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“Go West, Young Boy, Young Girl”

By Dr. Michael Platt
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #9, 1995.

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Dr. Michael Platt

Out west, the water is scarcer, the air thinner, the spaces emptier, the distances greater, and the whole level of things higher. You feel bigger than what’s below you and smaller than what’s above you. That’s why we are here in Wyoming this year. Yet this high, dry, windy place, fit more for the hardy adventurer or solitary inquirer, was settled by families more rapidly than any portion of the fair earth. The story of the American West is the story of America, lived more rapidly, more vividly, more recently, and more memorably.

Western Books for Young Children

For young children, I recommend Surprise for a Cowboy by Clyde Robert Bulla (New York: Crowell, 1950). It takes a boy from playing cowboy in the city, through all the steps of becoming a cowboy on his uncle’s ranch, till he stays up all night by a fire keeping a wolf away from a stray. Improbably swift as is the character’s growth from playing cowboy to being one, the tale is a pleasure to me, and to my son, Anton, it is thrilling. Its moral: responsibility begins in play.

Johnny Texas (Follett, 1950) by Carol Hoff is a boy’s introduction to freedom, to Texas and to its Independence. It is about a family, its fears, and its freedom. Ma wants to return to Germany. Pa wants to live free or die. And Johannes becomes Johnny. Johnny Texas on the San Antonio Trail (Follett, 1953) follows it up well—so well you may, like us, have to read four chapters in one night to get Johnny to safety from the greatest danger on the trail—not an Indian or a snake, but an older boy who is both a sneak and the bully.

Older children can return to the Alamo with Robert Penn Warren’s Alamo, in the Landmark series, whose Houston is just as well written.

Written in her old age, the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Woods, Farmer Boy, Little House on the Prairie, Plum Creek, Silver Lake, and the others recall her young life on the frontier. Everything looks the way it did to the eyes of the girl and is the way it is because of the mind of the woman. Mrs. Wilder’s mastery of phrase and view should satisfy an aesthete, despite a wholesomeness a Flaubert would cringe at, a splendor he had no eyes for, and a courage he did not know he lacked.

No wonder children listening to these stories feel understood, as do adults. Grim, unfortunate, and terrible things occur in these books. A plague of grasshoppers covers sky and then earth. Fifty wolves escort Pa home and encircle the cabin. Mary is left blind. But sufficient unto the day is the strength of quiet Ma and laughing Pa. So too, although the bullies in Farmer Boy may frighten a small reader, Almanzo’s Dad teaches the teacher; ‘When you go after a bully, remember the whip.’ And Almanzo grows up with apple pie in his mouth for breakfast, which is the right way to begin the day, I can tell you. That beauty is an intimation of the good taught by Mrs. Wilder detail by detail, in a wedge of geese in the sky, in drops of water splashing up from a horse’s leg, and in how lovely and dark a deep pool can be. That beauty may take your life as well as your breath away, Laura learns from Plum Creek and keeps learning, which seems to be the human pattern; only what we learn three times becomes a part of us.

Travel Tales

There has always been a lot of traveling in the West, bison, Indians, explorers, gold hunters, and the great mass of settlers, but I suppose the archetype of movement in the West will always be the great cattle drives, although they moved north, not west, and although they only lasted a generation.

For life on those trails, from south Texas in April to Montana in September, the authentic happy original is Andy Adams, Log of a Cowboy (1903; reprinted by Bison Books, 1964). Anyone reading it will understand why, despite their constant duties, in the midst of danger, adversity, and inconvenience, with sleepless watches, with unchanging food, with coffee whose grounds were only changed when they filled the pot, and with dust everywhere, why these men arose happy each morning to go forth to their tasks. With a day-after-day zest, Adams did it as a young man, and with page-after-page pleasure, he later wrote it. These men liked the fellowship, the loyalty, the responsibility, and the purpose stretching over six months. (Teachers, pastors, and parents will recognize analogies.) All later accounts, down to Lonesome Dove, spring from Adams.

Duty First

One of the secret pleasures of the Log is that duty is perfectly clear. On the trail, although there are many difficulties, even mortal ones, there are no difficult moral questions, no divided duties, no sacrifices of the good for the better.

These questions do arise in Jack Schaefer’s Shane. Here the virtue of a man, which defends the family, is so mixed and meets with such circumstances that the man with the virtue will never enjoy family life. His life proves Socrates’ thesis in the Republic, that virtue rewards others, which thesis Christ lived unto death, but Shane need only live unto permanent exile. He will never be able to hang up his gun, marry a woman, kindle a fire in his own hearth, and watch a boy of his own grow up.

By the way, fine as the movie is, the book is finer. Having seen only the movie as a boy, I was not aware of a whole extra plot in the book, one not apparent to the boy-narrator, namely the attraction of Shane to the boy’s mother, and thus, the honorable way that everyone deals with this attraction. Henry James did not handle “point of view” better. Every sentence in this novella is as concentrated and beautiful as Shane in motion. Amish home schoolers may, of course, want to omit Shane, or let it be a best opposing case the facing of which guarantees the reasonable character of their pacificism.

I have described but a few of the many good books to come out of the West in an order matched to a growing child. (I could go on for thousands of words, on other Western books, if Mary would let me.)

In reading these stories a family will meet with beautiful things, which are the beginning of the good, with good things themselves, and with the virtues that secure them, or failing to, kindle our inflamed respect.

The story of the West is also our American story, the epitome of our country’s history. In it stands our hero, the cowboy, who is a kind of knight and a kind of shepherd combined. Looked at mundanely he was often an itinerant temp. That such a man could have the stuff of heroes in him—that too is an American and an Christian credo.

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