A Little House Traveler

It’s been a while again since I’ve posted. I’ve been working on several things. Two weeks ago, I finished a draft of my article, now titled: “‘This is what Men Call God:’ The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” I then emailed it to nine of my colleagues from the English, History, Music, Philosophy, and Theology Departments here at Trinity Christian College. Last week, some of those colleagues and I met for our monthly Historical Scholars Workshop. We discussed my article; they asked some really good questions and gave me some really good suggestions for the project going forward.

Since then, I’ve been working on a draft of my conference paper for the Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History to be held at Regent University. The session I will be presenting in is titled “‘On the Pilgrim Way:’ Writing Religious Biographies of Women.” (The quote in the title is from Chapter 23 of By the Shores of Silver Lake.) The other presenters are Kristen Kobes Du Mez from the History Department at Calvin College and Karen Swallow Prior from the English Department at Liberty University. The respondent for the session will be Timothy Larsen from the Biblical and Theological Studies Department at Wheaton College. I will only get 15-20 minutes for my presentation, so I have to pare my article back from 28 pages to about ten. I’ve already gotten it down to 15. More cuts to come.

However, yesterday I also got the chance to look through the last published volume of primary source materials written by Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Little House Traveler: Writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Journeys Across America, published by HarperCollins in 2006. Like many recent publications of Wilder materials, much of it is material that has already been published. In fact, the first four-fifths of the book reproduce two books that I have already written about on this blog, On the Way Home and West From Home. There are some more photographs in this volume, it is hardcover, and the type is larger, but otherwise it appears that the text is exactly the same as the originals.

That leaves the last 70 pages of the 350 page work. The editors of the volume (who are not identified) call this part of the book “The Road Back: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Record of the Journey Back to DeSmet, South Dakota, 1931.” It reproduces notes that Wilder wrote to herself on a trip that she and Almanzo took from Mansfield, Missouri to DeSmet, South Dakota in 1931. They function as a diary, with daily entries describing how far they traveled, what they did, and how much they spent. Apparently Wilder wrote on loose sheets, and some of them were sent to her daughter for safe keeping while they were on the road. It may be that Wilder wanted to use them for future publications, or it may just be that she had written so much by this time (including fifteen years of Missouri Ruralist articles and columns and Pioneer Girl) that she found writing a valuable way of recording and making sense of what she saw.

I understand why the publishers decided to put these three sets of Wilder’s writings together. On the Way Home, a diary of the trip the Wilders took from DeSmet to Mansfield in 1894, describes their travels in a covered wagon. West From Home, letters Laura wrote to Almanzo from her trip to San Francisco to visit Rose, describe her travels by train. This third trip was taken in their Buick, which they named Isabelle, with their dog Nero. Once they reached South Dakota, they stayed with her sister Grace and her husband Nate Dow in Manchester, South Dakota, and visited DeSmet several times. Laura and Almanzo then drove to the Black Hills to see her sister Carrie and her husband David Swanzey. While there, they visited Mount Rushmore and the badlands. They then drove home, taking a different route. Wilder’s ability to describe a scene minutely and eloquently is often on display here. She saw much evidence of the depression, including idle factories, abandoned farms, and frustrated townspeople. It was a hot, dry summer, and many times she describes billowing clouds of dust.

It would have been helpful if the publisher had provided some kind of map for these travels for the benefit of readers. Also, the introduction to this portion of the book, by Abigail MacBride, says that this was the first time that Laura had visited DeSmet since leaving in 1894. (288-289) However this is not true; Laura had traveled to DeSmet by train in the summer of 1902 to see her father before he died of heart disease. (John E. Miller, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend [Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998), 111.)

The new material in this volume adds little to our understanding of Wilder’s faith. It does not mention God, Christianity, or the church. I did use my perpetual calendar to look up what Laura and Almanzo did on Sundays during the trip. It appears that they did not keep the pattern they had kept in 1894 of not traveling on Sundays. On Sunday, June 7, they traveled 277 miles from Shady Side, Missouri to Eureka, Kansas. (292-293) On Sunday, June 14, they were staying with the Dows and they visited their parents old house in DeSmet and Nate’s farm. (310) They drove to Mount Rushmore with the Swanzeys on Sunday, June 21. (321-323) Finally, on June 28, they were on the way back to Mansfield and they drove 233 miles. (341-342) I wrote in my entry on West From Home, “One gets the impression… 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 seems that the information about this additional trip confirms that observation.

Thanks for reading.

(Page number references are from A Little House Traveler: Writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Journeys Across America [New York: HarperCollins, 2006].)

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Author: johnfry2013

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

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