If you’d like a greater appreciation of how much society has advanced in the last 125 years or so, you can do some scholarly research at the library or you can take the more enjoyable route, as I did recently, by watching reruns of “Little House on the Prairie” and its sequel, “Little House on the Prairie: A New Beginning.”
The show, which takes place primarily in Walnut Grove, Minn., during the late 1800s, provides an excellent glimpse into life during those rough-and-tumble times.
I discovered Little House while channel surfing in Pacific Grove, Calif., this summer. Once acquainted with the (mostly) good folks of Walnut Grove, whom I somehow missed growing up, I was hooked.
Observing the many physical and mental hardships the Ingalls family endured was heartwrenching. Even so, I enjoyed some light moments, such as hearing the Osage chief say in French (which he must have learned from French Canadian fur trappers) to the uncomprehending Charles, “Vous avez bien construit,” (“You built well.”)
Many episodes also point out the rigid roles men and women had in society. The doctor, lawyer, judge and other influential folks were all men. Women had few career options. They were expected to bear children and create a home for the family.
In one episode, a “barren” woman is so distraught at not being able to have children that she leaves her husband so she won’t have to endure the added pain of his abandoning her, which she is sure will happen. (It doesn’t.)
What hit me the hardest was how folks, many outside the mainstream, were denied their rights, denigrated and at times even demonized by others. To give but a few examples:
“Little Lou,” as he calls himself, is a newcomer to Walnut Grove. Industrious and excellent with figures, Lou, who has dwarfism, is anxious to find work. However, Harriet Oleson, the town busybody, denies Lou a job in her store. She feels that “his kind” do not belong in Walnut Grove. Upon hearing that the banker is about to hire him, she threatens to close her account, the largest in the bank, if Lou is hired.
The story has the fictional happy ending, with Lou saving the life of a young girl, proving that he is an asset to the community. Today folks with disabilities don’t have to rely on heroics to get their rights. Social Security, various programs designed to help people who have disabilities and the Americans with Disabilities Act have made a tremendous difference.
Matthew, a young boy of about 11 or 12, had been physically and emotionally abused as a child, and is unable to speak. He had spent years in an asylum, with no schooling before an itinerant “snake oil” salesman obtains guardianship of the boy — for his own monetary gain.
Put in a cage, the boy is given the snake oil (with a morphine base), which causes him to act “wild” on withdrawal, much to the amusement of those who pay 10 cents to see him.
Today agencies exist to stop such behavior and punish the adoptive father.
As I think back to those Little House shows, I feel grateful to the citizens of Walnut Grove, who helped one temporary resident of Pacific Grove see life today with more appreciative eyes.