Literature and Culture

Jean Rath

2001/12/07

The best books to read aloud to kids are the ones that I enjoy also. Lately, I’ve had the pleasure of reading two of them to my three daughters: The “Little House on the Prairie” series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and “Anna and the King”, by Margaret Landon. The fascination that these books hold for me lies in the fact that they expose a very different, but very real, way of living. These are true stories; the one being an account of the author’s childhood, and the other being based on the diaries of the real Anna Leonowens. I have found myself reacting in curious ways to these stories. Because they are about real, historical figures, my reactions bear examination and consideration.

I have always been fascinated by different cultures. I have tried to be careful not to judge those cultures when their practices are strange but not necessarily harmful. It has always been the source of some pride that I am always on the lookout, in myself, for creeping ethnocentrism. Therefore when, in “Anna and the King”, I read about the “City of Women”, I was able to approach it with objective fascination. Who would have thought that a king’s harem would require a whole city, population 9000, consisting of the king’s wives, their servants, the servants of servants, elderly wives of the former king, unmarried daughters of the former king, policewomen, shopkeepers, female judges; in other words, an infrastructure?

However, when I had finished the accounts of Laura Ingalls and Anna Leonowens, and pondered them for awhile, I made the shocking discovery that creeping ethnocentrism had snuck in the back door. I can be tolerant of other peoples’ cultures, but I am extremely intolerant of my own.

While enjoying the novels, there were some things about them that shocked me. Unfortunately, I was not shocked by the obvious things, such as the existence of a harem, or by the careless regard for the poor and the slaves in Siam. No, the things that disturbed me so much were as follows.

Anna sent her seven-year old daughter to England to be raised by a boarding school. In those days, you didn’t fly home for Christmas. The child was in her teens before Anna saw her again. I could not understand why she could not have set aside the perceived necessity of a proper British upbringing for the sake of knowing her own child. What if—think I, who has the disadvantage of having read numerous boarding school horror stories—the school had been a bad place? I also criticized Anna for her manner of dress. In tropical Siam, she maintained the many-layered British style of clothing. At the end of the story, Anna suffers from failing health, which is attributed to her years in the tropics. I am inclined to think that she would have been better off adopting the sensible clothing styles of the Siamese women.

Laura Ingalls’ mother, Caroline, also invited my criticism due to clothing. One brutally hot day, she required her daughters to dress in hot, uncomfortable clothing simply because it was Sunday. “I wish I was an Indian and didn’t have to wear clothes”, Laura finally declared, rebelliously. “Laura!” her mother answered, “And on Sunday!” Those kinds of false Sunday observances rile me every time.

And so I came away from these novels seething over the narrow-mindedness of these women, and their inability to change a dress code or shift their cultural expectations for the sake of their comfort and their children’s well being. As time goes on, however, I begin to see, with some shame, that I am the narrow-minded one. When I take a more careful, more humble look at Anna Leonowens and Caroline Ingalls, I am able to see something very different.

When Anna arrived in Siam, she was faced with many difficulties, one of which was a lack of cooperation on the part of the king. She persisted in the face of this, and, while waiting for her teaching duties to begin, she set about to learn the local language. This, she succeeded in doing, and made some friends in the royal compound. She took up the cause of slaves, and, despite opposition from the king and the nobility, managed to bring justice to some of them. To this end, she worked closely with a friend she had made; a female judge in the “city of Women”. Neither of these things could have been accomplished if she had not learned the language.

When Anna began to teach the royal children, she had a great influence on them. The crown prince, when he became king, began the process that led to the abolition of slavery in Siam. He told Anna, many years later, that it was “through the principles laid down by her teaching that he had formed the plans by which he had transformed the kingdom.” It is entirely possible that the Thailand of today has been shaped by Anna’s presence at the royal court of Siam over one hundred years ago.

Caroline Ingalls, though she was not in a position to influence a whole nation, created an atmosphere of stability in her own home. The family had to face sorrows. According to other writings by or about Laura Ingalls Wilder, there were other babies born to that family that did not live. The oldest daughter went blind in her teens. And yet, the books never give the impression that any of these were overly dwelt upon. Cheer and warmth is the pervading atmosphere that the author, a child in that environment, remembers.

The Ingalls family faced many challenges and dangers in their pioneering lives; but the times that are most meaningful to me are when the father, for whatever reason, had to leave home for periods of time, and the mother was left to manage on her own. This would not always occur under the best of circumstances. Laura describes her mother, in these instances, as being sometimes unhappy, and occasionally agitated, but always in control. Not only did she manage the household, she kept up her daughters’ morale no matter how tense things got. Caroline was extremely creative, always managing to find a solution to problems or deficiencies. She also had the strength of character to influence her restless husband when he began to talk of taking the family further west. Though she was willing to follow her husband on his pioneering adventure, she was able to dig her heels in when the adventure had gone far enough.

These two women accomplished all this, and yet I, a smug 20th century woman, dares to criticize them on account of their clothing and child-care decisions. Perhaps these decisions were questionable; but they were simply manifestations of their characters. These women were able to manage their lives thanks to their characters.

It is necessary to ask myself if, though I would have been sensible enough to adopt the Siamese fashion of dressing, I would have been capable of influencing an entire Royal family. And though, perhaps, I would have been flexible enough to allow my daughters to wear fewer clothes on a hot Sunday, could I have maintained my sanity in the face of the huge responsibility? I am often left alone for periods of time to manage the household on my own. I, however, do not have to build fires, milk cows and deal with wild animals and hostile neighbours.

One hundred years from now, it would be interesting to see what kinds of practices, which I indulge in unconsciously, I get criticized for. What I really ought to be doing is thinking about those accomplishments for which I can be credited.


©Copyright 1997, 2001, Christopher & Jean Rath
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