Which Way, the Witch?


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Not a witch (unless, he is)

What is witchcraft?

In mainstream RPGs, I think it usually takes the form of a malevolent spell caster standing somewhere behind a few minions blasting away at the PCs. To give her attacks a the flavor of witchcraft, the Game Master might choose a few spells thought fitting for a witch. Polymorph (or some other form of malevolent transformation) is a common choice. (I once put some player characters up against a mean old witch who had been transforming live gnomes into yard sculptures.) In any event, I think players usually experience witchcraft in the form of a conventional battle with a boss, one whose attacks are well known to them.

The problem of course is that this isn’t really the nature of witchcraft as we find it in the real world. I know. Witchcraft ain’t real, but the fear of it sure as Hell is. Having lived and worked in a community where fear of witches is a common concern, I’ve had the subject in the back of my mind ever since. I think about it most when gaming, because t he experience of world full of malevolent magic is nothing like the treatment commonly given the subject in role-playing games.

Setting aside for the moment, the many benign variations of paganism, the form that witchcraft takes in human history isn’t a toe-to-toe with a green-faced woman zapping away at people with her wand. No, witchcraft isn’t that lady over there about to hit you with 3d6 worth of damage. The phenomenon may be gendered, at least in its common western variants, but her attacks just aren’t that obvious.

Witchcraft is wondering why your crops failed this year. It is the deep suspicion that there is a reason your son fell down the stairs and twisted his ankle last week. Why did the cow stop producing milk anyway? And is that a sore throat you woke up with this morning? Wonder how that happened! Witchcraft is the deep dark suspicion that someone out there, perhaps someone you know and love, is responsible for these things. It’s the near certainty that someone you know, someone you probably think of as a friend, may actually wish you harm. Witchcraft is the fear that those very people might have the power to act on it. It’s the fear that the pEetty disasters of every day life could just be happening because someone you know is wielding just such powers against you.

vegas boot 172

Big Scrum (Probably no witches here)

Of course, this is only a problem if you choose to see it that way, but the challenge as I see it that witchcraft poses for conventional gaming is how to cloak witchcraft in the form of uncertaintVy? Nobody has to do that, but doing so strikes me as an interesting challenge. To carry out this off, the witch must be able to attack without being detected. More than that, the players must not be all that sure whether or not they have been attacked at all. Better still, a world full of such wiItches would present players under no such attack whatsoever with the lingering fear that seemingly minor set-backs might well have been due to malLevolent causes. In such a world, every difficulty, and every problem, no matter how innocent it may seem, is actually cause for suspicion.  The question is, of course, how to inflict that level of paranoia on them?

Story-teller games aren’t my favorite flavor of geeketry, but I suspect this is something they can probably hHandle a bit better than the usual D&Desque gaming format. At least part of the problem here is balance. Combining magic with stealth generates a great deal of power. Hence, the rarity characters wielding such power, and the general tendency to nerf that power whenever it is allowed in the world at hAand. Another problem has to do with the mechanics of the games in question. Players usually know when they’ve been attacked even if their characters don’t. (“Make a save! …uh, no reason.”) A third problem is that conventional games rarely incorporate the kind of mundane evils that give witchcraft its pPeculiar power over the imagination. Player characters don’t usually have families or cows to take care of, and they almost never just slip on the staircase. Sure a GM may tell the players that this or that non-player character character had an accident, but when a player character is hurt, she is generally hurt in the course of some meaningful encounter with a clear threat unfolding in a soon-to-be-obvious story-line. You can generate exceptions to these problems, but the fact remains that the mechanics of most such games just don’t lend themselves to the level of uncertainty that makes susPpicion of witchcraft a reality in so many parts of the world.



My Old Setting

I once tried to resolve this problem so as to enable attacks from witches and witch like villains. I figured the keEy was to introduce random disasters into the game. So, I generated rules for such things in both 3rd edition and my home brew (Worlds of Hurt). I made-up 3 different kinds of random disasters; diseases, accidents and ill-omens. Player characters then had a random chance to encounter one or more random disasters over the course of a game. They would have to make a defense roll against these disasters, which I ensured would be the same roll regardless of the source. I designed it so that this would be rare, but not so rare as to be freakishly out of place. In general, I aimed for about one such disaster to one player character in the course of any giveNn game session. None with good luck, and more than one with bad luck.

…or worse!

I also gave the landSscape in my worlds moral characteristics so that PCs could experience a greater or lesser chance of encountering random disasters depending on how well they fit with the local environment. A Paladin traveling through Morder, for example, had a much better chance of stepping on a thorn than an orc thief in that same setting. The Paladin would also have a better chance of getting an infection if he did step on that thorn. Now take the orc into the elven forest, and he’s the one who falls out of the tree house and breaks his leg. When characters are matter out of place, so to speak, the landscape works against them. It tries to get rid of them in subtle ways, and the end result is an increase of random disasters.

This approach was fun for awhile independent of the whole witchcraft theme, but I have to admit, what got me headed down that path was the hope of a scenario involving witchcraft, or at least the suspicion on it. I wanted the players to wonder at some point if a character was under attack. I wanted them to struggle with the uncertainty.

For balance, I ensured that witchcraft would require either direct contact with a victim, or some kind of sympathetic magic (e.g. possession of an item from the victim). I also ensured that witchcraft and any comparable form of attack would take an enormous amount of time to unfold, not rounds but game sessions. Such attacks would be progressive, letting players struggle to grasp the significance of seemingly random events while evil took its course. The potential solution to such attacks would involve divination and/or magical spells which could turn a curse back on its source. This fit with the kind of scenario I had in mind. At some point, it would become clear to the players that they were under attack, and they would have to devote time and energy to deal with it. But would they realize it in time? I wanted the sweet-spot for realization to fall on or near the point where success in fighting off a curse on depended on action within a game or two, so part of the problem posed by witchcraft would be managing this attack while dealing with whatever other problems they already had on the table.



An elven tree city, as I recall

My first real test of this approach took the form of a succubus in my home brew. Like the witch, the attack of a succubus shouldn’t be obvious, I reckon. It should be a lingering guilt about those dreams, and perhaps a suspicion they are the reason your backpack feels heavier and your sword feels just a bit more awkward. Since the dreams would be a dead giveaway, I created a process that would put them near the end of the attack. I designed my monster and put one into the campaign.

While in town, the players had a number of odd encounters, but one of them was with an old lady in some kind of need. A PC resolved this by giving her something and got a big hug in response. Having concluded their business in town, the PCS wandered – as PCs will do – off on some new adventure. The next game session, the PC that had helped her had a small accident, nothing major, and not entirely out of the ordinary. The players continued on. The next game session that PC had two or three accidents, one of which hurt him a lot more.  The players began to talk about the possibilites. Three games in, the PC had several injuries, one of which proved quite serious and then he fell ill. Somewhere in here the PC remembered a erotic dream, and then he realized it was happening on a regular basis. The players hadn’t encountered a succubus in this system yet, so it took them awhile to get the connection, but they were on the whole witchcraft angle. It was time to consult a shaman.

I actually don’t remember whether a Player Character or a random NPC performed the magic in question, but the magic worked and they discovered the source of the attack. By now the party was a good hundred miles away. They tried a healing spell, but it wasn’t powerful enough. Instead they would have to find the original source of the attack. Lucky for them, she was trailing the party with henchmen in the hopes of finishing the whole lot of them while one fighter was badly weakened. (Had they delayed acting a game session or two, she would likely have succeeded!) This of course did lead to a conventional face-off with the baddy, but one that followed at least 3 games of uncertainty and a lot of effort to unravel the mystery. For an extra twist, the attack form used by the succubus would leave a permanent wound unless her victim scored the killing blow. If he succeeded, he would gain an extra benefit, but by now he really needed to be the one to do the killing.

…which of course, he did.


All in all, I’d say that scenario was quite a success. The players were a little more wary of random disasters after that, but no major witch hunts followed. They didn’t turn on each other or any of their NPC allies. To make that a genuine hazard I would need to keep them in once place, which we could do in a different campaign. In any event, I was happy with the succubus scenario. In this instance, at least, my system had worked.

The problem of course was that the system worked well because I had a plot in mind that relied on the mechanic in question. I didn’t mind the accidents, and the players humored me until the plot thickened, then they were as into it as I was (I think).


Probably not a witch (thought that’s probably no comfort)

Random disasters are interesting when they really could be central to the story, not so much when they aren’t. But f course, that’s the point. Sometimes random disasters will be just that random, and then they quickly become tedious. These factors have been interesting when the game is heavy on role-playing and I’ve had time to develop the setting. Questions about who does and doesn’t thrive in a given physical setting can carry the interest in random disasters when no witches are around. In a hack and slash campaign, I don’t bother with them. The trouble is, I mostly do hack&slash campaigns these days. Nobody I now know has time for in-depth story-lines.

Ah well, one day!

In any event, I think the trouble with this approach is that it only really works if you are focusing on stories that use the mechanic, but the point of the mechanic is of course that sometimes it won’t be that important. If you want to run a couple game sessions of a conventional orc war, or maybe even the standard bar fight, then the effort to deal with random disasters quickly becomes an unhelpful distraction. Still, this is one one effort to try and reproduce the experience of a world saturated with suspicions of witchcraft. I wonder if anyone else has tried anything with a similar effect, perhaps using a different approach? What interests me about this is the uncertainty of evil magic. There must be many more ways to set that up.

If per chance you noticed a typo or two in this post, I ask only that you consider the possibility that it might not have been me.

Malevolent forces are out there!

Hostiles and Spoilers: A Magic Studi


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HostilesIt’s good to be young and beautiful.

If you can’t be both, then you should probably be beautiful. If you are a character in a tragic story-line, it also helps to be white.

That’s all I can think of as I watch the final scene of Hostiles. It was a dark and bloody movie, and it certainly had its moments, but in the end it was our beautiful male and female leads, both white, who made it through the carnage. Oh yes, there was one Cheyenne child who survived the ordeal, but he was hardly a full character. We don’t really get to know him. His hopes and dreams are hardly present in the story-line, not those of the many characters native and white who never made it to ride off into a better life at the end of the film, not those of the two lead actors who accompany him. He is present at the end of the story, but largely as a symbol of something about them. The story is about our two beautiful white survivors.

It always was about them.

Hostiles begins with a Comanche raid on a remote homestead somewhere in the west. Rosalee Quaid (played by Rosemund Pike) survives the raid by hiding in a rock outcropping after seeing her husband killed & scalped and all three of her children shot. In the next scene, Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) captures a small group of Apache and drags them in chains to fort in New Mexico which will serve as their prison for the immediate future. It is quickly established that Blocker has done far worse than this in his days fighting Indians out west. He’s seen worse, and he’s done worse, and we’ve seen just enough of his own cruelty to believe it. The message is pretty clear from the get-go the frontier is brutal. Both native and non-native alike are engaged in terrible acts of violence and suffering abounds.

It is 1892, just a couple years after Wounded Knee, and we are looking the tail end of the frontier in American history. The characters filling this story are fully immersed in the bloodshed. That bloodshed has left Blocker and the soldiers with lacking a bit of humanity and full of hatred. Rosalee Quaid is for the moment left out in the wilderness to suffer alone with the bodies of her dead family. This a world without much in the way of redeeming qualities.

It turns out that Blocker will soon be retiring from military service. The major plot takes shape when he is given one final assignment. He must escort Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a Cheyenne war chief, to the man’s home in Montana. Blocker objects to this. Yellow Hawk is an old enemy. Yellow Hawk has personally killed a number of Blocker’s friends, and so he wants no part of any plan to help the man regain his freedom, but Yellow Hawk is dying. With the aid of Indian reformers, he has obtained an order from President Harrison authorizing his own release along with a military escort home. Whether he likes it or not, Blocker must take Yellow Hawk and his family to Montana.

The story-line that follows is every bit as violent as the opening sequence. Blocker would rather kill Yellow Hawk than help him (in fact he tries). They find Quaid of course. Her suffering provides Blocker with a chance to prove he still has a human side, albeit one reserved at the moment for some people and not others. The whole lot of them are pursued by the same Comanche that’d killed Quaid’s entire family. Blocker and his troops struggle to fight them off with the help of Yellow Hawk and his son (played by Adam Beach), both of whom are still in chains in this opening exchange. In time, Blocker is convinced to remove their chains, and shortly after they come to find the remaining members of the same Comanche raiding party have been killed in the night. Blocker is both relieved and embarrassed. Soon after, he and his Indian wards find themselves fighting fur traders who have kidnapped the women. An additional battle or two with an imprisoned soldier rounds out most of the fighting. They arrive in Montana just in time for Yellow Hawk to die peacefully in his homeland.

…but not before he and Blocker become friends.

When a local rancher objects to Yellow Hawk’s burial on his own property, the resulting battle leaves everyone dead but Blocker, Quaid, and one young Cheyenne boy, all of which leads us to that final scene.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot that this movie gets right. Their use of Cheyenne is particularly well done, and the characters are both vivid and interesting. The grimness of the whole story-line would normally be a strong selling point for me. Hell, it was. I liked that part of this movie.

What I didn’t like was the convenience of the story. The magic negro can as easily be just about any other magic minority, and Yellow Hawk fits that role perfectly. He has lived through the same violent period of American history that Blocker has, and he has committed atrocities just as Blocker has. He has even spent much of his recent life in prison. Yet he lacks the bitterness of Blocker and the rest of the soldiers. Yellow Hawk’s wisdom is a stabilizing force throughout the film. Studi is brilliant, as usual, and so the performance isn’t as over-the-top as many who have played such roles. Still, you can’t help but notice this is another story in which a minority with great wisdom helps the central character, a white man, overcome his own demons and face the world.

…but only after this same minority-advisor has died.

Yellow Hawk isn’t in possession of magical powers, which is a staple of the Magic minority character. Or is he? We never do learn how he and his son managed to kill the Comanche raiders, and it didn’t likely actually involve magical powers. Still, the action is inexplicable in terms of the plot line. Nobody else could have done it, and we never do see it as anything but an accomplished fact. It’s not a supernatural event, but it might as well have been.

And then of course, there is Yellow Hawk’s death, preceded of course by a conversation with Blocker, one in which Blocker finally achieves some peace, realizing that Yellow Hawk too has lost friends in the wars they have both fought. It’s a deeply moving scene. It’s also a very familiar scene. Once again, the death of a great and wise person of color leaves our wounded white protagonist with the strength and wisdom to put the rest of his life back together and move on.

And so the stories ends, as I began it here, with Quaid and Blocker and that one Cheyenne child at a train station. She will evidently raise him, a sort of replacement for her own lost children, and Blocker will go on to build a new life for himself, a life that might now be worth living that he has finally set aside the hatred he carried in the opening scenes. Even the child is safe now.

We should be happy.

I should be happy.

But I’m not.

Why is the child there anyway? He is there to confirm the healing of the two main white characters, both of whom now treat him with kindness despite enduring great loss at the hands of native peoples. He too accepts them, but his acceptance was never central to the plot. It was Quaid who could hardly be expected to endure the presence of Indians a few scenes into this film. It was Blocker that wanted to kill his Indian wards in the opening scenes. It is their ability to treat Indians well despite everything that we are supposed to find reassuring in the end.

This a very convenient reassurance, coming as it does at the price of so many other lives.

It would be easy to accept the victory we have been offered in Hostiles, easy to feel good because hearts have healed. The price of this healing was the lives of countless others, and in particular the life of the very Indians we are now reassured these two main characters no longer hate and fear. Every major native character was killed, and the only one we are left with is a child who will now be raised in the white world.

This really is a perfect symbol for the time of boarding schools and general allotment. Our heroes will go on to live in a world less violent, but a world less violent because many never made it into that world with them. The one ‘savage’ left alive at the conclusion of this story is no threat,of course,  so what are we to make of the peace these adults make with him? They will go on to enjoy a well-earned peace, so we are shown, but what about him?

This child will no doubt survive.

But will the Indian?

A Bitter Thought


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We all know the famous quote from Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It’s a great quote of course, one that invites us all to slip right into the role of the narrator, to imagine ourselves in Niemöller’s place. To make us think about how we ought to speak out early. But of course, Niemöller didn’t, not until it was too late, and neither did so many others, ever.

One question that’s been on my mind a lot though lately; the ones who come for people, what if they never came for you?

Or anyone like you?

What if the wrong people never made it out of those camps, not in enough numbers to get anyone’s attention?

What if there was no foreign power interesting in stopping them? At least none capable of it! No enemy troops to escort you and your neighbors through the killing grounds? To make you handle the nameless bodies? Or tell you what was done in your name? To make you see it or smell it.

What if those people, the ones who come, never bit off more than they could chew? What if they never gave you a reason to rethink your silence?

What if you were never the one who needed someone to speak out?

What sort of stories might you tell then?

Let a Little Evil in Your Heart!


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So, I’m scrolling up and down my playlist during a short flight when it dawns on my that I have three separate tunes on my favorites going under the title of ‘Evil’. Okay, so one of them is cover tune, but still, 3 is a lot of evil to carry on one cell phone. Some might regard this as a bad sign, but I do love them so. And now I just have to share!

Share a little evil; that is.






I swear Howlin’ Wolf always sounds like it must hurt him to say a damned thing, but he belts out those vocals with amazing power and the result is amazing.

Course, by amazing in this instance, I do mean ‘evil’.




Lovely little cover tune.


Monica Martin is made of beautiful.

…and maybe a trace of evil.


Road Trip! (Anchorage to Valdez)


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Moni likes to take pictures of the road.

Between her new job and our move into a new apartment, my girlfriend and I haven’t had much of a chance to to travel together this summer. We did manage to sneak out for a week or so in mid June. What we decided to do this time was a quick road trip from Anchorage to Valdez. Of course, course getting to Anchorage required a little flying time, but that’s old hat. We had to make a couple purchases for the new place, so that meant staying a couple days in the vicinity of Anchorage, so we found a lovely bed and breakfast in Palmer.  After that, we hit the road!

Not literally, of course. I ain’t got nothin’ against the highway.


Anyway, the trip was about a 5 hour drive, but we made plenty of stops. We traveled along the Matanuska river for quite some time, made a brief stop a bit south of Glenallen, then headed along the Copper River for a ways before diverting off toward Valdez. To say that we found a number of beautiful sites along the way would be putting it mildly.

Valdez itself was absolutely wonderful. I hit a couple museums (The Whitney Museum and the Valdez Museum & Historical Archive) and we hung out at the docks for a time. We ate at the Fat Mermaid a couple of times and made stops at Mike’s Palace and Fu Kung. …suffice to say that we were well fed. We also ran into the folks from Sweet Cheeks Bakery, run by the parents of a coworker, but we didn’t get back in time to get our cinnamon buns. Still, …all of Alaska is just one small village! You just can’t travel through this state without finding connections to the people you meet. Eventually, we bought tickets on a tour boat, which of course meant that I got sick (yes I took some meds), but mostly that was just amazing. I almost never opt for a paid tour, but I’m very glad I did this time.

On the last day as Moni and I were strolling around downtown getting ready to say goodbye to the place, a random guy came out of Mike’s Palace and asked us if we lived in the area. The answer was ‘no’, of course, and then he proceeded to tell us that he had once, 30 years ago. I cringed inside as he launched into his efforts to tell me about the good old days. A few minutes later I felt a twinge of sadness as he left us with tales of bar fights between Okies and Texan (oil workers) spilling out of the Palace and onto the street. Apparently, the police had once been disarmed so as to enable the fight to continue. Additional stories involved a pair of Korean prostitutes who paid him extra for a pizza every night so as to have a place to stay. Just how much of this was true, I have no idea, but the stories were a good deal more entertaining than I had anticipated. I found myself wishing we’d run into him before lunch rather than after and on the verge of leaving. Still, a few more eagle pics and off we went.

Hell, even the shopping we did back in Anchorage before boarding the plane back home went well.

I wish every vacation was this cool.

(You may click to embiggen!)



Libertarians on the Prairie – A Reviewish Bit of Bloggetry


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Libertarians on the Prairie

Libertarians on the Prairie

Back in college, I remember a few of my professors speaking ironically about the image of Little House on the Prairie. That the story didn’t exactly match the realities of western expansion was pretty much a forgone conclusion at the time, but I don’t recall anyone going into depth as to the nature of the problems or the reasons this popular story might not have gone so consistently in a suspicious direction.

As a kid, I certainly liked the show.

Hell, I loved it!

I actually remember the very first episode of Little House on the Prairie. I remember liking the characters immediately. I wanted them to succeed. I REALLY wanted to know if they could make that farm work. As the closing credits rolled, I remember, I couldn’t wait to see the next episode.

A whole week! How would I make it!?!

In the coming years, I watched a fair portion of the Little House television series. I can’t say that I ever got around to reading any of the books. It’s funny to think about it though, because those books have had an impact on my life and my thinking – filtered a bit through other media. When a series of books seeps that deep into the popular culture, it leaves an impression on everyone, even those who don’t seek it out. I figure that is why some of my old professors made a point to reference Little House while setting up lessons on western history. It isn’t that they had a specific point to make about the series or the books, but they new that story would be hanging there in the back of our minds. Whatever they meant to say themselves about the subject, these teachers knew they would have to reckon with the themes of the series in one form or another.

Typically, the comments in question took the form of an oblique reference to myths of the old west. The rugged individualism of the old west was a common target of abuse, and the Little House series had always put that theme front and center. Life on the frontier wasn’t really like it had been portrayed in Little House. Saying so wasn’t really necessary for most of us, but it was often a convenient (and amusing) way of sliding into a lecture about what the professors thought might be a little closer to the truth,

What I didn’t know then, not as a kid, and not later on as a college student, was that the tension between the presentation in Little House and the realities of frontier life was a lot more focused than these random comments would seem to suggest. The Little House books didn’t just happen to emphasize themes of rugged individualism, and my professors weren’t simply giving vent to some vague sense that the stories had oversimplified the matter. The original Little House books contained a very clear expression of libertarian views, and my professors were in fact trying to counter that explicit message in order to clear the way for whatever they themselves wanted to teach us. Far from an innocent theme and a series of off-hand rejoinders, the rugged individualism of the Little House books (and later the series) constituted an explicit ideological statement about the way people ought to live. I think some of those old professors knew very well about the connection between libertarianism the Little House narratives; others may have simply been irked at the persistence of themes they regarded a naieve. Either way, the story of that Little House on the Prairie was always political statement, a statement meant to tell us as much about the perils of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies or the depravity of the Great Society as anything that may or may not have happened on any particular prairie. The Little House story wasn’t just a story about the frontier; it was attack on a good deal of the the modern world. What I was hearing in class was at least partly a response from those that had noticed.

The key to this story is the realization that Laura Ingalls Wilder did not write the Little House books alone. They were a product of her collaboration with her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, one of the great matriarchs of libertarian literature. It had always been acknowledged that Rose typed up Laura’s handwritten manuscripts, and of course that she had done a little editing in the process, but it turns out there was a good deal more to the story. The death of Rose in 1968 freed up the correspondence between the two of them, and along with that, the various drafts of Little House books exchanged between them over the years. Those familiar with these documents realized very quickly that Rose contributed a great deal more than her typing skills and light editing to the process. She was an active collaborator from the very beginning.

The collaboration between Laura Ingalls and her daughter is the subject of Libertarians on the Prairie, by Christine Woodside. I first heard about the book on an episode of  Edward T.Odonell‘s podcast, In the Past Lane, wherein Woodside appeared as a guest. With a little travel on my agenda for this summer, I figured this was the perfect volume to help me get from Barrow Alaska to Billings Montana.

I was not disappointed.

This book is no hack job. Woodside is clearly a lifelong fan of the Little House series, and she clearly admires the work both women put into this series. Peering behind the curtain, so to speak, doesn’t seem to have dampened her enthusiasm. Woodside takes pains to reveal a good deal that Little House fans may find uncomfortable, but she also takes pains to praise Ingalls and Wilder on a number of points. Her work is critical, but not unsympathetic.

Woodside does an excellent job of sorting out the process that went into writing the Little House books. Of course, she is hardly working with a complete record, so she can’t piece together every detail of the process, but Woodside manages to support a number of interesting conclusions about it. She presents Laura as a story-teller with a gift for detail and a vivid memory without which the books could never have been written. It was Rose, according to Woodside, who provided the overall structure of these narratives, and shaped the line by line text enough to help bring that structure out in the final works. In doing so, Rose actively steered the narratives in a direction consistent with her own emerging interest in libertarian politics. If Rose was leaning toward such thought at the beginning of the books, she was fully committed to them by the end of the series, a phase in which Woodside tells us Laura had surrendered more control over the final copies to her daughter. Significantly, Rose omitted from the books a number of stories that would have undermined the central message of rugged individualism, even as she sometimes inserted into the work pointed stories of events her mother hadn’t written herself. The resulting narrative contains more than the occasional embellishment; it actively misrepresents the facts of Laura Ingalls’ early life, and it does so in the service of a specific political message.

Woodside is careful to point out that the books were not simply propaganda. If Rose steered the Little House series in the direction of libertarian thought, it was because that was precisely how she came herself to view the world. It seems unlikely that Laura would have objected to the larger themes of Rose’s politics. Neither were fans of the New Deal; each was increasingly skeptical of government authority (and in fact, their own collaboration had emerged partly out of an effort to commit tax fraud). There is evidence that Laura and Rose sometimes argued over details to be included in their stories, and Rose clearly took a more strident position than Laura had, at least in her written work, but it seems that both women shared a number of assumptions about the importance of hard work and limited government. These assumptions made it into the books. They also made it into the series.

So what of it?

We could haggle over the details. Where the Little House narrative has the Ingalls family working hard to get money for that Laura’s sister, Mary, can attend a school for the blind, we know that in fact the school was funded by the Dakota Territorial Government. We know that the family generally settled closer to other people than they have been portrayed in the Little House books, and we even know that major events in their lives (such as a year in town) were omitted from the stories Laura and Rose chose to tell. Their eviction from Indian territory was played up for the purpose of inserting an anti-government message (which is ironic as Hell given the role the military played in freeing up such lands to begin with). We could go on…

These facts do matter, and Woodside provide a brief list of such details near the end of her book, but the larger issue is a bit murkier.

It may well be that the Little House books contain a very pointed message, and that message may be squarely in tune with libertarian thought, but it would not be true to say that the appeal of these stories is limited to such circles. You don’t have to be a libertarian (much less a Libertarian) to enjoy the Little House stories. Hell, I have little patience for that school of thought myself. That didn’t stop me from watching (and enjoying) an episode or two after reading this book. Their appeal goes beyond the narrow confines of free market fundamentalism, touching upon narratives of American exceptionalism with a much broader appeal in the popular culture of our nation.

It goes without saying; the spirit of Frederick Jackson Turner haunts the Little House narrative. Indeed, the series seems taylor-made to illustrate the Turner-thesis, presenting us with a living, breathing, example of a family struggling against the forces of nature at the meeting point between savagery and civilization. It was the frontier, according to Turner, that made this country unique. That is a message fraught will all manner of perilous implications, but it’s also a message that resonated with generations of historians, and with generations of writers, television and movie-makers, and even musicians. It may even have resonated with a few children reading the Little House books or watching Ma and Pa Ingalls on television. It probably even resonates with a few people who should know better. People who do know better.

Simply put, the story doesn’t become less interesting just because you know it’s fiction. It doesn’t necessarily become less interesting when you realize just how sideways the whole story spun from the realities of life for the Ingalls, or for anyone else on or near that frontier. The story-line itself is just so ingrained in the American imagination. It, like so many other myths, will outlast countless debunkings, even this one.

…which brings us back to the whole ‘what does it matter’ question.

In blending the central themes of libertarian thought with the larger myths of the American frontier, the Little House books effectively provided an exceptionally powerful re-enforcement to those themes. If we can all believe that ma and Pa Ingalls were able to survive along with their little girls out there mostly alone on the frontier, then we can believe Americans with televisions, and credit cards, and cell phones certainly ought to make it on their own too. If we can forget all the ways that frontier families derived help from friends and family, and from government policies, then we can also forget why we have social security, bank regulations, an EPA, Medicare and food stamps. Some of us may think these things are important, but a good number of very powerful people don’t care about these things, and those people are uniquely situated in today’s political environment to do away with them.

They might even tell us it was all about making American great again!



Memo to Coach Everyman


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To: Coach Everyman

From: Principal Stiffton, Everytown Public High School, USA

Re: Locker Room Talk

I wanted to follow up on our conversation earlier this afternoon and share with you a few of the parental concerns brought to my attention earlier this week. I have already spoken to the parties in question. I have tried to assure them that the conversations occurring in our locker room are much as they would be for any other intermural sports teams in the country. Unfortunately, several parties are simply not satisfied. They seem quite certain that our games have become the site for talk they regard they regard as dangerous and possibly harmful to the moral development of their young children. No. They don’t actually want you to do anything about it. They just want to make sure these conversations are limited to the context of the locker room.

The sexual content, you already know about, but again, I must tell you that none of the parties in question have called for any investigations. We don’t need to know if any of the activities your football players bragged about during the post-homecoming celebrations actually did take place. The parents are actually quite relieved to find that such specific sexual activities were not discussed in the context of Sex Ed classes. Please discontinue any ongoing inquiries regarding specific allegations made about or by your players. What happens in the locker room, according to these parents, should stay in the locker room.

A couple of new concerns have been raised. Mr. and Mrs. Smith are apparently quite convinced that you have been holding seminars on global warming during the pregame briefings. I really tried to assure them that you are only a part-time science teacher and that you would of course reserve such discussions for the classroom. On the contrary, the Smiths insisted that such conversations were fine so long as they occurred only during the weigh-ins for the wrestling team. In fact, they only brought it up to assure me that this was the perfect place for such matters. The other concerned parents all assured me that they were in agreement with the Smiths.

Actually, “agreeance” was the term the parents used, and one of the words in “Climate Change” was consistently replaced with some form of scatological reference. Nevertheless, all the parents in question found the topic quite appropriate for the locker room. They just don’t want you to bring the subject up in any of your actual courses.

Many of the concerned parents had much the same views regarding the subject of evolution. You may answer any of the questions Billy Johnson asks about that subject you like, they assure me, providing you limit your answers to the half-time pep talks occurring during the basketball games. If other students must hear the answers to these questions, our parents parents insist it must not be in any actual classroom. Also, they would prefer that you leave textbooks out of it. If any literature must be consulted, it should be op-ed pieces authored by economist and sundry pundits. You may present all sides of the issue, of course, but our parents would very much prefer that you keep the science out of it, and that you limit these talks to the locker room. We don’t want anymore incidents like the graph you presented in home-room last week.

You needn’t worry yourself about the subjects of genocide, slavery, or imperialism. It is quite all right if the baseball team discuss these things during practice, or more specifically, before and after practice. The group of concerned parents just wanted me to make sure these conversations were not coming up in the history classes. I will speak with Mrs. Jones about this; she has been warned twice already, and I am really getting quite frustrated with her over the whole thing, but that is no concern of yours. To the best of my knowledge, our parents have no concerns regarding your own role in the whole ‘structural racism’ incident. I told them that you would never encourage students to use such words off the field or outside the locker room, and they have accepted my word on the matter.

Asked if they had any concerns about Russian meddling in American elections, the gutting of environmental regulations, understaffing at the state department or the establishment of internment camps on U.S. soil, none of the parents in question seemed to know what I was talking about. I don’t believe any of them have been in a locker room within the last few months, and they do not seem to have encountered the subjects in any of their chosen news sources. Suffice to say that our parents have no concerns about any of these subjects. Your players are free to bring up any of these matters during the course of game preparations. You might ask them not to raise any of these topics in any of their classes, however, and perhaps to avoid discussing them with any of the adults in their families. I think morning calisthenics will offer you the perfect opportunity to warn your players about such matters, but the time and place for that discussion is entirely up to you.

This is really the extent of the matter as far as I understand it. Again, please cease any active investigations into the rumors you have been hearing and do make a point to help the students understand what should and shouldn’t be shared with their parents. Some of the things we talk about in school just isn’t fit for fragile ears. In any event, please remember that what is said in the locker room must stay in the locker room.

That is all.

Capturing One of the Last Wild Alaskan Blockbusters on Film


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Yes, there are still Blockbusters in Alaska, at least two of them as I understand it; one in Fairbanks and one In Anchorage. I haven’t seen the one in Fairbanks, but Moni and I visited the one on Anchorage a couple weeks back. The one pictured above was still operating in Wasilla when we passed through on our way to Talkeetna this last Spring. Sadly, it has since closed down. Almost a year ago, we stopped into another Blockbuster in Soldatna, but that one too seems to have closed down. So yes, the great Alaskan Blockbuster lives yet in the wilderness of this great state, but it is an endangered species to be sure.

Why have Blockbusters lasted this long here in America’s ‘last frontier’?

Well ironic frontier jargon aside, the issue really does have something to do with the rough edges of our state. Simply put, the internet has not fully replaced video rentals in much of Alaska. Many of us have data-caps, and net usage can be quite costly up here. This fact makes video rental a more attractive option, and along with the various rental kiosks, it enables a precious few blockbusters to do business here in Alaska. But times, they are a changing, and we’re now down to two.

It’s a funny thing when you walk into one of these stores. You can’t help but feel as though you’ve been transported back a decade or two. They look just like you may have remembered them, which is of course the impression store managers want to create. But seriously, what else were they gonna look like? You might find moose in the parking lot, but inside the store, it’s pretty much the same.They will even ask you to be kind…

(You may click to embiggen)



Many thanks to Moni for contributing the Soldatna pics.

The North Pacific Fur Fish


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North Pacific Fur Fish

North Pacific Fur Fish

So, today, my girl and I happen to be in Valdez. I decided to pop into a museum or three, and, …and well, Moni said something about me being a nerd and told me she was going to take a nap. Lot she knows! Moni totally missed learning about the North Pacific Fur Fish. It really is an amazing specimen. Just see what the Valdez Museum and Historical Archive has to say about it:

North Pacific Fur Fish

This fish is reported to have been a rare sight in the waters of Prince William Sound. Its fur coat is an adaptation to the frigid glacial waters of the area This is one of a few ever caught.

The Northern Pacific Fur Fish was a popular tourist attraction during the late 1950s and early 1960s. This original Fur fish hung for many years on the Valdez Gift Shop.

* New information just in suggests that the Fur Fish is still alive. It has gone through further adaptation since this specimen was caught. It is rumored that one caught recently was not fur covered, but was instead covered in Fore-Tex with a Thinsulate liner.

If you believe this story then you are in for a lot of laughs during your stay in Valdez.

Fur Fish donated by museum supporter Jim Thompson.

So, there it is. I learned about a really really rare breed of fish, and Moni doesn’t know anything about it, because she took a nap instead of going to the museum with me. She knows all about the Mojave Penguin, but she doesn’t know about this one, and I mean to keep it that way. So, shhhh!  My dear readers, please don’t tell Moni. This fish will be our secret!