Decided to stop neglecting the little girls and read to them all those books which their bigger sisters adored. Beginning with the Little House in the Big Woods and moving swiftly on to the Prairie. They are, my two youngest, of course, transfixed, as they should be—as well as anxious and moved. And I said to myself, again, as I often do, how complex and wondrous is the experience of being human.
By which I mean that social media flattens things out, encouraging users like me to draw with too sharp lines.
One of the many literary brilliances of Wilder is that, whether she intended to or not, she elucidated within a single page the pathos and tragedy of a central theme of American history. The Ingles, who of course we love because they are strong and good and honorable and brave, nevertheless, along with so many others, hold dark and sinful feelings towards other people—an attitude and posture that was institutionalized in American political life. They are going to the prairie because other people are being pushed off, sent away from their home not by choice, but so that people like Pa don’t have to feel stifled by too many neighbors.
But little Laura is rebellious. Her sometimes silent, but loud on the page questioning is always alongside Mary’s meek and perfect goodness.
She sits on the back of the covered wagon and prods, and Ma, ironing the fresh, clean, bright calicos that fill the dress-up bin of my little girls, admits to an ugly sin.
In the brilliant cadence of ordinary, unadorned prose, Wilder sets the dark and light along side each other in a single line and then moves on. She expects you’ll get it. She doesn’t circle back to make sure you did. You, like she, sitting there in the sun, knows the basic incontrovertible truth that it is not good or right to hate other people, especially those ones you don’t know. It’s not just not good, it is evil.
And that is really what it means to be human. We all have to live, day by day by day, with the light and the dark jostling alongside each other, uncomfortably, though we are not very uncomfortable. We can see the light clearly within ourselves, and the darkness clearly within others.
The miracle is observing a young mind grasp them both together. To see her love the character of Ma, and to also see that she grasps the ugliness of the words. To see the child love and to grieve at the same moment.
Which is how each of us should see ourselves and every other human person. To be interested and delighted, and also to grieve. Not to demand that the other person be good all the time. Nor to villainize another when I myself could not possibly live up to the standard I require. Nor to see dark over there and light over here. But suddenly to catch the truth, for a moment, before running away to play.
The truth that the human heart is subtle, complex, troubled, mixed up between good and evil, in need of God’s never failing mercy and forgiveness.
Books are usually better than social media. That’s what I’m saying.
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