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

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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

End of Summer

Thanks very much to everyone who reached out to me (via email, in person, via Facebook) after I announced two weeks ago that I had received a book contract. You all are the best.

Today all first year students will be moving into the dorms here at Trinity Christian College. There have been some students on campus for the last week or two, including fall athletes, student leaders, and some others. It’s been great to see more students around; they bring life back to a college campus. All the new freshman will be here by this evening. Returning resident students and new transfers arrive by the middle of next week to complete the student body. My daughter moves back to Trinity (she’s a sophomore) this Sunday. Regular courses begin next Wednesday. My three sons start school (two in high school and one in homeschool eighth grade) next Thursday morning. All of this means that the summer is just about over.

It’s been a productive summer:

– I finished my book review of Christine Woodside’s Libertarians on the Prairie for Fides et Historia (the journal of the Conference on Faith and History) in April. (I guess this wasn’t really summer, but I hadn’t mentioned it on the blog before.)

– I finalized my book proposal and sent it off to Eerdmans in May.

– I presented a paper at the Midwest History Conference in Grand Rapids in June.

– I spoke at LauraPalooza in July.

– I received a book contract from Eerdmans and signed it in July.

– Last week I completed a book review of Pioneer Girl Perspectives for The Annals of Iowa.

– This morning I wrote three and a half pages of a possible introduction to the book.

I hope to keep reading for the book project once school starts at least once a week. I got a list of books to read from Mark Noll, one of the editors of the Eerdmans series I’m writing for, about American religious history. I also hope to do more thinking and writing. I will try to keep up the blog as much as I can.

Thanks for following. Best wishes to all who has someone in their home who returns to school during the next several weeks.

Links:

Trinity Christian College

Fides et Historia and the Conference on Faith and History

My Libertarians on the Prairie blog post

My LauraPalooza post

My book contract post

My Pioneer Girl Perspectives post

The Annals of Iowa

Book Contract

It’s August.  The summer has gone by quickly.  Last week I was completely off the grid camping with my family in Western New York.  It was a great time.  Now I’m back and the countdown to the start of classes here at Trinity Christian College—three weeks from yesterday—has started.

I am happy to announce that last month I signed a book contract with Eerdmans Publishers.  The book is tentatively titled “On the Pilgrim Way:” The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  The book will be a biography of Wilder that pays particular attention to her faith.  It will appear in Eerdmans’s series The Library of Religious Biography.  I am very thankful to David Bratt and Heath Carter for their efforts and encouragement.

I’ve projected ten chapters, and my current plan is to write two of them each summer between now and 2022.  I can get some work done during the school year, but I imagine that most of my writing will be done during the summer.  Eerdmans has graciously given me that much time to complete the manuscript.

Thanks to everyone who has given me encouragement throughout the project so far.  Now the real work begins…

Links from this post:

Trinity Christian College

Eerdmans Publishers

The Library of Religious Biography

Heath Carter’s Twitter Page: #ReligiousBio

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.)

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.