September 20, 2018 @ 8:34 am | Filed under: Books
I’m reading Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser’s A+++ book about Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane, and I quipped on Facebook that so far a chief takeaway for me is: One should never achieve a level of fame that inspires historians to go through one’s personal correspondence. 😉
That post has generated a good discussion of Fraser’s book, and in answering some friends’ questions I wound up writing a whole tome, which I thought I might as well share here.
S. mentioned, “I didn’t realize there was so much new material in it!”
I replied: re new material, you might be thinking of Pioneer Girl, which is Laura’s original memoir, a manuscript written long before the Little House books. I was given a copy back in the 90s when Harper commissioned me to write the Martha books. It was published for the first time last year in a wonderful edition annotated by Pamela Smith Hill. It’s a much bleaker narrative, telling many chapters of the story that Laura left out of the children’s series (death of her brother Freddy, the awful Burr Oak Iowa years, etc). I haven’t reread it in many years but at the time I loved getting a peek behind the curtain to the more raw, adult memoir and learning what happened in some of the gaps in the series, and what kinds of changes she made to the narrative thread when she reworked the material into children’s novels.
Prairie Fires is a stunningly thorough nonfiction book by Caroline Fraser which maps out the life stories of Laura, her parents, Almanzo, and Rose. It’s impeccably researched, drawing heavily on Rose and Laura’s personal correspondence, Rose’s diaries, their many published writings in various periodicals as well as their books, land records, local archives, etc. The depth of Fraser’s research is impressive and makes this historical fiction writer’s heart go pitty-pat.
In this account, Laura comes off better than Rose, but Fraser doesn’t shy away from discussing Laura’s flaws and quirks. Not a problem for me, since LIW was demystified and humanized for me a long time ago. As a look behind the curtain at writing process, Prairie Fires is fascinating and hugely valuable. I’ve loved watching the interplay between Laura and Rose (and occasionally Laura’s editors) that helped shape the Little House books. I think Fraser does a much better job of unpacking the complicated writing/editorial relationship between the two women than Holtz’s Ghost in the Little House.
I do wonder sometimes if Fraser’s educated guesses (and they are HIGHLY educated and thoroughly considered, don’t get me wrong) are a tiny bit presumptuous—she does make some assumptions about motivations and personal emotions. But she always makes it clear that those statements are suppositions. “Laura may have felt…” etc.
In response to J.’s question, “do I dare to read it?”: If Laura is on any kind of pedestal in your mind, this book probably knocks it out from under her. But for me it’s been marvelous–a look at the real Laura, the woman, the often struggling writer doubting her abilities and deferring to her daughter’s judgment–then bristling back and defending certain authorial choices, digging in when she felt strongly about a scene. As a writer of historical fiction I am just EATING UP the conversations about how to mold *truth* and *fact* into a compelling fiction narrative.
[Side note: I was really stunned to encounter a speech in which Laura talks about how she tells the truth ***but not the whole truth*** because that’s what I have said myself many times these past 13 years about my blog (everything I share is true, but I don’t share everything) and of course it served as a major theme in The Prairie Thief. “Not the Whole Truth” was in fact my working title for that book! (Nixed by my publisher as not kid-friendly/gripping enough. Prairie Thief was their title but it gave me serious angst since I wanted the book to stand apart from my Little House work.]
I had already been aware that Laura rearranged some of her family’s travels and left whole huge chapters out of the series. Fraser’s book delves into precisely why those changes occurred. Excellent insight for any student of fiction and memoir.
S., re how Laura’s books are doing these days…well, the past twenty years have been a time of growing awareness of the highly problematic areas of her books. Her family’s story goes hand in hand with the story of Native Americans being cruelly displaced from their lands. Fraser takes an unflinching look at that history, as well as the ways in which Laura’s pervasive message of rugged individualism breezes past the many times her family received government or community assistance of various kinds. (Not to mention the Ingalls family skipping town when Burr Oak debts mounted up.)
My understanding is that sales of Laura’s books have declined somewhat over the past fifteen years but they still remain staples. Personally, I think contemporary children are less engaged by the long, detailed *process* descriptions (making bullets, making a door, etc)–why read a step-by-step when you can watch it on Youtube, you know? (I’m not being disparaging–I freely admit I too would rather watch a video of a door being made than read a blow-by-blow narrative. But not sausage. I don’t want to watch a sausage-making video. Give me Laura’s narrative anytime.) And of course Harry Potter swept in a great wave of interest in children’s fantasy. Historicals were on the downswing for a bit but have bounded back up now with many brilliant own-voices works.
The reality is that Laura’s books require discussion. When my own kids came along I realized I was hesitant to just hand the books over–I felt like conversation and contextualizing was necessary because of the treatment of Indians, the minstrel show, etc. Today I would add: the climate disruptions also invite what Julie Bogart calls Big Juicy Questions. Not to mention the politics (for older readers)…
Laura’s work is certainly in no danger of being forgotten—she’ll always be a pivotal figure in children’s literature. But the field is rich and crowded now. The glorious explosion of kids’ graphic novels, the brilliant prose of contemporary authors—there’s an overwhelming abundance of books competing with Laura’s now. Not to mention all the visual media. Much of her prose is what would now be called “quiet”—I say this as a passionate lover of “quiet books” — in a market that prefers action and zip. All of which is to say that I think there are many reasons why contemporary kids aren’t embracing Little House with quite the fervor we did (and for our generation it’s probably impossible to gauge how much our zeal was spurred by the TV show—I honestly don’t remember which way I encountered Little House first! But I do know that Nellie Oleson always had Alison Arngrim’s face in my mind. I would guess I encountered book and show more or less concurrently).
Probably more to come when I’ve finished the Fraser book. Closing in on the finish now…heart in my throat.
This post contains affiliate links.
The second-ever LauraPalooza—a conference for Laura Ingalls Wilder scholars and fans—will be held in Mankato, MN this July 12-14th. Details at the site:
The theme of LauraPalooza 2012 is “What Would Laura Do?” and will include a mix of scholarly research and Little House fandom. More information, including the full schedule and registration form, can be found by visiting Beyond Little House. Look for the heading “LauraPalooza 2012”. All information that you need can be found there in the pull-down menu.
• Special performance by Alison “Nellie Oleson” Arngrim
• LIW biographer William Anderson
• Little House Cookbook author Barbara Walker
• Authors’ reception including Barbara Walker, The Wilder Life author Wendy McClure, My Life As Laura author Kelly Ferguson, and others
• The return of the National Weather Service’s Barbara Mayes Boustead and physics teacher/Laura fan Jim Hicks
• Original research and insight on Laura, her life, and her books
• Conference-ending Spelling Bee and Silent Auction
• Special post-conference field trip to Walnut Grove, Minnesota — the setting for On the Banks of Plum Creek!
• A special presentation by Dean “Almanzo Wilder” Butler and Dale Cockrell of Pa’s Fiddle Recordings about the PBS Little House music special filmed last January in Nashville.
There’s also going to be a camp—Camp Laura—for kids grades K-6 (while parents are attending the conference).
Registration is open through May 31st.
I sooo wish I could go! Alas, it coincides with Comic-Con, a busy, busy weekend for us Bonny Glen folks. One of these years I am determined to get to LauraPalooza, though. If you can make it this year, you absolutely should! And then send me pictures. 🙂
A book of letters I ought to have included in my ode to epistles and epistolaries the other day: Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. Miss Nordstrom, the pioneering editor behind Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, was something of a genius herself. The list of children’s classics she was responsible for publishing is staggeringly long and awesome: Little Bear, Where the Wild Things Are, Goodnight Moon, Danny and the Dinosaur, Where the Sidewalk ends, Harold and the Purple Crayon, oh and a little thing called Charlotte’s Web—to name a very few.
Dear Genius is a collection of letters she wrote to authors, illustrators, reviewers, even parents and children who had written with responses to her books. She is unfailingly poised, charming, and insightful, even when responding to criticism. And her voice, oh her wonderful voice! Her letters are simply crammed with personality—she is wry, teasing, incisive, direct, and altogether brilliant.
Her editorial letters provide a fascinating look at the history of children’s publishing in America, both on the grand scale of publishing trends and literary vision, and on the micro scale of word choices for a single line of a specific book. For instance, in a 1957 letter to Syd Hoff about Danny and the Dinosaur, an early “I Can Read” book for beginning readers:
I think you should just say “One day Danny went to the museum.” (He didn’t actually want to “see how the world looked a long, long time ago,” as you put it, do you think? Very unchildlike. He might have wanted to go to see the dead mummies, or other specific things in a museum, but I wouldn’t mention that here because you mention it on following pages. So just have a simple statement on this first page. “One day Danny went to the museum.”) It is pretty short and if you can think of one more short sentence for this page by all means add it. I can’t come up with any suggestion myself. Page 8: You’ll have to simplify what he saw on this page. NOT THAT I WANT YOU TO GET SELF-CONSCIOUS ABOUT “I CAN READ.” I told you I wanted you to let me worry about that aspect and that’s all I’m doing now. You could just say “He saw Indians. He saw bears. He saw…” I haven’t been in a museum in 150 years and can’t think of anything else, but you can.
Or, in September 1963:
Maurice, before I sent the paste-up I went through it, rereading the words, and looking at the pictures again. It is MOST MAGNIFICENT, and we’re so proud to have it on our list. When you were much younger, and had done only a couple of books, I remember I used to write you letters when the books were finished, and thank you for “another beautiful” job—or some such dopiness. Now you’re rich and famous and need no words of wonder from me. But I must send them, anyhow, when I look through Where the Wild Things Are. I think it is utterly magnificent, and the words are beautiful and meaningful, and it does just want you wanted it to do. And you did just what you wanted to do.
Or, from a reply to a reader of Little House on the Prairie in 1952:
Your letter to Mrs. Wilder…came several weeks ago. We took the liberty of opening it as we do many of the letters that are addressed to Mrs. Wilder…[she] is now in her late eighties and we try to handle much of her correspondence here.
We were indeed disturbed by your letter. We knew that Mrs. Wilder had not meant to imply that Indians were not people and we did not want to distress her if we could possibly avoid it. I must admit to you that no one here realized that those words read as they did. Reading them now it seems unbelievable to me that you are the only person who has picked them up and written to us about them in the twenty years since the book was published. We were particularly disturbed because all of us here feel just as strongly as you apparently feel about such subjects, and we are proud that many of the books on the Harper list prove that. Perhaps it is a hopeful sign that though such a statement could have passed unquestioned twenty years ago it would never have appeared in anything published in recent years.
Instead of forwarding your letter to Mrs. Wilder I wrote her about the passage and said that in reprinting we hoped that she would allow us to change it. I have just received her answer. She says: “You are perfectly right about the fault in Little House on the Prairie and have my permission to make the correction you suggest. It was a stupid blunder of mine. Of course Indians are people and I did not mean to imply they were not.” We are changing the next printing to read “There were no settlers.”
Fascinating. I could quote from this book all day but you’re much better off scrounging up a copy yourself.
This coming weekend, Laura Ingalls Wilder fans and scholars from all over the country will gather in Mankato, MN, for the first-ever Laurapalooza Conference. I was invited to attend, but alas, I couldn’t swing a weekend away the week before Comic-Con. When your hubby’s a comic-book editor in San Diego, July is ALL ABOUT Comic-Con.
I’ll be LauraPaloozing in spirit, though, and eagerly following news of the conference on Twitter and at the Beyond Little House site.
Mankato, as you may know, is not only rich in LIW history, it’s the town on which Maud Hart Lovelace based the Deep Valley of her Betsy-Tacy books. As you can imagine, Mankato is high on my list of Places I Absolutely Must Visit Someday.
Laurapalooza speakers include LIW biographers John Miller, William Anderson, and Pamela Smith Hill. Visit Beyond Little House for more information.
The Wisconsin Historical Society has published some Civil War-era letters written by members of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family, including one by Caroline Quiner Ingalls (Laura’s mother) to her sister Martha (who was named after “my” Martha, Laura’s great-grandmother).
I haven’t had a chance to read the letters yet—just got the announcement—but it sounds like at least one of them mentions Charlotte, Laura’s grandmother. This batch of letters wasn’t among the family archive material the Laura Ingalls Wilder estate gave me when I was researching the Martha and Charlotte books, so this is new and exciting stuff for me too.
The long letter from Aunt Martha to Laura full of anecdotes about the Quiner children’s early years isn’t among these. It was written after Caroline’s death and was an important source of information for Maria Wilkes during her writing of the Caroline books. I’d love to see that one published some day. I have a copy somewhere in my files, but I think the original belongs to the Ingalls Wilder estate—or possibly one of the museums? There are Laura-related treasures in many of the home sites and museums that celebrate her work and life.
A frequently asked question:
Where can I find a listing of all the Little House books in order?
Here you go:
Books about Martha Morse, Laura’s great-grandmother, by me, Melissa Wiley:
Little House in the Highlands
The Far Side of the Loch
Down to the Bonny Glen
Beyond the Heather Hills
Books about Charlotte Tucker, Laura’s grandmother, also by me:
Little House by Boston Bay
On Tide Mill Lane
The Road from Roxbury
Across the Puddingstone Dam
Books about Caroline Quiner Ingalls, Laura’s mother, by Maria Wilkes & Celia Wilkins:
Little House in Brookfield
Little Town at the Crossroads
Little Clearing in the Woods
On Top of Concord Hill
Across the Rolling River
Little City by the Lake
A Little House of Their Own
Books by and about Laura Ingalls Wilder (the originals):
Little House in the Big Woods
Little House on the Prairie
On the Banks of Plum Creek
By the Shores of Silver Lake
The Long Winter
Little Town on the Prairie
These Happy Golden Years
The First Four Years
Books about Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, by her heir, Roger Lea MacBride:
Little House on Rocky Ridge
Little Farm in the Ozarks
In the Land of the Big Red Apple
The Other Side of the Hill
Little Town in the Ozarks
New Dawn on Rocky Ridge
On the Banks of the Bayou
Note: Many of the Martha, Charlotte, Caroline, and Rose books have gone out of print and can be difficult to find. Some of them are only available in abridged editions.
For a listing of other books by and about Laura Ingalls Wilder, visit the publisher’s website.
Did you know there’s an I Remember Laura blog-a-thon going on this month? Every Monday in June, Miss Sandy of Quill Cottage is hosting a little blog carnival about Laura Ingalls Wilder. This week, the theme is “Musical Memories and Beautiful Books,” and the always amiable Karla of Ramblin’ Roads to Everywhere asked if she could interview me about my own Little House books. She asked great questions, and her post is up at Ramblin’ Roads today. Thanks again, Karla! It was a pleasure.