Thursday, April 2, 2015

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Carrie, Mary and Laura Ingalls, approx. 1880
Laura Ingalls Wilder hardly needs introduction. Born in 1867 in Wisconsin, she and her family traveled west, mostly by covered wagon, living in various places until they settled on a homestead near DeSmet, South Dakota. The fictionalized story of their travels was written by Laura between 1930 and 1943 and published as a series for young readers. “I realized that I had seen and lived it all – all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers and the towns. I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American history,” Wilder told her fans.

Wilder married Almanzo Wilder, who homesteaded near her family. So many troubles befell them during their early marriage that they sought a less harsh climate, and finally settled at Rocky Ridge Farm near Mansfield, Missouri in 1894. While there, Laura and Almanzo produced poultry, dairy and apples from their orchard. Their daughter Rose became a journalist, and Wilder wrote articles for the Missouri Ruralist.

When her sister Mary died, Wilder sat down with a pencil and yellow tablets and wrote a memoir which she called Pioneer Girl. Rose Wilder Lane tried to place the memoir with her various contacts in the publishing world, but it was rejected. Lane then reworked it as a story for young people, and got some interest in it, though Lane feared ‘juveniles’ never made money. But Wilder began to write what became the “Little House” books, fictionalizing material from her memoir. Though she was already 75 when the books were finished, Wilder lived to be 90 years old and saw how popular they became.

Two recent publishing events underscore the importance of Wilder’s work. In 2012, the Library of America published the series in two volumes, edited by Caroline Fraser. In their eyes, “here Wilder’s prose for the first time stands alone and can be seen for exactly what it is — a triumph of the American plain style.” In December, 2014, an annotated version of Pioneer Girl was published by the South Dakota Historical Society Press, edited by Pamela Smith Hill. It has sold out in many bookstores and quickly went into a third printing.

Annotations to the memoir Pioneer Girl show how both Wilder and her daughter used the material. For her fiction, Wilder changed the actual locations of the story so that her family continued heading west, while in fact they zigzagged a couple of times across the prairies. She also streamlined the narrative, removing characters and attributing incidents differently. Wilder’s sympathies are clearly with Pa, highlighting his ingenuity and heroism. She said at one point that the novels were “a memorial for my father.” But Ma is also a courageous partner, taking the reins when Pa must lead the horses across a swollen creek, reaching for the coffee grinder when Pa wishes they had a mill to grind wheat during the long winter and sustaining the family for many months while Pa is gone.

Though fictionalized, Wilder wanted her books to accurately reflect the historical spirit of her time. Once when her daughter made editorial suggestions that were “all wrong,” Wilder wrote: “After all, even though these books must be made fit for children to read, they must also be true to history … I have given you a true picture of the times and the place and the people. Please don’t blur it.” She said, “What girls would do now has no bearing whatever. This is a true story and supposed to show a different (almost) civilization.”

Lately, as Caroline Fraser points out here, the “Little House” books have been taken up and politicized. But, she writes, “the Little House books have always been stranger, deeper, and darker than any ideology. While celebrating family life and domesticity, they undercut those cozy values at every turn, contrasting the pleasures of home (firelight, companionship, song) with the immensity of the wilderness, its nobility and its power to resist cultivation and civilization.”

My own mother asked the grocery and drygoods store owner in our tiny North Dakota town to order the “Little House” books as they came out in the 1950’s with the Garth Williams illustrations. She read them to us, as did our teachers in school at the time. The influence of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work upon me would be hard to over-estimate.