State of the Project

It’s time to take stock of where my project on the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder has led me so far and where it is heading.

In January of 2016, I began this blog. The plan was to investigate Wilder’s faith and write an article for a history journal about it. I also had the idea that the article could be the core of one chapter in a book on how Wilder’s work engages topics of interest to readers in the twenty-first century. Many readers of this blog walked with me as I read through the Little House books, the best biographies of Wilder, and other books in the spring and summer of 2016. Last fall, I presented a paper on Wilder’s faith to the Conference on Faith and History. It was there that several individuals suggested that consider writing a book-length biography of Wilder with particular attention to her faith.

The idea of writing a spiritual biography of Wilder was confirmed by students when I taught an Honors Seminar on the Little House books during the spring 2017 semester. There also seemed to be enthusiasm for the project when I gave an invited lecture at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in February. And it received general support from many old friends and Wilder scholars I saw at the Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-Year Legacy conference in Sioux Falls at the end of last month. So writing this book is currently my intention.

Last week, I sent a book proposal to Eerdmans Publishers in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The book would be part of their series titled The Library of Religious Biography. I projected that there will be ten chapters. If I can write two chapters each summer, the manuscript will be complete in five years. Both the series editor and an in-house editor at Eerdmans are receptive to the idea. So we will see what happens next.

This summer, I will be speaking on Wilder’s faith two times. At the beginning of June, I will be on a panel at the Third Annual Midwestern History Conference in Grand Rapids. The panel is titled “The Uses of Public Memory in the Rural American Midwest.” My paper title is “Little House and Little Church: Memory and the Church in the Published Works of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” My paper will suggest that the Midwestern upbringing of both Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane influenced the depiction of the church in Wilder’s works. However, because Wilder and Lane had strikingly different experiences in the church—and therefore strikingly different memories of the church—those differences also influenced how the church is described, especially in the Little House books.

In July I will be speaking at LauraPalooza. This year the conference is titled LauraPalooza 2017: Little Houses, Mighty Legacy: 150 Years of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I am on their agenda first thing on Friday morning. The conference is sponsored by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association and held in Springfield, Missouri. Many of the attendees at this conference will be people who just love Wilder and the Little House books, not academics. Probably a large percentage of them will be women. My talk is just titled “‘On the Pilgrim Way’: The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” The title is taken from Chapter 23 of By the Shores of Silver Lake, which describes the first prayer meeting and worship service in DeSmet, SD, in 1880. I am hoping to roll out some of my observations about Wilder’s faith for this broader audience. It is also my hope to stop at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri, on my way to the conference.

Meanwhile, this summer I hope to continue to read and post about what I read. Thanks for being part of my work.

Presentations and Meditations

Well, it’s March. It’s incredible how fast time is moving this semester.

On Wednesday of last week I spoke at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The talk was sponsored by the History Department and the Mellema Program in Western American Studies. It was a great time. Over fifty people turned out to hear me speak—at least I took fifty handouts and they were all gone. My presentation gave a report of what I’ve come to understand so far about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s faith: 1) that the descriptions of God, Christianity, and the church in the Little House books were shaped by her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, and 2) that Wilder’s faith was deep and genuine, but it emphasized God the Father and His laws more than Jesus Christ and salvation. These conclusions will be familiar to those who have been reading this blog for any length of time.

The question and answer period was especially rich. The audience had students, faculty members, and members of the community, including a mother with two young children. I took questions from all three groups. It was a fascinating experience. At one point, I had to try to explain to a faculty member why so many Americans for the last eighty years have been drawn to the Little House books. (Briefly: engaging descriptions, emotionally gripping prose, and a vision of human flourishing that provides an attractive alternative to modern life for many.) I also at times had to explain to some members of the community that not everything in the books represents exactly how things happened. I’m still working on how to characterize the complex collaboration of Laura and Rose.

Many thanks to Will Katerberg for inviting me and Jenna Hunt for taking care of so many of the details for the talk. If you’re interested, the audio recording may be made available, and I’ll put up a link when it is.

While I was in Grand Rapids, I also met with David Bratt, an editor for the William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, which is headquartered there. David would like me to write a proposal for a book-length biography of Wilder with particular attention to her faith. Eerdmans has a series titled the Library of Religious Biography, and the series editors are also very interested in seeing a proposal. Eerdmans publishes books for academics and readers in the church, so they may be a good fit; it is my hope that any book I do write will not only speak to college faculty and students but also to a broader audience of people who are interested in the books. My plan is to write the proposal by the end of this semester.

In addition, on Monday of this week, I spoke at a Faculty Coffee sponsored by the Faculty Development Committee here at Trinity Christian College. It was an abbreviated version of the Calvin talk, because I only had forty-five minutes rather than ninety to speak and take questions. I was very happy that one of the students from my Honors Seminar course came, as well as many faculty and staff.

My conversation with David, my lecture at Calvin, and my talk here at Trinity have led me again to think about audience and reception. As I talk with more people about the project, I’m realizing that my research points in two directions. First, it seems that Laura Ingalls Wilder was a committed Christian, and that at least some of the straightforward and positive descriptions of God, Christianity, and the church in her handwritten original manuscripts were changed by her daughter into the more mixed or even negative depictions that appear in the published Little House books. One might imagine that this would be welcomed by many of those who love the books, especially those who are serious Christians themselves. However, I also think that my research suggests that Wilder was not what we might call a born-again or evangelical Christian. Her descriptions of God, Christianity, and church emphasize God’s power, His laws, and personal morality. Wilder’s writings hardly mention Christ, the gospel, or salvation. I think that this runs against what some readers believe about her. I think that the television series may play a role in this. Although I have never watched an episode (I guess that I need to watch at least some soon), it is my understanding from others that Christianity was pretty central to the series.

I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to navigate this, except to say, as I said in response to a question on Monday morning, that one thing that historians often have to do is to try to get behind how a historical figure is remembered to the historical person himself or herself. I don’t want to do it just for the purpose of cutting down Laura in people’s estimation or telling people that what they believe is wrong. But I do think that loving one’s neighbor who lives in the past includes being honest about who they were, what they believed, and how they lived.

I’m still thoroughly enjoying the Honors Seminar on the Little House books. This week we finished Little Town on the Prairie. Perhaps I can do a post next week (next week is spring break, so I’ll have some more time) where I reflect a little on what has been going on in that class.

Thanks for reading.

60 Years

Laura Ingalls Wilder died on February 10, 1957, three days after her 90th birthday, sixty years ago today.

She had lived during the administrations of 17 different presidents, had survived two world wars, and had seen the emergence of the United States as a world power. She rode in a covered wagon in the 1870s and flew in an airplane in the 1950s. She is buried in Mansfield, Missouri.

[Wow, I had the wrong year when I first posted this. Thanks to Connie for setting me straight.]

Happy 150th Birthday

Laura Ingalls Wilder was born one hundred and fifty years ago today, on February 7, 1867, in a cabin outside of Pepin, Wisconsin.

The Washington Post ran a nice article yesterday about Wilder, the Little House books, and her ongoing popularity:  At 150, Laura Ingalls Wilder Still Speaks to Readers Old and New

We will celebrate by having cake at the Honors Seminar.


The End of 2016

It’s almost Christmas, and my family and I will be traveling starting on Friday, Lord-willing. So this, my end-of-the-year post, is going up today.

This blog launched on Monday, January 4, 2016. In that post, I expressed my desire to write an article on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s faith and my plan to read the Little House books and post about them. Since then, I’ve written and posted twenty-nine additional entries.  I read the eight Little House books, twelve additional volumes of material by her, three biographies, and several other books. I got a grant to look at material by Wilder and Lane at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. I blogged about early manuscripts of the Little House books and correspondence I read there. I presented an article to a group of faculty here at Trinity Christian College and a paper to the Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History. I was encouraged to propose a book-length biography of Wilder giving particular attention to her faith by representatives from two different publishers. As a result of my reading and interactions with others, I believe that my understanding of Wilder’s faith is much deeper than it was a year ago.

What’s next? I will be teaching an Honors Seminar here at Trinity titled “The Little House Books in the Twenty-First Century” during the spring semester. We will be reading and discussing the Little House books together as well as some other materials (I haven’t finalized the syllabus yet). I hope to write the book proposal as I teach the class.  It will be good to talk about it with students; as they write their research papers, I’ll be writing my proposal. I’ve also been asked to give a lecture on Wilder’s faith at Calvin College next February. There is a good chance that I will be able to present a paper at the Midwestern History Conference, sponsored by the Midwestern History Association, next June. Finally, I will be writing a book review of the latest book on Laura and Rose, Libertarians on the Prairie by Christine Woodside, for the journal Fides et Historia. So I have been blessed with many opportunities to engage Wilder and her faith.

I hope that everyone who reads this has a truly blessed Christmas and that the new year opens for you with optimism, peace, and trust in the child born in Bethlehem, who is also the King of all creation.

Will be back in 2017.

The Wilder Life

I knew that it had been a while since I posted anything, but I didn’t realize until today that it had been over a month. Many apologies to anyone who’s been waiting. During the last several weeks, I was able to read The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, a memoir by Wendy McClure published in 2011.

McClure grew up in Oak Park, one of the western suburbs of Chicago, during in the late twentieth century. When she read the Little House books as a child, she loved the world that the books created in her mind. When she read them again as an adult, she decided to try to enter that world. She began by reading everything she could about Wilder and the books. She then tried out the recipes in several Wilder cookbooks. She succeeded in buying an authentic, working butter churn and making her own butter. Then she visited all of the major Ingalls and Wilder historic sites in Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota (both the historic homes and the Ingalls Homestead), Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and New York. The book describes these experiences, her feelings, and her observations about the books, about Wilder, and about life in general.

Christianity and Laura’s faith are mentioned mainly in two chapters of the book. In chapter 6, “The Way Home,” McClure tells the story of her trip to Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura and Almanzo lived most of their adult lives and where Rose grew up. In the museum next to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home, she met a Christian homeschooling family from Houston. They appreciated the Little House books because of “’the faith that was running throughout.’” (163) Their conversation prompts the following comments from McClure:

I know there are a lot of folks who can easily see Christian messages in the books, lessons about trusting and accepting the will of God in times of hardship and relying on the bedrock of one’s faith to get through. There’s plenty of stuff in the books that can help illustrate these things, I guess. But the Ingalls family in the books didn’t appear to be much the praying types, unless the occasional hymn on Pa’s fiddle counts. Mary becomes a little godly by the later books, but as for the rest of the family, their reasons for attending church seemed to have more to do with partaking in civilized town life than with religious devotion. I suppose I’m inclined to see it that way because that’s how my family did things—went to church (Congregational) sporadically and understatedly. Whenever Ma Ingalls brought out the Bible, it seemed to me to be pretty interchangeable with the other books they turned to for comfort, like the novel Millbank and Pa’s Wonders of the Animal World, only slightly more important.

But in the case of families like Keith and Karen’s, their Laura World includes certain aspects that mine does not; in their Little House scenes the Bible is likely always close by and the Lord near at hand watching over the family through the droughts and blizzards.

I don’t mind that it’s this way for other people, especially if it makes the books more meaningful to them. (163-164)

It’s fascinating to me that the Little House books have appeal for both conservative Christians and agnostic writers. Both groups view the religion of the Ingalls family through the lens of their own commitments. I think that McClure may undersell the importance of Christianity to the books. When I read the books this year specifically looking for mentions of Christianity and the church, I was both surprised about how much they appear in certain books and how little they appear in other books. As I’ve suggested in other blog posts, I also believe that the form Christianity takes in the books is as shaped by Rose’s vision of the church as Laura’s experiences and faith.

Christianity—and a particular type of Christianity—looms larger in the following chapter. Here, McClure and her and her live-in boyfriend Chris attend a “Homesteading Weekend” at a working farm in downstate Illinois. The owners use horse-drawn plows, raise turkeys, and try to live as much as possible like people from 100 years ago. They are joined by several families from a church in Wisconsin who think that the end times are coming and they need to get ready. That’s why they were trying to learn how to live off the grid. These families completely “freak them out,” so they leave early the next morning. This experience prompts her to wonder about how much the Little House books might be contributing to religious fanaticism, and what Wilder would think. McClure concludes that Wilder wouldn’t have liked it, based on comments she makes in Pioneer Girl about not appreciating the anti-Catholic sentiment of the family she sewed for in DeSmet. (205-6) I’m inclined to think that she’s right in this assessment.

Memoir is not something that I’ve ever wanted to write. I tell myself that I’m too humble to write a book completely about me. I tell myself that that I don’t think that I have that much to say that others would be interested in. But I think that it may be less humility and more a desire for privacy. I am amazed by many of the ways that people expose themselves on social media today. I have a Facebook account to catch up on what’s going on with family and friends, but I share almost nothing except when I’ve put up another blog post. I am most comfortable writing when I’m writing about other people, preferably dead people. I’m glad that I am planning to write a biography of Wilder, not a memoir of my experience with the world of the books.

But I’m also glad that I read The Wilder Life. McClure is an engaging writer. Her descriptions – of people, of landscape, of her own feelings – are honest, exquisite, and at times intense. The book also provides insights about Laura, her family, and the Little House books themselves. And at times, it’s just laugh-out-loud funny. It was a good book to read while the semester wound down toward finals.

I hope to post a year in review next week. As always, love to hear your comments.

(References are from Wendy McClure, The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie [New York: Riverhead Books, 2011].)