At the beginning of 2018, I mentioned at the end of my post on Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires that I might be posting less often this semester because I hoped to be writing the first chapter of my book. When I looked at the blog and saw that the last entry was uploaded on February 23, I realized that the first part of that statement was true. Unfortunately, the second part is not – I have been swamped by grading and administrative work here at Trinity Christian College this semester. It’s good work, but it’s not work on the book.
However, lately I was able to read Stephen Hines’s A Prairie Girl’s Faith: The Spiritual Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I learned last summer that this book was coming out, and it made me nervous. This was right when I was hoping to get a book contract from Eerdmans. Would his project steal my thunder? Would Hines say everything I had to say? I believed at the time that I would approach the subject of Wilder’s faith in a much different way than Hines would, but I was not sure. As it turns out, I did not need to be anxious. A Prairie Girl’s Faith is not the book that I would write or that I hope to write.
Stephen Hines has described himself as a “literary prospector” who looks for unpublished works by famous writers that are not under copyright and therefore can be collected and republished. Hines has been editing books of Wilder’s writing since the early 1990s. Most of these book have reprinted collections of Wilder’s articles in the Missouri Ruralist. The most complete of these books is Laura Ingalls Wilder: Farm Journalist, from 2007. He also published Saving Graces: The Inspirational Writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder in 1997. I have written blog posts on both of these books.
A Prairie Girl’s Faith is not a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. It is not a scholarly examination of the nature of Wilder’s faith either. It is more a collection of Hines’s reflections and observations about aspects of Wilders’ life and writings. Most of these reflections have to do with Wilder’s faith, though he also engages the relationship between Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane and their literary collaboration on the Little House books. Since I hope to write a scholarly biography that examines the nature of Wilder’s faith, I was relieved to discover this. This also means that I should judge the book that Hines wrote, not the book that he didn’t write.
On these terms, the book includes some good insights. Hines has read the Little House books many times. He details how he first found them as a child in rural Kansas and also how he read them aloud to his wife in the kitchen during their early marriage. He knows the Little House books inside and out. He has also read Wilder’s recently published memoir Pioneer Girl and other important works about Wilder and Rose by William Anderson, John Miller, Pamela Smith Hill, William Holtz, and Dale Cockrell. He engages the many ways that the Little House books mention faith, especially descriptions of Sunday School, church worship services, and hymns sung by the Ingalls family. Hines’s extensive familiarity with Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist articles is also clear throughout the book.
Several chapters treat Wilder’s childhood, as described in the Little House books. Several chapters engage the relationship between Laura and Rose and the writing of the books. There is a chapter on the hymns referenced in the Little House books. And there is a chapter of recipes from Caroline Ingalls and other women from De Smet taken from a cookbook published in 1915.
The book also provides some background information about the Congregational Churches in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and De Smet, South Dakota. An Appendix on De Smet reproduces some articles from the De Smet News and the Kingsbury County News about churches in De Smet. I had never seen these articles before, so they were very helpful.
Hines correctly notes that the central values of Laura and Rose were not the same, and he understands that Rose’s collaboration in the publishing of the Little House books may have shaped how those works depict Christianity. He writes in one chapter,
In fact, it is possible that Rose may have tried to downplay her mother’s faith in the Little House books. For example, in Laura’s original Pioneer Girl manuscript she spoke several times about asking for forgiveness for wrongdoing. But this act of contrition did not show up as many times in the Little House series. However, admittedly, that subtle difference may provide scant actual proof. (62)
As I have written in other blog posts, I believe that Rose did shape the depictions of Christianity in the Little House books. However, the evidence I use is the comparison of Laura’s original manuscripts of Farmer Boy and On the Banks of Plum Creek and the final published works. So I think that there is more evidence (I prefer using “evidence” to “proof”) for these changes than Hines does. But I think his observation is insightful, especially since he is just comparing Pioneer Girl to the Little House books.
The concluding chapter is titled “What Laura Means to Us.” Hines’s summary reads, “I like to think we can still learn lessons from Laura’s accumulated experience and reflection, among which is tolerance for other’s failings, courage to start all over again after disaster strikes, and a belief that God holds the future in his hands and intends no ill will for his children.” (158) I agree that these are lessons that one can learn from the Little House books, and I appreciate this clear and pithy assessment of some aspects of their abiding value.
Unfortunately, at times the book presents accounts from the Little House books as if they are literal descriptions of what happened during Wilder’s childhood, the same as accounts from Pioneer Girl. But it seems clear to me that the descriptions and narratives in the Little House books were formed and shaped in a multitude of ways for a number of different reasons. Some of the shaping is for narrative purposes. Some of the shaping has to do with audience. Some of the shaping, I believe, was done by Rose and not by Laura. So I would find Pioneer Girl to be a much more reliable source than the Little House books for how Laura experienced faith.
I also find it striking that the book does not mention Laura’s most clear description of an experience of God’s presence. As a child in Walnut Grove, she describes “One night while saying my prayers, as I always did before going to bed, this feeling of homesickness and worry was worse than usual, but gradually I had a feeling of a hovering, encompassing Presence of a Power, comforting and sustaining and thought in surprise ‘This is what men call God!’” (Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. by Pamela Smith Hill, [Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2014], 137) Hines mentioned this account in the introduction of Saving Graces. I was shocked that it is not included in this volume.
Finally, the book often presents Christianity as “Christian values” or the “values of hearth and home.” For instance, when arguing that Laura should be credited with supplying the central themes of the books, not Rose, Hines asserts “And whatever else they are, Laura’s books are a story about building a home in the wilderness; they are not about raw nature itself, however raw that nature can be. No, the Christian family values of the books are overwhelming. The sacredness of home and hearth are everywhere present.” (69) Admittedly, in other parts of the book Hines does assert that Laura did have a personal relationship with God through Christ. In my work on Wilder, I hope to press more consistently beyond vaguer notions of values Wilder’s relationship to the gospel of sin and salvation in Christ.
Still, I’m grateful to Hines for raising some of the issues I hope to address in my book, and for pointing me in some new directions in terms of sources. Thanks for reading.
(Quotes are from Stephen W. Hines, A Prairie Girl’s Faith: The Spiritual Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder [New York: Waterbrook, 2018].)