star Trek: The Next Generation fan fiction. I was doing a summer program at UC Berkeley, and my library card came with access to the student computer labs, which had just been loaded with the Mosaic web browser. What I read was the kind of heartfelt parody where the characters’ names are all dirty puns on the originals. So for instance, the internet turned android Commander Data into “Master Beta.” This was probably the least pornographic of the puns. I thought they were all hilarious. Reading them, I felt a certain kind of freedom.
In By the Shores of Silver Lake, the fifth of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, the Ingalls family moves out to Dakota territory so that Pa can take a job as a bookkeeper at a railroad camp. Pa goes out ahead while the women wait behind in Plum Creek, Minnesota, giving them all time to recover from the scarlet fever, the illness that left Laura’s older sister Mary blind. After a few months, the girls and their Ma, nervous and unsure, take the railroad out to the end of the line to meet him. It’s 1879. Though 10 years have passed since the golden spike was hammered into the first transcontinental railroad line, this is the railroad’s first appearance in the Little House novels.
The railroad camp is a dangerous place. Ma forbids her girls to go anywhere near the men, and she looks askance at Laura’s cousin Lena, who, with her mother, cooks the railroad workers’ meals. Lena’s favorite thing to do, if she ever gets an afternoon off from the endless cooking and washing up, is to go riding across the prairie on her black pony, barefoot, her hair streaming behind her in the wind. One day, Lena takes Laura with her. Laura’s braids come undone, her legs get all scratched up, her voice goes hoarse with shouting and laughing. One night, the men riot: they don’t believe they’ve been paid what they’re owed, and they threaten to break into the store and take the money, doing violence to Charles Ingalls if they have to. But the money isn’t there, he tells them. The mob takes off to a nearby camp, where they hang the paymaster — “not enough to hurt much,” Pa says — and take the money they think is theirs.
Neither the danger nor Ma’s disapproval stops Laura from being drawn to the freedom with which Lena lives her life. She’s drawn to the railroad, too. She asks Pa to take her down to watch the men leveling the grade. Ma disapproves, but she allows her to go — though she first subjects Laura to a lecture on lady-like behavior and the importance of staying away from those “rough men.” At the worksite, Laura stands, entranced, watching the slow, regular ballet of men, machines, and horses, cutting, loading, and unloading sod to make straight a way through the rolling prairie.
In time, a town springs up by that railroad, and she’s drawn to that, too; drawn to it and troubled by it, after her isolated childhood. During the town’s first summer, Laura works for a seamstress supplying all the new settlers with shirts. The seamstress speeds through her work on that new-fangled wonder, the treadle-powered sewing machine, while Laura does the bits that have to be sewn by hand, barely keeping up. One day, looking up from her work, she sees two men emerge from a saloon: a tall thin man and a short fat man. They walk down the street, arm-in-arm, dignified-drunk, kicking in screen doors and singing temperance songs. That evening, over supper, Laura laughs as she tells this story to her family. Ma’s eyes narrow in disapproval; Pa’s twinkle with silent laughter.
Fast-forward one generation. Betsy Ray, Tacy Kelly, and Tib Muller are the stars of a series of novels that offer a lightly fictionalized account of the pre-World War I Minnesota childhood of author Maud Hart Lovelace. Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, in which the girls are 12, opens with a vignette in which they see an automobile for the very first time. Here’s the story: Betsy’s mother’s hired girl’s most prized possessions are her dime novels, which Betsy has persuaded her to loan to her and her friends, who keep them secret from their parents. Betsy, already passionate about writing (she is author Lovelace’s avatar), reads them all and writes stories that mimic their plots and themes. But disaster strikes: Tacy’s father discovers one of the novels — Lady Audley’s Secret — stuffed under her mattress. (Lady Audley’s Secret, written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, was one of the most popular of the Victorian “sensation” novels. The Betsy-Tacy reader is left in the dark on this, but major plot points include Lady Audley faking her own death, abandoning her infant son, entering into a bigamous marriage, and attempting to murder one of her husbands.) Tacy’s father drops it into the kitchen stove. There is some yelling, and a proclamation to the effect that Tacy was raised to enjoy literature, not trash. They have Shakespeare and Dickens on the shelf!
Not wanting to reveal to the hired girl that they have lost her book, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib harass Betsy’s older sister’s beau out of a dime (they promise to leave the lovers in peace only if they’re given money for candy), and walk downtown to buy a new copy of the book. While on this mission, the town grandees — Mr. and Mrs. Poppy, the owner of the town’s opera house and his wife — happen to be taking their new automobile out for an inaugural ride. The whole town turns out to cheer it on as it chugs and thumps down the road. Tib — the dainty, cute, and intensely practical friend — finagles a ride, to Betsy and Tacy’s astonishment and delight. Meanwhile, when Betsy’s mother discovers she’s been borrowing the hired girl’s novels, she hatches a plan: Betsy will get a library card, and be allowed to spend whole days by herself in the town library, newly built with Carnegie money, where only great — and respectable — books are available.
The internet, the railroad, books, cars: these stories, especially Betsy’s, link reading and speed, access to new worlds of the body, mind, and heart. In each story, what we would recognizably identify as “technology” (because it enters in and upsets an established social order, not because all the other tools the families possessed before were not technologies) arrives as a girl enters (or is on the brink of) her teenage years, and her horizons are beginning to broaden beyond her family. These technologies are linked to both sexual possibility and sexual threat; to freedom and to danger. The girls embrace the freedom; the parents fear the danger.
The fear dominates in our digital age. How could it not? We hear all the time — as in essays published in The Atlantic and Pacific Standard in the last year — about the ways in which our technologies are used against women, particularly young women, by both men and other women: scenes of humiliation and rape, filmed and tweeted; naked pictures, hacked and uploaded to the Cloud; women targeted and stalked because they write about their lives online or because they challenge the prevailing mores of certain male-dominated online subcommunities; girls bullied into suicide by their “friends.” You never know when threats expressed online will translate into physical harassment. You never know if the man whose advances you refuse is going to turn out to be the one with a gun.
All of which is to say: it’s easy to be frustrated by — or to make light of — parental fear and parental attempts to exert control, by Ma’s sideways glances and her lectures; by Tacy’s father throwing Lady Audley’s Secret in the stove. Sympathy strays to Pa, who always has a twinkle in his eye, and to Betsy’s mother, whose response to her daughter’s interest in trashy novels is to give her more freedom, while gently guiding her toward “literature.” Pa understands the humor Laura sees in two drunks singing temperance songs while kicking in saloon doors. But Ma’s fears are a response to real danger: the railroad camp is a combustible place. Her family is not really safe there. They never have been safe anywhere, in all their years on the frontier. Making sure that her girls were —and were perceived as — “nice” girls was Ma’s way of protecting them.
We tell these stories over and over, the technology standing in as a convenient focus for our fears for our daughters (as well as our desire to control them). Go back five centuries, and we get to Juan Luis Vives. In The Education of a Christian Woman, he offers noble parents advice on how to raise their daughters. Women are the intellectual equals of men, he wrote. Nevertheless, the most important thing in bringing them up is to preserve their spiritual and moral purity. He recommends restricting their reading to religious texts. Vives deplored the popularity of books that “treat no subjects but love and war”: “a young woman cannot easily be of chaste mind if her thoughts are occupied with the sword and sinewy muscles and virile strength.” The spread of such books, written in European vernaculars rather than Latin, was facilitated by the advent of the printing press, which was used to multiply and make available for sale the books that people most wanted to read. Here was the “technology” of Vives’s day; the Lady Audley’s Secret; the Star Trek fan fiction.
That Star Trek fan fiction was just the edge of an unknown continent of internet pornography — a continent which, in the end, I did not go exploring. In my own life, the “technology” that mattered was the public library. I read everything: it got so one of the librarians once gave me a book to take home over the weekend before she had even had time to enter it into the library catalog, because she knew it was a sequel for which I had been waiting particularly eagerly. As I got older, I still re-read the Little House books and the Betsy-Tacy books every year, but I also read at least one V.C. Andrews novel (incest; blond siblings locked in an attic; never again, I thought), the erotic fairy tales of Ann Rice, and the books on sex and women’s health that they stocked in the YA section. And there was a paperback copy of The Bell Jar whose cover had a big black stain on it, from a pen that had leaked in my backpack: every time I saw it on the shelf, I felt a little guilty, but also possessive: I had damaged it, but it was also mine. (Though the guilt was compounded by my failure to actually finish reading the book.)
I don’t know if my parents were paying attention to what I read; back then, I didn’t think they noticed at all. Now, as a mother, I wonder. But I don’t think my parents worried about me. Much. In high school, my exterior life was too sensible to cause much anxiety. The worry ramped up when I was in college: I had a serious boyfriend for the first time. Once or twice, his father, a pilot, took us up in his Cessna, flying us between Los Angeles and the Bay Area. That year, my father talked a lot about people he’d heard of who had crashed and died flying small planes. I was frustrated at the time, but, yes, well, okay: now I get it, Dad. I wasn’t better, or smarter, or less deserving of having trouble visited upon me than other young women. I wasn’t any more able to protect against the disasters we all expose ourselves to just by living in the world — not to mention as a woman. I was just lucky.
Locked between danger and freedom, what’s a girl to do? In the Little House and Betsy-Tacy stories, it’s not parental fears (or parental control) that safeguard Laura and Betsy. It’s the girls’ own self-possession: their trust in themselves.
In Betsy in Spite of Herself, which chronicles Betsy’s sophomore year of high school, Betsy sets herself the project of capturing the attention of Phil Brandish, a wealthy, mysterious boy who has started attending their school after having been kicked out of a military academy. Alone among the high school boys, he owns an auto, and it is his obsession. Betsy succeeds by totally transforming her personality: to match Phil’s sullen, jealous seriousness, she adopts a demure attitude. She refuses to do “intellectual” things she knows she would enjoy (like join the debate club), neglects her writing, suppresses her natural inclination to laugh and tease, shoos away the crowd of friends (boys and girls) who tend to gather at her house, dresses in green, starts spelling her name “Betsye,” and scents all her correspondence (and her person) with Jockey Club perfume.
Betsy achieves her goal, but she realizes by the end of the year that she doesn’t really want Phil and his auto, after all — not if it means squashing all of the fun out of her life, and especially not if it means denying her writing. The beginning of their end comes when she goes out for the school’s annual essay contest (the set theme that year shouldn’t surprise us: “James J. Hill and the Great Northern Railroad”), despite Phil’s objection that the afternoons she spends doing research for her essay are afternoons that she’s not out driving with him. Phil’s car isn’t as fast as the railway Betsy can travel in her mind. Still, she’s embarrassed and hurt when the affair finally ends. (Phil cuts things off in a huff after discovering that way back at the beginning of the school year, Betsy and Tacy had made up a song lampooning Betsy’s desire to go with Phil just to ride in his auto.) But her older sister Julia consoles her: she didn’t want to keep him — she “wanted other things more,” like her writing. Betsy agrees, continuing, “I wanted … my freedom more.”
When Laura Ingalls is just shy of 16, she takes her first teaching job, a story she tells in These Happy Golden Years. Almanzo Wilder drives her 12 miles each way through biting winter winds so that she can see her family on weekends. She tells him that she’s only taking rides from him to see her family: she doesn’t care about him at all. Until, one day, she does: after two years of Sunday sleigh rides and buggy rides, she doesn’t say no when Almanzo takes her hand and slips an engagement ring onto her finger.
Even before they marry, Laura and Almanzo share power and authority. Their courtship is a kind of work: many of those buggy rides and sleigh rides are part of the project of gentling Skip and Barnum, a pair of horses that Almanzo had purchased to train and sell at a profit. He comes to trust her to drive those horses, though he would barely trust another man. The week before their wedding, Laura gathers up her courage and tells Almanzo that she cannot promise to obey him in her marriage vows — she won’t follow anyone against her better judgment. “I’d never expect you to,” he tells her. And in their first year of marriage, before their daughter Rose is born, they buy two ponies. When the farm can spare their attention, they race each other across the prairie: for, as Laura writes in The First Four Years, the chronicle of their early married life (unpublished during her lifetime), “two people thoroughly in sympathy can do pretty much as they like.” For Laura, marriage is a kind of freedom, too.
In Betsy Ray’s and Laura Ingall’s stories, young women — teenage girls, we’d say now — need (and want) men, but only on their own terms. As they grow up, the world opens up around them; books, railroads, automobiles — even horses — offer escape from the family and pitch them toward those men (and the creation of new families). It’s not a safe world, but guided through it by their own internal monitors, they come out alright. Their self-possession saves them. This may be a comforting fantasy — many of the dangers that come with growing up can’t be deflected by self-confidence. But, unlike the idea that parental fears (or parental control) can keep the world at bay, at least raising girls to know themselves and their bodies, and then trusting them with that knowledge, is not only a fantasy: it’s also a start.
Elizabeth Yale is the author of Script, Print, Speech, Mail: Nature, Nation, and Learned Communication in Early Modern Britain (University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming). She teaches at the University of Iowa Center for the Book.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Life on the prairie with and after Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Lessons from Wilder's 'Little House' books.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!