Lullaby of the Apocalypse: Wisconsin’s Frontier from the 19th Century to North Passage — Devin Corbin
<This essay reveals major plot points and spoilers.>
Described as a hybrid between a north woods fairy tale and a psychological thriller, North Passage is an independent film whose main character, Frea, is a suburban girl forced into subsistence living—and into a disturbing eddy in either real or perceived time—by widespread societal collapse. Fleeing the menacing disorder of a city coming unhinged, Frea’s emotionally scarred family retreats to an encampment on her survivalist grandfather’s farm, where shell-shocked refugees armed with fragments of their former lives attempt to claw sustenance from a hauntingly beautiful landscape.
Filmed in and near the valley of the Red Cedar River by Menomonie, Wisconsin, North Passage offers viewers a rare and sumptuous opportunity to see this region’s countryside on the big screen. Overgrown meadows rank with milkweed and golden rod pitch toward cloistered ravines where subterranean springs emerge into an all-day twilight of leafy shade. It is a landscape that national audiences have seldom seen but often imagined, for when Frea explores her family’s ancestral farm she leads us all to a region that gave rise to two of the nation’s most iconic stories of frontier living: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods and Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn. Wilder was born one county south of where North Passage was shot, and Caroline Woodhouse, who was Brink’s grandmother and the inspiration for the character Caddie Woodlawn, lived on one of the properties seen in the film. That North Passage is populated with a mix of historical and latter-day pioneers seems fitting.
The Old Northwest as the New Northeast: Wisconsin’s Frontier and Romanticism
We in the U.S. have always had a powerful, vexed relationship with “the frontier” and the “untamed nature” beyond it. Mention “the frontier” to people now, and most will likely think of High Plains cattle drives and rattlesnakes and red rock canyons—the stuff of dime novelists and western movies. Mention Wisconsin and they are apt to think of cheese, football, and binge drinking. But in the days before repugnant neo-con politics and before Laverne and Shirley and before even Vince Lombardi (yes, there was a Wisconsin before Vince Lombardi), the state played an outsized role in shaping this nation’s attitudes toward the frontier and what we now think of as “the environment.” The reasons for this are complex, but perhaps the most salient of them is that Wisconsin was the frontier when mid-nineteenth-century northeasterners were reshaping our nation’s attitudes toward the natural world.
Prior to the nineteenth century, U.S. attitudes toward nature and the frontier were mixed. “Wilderness” was more resented than admired, and frontier living was seen as a necessary evil: pioneering was a first step toward civilizing a world perceived as rough and unproductive, but with it came the imagined risk that the pioneers themselves might turn feral and abandon societal constraints. Then industrialization in Europe and the eastern U.S. unleashed previously unimagined power to remake the world, and an artistic and intellectual movement broadly known as “Romanticism” began to promote a new view of nature. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the movement’s 18th-century European forebears, famously expressed the heart of it in the opening line of Emile: “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man.” In the evolving Romantic mindset, “wilderness” gradually shifted from dirty word to religious ideal, a temple where one could admire and perhaps even interpret the handiwork of God.
Many Americans took readily to this view, for if wilderness were divine then the U.S. was vastly superior to the cramped and shopworn nations of Europe. “In the woods is perpetual youth,” Boston philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in “Nature,” an essay that launched an influential New England strain of Romanticism known as “Transcendentalism.” The essay appeared in 1836, the same year that the Wisconsin Territory was established out of the hinterlands of the “Old Northwest.” The very next year, the Native American tribe known then as the Chippewa (now often called the Ojibwe or Anishinabe) signed what came to be known as “The Pine Tree Treaty,” opening a huge swath of northern Wisconsin to logging and settlement just as Americans were poised to reevaluate their relationships with nature.
The southern boundary of this newly ceded territory crossed the Red Cedar River roughly where Interstate 94 now does: just inside the modern-day city limits of Menomonie, a former lumber town owing its existence to that treaty. The region had long been known to have what settlers called “natural advantages,” including white pines over one hundred feet tall, rivers for transportation (as well as mill power), and fertile soil. Traveling near the confluence of the Chippewa and Red Cedar Rivers in the 1760s, the region’s first English-speaking explorer, a Massachusetts-born surveyor named Jonathan Carver, had described a paradise where “larger droves of buffaloes and elks were feeding than I had observed in any other part of my travels.”
Not surprisingly, the Wisconsin frontier was soon on the minds of culturally influential northeasterners. Wisconsin, after all, was the last unsettled region that greatly resembled the northeast. Its forests held the same species of trees and game, its rivers and lakes the same species of fish, making it a natural destination for those from New York or Massachusetts who wanted “new land” for either farming or philosophy. Susan Fenimore Cooper, whose father James wrote a series of Romantic novels that popularly defined the frontier era in the northeastern U.S., lamented that in the 1830s northeastern farms were languishing because so many of their owners were off “running madly after wealth in the wilds of Michigan and Wisconsin.” Margaret Fuller, friend of Emerson and editor of the influential Transcendentalist literary magazine The Dial, published her first book, Summer on the Lakes, about a trip to Wisconsin that she took in 1843. Emerson himself bought land in the ceded territory of northern Wisconsin in 1856 as a real estate investment. A few years later his famous protégé Henry David Thoreau, already well on his way to dying prematurely from tuberculosis, used much of his remaining strength to make one last major botanizing trip. Turning aside advice that he go to Europe, the author of Walden opted instead for a steamboat ride up the Mississippi River along the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, retracing some of the journey made years earlier by Jonathan Carver. One month after Thoreau’s death the following spring, his essay “Walking” appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. In it he wrote, “Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free.”
For Wisconsin pioneers, the Romantic notion that the nation’s wilds were a divine and ennobling treasure must sometimes have been awkward, for much of pioneer life was spent reshaping wilderness. At the same time, however, Romanticism’s patriotic esteem for nature made intimacy with wilderness estimable in ways it hadn’t been before: it was suddenly possible for pioneers to imagine themselves—and for others to imagine them—not just as isolated and ignorant rustics, but rather as the truest and most honorable of Americans. Little wonder, then, that several sons and daughters of Wisconsin’s frontier, fortified by a steady diet of Transcendentalist cultural values and their own first-hand experiences of “wilderness,” later became national voices on the topics of pioneering and the natural world. There was Hamlin Garland, whose memoirs of his frontier childhood near La Crosse earned a Pulitzer Prize; and John Muir, a Scottish immigrant who spent his youth on a 19th-century Wisconsin farm and became the nation’s foremost advocate for wilderness preservation; and Sigurd Olson, who was raised in northern Wisconsin in the last days of the great rush to cut the state’s old-growth forests and who went on to become President of the Wilderness Society.
Frederick Jackson Turner Tells a Frontier Creation Story
Not least among the Wisconsinites who became major players in shaping cultural attitudes toward the frontier was Frederick Jackson Turner. Now largely forgotten except by academics, Turner perhaps did more than anyone else to formalize how Americans regard their frontier origins. Born in Portage, Wisconsin, in 1861, Turner glimpsed from the middle-class comfort of a small town the waning days of pioneer conditions in the southern part of the state. As a doctoral student in history he researched the Wisconsin fur trade, and then, in 1893, he delivered an address at the Chicago World’s Fair that defined for decades how Americans would view their history.
The official title of the World’s Fair itself was the “World’s Columbian Exposition,” so named in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, and Turner clearly hoped to make sense of those four centuries of colonization and expansion. Titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” his address began by noting that in 1890 the U.S. Superintendent of the Census had announced the end of a discernable U.S. frontier because of widespread settlement. Turner saw this as a watershed moment, for his thesis was that the frontier, more than any other factor, had forged U.S. identity. European settlers had faced the demands of the North American environment and, under its influence, had emerged as “a new product that is American.” It was thanks to the frontier, Turner argued, that Americans became a people noteworthy for their “coarseness and strength,” their “practical, inventive turn of mind,” their “masterful grasp of material things” and their “dominant individualism.” In particular, he stressed that “the most important effect of the frontier [had] been in the promotion of democracy” because of the way the frontier had always provided a “gate of escape from the bondage of the past.” As long as the frontier lasted, it had provided Americans with a “perennial rebirth.” Turner tried not to sound alarmist about how the frontier’s closing would affect the nation’s future, but the last line of his speech was inescapably elegiac: “And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.”
Finding flaws in such a conception of U.S. identity is easy today, and contemporary historians often have. Turner’s reference to pre-Columbian North America as a “simple, inert continent” offering European settlers “free land,” for example, displays his woeful disregard for Native American cultures. But “The Frontier Thesis,” as Turner’s idea came to be called, was beloved in its time, a time notably ripe for a master narrative about America’s self-sufficient and indomitable pioneers. The 1890s were plagued by economic upheaval and exploding labor unrest—circumstances Turner skirted when mentioning “the recent Populist agitation.” The futuristic optimism of the World’s Fair surrounding Turner’s address that day in 1893 was in part a way for Americans to whistle in the dark.
As they always do, hard times make people nostalgic, and Turner’s retrospective thesis was rooted as much in the new and violent uncertainties of 1890s capitalism as in the details of pioneering. In the 1860s of Turner’s youth, about half of all U.S. workers had been self-employed, but by the time of his address roughly two-thirds were wage laborers. With railway monopolies and frequent drought crushing the nation’s “independent” farmers, and with desperate factory workers turning increasingly to violence as their only path to fair pay, the 1890s were primed to celebrate the self-sufficiency of frontier living. Turner rode the popularity of his thesis all the way to a professorship at Harvard, and his ideas about the frontier went on to dominate the study of U.S. history for over a half-century, shaping how a whole generation regarded pioneering.
Bedtime Stories of the Great Depression
So it was that Americans were already practiced at mourning the loss of the frontier when the Great Depression settled over the nation in the 1930s. If the economically traumatized Americans of the 1890s were hungry for assurances of their historic ability to get by, those of the 1930s, suffering their own waves of financial collapse and privation, were no less so. With banks failing and jobs evaporating, nostalgia for frontier independence ran high. What’s more, those Americans of Turner’s generation who had spent their childhoods on the frontier were then entering their 70s and 80s, and their impending deaths were like a mirror casting the nation’s vision backward to the last surviving memories of the times and places that had officially made Americans American.
This was the climate that made Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods (1932) and Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn (1935) part of popular national mythology. It is not just coincidence that both books were published in the 1930s, or that both were collaborations to some degree between an ageing former child of the Wisconsin frontier and a younger relative. Wilder wrote her first book at the urging—and under the editorial guidance—of her daughter Rose, a professional writer who became desperate for money when the stock market collapsed. Brink’s book was based on the stories of the ageing grandmother who had raised her, giving Brink a more intimate connection to frontier life than most members of her generation would have enjoyed. Within five years of Caddie Woodlawn’s publication, Brink’s grandmother was dead.
There are other telling similarities, not least that both of these Wisconsin families had roots going back to New England. They had been, in other words, pioneers of the sort that the U.S.’s northeastern cultural elite would most have recognized and admired: resourceful Yankees who were the last surviving iteration of the pioneering culture endemic to the northeastern forests, forests that stretched through time and space from the prairie’s ragged edge in 19th-century western Wisconsin all the way back to the hills outside 17th-century Boston. What’s more, both families were enthusiastically literate, so that culturally they had been suffused with New England’s nineteenth-century nostalgia for pioneering at the very time their own lives were filled with virgin white pine lumber, hand-picked wild cranberries, and home-made maple sugar.
Caddie Woodlawn, in particular, offers readers a perfect embodiment of Turner’s thesis. Brink claimed that the book followed closely (save for altered names) the frontier experiences of her grandmother, Caroline Woodhouse, who was born in 1853 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, just a few miles from where Emerson had gathered his circle of nature-worshipping writers and thinkers. Woodhouse moved with her family to what is now Dunn County, Wisconsin, in 1857, the family making the last part of their trip on the network of rivers that flowed out of Wisconsin’s northern “pineries.” They eventually settled along the Red Cedar River, which figures prominently not only in Caddie Woodlawn but also in North Passage. In keeping with Frederick Jackson Turner’s observation that “civilization in America has followed the arteries made by geology,” the Red Cedar was then a major thoroughfare, moving not just people and goods upstream into the wilderness but also buoyant white pine logs downstream to water-powered sawmills of the sort that employed Caroline’s father. The river was thus, in a more elaborate sense than usual, a ribbon through time, connecting “primitive” northern headwaters (which were, in Turner’s schema, both the past and the future) with the civilized south and east (at once modern and moribund).
The course of Caddie’s life as it is given in the novel follows perfectly the classic Americanizing arc of the Frontier Thesis: from frail easterner of European descent to half-feral pioneer to capable and democratic American. At times, it is as if Brink wrote Caddie Woodlawn with Turner’s work lying open on her lap. Caddie, we are told, is the sickly daughter of an English immigrant father and a mother from Boston. Once in Wisconsin, Caddie’s father prevails upon Caddie’s mother to let the girl spend as much time as possible outdoors with her brothers, where, through the healthful influence of the natural world, she grows strong.
Turner says in his address that the wilderness at first “masters the colonist” and “strips off the garments of civilization” and “puts him in the birch canoe.” These are, in fact, largely the elements of Brink’s first chapter, in which the Woodlawn children strip naked to wade across the Red Cedar River and visit the local encampment of Native Americans, with whom Caddie in particular has developed a friendship. The book doesn’t specify a tribe, as if to remind us of the limited roles that any “Indian” could play within the mythic space of the Euro-American frontier; the tribe Caddie and her siblings visit fit neatly in the “noble savage” role popularized by Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.
After a friendly visit in which the children observe the construction of a birch bark canoe, they return home, foraging for hazelnuts along the way. Caddie, who is the most committed forager and the least concerned about punctuality, finally arrives home to find her family already dining with the traveling minister or “Circuit Rider.” The Circuit Rider, who like Caddie’s mother is a clear representative in the book of effete east-coast society, asks Mrs. Woodlawn when she is “going to begin making a young lady out of this wild Indian.”
By the end of the book, of course, Caddie has become a “young lady,” but in a classic Turnerian sense she is not the sort found in Boston. The book illustrates the difference: Whereas Caddie’s opening visit is with “Indians,” most of the end of the book concerns a visit from a helpless and over-civilized Boston cousin, who lobbies for the family to move to England when they discover that Mr. Woodlawn has an inheritance waiting for him there. Caddie’s father, whom Caddie says would rather “go on West than go back to an old country where everything is finished,” ultimately decides to have the family “vote in the American way by written ballot” on whether to stay in Wisconsin or go to England. Having by this point become Turner’s perfectly democratic product of the frontier, the family of course votes by a wide margin to remain in the U.S. Even their dog, which had been taken to St. Louis for training by a hapless urban relative, eventually casts its own vote by escaping and making its way back to the Wisconsin frontier, where the book closes with Caddie outdoors and happily facing the late afternoon sun. The last line of the book tells us that she “was always to be turned westward now, for Caddie Woodlawn was a pioneer and an American.”
Few modern readers will be wholly captivated by a book like Caddie Woodlawn. Its unalloyed celebration of western expansion and its references to generically rendered Native Americans as “savages,” while honestly reflecting attitudes that were common in both the 1860s and the 1930s, rightly make today’s readers squirm. Turner’s Frontier Thesis and Caddie Woodlawn—not to mention the cowboy films that were Hollywood’s inheritors of the Turner legacy—are now largely out of fashion.
The Pioneers’ Second Coming: Post-Apocalyptic Revival of the Frontier Narrative
The place of the frontier as a mythic space in U.S. culture is too powerful, though, for it simply to disappear, as the recent film North Passage makes clear. While North Passage melds multiple genres, the film is in part dystopian, and as such it plays with its own interesting zeitgeist. Whereas readers in the 1930s had a particular yen for stories about resilient nineteenth-century settlers, our own era—struggling with new economic upheaval and uncertainty—seems no less fascinated with stories of brave people confronting a future in which societal institutions have become either sinisterly inhumane or horrifyingly absent. As curious as it may seem, post-apocalyptic narratives are our era’s most direct replacement for frontier tales. Reduced by societal collapse to surviving with what often amounts to frontier-era technology, post-apocalyptic pioneers circle their wagons against marauding bands of thugs (as in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) or latter-day gladiators (as in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games) or even, in one thriving sub-genre, zombies.
That post-apocalyptic narratives are a sort of national sublimation of the frontier tale is logical enough. Like the Romantic revaluation of wilderness that produced our national nostalgia for pioneering in the first place, dystopian narrative has its roots in future shock. The conceptual elements of dystopia lurked for millennia in religious notions of hell and in Biblical end-time prophesies, but only when the pace of change rocketed with industrialization did recognizably modern dystopian stories, such as H.G. Wells’s 1895 novella The Time Machine, become common.
To a nation that is both steeped in stories of frontier rebirth and gripped by the worst economic upheaval since the Great Depression, dystopian narratives offer an ambiguous hope: the idea that cataclysmic strife might create a new wilderness and, by extension, a new chance at the rebirth of American character. We yearn once more for Turner’s “gate of escape,” but with the nation’s population now past 315 million—five times what it was in 1890 when the frontier “closed”—the only gate of escape that many can imagine opens onto aftermath. Which, if you ask Native Americans, is what Turner’s frontier was, anyway. Indeed, even the paradisiacal abundance of game that Jonathan Carver described near the Red Cedar River in the 1760s is now believed to have resulted from regular warfare between the forest-dwelling Ojibwe and the plains-dwelling Dakota; past and potential violence so haunted the region that few dared hunt there. Thus the Eden that richly fed the Ingalls and Woodhouse families.
It is this same landscape, appropriately enough, that one visits in North Passage, a film that not only uses a “cultural meltdown” to revive the pioneer narrative, but that brings the past and latter-day frontiers into dialog with one another, as if to underscore their parallels. Like Caddie Woodlawn, the story centers on a young woman—Frea—who moves from the city to the woods. En route, Frea and her family are accosted by thugs, and because Frea hesitates to meet violence with violence, she loses both her sister and an arrowhead necklace that is a symbolic connection with her absent mother, the necklace a sort of talisman that possibly comes from the family’s pioneering past. Frea therefore arrives on her grandfather’s backwoods farm sick with regret and turns to the forests for healing, much as the initially frail Caddie Woodlawn did. “It’s not a bad thing going back,” her grandfather assures her, but what Frea ultimately finds in the woods is a sort of mystical encounter with the place’s pioneering past that is ambiguous and haunting. What redemption it offers comes at the cost of its own burden of sadness.
The structure of the film is shaped in part by the two emphatic questions of threatening times: If things get worse, where will we go? What will we take? The seriousness of these questions is nicely dramatized. An early scene, for example, has the family frantically packing for their survivalist future: the daughters ransack their rooms while the father paws through the clutter on a basement workbench. Most of what the family has, of course, they must leave behind, and this is eerie in part because of how similar it is to recent news footage of families fleeing underwater mortgages, their abandoned homes still decked with furniture and appliances and even family portraits that they no longer have anywhere to hang.
The family’s packing is echoed later in the film, when Frea and her adopted dog forage in the woods at her grandfather’s farm and discover the slumping ruin of a pioneer’s cabin—perhaps the very one Frea’s own ancestors used. As she sifts through the artifacts of lives spent under material conditions similar to those she now endures, we can feel her wondering what will be most useful. At first she seems poised to take a coffee pot, but then something makes a sound outside the cabin and she exchanges the pot for the reassuring heft of a hammer. Ominous and filled with pathos, the scene is another gloss on consumerism: Frea is the modern American shopper removed from the mall and finally forced to think deeply about what she needs. At the same time, however, the selection of the hammer is a nod not just to the violence of this new frontier, but to Frea’s acceptance of her pioneering role: she is there to tame and build, to make a home.
The question of where we would go in a societal meltdown, of course, is even more troubling than the question of what we would take. For Frea and her father, the answer is to go back to the family’s ancestral land. Where exactly this is, the narrative does not tell, but that these scenes are filmed in the Midwestern haunts of two of the nations’ most iconic stories of pioneering is evocative, for in the national mythology fostered by Turner’s Frontier Thesis and the works of Wilder and Brink, this is the ancestral home of all modern Americans, the landscape that is both cradle and repository of the pioneer virtues of thrift and resilience and courage and familial devotion. It is “the fly-over” as internal frontier, a place where past and present seem dangerously—yet perhaps also redemptively—close.
That proximity between the past and present is ultimately at the heart of North Passage, which is fitting given that the film’s ballast is regret. Frea, haunted by the fateful moment of hesitation that resulted in the loss of her sister, arrives on her grandfather’s farm and soon takes us exploring in the geography of origins for a route back in time. The seemingly pristine beauty of the place acts as a subtle promise that chronology can be thwarted, and it is as if that beauty guides her to some privileged place in the headwaters of her family history where time flows in many directions before finding its course. When past and present briefly touch, the symmetry of the modern and historic frontiers becomes clear. Neither, it turns out, is a refuge from violence. Frea encounters a young pioneer woman, possibly Frea’s own ancestor, desperately fleeing a man on horseback, and Frea must once again confront her fear of taking another’s life. This time Frea manages to save the woman, but there is little elation in it for her.
One of the last scenes of the film has Frea back at her grandfather’s makeshift survivalist camp, exhausted from her encounter in the woods and being comforted by her father, who sings a lullaby that Frea’s mother used to sing:
You can close your eyes
anytime you like.
Just close your eyes
and drift downstream,
and you can dream
anything you want.
Just close your eyes
and let your dreams
bring you home. . . .
When the pioneer woman whom Frea has just saved then briefly reappears on a hill outside camp and sends Frea’s dog back to her with an arrowhead necklace for a collar, we sense that Frea has indeed been brought home. But unlike those pioneer girls in the stories of Wilder and Brink, Frea has been forced to confront some of her home’s painful history.
The sad wisdom tacit in her mother’s lullaby is that no home is without such a history, save in our dreams and our art. What the song conjures is the consolation of escape, the true home of every restless pioneer: a paradise of second chances in the immaculately receding wilderness—beyond time and beyond reach—where today’s concerns are either already solved or endlessly deferred. This is the alluring “gate of escape” in Turner’s legendary American frontier; no wonder that stories of homesteading a “virgin” land have so often comforted the nation in difficult times. Such stories are, in a sense, lullabies themselves, and if the simplest and most escapist of them no longer fully reassure us, perhaps it is just as well. North Passage, fortunately, is not in that category. In the best lullabies, after all, the cow is in the corn, the bough breaks, the mockingbird refuses to sing. If, in a time such as ours, the fate of home never haunts our dreams, we must someday wake to find ourselves still no more than travelers.