I’m reading a book right now called Why This New Race by Denise Kimber Buell. She’s a historian of early Christianity and the book is subtitled “ethnic reasoning in Early Christianity.” While it’s a fascinating book, and one I highly recommend if that kind of thing interests you, for the purposes of this essay I’m more interested in how she thinks about history and identity and what it means to be a people. The idea of racial or ethnic identity being both fixed and fluid. Something you could inherit from your ancestors but also join, and in joining become transformed. Because that is what is happening today with American identity. People are born as Americans, but also choosing to become Americans and after they have chosen on behalf of themselves and their children, their children’s children will be born Americans. But who are Americans as a people?  What is this new race that people are both born into and choosing? That comes from the stories we tell about America.

Beuller writes that history writing is done for the present. Aurora Levins Morales has said something similar, that history is a story we tell ourselves about the past. Those stories we tell about history are deeply important, they reveal much about how we think about ourselves and each other. A good portion of my own book looks back at the history of the US and Canada not just to revisit past traumas and remind you of everything that happened but to look at them differently. To see what other stories we might yet tell.

We have this idea of history as a series of knowable events but think about something as simple as a dinner party you were at last year. Think about how different your memories of that event are from your friends who were also there. Even if you all kept diaries and wrote down what happened. You’ll have evidence, maybe somebody kept the bill which details the things everyone ordered but that bill won’t say anything about what each person thought about their own plate or that of somebody else. If you tried some of the food from another plate, which appetizes your shared and what you shied away from.

That’s history. We have receipts and photographs, recollections and diaries. These things help us to create stories and most of these stories are things we have collectively agreed upon. Stories that are are reinforced because they get taught in school and written in books and made into films and plays. As an aside, in an earlier essay I note that Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz has said that the much acclaimed play Hamilton was so harmfully revisionist that she was compelled to write Not A Nation of Immigrants.

One of the things that Bueller notes is that we seek legitimacy in history, in having existed in some kind of collective way beyond our current moment. This is the fixed part of our race or identity that we inherit from our ancestors. The early Christians reliedon an ancestry through Judaism all the way back to Noah and eventually Adam. Even if they were not themselves Jews, they taught that they could become Israel, the true Israel, by virtue of having correct beliefs and while we may be tempted to scoff at that don’t we see conversations today about the correct beliefs that demonstrate what it is to be a true American regardless of your birth. They were a new people seeking legitimacy and it’s hard to be more legitimate than that, the true descendants of the original people.

So what stories are we telling about history that gives Canada and the US legitimacy not only as states but as a people? What are the things that are both inherited and chosen that give Americans a unique identity?

The Little House on the Prairie books could be considered one of many foundational texts in the history of the US. They have certainly shaped generations of readers, telling us a story of American beginnings and granting legitimate belonging to this place. A few years ago I read the book Prairie Fires, a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. It matters that the Little House books were written and published during the depression. And it matters that they surged again in the 1970s with the TV show.  Both of these periods were times of national trauma, first the depression and then the Viet Nam war, and people longed for a simpler time. Just like now, and Target is full of cottagecore clothing. This creation story of the pioneers is a powerful myth that conjures up the best ideas that Americans can imagine themselves to be. But simpler for who? Best for who?

The Ingalls and Wilder families moved a lot. They made bad decisions and experienced awful tragedies. Grasshoppers decimated crops. Hail fell at just the wrong time. The house burned down.  And the fact is that Pa was just bad at farming. He was bad at farming and bad at settling in places he shouldn’t have like a brief attempt to settle on Osage land. The myth of the American farm is an enduring myth, but America has never loved farmers. It loves the idea of them, and just enough family farms survive that Americans can persist in this myth, but America has never loved them. They were promised free land, but what America wanted was free labour. After the farmers cleared the land of trees and deep rooted prairie grasses and the farm more often than not failed, the bankers could come in and scoop up the land.

The Little House books are a romantic throwback to an era when brave men like Pa and Manly worked the land and didn’t ask for handouts. Wilder was a staunch libertarian and during the depression she denounced any kind of government handout, even for starving farmers. But think about the homestead act promising all that free land that Pa and Manly homesteaded on. A fantastical handout the likes of which hasn’t been seen since that time. A fantastical handout that dispossessed Indigenous people because the land was not empty. Bonnetted women and plucky little girls marveled over the vast purity of an untamed west where the threats were weather, wild animals, and the ever present threat of Indians.

The stories that we tell about the past matter. They matter because they shape how we think about ourselves, about who has the right to be in certain places and have access to certain rights. About who is American, and who is a threat.

The stories we tell about history

Pa was a bad farmer