On the Way Home and West From Home

This week I traveled to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library to do research. I had received a travel grant from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Foundation, and I had a great time working with the staff, especially Spencer Howard, Matt Schaeffer, and Craig Wright. I found some good information, took a number of digital photos, and got a CD of scanned correspondence. I am currently working through what I found, and next week I hope to post about it.

This week, however, I thought I’d address two Wilder books that I haven’t addressed yet: On the Way Home and West From Home. I was prompted to address these by seeing copies of the original diary and letters published in these books at the Hoover Library.

On the Way Home was published by Harpers in 1962, five years after Wilder’s death in 1957. It reproduces a diary that Wilder wrote when she, Almanzo, and their daughter Rose traveled with another family, the Cooleys, from DeSmet, South Dakota, to Mansfield, Missouri, in 1894. The Wilders drove a team and covered wagon with all of their possessions. Rose was seven years old. The 650 mile trip took from July 17 to August 30. Laura wrote in her diary every day. When it was published, Rose Wilder Lane provided a “setting” for the diary, which means she wrote an introduction and afterword based on her memories of the trip. The book is lavishly illustrated with 18 pictures and a map of the journey.

The diary itself is fascinating as an early example of Laura’s powers of description. Some descriptions are spare and simple; she notes whether crops looked good or bad in the area, the prices for staples, and the temperature (until they lost the thermometer). Other descriptions are more elaborated, especially when she is describing people. They encountered a number of different kinds of people, including a settlement of Russians, many groups of Germans, and a variety of emigrants on the roads to and from Missouri.

This book tells us just a little bit about Wilder’s faith. Only twice does it explicitly mention Christianity or the church. The first is in an entry about the town of St. Mary’s, Kansas, “A pleasant town but strange, it is altogether southern, and Catholic. There is a beautiful large church with a pure white marble Saint Mary above the wide doors and two white marble statues of Mother and Child in the yard.” (On the Way Home, 48-49) The second describes the town of Mansfield: “There is everything here already that one could want though we must do our worshipping without a Congregational church. There is a Methodist church and a Presbyterian.” (On the Way Home, 74)

On the subject of worshipping, she never mentions attending church services on any of the six Sundays they were on the road. However, they also never traveled on Sunday. They stayed in one place and rested, or visited with local people, or did washing, or repaired equipment. This was a contrast to dozens of emigrant groups that they met who were traveling on Sunday. So the diary reveals that Sunday observance was important to the Wilder and Cooley families, if church attendance was less so.

West from Home was published in 1974. After Rose’s death in 1968, her heir Roger Lea McBride found among her papers a collection of letters from Laura to Almanzo. Laura wrote them when she was visiting Rose in San Francisco in August, September, and October 1915. Rose was working for the San Francisco Bulletin as a writer at the time, and she was still married to Gillette Lane (though there were some signs that their marriage was in trouble). The trip had multiple aims. First, Rose had pleaded with her mother to come visit to see the Panama-Pacific World’s Exposition that year. Second, Rose wanted Laura and Almanzo to consider moving to a farm in California. Finally, Laura had begun writing for the Missouri Ruralist, and Rose was an experienced writer. Both women hoped that Rose could teach Laura how to be a better writer if they sat down together.

Laura, inspired by the fact that she was describing parts of the west that she and Almanzo had never seen before, wrote extended descriptions of the landscape through the train window on the way to California. She also gave detailed narratives of happy trips to the ocean, visits to the World’s Fair, and rambles around Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco. She did have some time to talk with Rose about writing, and the result was that the number of columns that Laura wrote for the Ruralist increased markedly after 1915. Laura and Almanzo decided against moving to California, even though Laura had gone to the Santa Clara valley to check out the prospects. It’s unclear how seriously they had entertained the idea. The trip came to a rather untimely end when Laura fell from the side of a streetcar and had to be treated in a hospital for a concussion.

There is not a lot that can be added to our understanding of Laura’s faith from this book. She does describe several pictures of the crucifixion she saw in the French building at the World’s Fair (West from Home, 148), but the tone of that description is the same as the wallabies and kangaroos next to the New Zealand exhibit or the Keen Cutter knife display. Perhaps more telling is the fact that several times letters mention Sunday activities but never attendance at worship. For instance: “Sunday we went for a twelve mile street car ride all directions over the city and it only cost us a nickel apiece because of transfers.” (West From Home, 98) and “Sunday about five o’clock Rose finished writing for the day and she and I took a street car for the ocean beach.” (West From Home, 143) Laura describes their activities so minutely otherwise, one would imagine that she would have told Almanzo if they had gone to worship.

One gets the impression from these books that Wilder was most interested in church life when she was settled in a community and she knew the people. She was not as interested in attending worship when out of her normal surroundings. It’s pretty clear that Rose was not interested in keeping Sunday in any kind of traditional way, including church services.

Last fall I was at a conference and a presenter suggested describing a person’s faith by looking at their beliefs, their belonging, and their behavior. For Laura this would mean considering her writings about her religious beliefs, what church she belonged to, and what we might infer about her faith from what she did. I’ve conjectured in previous blog entries that while there are few explicit descriptions of her adult doctrinal beliefs, we might best describe her approach to Christianity as mainly having to do with right behavior. I’ve also noted that the only church she ever officially joined was the Congregational Church in DeSmet. She attended the Methodist Church in Mansfield for years without officially becoming a member. These two books suggest that in terms of behavior, she did not have an evangelical desire to attend church services wherever she went.

More next week when I’ve worked through the materials from West Branch more thoroughly.

Page number references are to Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Way Home: The Diary of a Trip from South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri, in 1894, with a setting by Rose Wilder Lane (New York: Harper and Row, 1962) and West From Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, San Francisco, 1915, edited by Roger Lea MacBride (New York: HarperCollins, 1974).


Author: johnfry2013

Chair, Department of History, Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, IL

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