My best friend—from now on I will refer to her only as B.F.—sent me a Christmas present that at first I disdained: a stout little book, more than half a century old, with a color print of a pantalooned Shirley Temple on the cover, her hands on her hips and defiance in her pretty blue eyes. The story is based on a movie that predates my childhood—or else that my mother found vulgar and made sure I didn’t see—called The Littlest Rebel.
I’ve been reading the book in tandem with Franz Kafka’s The Trial, which I seem to have been avoiding, reading it with great enjoyment, astonished at the humor that describes K’s descent into pomposity and paranoia as he attempts to deal logically with the insane complexities of accusation and trial.
The grotesque combination of these two books gives a new meaning to the deeply sentimental (for it is not superficial) theme of The Littlest Rebel the self-sacrificing love of women and even little girls in the face of their men’s noble defense of The Lost Cause.
In a key scene, set in the last days of the Civil War, the Confederate father returns to his ruined plantation to find his little daughter almost starving, living with her girlfriend-slave off blackberries.
He has brought her a packet of food, but breaks down in tears when he realizes that, under attack from Union troops, he has lost it.
This set of virtues, based in passivity—it would seem—and so touted in the antebellum south and still to some degree there today, is twisted to mockery in a scene at the end of the first chapter of The Trial when K, overcome in the judicial attics, is carried out by two functionaries who speak of him as though he is an inanimate object—as indeed to some extent he is. He has become as powerless as these plantation women and girls.
The devotion displayed by father and daughter in The Littlest Rebel seems to me to depend on delusion: that the Confederacy embodied idealism and courage and endurance, worthy of the worship bestowed on it by combatants and civilians and even children.
A chilling thought comes to me: can this level of devotion only be inspired, or created, by illusion?
For a cause—or a man—to be selflessly loved, must it or he seem to embody those bygone virtues—idealism, courage, endurance—and, as an inevitable corollary, blindness to corrosive reality in the form of slavery?
For K, the illusion is justice.
As he descends into passivity, K crosses the upward arc of The Littlest Rebel, who becomes more and more assertive—“bossy” she would have been called at the time—as she saves the Union officer who has helped her and her father from execution as a traitor.
Pantaloons and golden curls do not limit her temerity. It fascinates me to see that this long-forgotten children’s book seems in a strange way more modern than The Trial.
The question of always, What do we dare to do?