Pioneer Girl Perspectives

At the end of last week, I was able to read the new book of essays from the South Dakota State Historical Society Press, Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder. The book was edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal, who organized the Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-Year Legacy conference in Sioux Falls at the end of April. I bought the book at that conference. (All hyperlinks will be at the bottom of this post, with an explanation.)

The book is divided into four sections:

“Working Writers” – This section begins by reprinting the speech Wilder gave at the Detroit Book Fair in 1937. Then Wilder biographer Nancy Fraser links Rose Wilder Lane to the yellow journalism of the early twentieth century to explain Lane’s use of the “Bloody Benders” story in her attempts to get a publisher for Pioneer Girl. Finally, Lane biographer Amy Mattson Lauters reviews the many different types of prose that Rose published.

Beginnings and Misdirections” – Wilder expert William Anderson gives a brief history of the Pioneer Girl manuscript between Wilder’s death in 1957 and its publication in 2014. Literary scholar Michael Patrick Hearn engages how Pioneer Girl and the Little House books were written and compares them to other works of literature. Finally, Noel Silverman, counsel for the Little House Heritage Trust, in an interview with Koupal, provides what he believes are the reasons for the Little House books’ enduring popularity.

Wilder’s Place and time – Historian and Wilder biographer John E. Miller describes the Midwestern context of Wilder’s life and work, comparing it to works by Harvey Dunn, Willa Cather, and Frederick Jackson Turner. Then historian Paula Nelson places Wilder’s views on family, women’s roles, farming, and woman suffrage into historical context.

Enduring Tales and Childhood Myths – Wilder biographer Sallie Ketcham examines the different ways that Little House in the Big Woods displays the characteristics of a fairy tale. Historian Elizabeth Jameson considers how Wilder’s troubled and poverty-ridden childhood, as described in Pioneer Girl, was transformed into the happy childhood of the Little House books. Finally, literature scholar Ann Romines considers possible reasons there are no old people and why nobody dies in the Little House books.

Overall, it’s an excellent book. It’s slightly larger than a normal hardback, and the dust jacket is beautiful. It includes many illustrations from the original Helen Sewell editions of the Little House books, as well as historical photos of Wilder, Lane, and others. Many of the essays fill in gaps of Wilder scholarship or just bring together what we already know in helpful ways.

Like all books of essays, however, some chapters are more insightful than others. All of the authors of the book spoke at the 150-Year Legacy conference, and my blog post on the conference mentions what I found most memorable. After reading their work, I believe that Fraser, Anderson, and the historians (Miller, Nelson, and Armitage) have the strongest essays. Silverman’s observations are also quite helpful.

Two sections of the book provide food for thought for my project on the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder. First from Miller’s essay:

Wilder kept a list of favorite Bible verses close at hand and sometimes devoted all or part of her Missouri Ruralist column to the need for people to get and treat each other benevolently in a Christian fashion. Although her particular religious beliefs and doctrinal positions cannot be known, we can speculate that her high degree of religiosity placed her in conformity with the conservative religious and political views of the majority of her neighbors. Springfield, the largest city in southwestern Missouri and located just fifty miles west of Mansfield, was a hotbed of old-time religion. Among other things, it became a center of gospel and country music, served as worldwide headquarters for Assemblies of God churches, and housed the regional offices of several other denominations. (p. 155)

So Miller says that her exact beliefs cannot be known. It’s sometimes difficult to be working on a project that Wilder scholars say can’t be done. I guess that I may not be able to pinpoint particular doctrinal positions, but I believe that the available evidence points in some particular directions. I agree that Wilder’s faith was probably influenced by her living in Southwestern Missouri for most of her adult life.

Paula Nelson’s essay makes several observations about Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist articles, about her church life, and about Wilder’s childhood experience with God:

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life philosophy shines through her columns, no matter the specific topic, and her ideals sprang from her deep Christian faith, learned at her mother’s knee and practiced as a Congregationalist in her earlier life. She and Almanzo became Methodists in Mansfield, where there was no Congregational church, but she recalled a religious experience from her youth in her autobiography. The Ingalls family was in dire straits during their second stay in Minnesota, and the young Wilder was intensely worried. Her bedtime prayers were more fervent than usual, she said, when “gradually I had a feeling of a hovering, encompassing Presence of a Power, comforting and sustaining and thought in surprise ‘That is what men call God!’” Congregationalists required a testimony of religious awakening for full membership in the church in the nineteenth century, and this experience may have been hers. (p. 184)

Wilder’s religious experience in Pioneer Girl is central to any understanding of her faith. I appreciate Nelson’s suggestion that this testimony could have been used to gain full membership in the Congregational church in Missouri or Dakota. I need to track down if there are church records that place when she became a member. Unfortunately, the climax of the story is misquoted here: it’s actually “This is what men call God.” (Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, p. 137, emphasis mine) It’s also important to note that the Wilders attended the Methodist Church in Mansfield but never became members.

Thanks again for sharing the journey with me. Comments are welcome.

(Page numbers are from Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, Nancy Tystad Koupal, ed. [Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2017].)

Links:

Laura Ingalls Wilder: a 150-Year Legacy Conference Site

My blog entry on the conference

Nancy Fraser’s forthcoming biography of Wilder: Prairie Fires

(Members of my family have been reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It has challenged me to consider whether having the hyperlinks in the text of my blog entries encourages people to read poorly. So I thought I’d see what things looked like if I put all the links at the bottom of the page.)

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Author: johnfry2013

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