It has now been almost a month since I last posted here. My attention and time have been taken in several directions, including teaching, grading papers and exams, committee meetings, and my work as an Academic Dean. In addition, I have been asked to speak about my last book, Almost Pioneers, at a 25th Anniversary celebration for the Iowa Women’s Archives in Iowa City next weekend. Almost Pioneers is the memoir of Laura Gibson Smith, a woman from Iowa who homesteaded in Wyoming during the 1910s; I edited it and got it published in 2013. I’m glad to be part of the celebration, but it has taken me out of my pattern of reading for the Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder project.
However, I have spent some time each week with Laura Ingalls Wilder materials. I’ve been able to read four articles that concern Wilder, the Little House books, and history. I also stand in anticipation of the next book-length biography of Wilder which is due to be released this month.
Articles: “Little House, Big Lessons” is actually a conference paper presented by historian Pamela Riney-Kehrberg at an agricultural history conference this fall in Belgium. Pam and I have known each other since I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa in the late 1990s and she was teaching at Illinois State University. She now teaches at Iowa State, one of the flagship schools for the study of rural and agricultural history. We see each other every couple of years at a conference. She reached out to me last summer for help with how Europeans responded to the Little House books; I was able to connect her with several Wilder scholars who provided a lot of leads. The paper is both about European reception of the Little House books and what they teach about everyday life in late-nineteenth century American rural areas. She concludes that the books are useful in enabling students to better understand “the environment of the American Great Plains, and the complexities of gender ideals versus gender realities.” Fascinating stuff.
The second article was “Re-examining the American Pioneer Spirit: The Extended Family of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” It was published in the Wisconsin Magazine of History last March and uses materials at the Wisconsin Historical Society to fill in some information about the families of Charles Ingalls and Caroline Quiner, Laura’s parents. It’s pretty interesting. I fed some biographical information from this article into the timeline of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life that I am constructing for the book project.
I also read “American Indians in the Fiction of Laura Ingalls Wilder” by John Miller. I had previously read the three books that Miller has written about Wilder (Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane), but I had never read this article, published in South Dakota History in 2000. Miller provides a nuanced consideration of the depiction of Native Peoples in the Little House books and Wilder’s other published work. Clearly there are multiple voices in the books: Ma and others are very anti-Indian, but Pa and Laura are not unremittingly so. Pa respects the Native Americans that he encounters, but assumes that they will be moving on so that whites can have their land. Laura is more like Pa than Ma, and Laura identifies with Indians at times. Miller argues that Americans in 2000 might see the depictions of Native Peoples in the books as problematic, but that Wilder’s views were probably more open than those of most others who lived in the Ozarks during the 1920s and 1930s. I know that I will have to engage this issue in some way in my biography of Wilder.
Finally, I was able to read “Homesteading Remembered: A Sesquicentennial Perspective” by Brian Cannon, published in Agricultural History in 2013. 2012 marked the 150th anniversary of the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, and Cannon investigates how homesteading was depicted in popular culture—both books and movies—during the twentieth century. Major literary works examined include the last three Little House books, Rose Wilder Lane’s Free Land, Elinore Stewart’s Letters of a Woman Homesteader, and O. E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth. The article engages movies from The Homesteader in 1919 to Shane in 1953, Heartland in 1979, and Far and Away in 1992. Cannon points out that “The most pointed criticism of the government’s administration of homesteading in these works is actually the writing of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Without exception these works valorize the homesteaders’ tenacity, work ethic, and family values. Only one, Giants in the Earth, seriously questions the prudence of homestaders’ decisions although many show the travails of homesteading.” He concludes that scholars’ assessment of homesteading have rarely been taken up in popular culture, and that some works reveal more about the time that they were produced than the time that they depict.
Anticipation: Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder is set to be released on November 21. Advance copies have been reviewed by major library outlets, and there are already 10 customer reviews on Amazon.com. At 640 pages, it promises to be a nearly comprehensive biography setting Wilder’s life and writings in historical context. I hope to get a copy as soon as it’s released.
Thanks for reading.
My Almost Pioneers blog
Almost Pioneers at Globe-Pequot Press
Pamela Riney Kehrberg at Iowa State University