Laura Ingalls’ Friends Remember Her

I’m back from Iowa. I had a great time at the 25th Anniversary Celebration for the Iowa Women’s Archives last weekend. While I am not a feminist nor a women’s historian, my talk about Laura Gibson Smith and her memoir Almost Pioneers was well received by the feminist women’s historians who made up most of those assembled for the celebration.

This week I was able to read Laura Ingalls’ Friends Remember Her by Dan L. White. White lives with his family on a farm in the Ozarks near where Laura and Almanzo lived from 1894 to their deaths in 1949 and 1957. White has written a series of books on the Wilders and the Little House books, including:

  • Big Bible Lessons From Laura Ingalls’ Little Books
  • Devotionals With Laura: Laura Ingalls’ Favorite Bible Selections, What they Meant in Her Life, What they Might Mean in Yours
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Most Inspiring Writings
  • Laura’s Love Story: The Lifetime Love of Laura and Almanzo Wilder
  • The Long, Hard Winter of 1880-1881: What was it Really Like?
  • The Real Laura Ingalls: Who was Real, What was Real on her Prairie TV Show

White has also put out four volumes of Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist articles with his own introductions and comments (much like Stephen Hines’s many books). All of White’s books were originally published by a small press in Hartville, Missouri, named Ashley Preston Publishing. I believe this must be White’s own operation. They are now all available–with several other books he wrote about Christian living and family finances–as Kindle books on Amazon.com. Since they engage Christianity, I may have to check out the first three books on this list for my project.

Laura Ingalls’ Friends Remember Her is an fascinating collection of materials. Six of the chapters are transcripts from interviews White conducted with Ozark residents who knew Laura and Almanzo when they were living: Nava Austin, Erman and Peggy Dennis, Emogene Fuge, Neta Seal, Anna Gutschke, and Carl Hartley. Other chapters give White’s opinions on some of the premier topics in Wilder scholarship, including Wilder’s political views, the relationship between Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane and the contributions of each to the Little House books, and why the books have become so beloved. Most chapters include extensive quotes from Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist articles; some include lengthy quotes from White’s other books.

White argues that since he lives in the Ozarks and is not a scholar or historian, he can give a perspective on the Wilders that is missing from other books about their lives:

Generally the people who write about Laura and the Little House books are not Ozarkers. They have chosen to be someplace else where life is fast and crowded and bustling. They usually don’t want the simple Ozark life of a homestead and chickens and horses and cows and goats.

Therefore, when these writers pontificate about Laura, they write from quite a different view than she had. When you read writings about Laura, you are reading just as much about the writer as you are about Laura. (22-23)

This hit home somewhat. I live one half block from the city of Chicago. I work at a college that has around 1200 students, which is about the current population of Mansfield, Missouri. But I did notice that this description might also be applied to White’s writing. When one reads the portions he has written, one does learn quite a bit about White’s life. One learns that he raised his family on a nearly self-sufficient farm in the Ozarks, that he and his wife homeschooled their children, that and all of them enjoyed the Little House books immensely. Strikingly, the end of the book includes a comparison between the Rocky Ridge farmhouse, which sits empty every night and has occupants only when a tour guide leads a group of tourists through it, to his own farmhouse, where a happy couple continues to live snugly.

White’s chapter on Laura and Almanzo’s political views does include an extended consideration of Laura’s faith. First, White argues that perhaps it was their shared commitment to limited government that kept them from joining the Methodist Church in Mansfield. “Congregationalists believed in small church government, not big. Surely Laura would have formally joined the Mansfield Methodist or Presbyterian Church had there not been something holding her back. That something may well have been that they were overgoverned for her tastes.” (76) I think that this is unlikely, but it is an interesting perspective. He also asserts that Laura and Almanzo can be seen as “typical conservative Christians,” which seems anachronistic to me. A different chapter does note Laura’s knowledge of the Bible and suggests that is why the books are happy despite the hardships the family faced.

It is the interviews with neighbors who knew Laura and Almanzo which are especially helpful. The portrait that emerges of Almanzo is a witty, funny, fun person to be around, even though his one foot was crippled and he walked with a cane. Laura comes across as a prim, proper, and refined old lady in velvet, always wearing a hat, even when it was no longer in style. They clearly loved one another very much. There are touching stories of Almanzo’s death from Neta Seal and Laura’s death from Carl Hartley. Seal’s interview also notes Laura’s deep knowledge of the Bible.

In some ways, this book is not the right time period for me to be reading right now. I am making plans to begin writing my biography’s first chapter, which is about Laura’s ancestors and early childhood. This book is about Laura and Almanzo’s life when they were in their sixties through eighties. But I needed to read the book so it could be returned to the library, so this week I got it done.

Thanks for reading.

Quotes are from Dan L. White, Laura Ingalls’ Friends Remember Her: Memories from Laura’s Ozark Home (Hartville, Mo.: Ashley Preston Publishing, 2013).

Links:

Iowa Women’s Archives 25th Anniversary Celebration

Dan White’s books at Amazon

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Articles and Anticipation

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.

Links:

My Almost Pioneers blog

Almost Pioneers at Globe-Pequot Press

Iowa Women’s Archives 25th Anniversary Celebration

Pamela Riney Kehrberg at Iowa State University

John Miller’s books at Amazon

Caroline Fraser’s website