I grew up 45 miles from Wilder’s birthplace in Pepin, Wisconsin, a part of the world where people spend their whole lives in the “dot-dot-dot.” We try not to bother others with our feelings, and we leave a lot unsaid. In one (perhaps extreme) example: A family friend, an elderly woman, woke up at 3 a.m. with chest pains. She thought about calling 9-1-1, but decided not to. If the ambulance came, the siren might wake the neighbors. She considered calling her kids, but she didn’t want to worry them. So she drove herself to the emergency room. When she arrived, she opted not to take one of the parking spots close to the entrance, because someone else might need it. For so many of us in Wilder country, emergencies happen to other people.
Woven into this extreme reluctance to burden others is an emphasis on self-sufficiency—yet another hallmark of the pioneer spirit Wilder advocates in her books. Always critical of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, she gave a 1937 speech in which she recalled a frontier where “neither [her family] nor their neighbors begged for help. No other person, nor the government, owed them a living ... we need today courage, self reliance and integrity.” Good humor and cheerfulness spur that all-important courage, Wilder argued. It’s how families like hers boosted their morale and avoided succumbing to the despair of prairie life, as Mrs. Brewster does one winter night, screaming at her husband, seizing a butcher knife, and threatening to kill herself if he won’t take her back East.
In These Happy Golden Years, Wilder gives readers a perfect contrast between Laura—who adheres to the cardinal value of emotional repression—and the sulky, gravy-stained Mrs. Brewster, who Laura stays with one winter while teaching at a prairie school. At first, it hurts Laura’s feelings when Mrs. Brewster doesn’t return her “good morning.” But Laura learns a valuable lesson from Mrs. Brewster’s sullenness: It’s the Ingalls family’s cheerful exchange of greetings that makes the morning good. By quashing feelings and swapping smiles, the Ingalls family made frontier hardship endurable.
Years after reading those books, I moved to Madrid to teach school, just as Laura moved far from her family’s home on the frontier. I discovered that living far away can give you perspective on the unique emotional economy of your home. I couldn’t seem to make anything work in Madrid. I spoke Spanish, but no one understood me, and I never got what I wanted. I think this was because I spoke Spanish in ellipses—that is, I tried to leave things unsaid, the way I would in English. People didn’t give me things, because I wouldn’t dare ask.
Carrying around the belief that asking for help somehow amounts to weakness hasn’t always served me well, especially in other cultural contexts. When I was moving back to the U.S., an issue with the airline delayed me for several days. Spanish airport-security agents, who had watched me repeatedly and politely fail to get a seat on a flight to the States, finally took me aside and explained that I needed to go up to the Iberia desk, take hold of the counter, and yell and cry without stopping until I got what I wanted. I was shocked. I couldn’t do it, I told them. So they rallied two other passengers to stand behind me and support me while I became Mrs. Brewster (minus the knife). Within a few hours, I flew home. I’m still grateful to those strangers who boosted my morale, not with their cheerfulness but with their indignation.