Shout out to all the dads out
there! Happy Father’s Day!
Great dads are everywhere. You might be one yourself. But they are often invisible. No one notices the person who does the job right. If you are a great dad, you children may grow into well-adjusted adults. They won’t become notorious for anything. They won’t write a bitter poem about you like Sylvia Plath wrote about her dad. They will probably not make history, unless your family is unlucky enough to get thrust into the historical spotlight (which is not an experience to seek out: see the ten Boom family, below). They will just go quietly about contributing to society by being great citizens, moms and dads themselves.
This is why we so seldom hear about
the great dads.
Here are three dads who, through
accidents of history, had their great dadliness recorded. One was the father to a daughter who wrote
about him. Another was in the wrong
place at the wrong time. And the third
wrote novels with his son.
Charles Ingalls: Rifle, Ax, and Fiddle
Charles Ingalls, father of Laura Ingalls Wilder, was a friendly, adventurous, adaptable man with incredible amounts of energy and what might be described as “itchy feet.” He had the perfect personality to survive and thrive as a pioneer. He moved his family many times throughout Laura and her sisters’ childhood, shepherding his family through disaster after disaster on the American frontier. (For example: floods, fires, tornadoes, blizzards, locusts, and malaria.)
Charles was able to build his family a cabin in single summer using just his ax. He shot game to provide food for them. And wherever they went, he took his fiddle. He was a gifted musician who used music, along with his indomitably cheerful personality, to keep his family’s spirits up.
Casper ten Boom: the Grand Old Man of Haarlem
Casper ten Boom lived his entire life in a narrow, cramped house in Haarlem, Netherlands. The front room housed the family business, a watch repair shop. Casper, was the “absentminded professor” type. He was gentle and affectionate, beloved by the neighborhood children, eccentric and forgetful, a gifted watch repairer but a terrible businessman. It was typical of him to work for weeks on a rare watch and then forget to send its owner a bill. He was delighted that the shop across the street was stealing his business, because “then they will make more money!”
He had long white whiskers and little spectacles. Picture him looking like the old banker played by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.
When the Nazis took over Holland, Casper was still
living in the Haarlem
watch shop with two of his adult daughters, Betsie and Corrie. Because the ten Boom family had so many
connections in the city; were known as generous and helpful people; and had a
great affection for the Jews (“God’s chosen people”), their house gradually
became a hub for the resistance. Its
crazy floor plan made it the perfect place to build a bunker as an emergency
hiding place for the handful of people that were always staying with them.
The ten Boom family were eventually
betrayed and arrested. A Nazi guard,
age, tried to send him home on a promise of good behavior. Casper
responded, “If you send me home today, tomorrow I will open my door to the
first person in need who knocks.” He was
arrested and died of a fever in prison.
Casper’s daughter Corrie survived the concentration camps (Betsie did not) and later wrote a memoir about her family’s experiences, called The Hiding Place. It’s an incredible story, but the most delightful parts of it to read are the early parts, where we watch Casper interact with his family and community. He was truly a great dad. Yet, if it hadn’t been for the Nazi takeover, few people today would know his name.
Dick Francis: Integrity in Life and Fiction
Dick Francis, a former jockey, wrote many terrific thrillers set in the world of horse racing. Troubled father/son relationships often feature in his novels. Francis was asked whether he had a troubled relationship with his own father, and he responded that to the contrary, the relationship was great. “Perhaps that’s why I’m so interested in troubled father/son relationships.”
Francis’s main characters tend to be single men in their early 30s. Some have more baggage than others, but what they all have in common is a strong sense of integrity. They can’t tolerate allowing anything like cheating to happen, even when it puts them in harm’s way, and they can’t bring themselves to back down, even sometimes when facing torture.
In his later years, Francis wrote several novels with his son Felix. The novel Crossfire (2010), from which this picture is taken, includes the dedication “to the memory of Dick Francis, the greatest father and friend a man could ever have.”
Now, I’ll Bet You Know a Great Dad!
Leave a comment praising an unsung great dad that you know.
Many years ago, a friend and I got
talking about what Utopia would look like to us. I ended up producing a fairly extensive
write-up on utopia according to me, dubbed “Jentopia.”
Jentopia turns out to be a very decentralized, low-tech society. I sketched a vision of people living in a scattered network of mostly self-sufficient farmsteads. They subsisted on agriculture, animal husbandry, hunting and fishing, or whatever combination of these best suited their immediate environment. Government was local. Crimes were handled at the community level by a tribal or community council. If a major military threat should arise from without, communities would get together and form a temporary militia to repel it. All art was folk art, all music folk music. Things that require a specialist, such as medicine, midwifery, and metalsmithing would be handled by local experts or by traveling specialists with whom gifted young people could apprentice if they chose. Young people, when they came of age, could travel to other communities to find spouses or seek work. Or they could simply go explore their world. Because of the low level of technology, it was unlikely that any one group could completely wipe out another. The low tech also limited the speed and range of travel. The world was connected, but loosely so. Families and communities were largely self-sufficient.
The closest I have ever seen historical conditions coming to Jentopia is the description of Almonzo Wilder’s boyhood in the book Famer Boy, written by his wife, Laura Ingalls Wilder. I suppose that this book, plus the Noble Savage myth, is where my mental picture of Jentopia originated.
The Wilder family are prosperous
farmers living in upstate New York
in the 1880s. They raise cows, sheep, pigs, and horses. They have fields and a big garden. The sheep produce wool, from which Mrs. Wilder
weaves and then makes all the family’s clothes.
They have their own woodlot, from which they get (as needed) wintergreen
berries, nuts, and timber. They have their own lake, from which they cut ice to
store for the summer. They achieve all
this by working nonstop. By the time he
is nine, Almonzo is plowing all day in the early summer. He makes up for it by eating his weight in
food at every meal.
The Wilders are as near as a family can come to being completely self-sufficient. Nevertheless, they are connected to the outside world. A shoemaker and a tinker each make an annual trip to the area, selling the family what they need. A buyer from New York City comes by once a year to buy Mrs. Wilder’s butter. Mr. Wilder trains horses and sells them. And they are not completely safe from crime. A neighboring farm family is robbed and severely beaten in their own house one night. Also, the Wilder’s whole lifestyle would vanish if one of them were to become disabled by an injury or a serious illness.
We All Want It …
Despite not being perfect, the “Farmer Boy” lifestyle is very appealing to me in theory. And not only to me. It appeals to many people for different reasons. Some are survivalists who want to have more security by having more control over their food supply. Others are environmentalists who would rather not contribute to the problems of pollution and industrial farming.
These are not unusual
feelings. I think most people, if you
asked them, would rather be as self-sufficient as possible. And nobody, if you ask them point-blank, wants to pollute or create huge piles of
garbage or exploit other people in sweat shops or indirectly participate in
cruelty to animals. We all would like to
live in an ideal world where we don’t harm anyone or anything else by our lifestyle.
We are all trying to get back to the Garden.
So why is it that most people resist the call to suddenly enact a low-tech, environmentally friendly lifestyle? As a fellow blogger put it, “people don’t like environmental rants.” His theory is that we are all just too lazy and selfish to give up our luxuries. But I don’t think it’s that. I think most people resist “environmental rants” due to good, sound psychological reasoning.
People are willing to do something if they believe it will provide them some kind of tangible benefit. It’s best if they start seeing this benefit right away. If we tried to plant a garden and nothing came up, we might try again next year, but we would certainly be discouraged and might give up. This effect, by the way, is the reason that Dave Ramsey advises people who have a lot of debts to tackle their smaller debts first. It would make more sense mathematically to start with the larger debts, which rack up more interest. But Ramsey has discovered by trial and error that people need the early sense of accomplishment that comes with seeing a debt vanish. This gives them hope that paying off their debts is possible and further motivates them to keep saving.
Occasionally you meet a person who is so disciplined and mature that they can work hard and sacrifice for a very long-term goal, sometimes for years before seeing any results. But this is not the norm. In the real world, people give up if they don’t believe their efforts are having any effect.
That is the problem with asking people to make changes in their lifestyle for an abstract environmental goal. There is no obvious connection between our actions and the end result. We are told that the world is ending and that it’s because of our lifestyle. However, we are also told that even if we completely changed our lifestyle tomorrow, it’s possible the disastrous trend would not reverse. And even if everyone in our city – or state – or country – managed to completely change our lifestyle, China would still be out there polluting. Our actions wouldn’t make a dent in climate change, if it is even mostly human-caused. If it is even worse than the alternatives.
In the end, the actions we are urged to take are so tiny that it’s hard to see how they could do anything. Use a different kind of light bulb. Produce less trash. Don’t eat meat. Whoopee. I don’t take environmental end-times prophets seriously unless they ask us to move to the wilderness, go full Wilder, and stop using electricity altogether.
And some of them do.
The Hard Way
I hate to pick on the Green New
Deal, but it’s out there, and I have heard people say that we are selfish,
anti-science, anti-future dunderheads if we object to it. So, let’s talk about it.
The basic premise behind the GND is
to enact a sudden, universal switch to a sustainable, environmentally friendly
lifestyle from the top down, by force. There are two problems with this. One is the tyranny problem. The other is the death problem.
The Tyranny Problem: The problem with enacting radical lifestyle changes from the top down is that this is, not to mince words, tyranny. It is tyranny any time a government tries to force large segments of a population to give up their livelihood, move to a different place, raise their children in a certain way, have more or fewer children, or any other major changes to the elements of our lifestyle that are the proper domain of families.
Mao Tse Tung tried this in China. It was called the Great Leap Forward. He basically outlawed white-collar jobs and
forced millions of city dwellers to move onto collective farms. Millions died in the famines that
followed. (Top-down control of farming
>>> crop failure >>> famine.)
Any time a government tries to
force major lifestyle changes on its populace, whatever else the initiative may
be it is also a power grab.
Actually, the advocates of the GND
admit that it’s a power grab. They say
that radical, tyrannical steps are necessary now just as they are (arguably)
necessary during Total War, because we are all going to die unless we do
something about this environmental problem.
They say tyranny is justified because they are saving us from death.
So let’s talk about the death problem.
Death Problem: Besides the fact that it’s tyranny, there is another huge
problem with trying to get an entire population to give up electricity,
plastics, and motor vehicles essentially overnight. The problem is that these modern luxuries have
enabled us to build up and sustain a population that is much, much bigger than
subsistence farming could support.
We all depend on electricity (hence coal) and on oil for things like our city sewer systems; our clean, processed water; our garbage removal; our heat in the winter; our healthy, abundant, affordable food. We also depend on these systems for medical technologies that keep many of us alive. Many people are dependent upon medicines that have to be refrigerated and that can only be produced with our current technology.
If we suddenly gave up petroleum and coal, all these systems would collapse. This scenario has been explored – frequently – in sci-fi and dystopias. It always ends in huge die-offs. Often, the die-offs have an additional cause such as zombies. But if you want to read a detailed exploration of what would happen if the lights simply went out, I recommend Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling. At the beginning of that book, all electricity, motor vehicles, and gunpowder (!) suddenly stop working. There is no bomb, and there are no zombies. Lights out is all it takes to kill off most of the population. If you don’t have time to read Dies the Fire (a doorstop of a book), try the much shorter One Second After by William R. Forstchen, in which gunpowder and motor vehicles continue to work, but the power goes off and communities no longer receive goods from the outside world via trucking. This is even closer to what the Green New Deal would bring us.
Anyone who seriously wants the United States
to stop using coal and petroleum within the next ten years is asking at least
50%, probably more like 75%, of us to die in the cause of environmentalism.
I honestly don’t know whether the advocates of the GND realize this or not. Maybe they think there would be a way to find another source of power, such that it would not cause massive die-offs. Maybe they think the die-offs would be a good thing. Or maybe they don’t actually expect the GND to be enforced as it is written. In any case, I don’t think they’ve thought seriously about how bad it would really be.
The Possibly Not Fatal, But Still Extremely Hard, Way
The only nonfatal way that I can
see for a Luddite dreamer to get from city life to Jentopia is to move there
voluntarily. Buy some land, build a
chicken coop, plant a big garden. Become
a homesteader. Have a generator or a
wood stove or whatever you need in case the power goes out. Dig a root cellar. Stock up on any necessary medicines.
This is good, as far as it goes. It is something that I would like to do if so positioned. That said, there are a few caveats.
Not everyone is in a position to take
up the homesteading lifestyle. Some
people can’t afford to move or can’t afford to buy land. Some are taking care of a sick child or
elder. Some are committed to an
important, demanding career that ties them to a city. (We don’t want all our doctors and
firefighters to go full Luddite!)
Even supposing we do take up the
homesteading lifestyle, it is going to be very demanding. Farming is difficult to succeed in if you
didn’t grow up in it. (For example, you
need a lot of wrist and hand strength that has to be developed in your youth.) For
most people, their homestead would end up being only partially self-sufficient.
They might have a large garden and keep chickens, perhaps even a cow …
but a portion of their food, all of their medicine, and probably the bulk of
their income would be coming from elsewhere.
Even to take up a partially self-sufficient lifestyle,
here are the skills you might need: construction (fixing your house, and
building barns, chicken coops, etc.). Plumbing. Gardening, including knowing what varieties
of garden crops do well in your area and how to handle pests and plant
diseases. Animal husbandry (if you want
your own milk) and butchering (if you want your own bacon). Food preservation (canning, pickling, and
maybe a smokehouse). Water purification.
Home cooking from scratch. Camping
skills such as how to start a fire in a fire pit or in a wood stove – and, not
unrelated, fire safety. Knitting,
sewing, and – if you are hard core – spinning and weaving. Sheep shearing. Soap making.
First aid and possibly more advanced medical knowledge, if you are
living in a place remote enough that it would be hard to get to medical
care. Home dental care (tooth
extraction?). Home haircuts. Vehicle maintenance (or horse breeding). How to maintain the road into and out of your
place. And finally, if you are preparing
for the lawlessness that would follow a social or environmental apocalypse, you
will need self-defense skills, shooting skills, and gun maintenance (or sword
skills if you are living the world of Dies
Obviously, living in an environmentally friendly way is going to be a full-time occupation and then some. You will have no time for art or leisure.
Let me be the first to say that I
do not have all these skills. I do not
have a green thumb. I have a tiny yard
that is not set up for chickens or gardening.
I have a modestly stocked pantry and one lousy rain barrel. I have a fire place but no wood pile. If the power went off in our city in the
middle of the winter and stayed off for a month or two … maybe my family would survive. That’s leaving looters out of the equation.
Maybe I should start calling myself
It’s a really big club.
Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, HarperCollins, first published 1933. Shows the Wilder family’s lifestyle by following Almonzo through one year of his life.
The Quarter-Acre Farm: How I Kept the Patio, Lost the Lawn, and Fed my Family for a Year by Spring Warren. Seal Press, 2011. Warren decides she personally (only she, not her husband and sons) is going to eat only what she grows on her own property for one year. (She has to exclude beverages from this, or she would have to give up all drinks but water.) She works her tail off, but she does it. Her learning curve is delightful to read. Note that she lives in California, which has a good growing climate, and when the book starts her yard already boasts fruit trees.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. Chang chronicles the life of her grandmother, her mother, and herself. Her parents were both dedicated communists early in the movement. Her family survived being separated and sent to collective farms during the Great Leap Forward.
“The Climate Case of the Century” by Edward Ring on American Greatness. The web site is kind of annoying in terms of ads and pop-ups (sorry about that!), but in the section of the article called “Critical Questions,” Ring asks a series of great questions about the extent and nature of climate change and the relative harm and benefits of trying to switch to solar and wind power.
My earliest and most enduring culture crush has been on Native American culture. This started very early, perhaps by the time I was five. By the time I could read on my own, I was on a sharp lookout for any book with an Indian on the cover. That was all it took to make me pick up the book and devour it.
Here are some of the books I’ve discovered … as a kid, and
then later, as an adult.
This is an incomplete list on two counts. First of all, there are obviously many fine books out there, by Native and non-Native people alike, that I have yet to discover and read. Secondly, this isn’t even a complete list of all the books I’ve read on this topic. I can think of at least sixseveneight twelve other books that I remember vividly, but can’t remember enough about the titles to track them down.
As A Kid
North American Indians, by Marie and Douglas Gorsline, Random House, 1977. This book was the introduction to Native American tribes and their lifestyles for my siblings and me. It’s a good overview of the different cultural regions of North America, including a map at the beginning of the book. For each region, it names one or two of the best-known tribes and gives a few pages of details about their lifestyle, beautifully illustrated. The last page of the book is about sign language, which it says functioned as a lingua franca for the different Plains tribes. It includes a number of illustrations of the different signs. What could be more fun?
Runner for the King by Rowena Bastin Bennett, 1962. I must have been seven years old when I read this book. I have no doubt that I picked it up because it featured my two favorite things: Indians, and the word “king.” It takes place in the ancient Incan kingdom, but I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that it did not disappoint. The boy on the front cover runs through rugged mountain landscapes. He encounters a fellow runner who has been beaten and tied up by enemies, so the boy must run the next messenger’s leg of the journey as well as his own. He has to climb over a rock slide. At last, he makes it to the king with his message and is personally honored by the king. I now realize, looking at the drawing, that the boy’s face on this cover does not look particularly Incan. It looks more like Peter Pan colored reddish brown. But at the time, this boy – particularly this picture on the cover – instantly became my standard for fitness and beauty. You’d laugh about that if you knew me, because I look less like this lean, fit, dark-haired runner, and more like … well, Shirley Temple.
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Scholastic, Inc., 1935, 1953, 1963. This is the Little House book in which the Ingalls family go into “Indian country,” homestead there for less than a year, and then are moved out by changing government policy, not too long after the same government has forced the Indians to leave. This book has been called racist, but that is a foul slander. It portrays a lot of complexity in the Ingalls family’s experience with the Indians. Charles Ingalls, Laura’s “Pa,” in particular clearly respects the Indians. He gently rebukes some other settlers when they speak of the Indians in a dehumanizing way, and he talks with enthusiasm about a buffalo hunt: “Now that’s something I’d like to see!” There is also a scene where Pa has been hunting a wildcat that he knows is hanging around the creek. He needs to find and kill it so that it doesn’t attack his family. He meets an Indian man, who gives him to understand with signs that three days ago he found the very cat and shot it out of a tree.
Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims by Clyde Robert Bulla, illustrated by Peter Buchard, Scholastic. Squanto’s story is truly an incredible one. The scene I remember best from this book is that of Squanto trying to sleep on his first night in a British room. The bed is too soft and uncomfortable. Finally he sleeps on the floor.
The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare. An Indian boy and his father befriend a white boy who has been left on his own to manage the family’s new cabin until the rest of his family can join him. The Indian boy teaches the white boy wood lore and such things as the signs that the different clans leave on trees. The white boy teaches the Indian boy to read. The Indian boy is really offended by the role of Friday in Robinson Crusoe, which rocks his new friend’s world.
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. I don’t remember this one very well, but I know that I read it as a kid. It’s the story of an incredibly tough and resourceful girl surviving on her own on an island. Catnip to Kid Me.
Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Trina Schart Hyman is one of my favorite illustrators, which just makes this book all the better. This book is not primarily about Indians, but they do play an increasingly big role as the book progresses. Caddie befriends them and then ends up sneaking across the river to visit them and head off a conflict.
Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks. Omri owns a small metal medicine cupboard that can bring his plastic toys to life. When it does, he discovers that they are not toys but have actual lives and personalities of their own. This series is one of the most poignant I’ve ever read.
I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven, Dell Publishing, 1973. This one barely makes it into the “childhood” category. I read it in seventh grade, in a year when we read many books set in other cultures (such as The Good Earth and Things Fall Apart). And I Heard the Owl definitely belongs in that august company. It rises to the level of literature. Owl tells the story of Mark, a young priest who goes to serve a small Indian community in remote British Columbia. My favorite scene is the one in which he suddenly realizes that some of the women are talking about him, in front of him, and protests that they’ve got their facts wrong. He has acquired a passive knowledge of the language without really trying. He must have quite a gift for languages indeed, because those coastal Native languages are really complex.
As An Adult
The Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee series by Tony Hillerman. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee both work for the Navajo Tribal Police. Joe is a tough old cynic. Jim is a young visionary. “Tony Hillerman was the former president of Mystery Writers of America and received its Edgar and Grand Master awards. His other honors include the Center for the American Indian’s Ambassador Award, the Silver Spur Award for best novel set in the West, and the Navajo Tribe’s Special Friend Award. He lived with his wife in Albuquerque, New Mexico.” — From the jacket of A Thief of Time, Harper, 1988, 1990, 2000, 2009. Update: Tony Hillerman’s daughter, Anne Hillerman, is now continuing the Leaphorn and Chee series. I just finished Cave of Bones (2018) by her. It’s really good. Chee has married a fellow Navajo police officer, and Leaphorn is living with a white woman since his wife died of cancer earlier in the series. Anne Hillerman incorporates even more Navajo terms into the books than her father did, and the greeting (Ya’at’eeh) is now spelled with even more diacritic marks.
The Grieving Indian by Arthur H. and George McPeek, 1988. Arthur H. is a Native pastor, recovering alcoholic, and boarding school survivor. He has many excellent insights about unresolved grief, which he believes is the root cause of most of the problems facing Native individuals, families, and communities.
Bruchko by Bruce Olson, Charisma House, 1978, 2006. Bruce Olson goes to live among the Motilone Indians of Colombia. After much fruitless struggle to integrate, he is befriended by a remarkable young man his own age who tells Bruce his “heart name.” In time, Christ comes to the Motlione in a way that is very organic to their culture. This book is filled with goosebump-raising moments.
Black Elk’s Vision: A Lakota Story by S.D. Nelson, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2010. Black Elk grew up in the Lakota tribe. At the age of nine, he was given a troubling vision that essentially invited his tribe to choose life rather than bitterness. He did not share this vision with anyone for several years. He was present at the battle of Little Bighorn, and later traveled to England as a dancer in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Besides the illustrations done by the author, the book includes a historical drawing done by Red Horse and many authentic black and white photographs.
Windigo Island by William Kent Krueger, 2014. Girls are disappearing from the Ojibwe reservation. Cork O’Connor goes off to find one of them, and ends up in North Dakota.
Thunderhead by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston. A team of archaeologists discovers a lost Anasazi city and figures out what wiped the Anasazi out. There are no modern-day Indians among the main characters in this book, but near the end, one does play a key role.
Children’s Books Discovered As An Adult
Little Runner of the Longhouse by Betty Baker, pictures by Arnold Lobel, an I Can Read Book by Harper & Row Publishers, New York & Evanston, 1962. Little Runner is an extremely relatable Iroquois boy whose main goal in life is to get some maple sugar.
Rabbit’s Snow Dance by James & Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Jeff Newman, 2012. This legend explains why rabbit, who started out with a long, beautiful tail, now has a short, fuzzy one. It also explains why cottonwood trees are full of “cotton.” Like many Native legends, it contains a not-so-subtle warning about being proud, wanting our own way, and not listening to warnings from our elders. “I will make it snow! A-zi-ka-na-po!”
A Salmon for Simon by Better Waterton, illustrated by Ann Blades, copyright 1978, first Meadow Mouse edition 1990, first revised Meadow Mouse edition 1996, reprinted 1998. A Meadow Mouse Paperback, Groundwood Books/Douglas & McIntyre, Toronto, Ontario. Simon, who lives in a village on the Pacific coast of Canada, has been trying all day to catch a salmon. When he sees one drop from an eagle’s talons, he has to decide whether to eat it or save it.