Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Book Review--Prairie, by Walter J. Muilenburg

The shocking headline makes you wince. This year--this school year--three boys from Palo Alto High School, one of the nation's best secondary schools--walked across the street to the railroad tracks and stood in front of passing trains. Three kids, in Silicon Valley, where the average home is worth three million.

Such suicide clusters are real, and they don't happen only where the pressures to succeed are mammoth. But in a place like Palo Alto, where material success is both assumed and required, the pressures are heightened by what some call "doublespeak": 
on one hand parents claim they're allowing their kids to just be kids, while on the other they hold relentless expectations.

“They say, ‘All I care about is that you’re happy,’ and then the kid walks in the door and the first question is, ‘How did you do on the math test?’ ” Silicon Valley therapist Madeline Levine told Matt Richtel of the New York Times. “The giveaways are so unbelievably clear.”

The problem, David Brooks says, is a reduced definition of what love is. 

Children in such families come to feel that childhood is a performance — on the athletic field, in school and beyond. They come to feel that love is not something that they deserve because of who they intrinsically are but is something they have to earn.
Brooks says we live in a "meritocracy," created by the deep desire parents have to help their children "succeed." But "the meritocracy is based on earned success," he says. "It is based on talent and achievement." Then he moralizes in a fashion that few cultural commentators do, but a way that is both refreshing and, IMHO, enlightening. "But parental love is supposed to be oblivious to achievement," he writes. "It’s meant to be an unconditional support — a gift that cannot be bought and cannot be earned. It sits outside the logic of the meritocracy, the closest humans come to grace."

There's been no suicide clusters in my neighborhood, but Lake Woebegon has known all its children are above average for the last quarter century already. And if Walter J. Muilenburg, a son of one of the founding fathers of Orange City, Iowa, is to be believed, the overt pressures to succeed were perfectly capable of making life miserable for young men and (presumably) women way back in the days people here broke virgin soil.

Muilenburg's novel, Prairie (1925), follows Elias Vaughn, the prodigal son of his father's stern religiosity and the sheer bigotry that such bone-headed spirituality creates. Elias turns his back on his father and his father's ways and marries a neighbor girl, a sweetheart whose family clearly lacks old man Vaughn's determined industry to create "the good life" on a Siouxland farm. Elias's father shuts the door on his son for marrying down; and Elias, looking to be free, sets out west to Nebraska, where, despite the odds and the opposition, he makes a life for himself basically by becoming as fierce as his father.

Somewhere along the line, Muilenburg clearly picked up an infusion of the literary naturalism still fashionable at the time. Prairie is not Laura Ingalls Wilder. Elias seems to understand that he's treading treacherously close to his father's way of life. He has moments when he tries to love his Lizzie, but too often he simply can't because she, like her father, lacks the wherewithal to handle the hard work and loneliness of the prairie frontier. They succeed in building a farm but not a life.

She can't. He can and does. The marriage suffers, but Lizzie dies.

Literary naturalism is satisfying only to those who truly believe that we're all somehow victims of powers that grind us up into mush. In Prairie, it's a climate of stifling heat and brutal cold, a contagion of storms, tornadoes, grasshoppers, grass fires--and unending loneliness. The only way to "make it," Muilenburg suggests, is by becoming a force of nature, which is to say by giving up one's humanity and moving a long, long ways from living in a loving way, as David Brooks says, "the closest humans come to grace."

Elias Vaughn isn't an animal. In some ways, he gets it--he understands what's happening to him. He tries not to be what rugged prairie life is sculpting him to become. He doesn't want to be his father; but when all is said and done, he's planted a homestead as successfully as his father had, but just as clearly lost the capacity to love.

Muilenburg documents the phony religiosity of his forbearers, a spirituality of hard work, back-breaking work, the soul-rending work of making a home on the prairie.

I loved the book, not because I liked the novel. I loved the book for what it lays claim to about the world I still live in, a world an entire century and one gargantuan bankroll removed from Silicon Valley, but a world where success is still immensely expensive.

Those Palo Alto parents certainly have a problem, but Walter Muilenburg's Prairie makes very clear that they are not alone.

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