The XX Factor

The Real Atticus Finch and Laura Ingalls Wilder

The latest issue of The New Yorker is full of myth busting, and the targets are two cherished classics of children’s literature. Malcolm Gladwell argues that Atticus Finch, star father and lawyer of To Kill a Mockingbird , is not a brave reformer, but an accomodationist. Finch represents a black man in court, but he waves away the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. And to get his client, Tom Robinson, off the hook when he is charged falsely with rape, Finch traffics in base accusation’s against the female accuser. He makes her out to be sex-starved white trash. Gladwell points out that Finch encourages the jurors “to swap one of their prejudices for another.”

Meanwhile, Judith Thurman surveys the many histories of the family of Laura Ingalls Wilder that her beloved fictionalized Little House series has spawned. She reports that Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s daughter and sometimes ghost writer, was a kind of “founding mother” of libertarianism along with Ayn Rand. Thurman frames the formidable self-reliance of the Ingalls and the Wilders - combating a plague of locusts and twisting hay into fuel for a fire - as deeply conservative and anti-government. Rose wished for the death of FDR. Her parents opposed New Deal legislation directed at farmers and at one point her father, Almanzo, threatened an agent of the Agriculture Department off his farm with a shotgun. Laura told a Republican congressman in 1943, “What we accomplished was without help of any kind, from anyone.” This, of course, is not true, as Thurman points out. But I love the wrenches that she and Gladwell throw into our reading of these books. You know you’re hooked when you care as much about the politics of a fictional character as about anyone real.