A Prairie Girl’s Faith

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Stephen Hines has described himself as a “literary prospector” who looks for unpublished works by famous writers that are not under copyright and therefore can be collected and republished.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].)

Links:

Doing fewer blog posts this semester

Trinity Christian College

Book contract from Eerdmans

Hines as Literary Prospector; also here

Post on Saving Graces: The Inspirational Writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Post on Laura Ingalls Wilder: Farm Journalist

Post on Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography

Post on Rose’s shaping of the depiction of Christianity in the Little House books

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives Review

Well, last Friday I was mentioned that I might not blog as much this semester, and here I am posting a week later. . .

Last year I wrote a review of Pioneer Girl Perspectives, a book of essays from the South Dakota State Historical Society (SDSHS), for The Annals of Iowa, a historical journal published by the Iowa State Historical Society.  The Annals gave permission to the Pioneer Girl Project of the SDSHS to reproduce that review on their website:  https://pioneergirlproject.org/2018/01/25/a-worthy-companion-review-of-pioneer-girl-perspectives/

It’s slightly briefer than my blog post on the book.  Thought you might be interested.  Best wishes.

Other links:

My blog post on Pioneer Girl Perspectives

The Annals of Iowa

 

Prairie Fires

Happy 2018. I hope that everyone’s year has begun well.

This week I finished Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I had started in the middle of December, but Christmas intervened. It is an excellent book. Fraser has read just about everything there is to read by and about Wilder, and she provides an interpretation of all of it. She has read Wilder’s published works, all the extant manuscripts of the Little House books, and pretty much all of the books that have been written about Wilder. She also appears to have read all of Rose Wilder Lane’s materials as well, which is quite a feat—Lane often kept a detailed diary, and she typed reams of letters to friends, published dozens of articles in newspapers and magazines, and wrote a number of books. Eighty of the Prairie Fires’s six hundred pages are footnotes. It is clearly the most up to date and exhaustively researched biography of Wilder published.

But the book strives to do more than just chronicle the lives and works of Laura and Rose. It sets those lives in the contexts of American national history. Fraser provides detailed descriptions of the Dakota War of 1862, the Homestead Act, and the settlement of the upper Midwest by white Americans. She argues that these events both shaped and were reflected in Wilder’s life and works. The book also considers how World War I, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and World War II impacted Wilder’s writing of the Little House books (they were published between 1932 and 1943). John Miller’s book Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder does some of this contextualization, but Fraser’s work is more comprehensive.

In a nutshell, Fraser’s interpretation of the settlement of the upper Midwest and Great Plains is that thousands of families created an environmental catastrophe. The land and climate in many places could not sustain small farmers, but they attempted to make a go of it anyway, spurred on by advertising and scientific ideas (like “rain follows the plow”) that led to marginal existence and misery for many. Many were forced to take jobs in town or rely on the support of others, including church, the local community, and the state and federal government. But government leaders often withheld support, and those who took it were often ashamed. The Ingalls and Wilder families were two of those families.

Fraser also attempts to understand how both Laura and Rose thought. She both allows their own words to speak for themselves and provides her own views of their actions. Laura is depicted as a woman hardened by misfortune but determined to provide for her family. She loved nature and everything in it, and she who ultimately created a literary masterpiece for children. Her detailed descriptions, her understanding of her own life and the characters she interacted with, and her love for her father all make the Little House books juvenile classics. By hard work she secured her family’s economic security.

The book’s depiction of Rose is much less positive. Throughout she is described as mixing the truth and fiction: in her articles for “yellow” newspapers during the 1910s and 1920s, in her fictional “biographies” of great men, in her work with her mother’s life story, and in her personal correspondence. She was never able to manage money, and she suffered from depression and perhaps deeper mental illness. By the end of her life she had let her libertarian ideology take over her understanding of reality. Fraser gives Lane credit for editing and improving the Little House books, making them possible to publish and memorable, but Wilder’s writing is seen as driving the books’ popularity and staying power.

Overall, Prairie Fires is a super book. Fraser’s writing is simple but powerful. She evokes the past well and sets Wilder and Lane in that past for us to consider. Its scope is encyclopedic. I am happy that it appeared while I am beginning to write my book so that I can use it in that effort.

As far as Wilder’s faith is concerned, the book focuses most on religion in the early chapters where Charles Ingalls’s ancestors are described. They were Puritans; one had come to Massachusetts Bay with John Endecott in 1629, one was executed during the witch craze in Salem in 1692 (Martha Ingalls Allen Carrier), and one wrote poetry that was published locally in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Of the latter, Samuel Ingalls, the self-described “unlearned poet,” the book says that he “was a Puritan and may have been a Congregationalist.” (32) I am not sure that Fraser understands the relationship between Puritans and Congregationalists. In terms of church governance, all Puritans were Congregationalists. By the late 1700s, I believe that the term Congregationalist was used for most of the the churches in New England founded by the Puritans of the 1600s. I have a book on Congregationalism by Margaret Bendroth (The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past, [University of North Carolina, 2015]) that I hope will help me get everything straight.

Beyond that, there is not a lot of attention to Laura and Rose’s faith in the body of the book. This is probably partially because Wilder says little about her Christian beliefs in her writings. In addition, Laura and Rose’s religious outlook is not really primary to Fraser’s understanding of the two women. She considers their economic situation, their physical health, and their relationships with each other in much more detail (and again, they have the benefit of greater documentation, especially in Rose’s writings). Interestingly, Fraser returns to Puritanism at the end of the book to help explain why Laura firmly believed that individuals and families could make it without government assistance, even though her parents’ family and her own family were not able to:

Wilder wrote that her mother was fond of a saying: “What’s bred in the bone will come out in the flesh.” If anything was bred in her family’s Congregationalist bones, it was their exemplary devotion to self-sufficiency… Puritan identity was based on redemption through mastery of self, and the rigid application of principles including frugality, diligence, and, above all, independence. (455)

I’m pretty sure that Seventeenth Century Puritans and Eighteenth Century Congregationalists would not have agreed with this description. They believed in redemption on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ alone. They taught that those who repent and trust in Christ for salvation must also work to discipline their bodies by cultivating these virtues. But those virtues were not the basis of their salvation.

I relate these disagreements with Fraser’s interpretations not because I think that they mar the book as a whole. Indeed, I think that Fraser understands Laura better than many other writers. Prairie Fires is a monument to years of work in the archives, thousands of hours of thinking about how best to understand the sources, and writing ability that I know that I can’t match. I am glad that I am not setting out to write a book of this scope. In the book that I am setting out to write, however, I hope to provide a better understanding of this one aspect of Laura’s life—her faith—and to explain what it might tell us about the history of American Christianity. In some ways, I think that all scholars are comforted when they find that they disagree in some way with other authors, because disagreements show that there is still something that can be added to the conversation.

I may not be writing very much for the blog this spring. It is my hope to write a chapter of the book, and I think that staying off of the blog may assist me in doing this. (See Cal Newport’s book Deep Work for an explanation of why I believe that this may be the case.) I am also teaching two sections of Western Civilization, which means I have 75 students’ papers to grade when they start coming in at the end of next week. I will see if I am able to give reports perhaps once a month.

Thanks again for reading.

(Quotations are from Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder [New York: Metropolitan Books, 2017].)

Link: Prairie Fires

 

Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life

Time is running out on 2018. I only have time for one more blog post this year.

I read a fun book in the last several weeks: Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life, a young adult novel by Shelley Tougas. It’s about a twelve-year-old whose family moves to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, because her mother wants to write a book and thinks that getting close to Laura Ingalls’s spirit will help. It has some good lessons about friends, about family, and about growing up. Tougas certainly understands the feel of the Little House books. She is also able to describe clearly the complexity of both American history and family dynamics. If you have time over Christmas break, I found it a quick and enjoyable read.

I have also received my copy of Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser’s biography of Wilder, and I’m about two hundred pages in. It is certainly encyclopedic. More later when I finish.

I hope that everyone has a blessed Christmas and a good start to 2018.  Thanks for reading.

Links:

Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life

Prairie Fires

LauraPalooza 2017

Last week I traveled to the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. I attended LauraPalooza 2017, and I visited Mansfield, the town where Laura and Almanzo Wilder spent most of their adult lives.

LauraPalooza is a conference sponsored every other year by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association.* The conference brings together scholars, authors, teachers, librarians, and other who love the Little House books in one location for several days of presentations, networking, and fun. In 2010 and 2012, the conference was held at Minnesota State University in Mankato. In 2015, it was held at South Dakota State University in Brookings. This year, it was held at a hotel in Springfield, Missouri. I met attendees from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and across the United States. I believe that there were somewhere around 130 people in attendance. Some women attended sessions in period clothing, including sunbonnets, calico dresses, and one on Friday in full hoopskirts.

I drove down last Tuesday morning. My plan was to stop in Mansfield to see the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum on my way to Springfield. Unfortunately, the rental car’s one front wheel started making a terrible screeching sound outside of St. Louis. I had to go to the St. Louis airport to return the car and get a different one. This put me several hours behind schedule, so when I reached Mansfield, everything was closed. I ate dinner at Ma and Pa’s Family Style Restaurant and then continued on to Springfield.

The top three presentations on Wednesday:

– Eddie Higgins and Sanne Jakobsen spoke about their research into the Ingalls’s family’s ancestors, including a trip they took to the parish in Skirbeck in eastern England from which Francis and Edmond Ingalls left for America in the late 1620s and early 1630s.

– Emily Anderson engaged the use of the Little House books by individuals from different ethnic groups to make sense of their experiences, including the Hmong who currently make up about a third of the population of Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

– Caroline Fraser addressed the U. S.-Dakota War of 1862, referred to as the “Minnesota Massacre” in Little House on the Prairie.

The top three presentations on Thursday:

– Bill Anderson described the individuals who interacted with Pioneer Girl before it was published and those who helped preserve the stories of Wilder’s life.

– Robynne Miller reported on the lives of the three individuals—Nellie Owens, Genevieve Masters, and Stella Gilbert—who inspired the character of Nellie Oleson in the Little House books.

– Pamela Smith Hill spoke about Wilder’s experiences in and relationship with the Ozarks, where she (Hill) grew up.

Fry at LauraPalooza 1My presentation was on Friday morning. I was followed by an excellent talk by Kipton and Ethan Smilie about the ways that the Little House books show the formation of social capital in their depictions of late nineteenth century education, and by a fascinating demonstration by Rich Kurz about how he created a scale three-dimensional model of the Ingalls store in DeSmet, South Dakota, from extant pictures.

All in all, it was an eclectic conference. My talk was well-received, I enjoyed talking with many new contacts, and it was good to see a number of old friends, including Bill Anderson, Barb Bousted, Caroline Fraser, Sandra Hume, and Michelle McClellan.

Wilder Home for BlogI left a little early on Friday morning so that I could stop in Mansfield to see the Historic Home and Museum on my way home. I was able to tour both the farmhouse that Laura and Almanzo built between 1894 and the 1910s and the “rock house” that was built by their daughter Rose Wilder Lane for them during the late 1920s. Laura wrote Pioneer Girl and the first several Little House books while living in the rock house between 1828 and 1936. Both of the houses are amazingly well built and well kept. They are also quite small. I guess that’s appropriate for someone famous for writing about Little Houses. I had forgotten that Laura was only four feet, eleven inches tall. Since Wilder was famous when she died in 1957, the farmhouse immediately became a historic home, and almost everything inside it belonged to her and Almanzo. The rock house had been sold and was not reacquired until the late 1900s, but it has been restored. I was hoping to walk the path between the two houses that was used by Wilder and Lane to see each other when they were writing. Unfortunately, I was told that it was flooded.

Rock houseI also looked through the new Museum at the site, which was just finished last year. There is an 8-minute orientation film and a lot of artifacts from Laura and Almanzo’s lives on display. Several are related to my work on Wilder’s faith:

– Laura’s Bible, which she kept “on the table next to her favorite locker.”

– The Ingalls Family Bible

Persuasives to Early Piety by J. G. Pike, a book published by the American Tract Society –this was a gift from Charlotte Holbrook Quiner to her daughter Caroline Quiner Ingalls, or Ma. Ma passed it on to Laura.

– “Laura’s Sunday School Cards” – these are about 1 ½ by 2 inch cards with Bible memory verses from one of the churches in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, in 1878. I’m guessing it was the Congregational Church. There are eight pasted on the first page of what looks like a book for them; verses are from First Corinthians, Hosea, Psalms (3), Isaiah (2), and Deuteronomy. There may be more on the following pages; there was no one to open the display case for me to take a look.

– A bread plate that says “Give us this day our daily bread” that was saved from the fire that destroyed Laura and Almanzo’s home in the late 1880s. This was described in The First Four Years.

I am very thankful to my family for allowing be to be gone four days. I was very happy to see them all when I got back Friday night.

Thanks for reading.

Links:

Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum

Ma and Pa’s Family Style Restaurant

Emily Anderson’s Little on Amazon

Walnut Grove Mural Bridges Cultures – about the Hmong in Walnut Grove

Caroline Fraser’s website

Bill Anderson’s website

Robynne Miller’s books on Amazon

Pamela Smith Hill’s website

My blog entry on The First Four Years

*(I recently finished reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. I now believe that having hyperlinks in the text of my blog entries encourages people to read poorly. From here on out, all links will appear at the bottom of the page.)

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.)

Libertarians on the Prairie

Now that I have the blog going at a more regular pace, I plan to post again about the books that I read and how much they shed light on my central research question: what is the best way to describe the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder? I actually read a brand new book about Wilder during the spring semester, but never was able to do a blog post about it.

The book is Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books by Christine Woodside. It was published last year by Arcade Books. Woodside is a writer and editor of journals and books about the nature and the wilderness. She lives in Connecticut, not the Midwest, but she has a lifelong fascination with the Little House books. She will be giving the keynote speech at LauraPalooza this July in Springfield.

An article in Politico last fall reveals quite a bit of her argument. Woodside recognizes that one reason for the Little House books’ popularity and staying power is their attractive presentation of American individualism. She argues that Wilder’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane was the source of this vision: she “transformed the whole of her mother’s life by removing many parts and changing details where necessary to suit an idealized version of the pioneer story.” (p. xvi) Furthermore, stories in the Little House books “outlined the basic tenets of libertarianism: freedom, property rights, ‘spontaneous order,’ (which means that left alone people make ethical chioices), limited government, and free markets.” (p. xix) Woodside argues that Lane was the one who was responsible for placing libertarian ideas into the fictional lives of the Ingalls family.

To do this, Libertarians on the Prairie traces the process by which the Little House books were written. As readers of this blog know, Wilder wrote first drafts in longhand on lined paper and gave them to Lane. Lane then typed them, editing, making changes, providing plot and narrative structure, and adding dialogue. Wilder reviewed the typed drafts, making additional changes and at times overruling Lane’s alterations. For the first several Little House books, Wilder and Lane lived on the same farm property in Missouri, but for the final five books their residences were distant, so there is correspondence that can be used to track changes. Lane also poured out her thoughts and feelings into diaries and long letters to friends, so that Woodside can narrate the development of her political ideals during the time that the books were written.

The book ends by describing Lane’s connections to other Libertarian leaders. Lane became one of the founders of this movement in political philosophy during the middle of the twentieth century, along with Isabel Paterson and Ayn Rand. Roger Lea MacBride was Lane’s adoptive grandson and heir; he cast an electoral vote for the Libertarian candidate for President in 1972 and ran for President on the Libertarian ticket in 1976. Rose also donated to Robert LeFevre’s libertarian “Freedom School” north of Colorado Springs, Colorado, which later named a building after her. Charles Koch attended that school during the 1960s; he went on to become co-founder of the Cato Institute and Americans for Prosperity.

Libertarians on the Prairie should succeed in bringing its argument about the Little House books to a popular audience. Previous scholarly books about Rose’s contributions—William Holtz’s The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane—and the books’ political ideas—Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Impact on American Culture—are longer, denser books. Woodside’s book is much more lively and readable. Furthermore, to my knowledge Libertarians on the Prairie breaks new ground in several areas. The book is the first to link the Little House books and Lane to the Freedom School and thereby to the Koch brothers. Woodside also does a good job considering the impact that keeping the secret of Rose’s contributions to the books may have had on Rose and her relationship with her mother.

However, The Ghost in the Little House and Little House, Long Shadow also provide more nuanced arguments. I think that several of Woodside’s arguments ultimately fail to convince. First, her assertion that Rose did more editing and shaping on the final two books than the earlier ones is disputed by John E. Miller, author of the most scholarly biography of Wilder (<a href="/2016/04/26/becoming-laura-ingalls-wilder/"Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend). That book suggests that Rose did less on those books. While Miller’s work appears in Woodside’s bibliography, it is not engaged in the text.

In addition, while Libertarians on the Prairie is meant to be about both Wilder and Lane, it’s mainly about Lane. Lane’s life drives the narrative, and Lane’s point of view dominates the book. I think this is somewhat understandable since Lane left many more sources. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the book ever seriously considers Wilder’s political ideas; Woodside at times seems to deny that Wilder had political ideas of her own. I also don’t think that the book engages the Wilder’s reasons for writing the books.

Finally, it may be that the libertarian, individualist side of the Little House books is overemphasized in the book. Woodside does at times recognize that there are other things that draw readers to the series, especially the books’ loving descriptions of nature and wilderness which first attracted her. I think that there is also a countercurrent of interdependence running through the books as well.

There is one passage in the book that particularly interested me in terms of Wilder’s faith. It is a description of life at Rocky Ridge Farm in the late 1920s when both Wilder and Lane lived there: “Saturdays and Sundays were like any other days; they seemed to hold no special purpose for either. I see little evidence that they were going to church.” (p. 47) Apparently, Lane mentioned a conversation with Wilder on Easter Sunday, 1928 in a letter Lane wrote to a friend. So on Easter Sunday, Lane was writing a letter and Wilder was reading her mail, and this may mean that Easter Sunday was not treated as particularly special. I emailed Woodside about this passage, and she was very gracious in her reply. This reminds me that I will probably have to do at least some work in Lane’s papers to find what I might turn up about family religious practices while Rose lived with her parents.

At any rate, I think that Libertarians on the Prairie mostly provides new insights about Lane’s life, not about Wilder’s. I think that anyone interested in understanding the collaboration between Wilder and Lane in the writing of the Little House books should probably not read Woodside’s book without also reading Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, which provides an alternative to Woodside’s assertions and a deeper understanding of Wilder and her contributions to the novels.

On the other hand, it is always fascinating to see what different readers bring to and see in the Little House books. I’m glad that I read Woodside’s book, and I’m looking forward to hearing her speak in Springfield this summer. And I’m open for comments.

(All page numbers are from Christine Woodside, Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2016.)