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Stephen Hines has described himself as a “literary prospector” who looks for unpublished works by famous writers that are not under copyright and therefore can be collected and republished.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

 

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.)

Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-Year Legacy

Well, it’s May. It’s somewhat embarrassing that I haven’t posted anything since the middle of March. I could give some excuses. I could describe how in the last two months I’ve traveled to Pennsylvania (twice), Wisconsin, and South Dakota. But instead, I will try to make up for my lack of action by posting to the blog several times this week and next. (It’s finals week here at Trinity Christian College, so I have high hopes.) This post will report on the conference I attended in South Dakota at the end of last week. Lord-willing I will next put up a final report on the Honors Seminar I taught this term, and then an update on where the project is.

Last Friday and Saturday, the South Dakota State Historical Society (SDSHS) hosted the Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-Year Legacy conference in Sioux Falls. It was an incredibly good event. I think that there were over 200 people in attendance. The SDSHS Press published Wilder’s previously unpublished memoir Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography several years ago. It was a beautiful book, and as I mentioned in my blog entry on the book, it became a surprise best-seller.  The Press has followed up that volume with a book of essays released this year titled Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder. The conference speakers had all written an essay in that book. Nancy Tystad Koupal, the director of the Press and editor of the book presided over the conference. Pioneer Girl Perspectives will not be available to the public until the end of May, but it was for sale at the conference. I sold two copies of my last book, Almost Pioneers, so I was able to buy a copy.

As far as the presentations went, there were several that were especially insightful. One was by Caroline Fraser, who edited the two-volume Library of America edition of the Little House books and who has a new biography of Wilder coming out in November: Prairie Fires: The Life and Times of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Fraser placed Wilder’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane’s career in context of Yellow Journalism during the early 20th century, where “fake news” was used to attract readers. Fraser uses that context to explain why Lane included the story of the “bloody Benders” in some of the manuscripts of Pioneer Girl, and why Wilder mentioned them in her Detroit Book Fair Speech. Bill Anderson’s talk about what happened to the Pioneer Girl manuscripts between 1957 and the 1970s had some great stories and filled in many gaps in my knowledge of the manuscripts. And Sallie Ketcham described some ways that the Little House books, and especially Little House in the Big Woods, have characteristics of fairy tales.

Several historians presented, and they were excellent. Paula Nelson mined Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist articles to describe Wilder’s relationship to her time, especially Wilder’s ideas about women’s suffrage. Wilder’s pioneering was physical and geographical; she was not a pathbreaking feminist. Her ideas were shaped by the nineteenth century, and she believed in family, church, authority, self-control, and tradition. John Miller uncovered ways that Wilder was a Midwestern girl. Finally, Elizabeth Jameson outlined some of the reasons why the Little House books may be excellent literature, but they’re not representative of childhood on the late nineteenth century frontier. Wilder’s actual experiences, as outlined in Pioneer Girl, were in many ways not happy. She worked for wages to support the family, often had to live away from home, and was nearly sexually assaulted. But Wilder transformed her experiences into the happy childhood presented in the Little House books, and that may mislead people as they think about families in the past. I believe that it is important to have novels like the Little House books that put forth ideals of love and support for families to emulate. But I do understand Jameson’s critique. I would also feel better if Wilder and Lane had not told many people that the books described exactly what happened.

In addition to presentations, there were also panels of authors who discussed major controversies concerning Pioneer Girl and the Little House books. These included the roles of Wilder and Lane in their composition, and the political ideas presented in them. The panelists agreed that Lane acted as an editor and an agent for the books, but not as a ghostwriter. There was disagreement over whether Lane should be called a collaborator. Fraser and Miller argued that she was a collaborator, Koupal and Michael Patrick Hearn (a children’s literature scholar) asserted that she was not. The consensus about political ideas is that while there are some libertarian ideas in the Little House books (watch for a blog post about Christine Woodside’s Libertarians on the Prairie in a week or two), some arguments about the books’ political nature are overblown.

The conference was also great for networking. I was fortunate to meet Jameson (I had read two books she edited on women in the west when I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa), Fraser, and Koupal for the first time. I also really enjoyed catching up with friends who attended, including Anderson, Miller, Nelson (she and I both had Malcolm Rohrbough as our dissertation advisor at Iowa), and Michelle McClellan, who teaches at the University of Michigan and is working on a book about the Little House historical sites. I also saw Sarah Uthoff from Trundlebed Tales, who live tweeted the conference (see her day 1 and day 2 compilations), and Sandra Hume from Little House Travel and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association (organizers of LauraPalooza – more on this in later blog entries). I also spoke briefly with Jon Lauck, who started the Midwestern History Association several years ago. It was also neat to talk to some women who just love the Little House books, especially Kasey and Alice, who bought the copies of Almost Pioneers.

All in all, this conference has given me new energy for getting back to work on the Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder. So Lord-willing there will be more material on the blog in the near future. Thanks for reading.