On the Banks of Plum Creek

With On the Banks of Plum Creek, I think that the Little House books turn a corner. While the first three books cover just one year, this one covers an indeterminate time of around 18 months. It begins when the Ingalls family arrives at their new home in Minnesota and ends on Christmas Eve over a year later. It shares with the earlier books a keen feel for description of nature and Laura’s joy in experiencing it, especially in the earlier chapters. However, like the later books, it reveals a much larger world, including town institutions such as store, school, and church. The story arc involves Pa’s plans to bring in a huge wheat crop in order to pay his debts for building a new house for the family. Unfortunately, his dreams are dashed by a grasshopper infestation that lasts two years. Pa must walk hundreds of miles east to get wage work to support the family; at home Ma and Mary, Laura, and baby Carrie face uncertainty, loneliness, and doubt. Later, Pa is lost for four days during a blizzard. Wilder’s descriptions of the feelings of young girls faced with the possible loss of a parent are strikingly evocative. I found myself crying for joy each time Pa is reunited with his family. (I’m also getting older and certain members of my family say that I’m getting sentimental…)

This is the first book of the series that the church makes its appearance in a significant way. Unlike the one-chapter descriptions of Sundays in Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy, religious observance appears in no less than seven chapters in Plum Creek. In chapter 21, “Going to Church,” the family goes to Sunday School and a worship service for the first time. The family, and particularly Laura, must have made a significant connection with the pastor of that church, a “tall, thin man” named Reverend Alden. Throughout the rest of the book, he is described sympathetically. He speaks kindly to Laura and Mary, always remembers their names, calls them his “little country girls,” and compliments Laura on her new dress. The family rides or walks to town every week after that for Sunday School—on days the Rev. Alden did not come—or Sunday School and preaching on the days that he did. We are told when the family could not go to town on Sunday: when Pa is gone (chapter 27) and when winter blizzards threaten (chapter 36). Famously, Pa also takes the $3 he meant to spend on new shoes and donates it to the church’s fund for a church bell.

The church is also front and center for chapter 31, “Surprise,” which depicts a Christmas party in the church building. An enormous Christmas tree sits at the front of the sanctuary, full of presents sent by Rev. Alden’s regular church in the east. (The church in the Ingalls’s town is his home missionary church in the west, which is why he is only there to preach once every three or four weeks.) All members of the family receive multiple gifts, but most importantly Laura is given a fur cape and muff that is nicer than the cape that Nellie Oleson has been taunting Laura with all winter. Nellie makes her first appearance in this book and remains Laura’s foil and nemesis for the rest of the series. She is a spoiled shopkeeper’s daughter who has everything but doesn’t know how to treat others.

Christianity is also present in chapter 27, “Rain,” a dense chapter that describes the hot and dry late summer of the year the grasshoppers arrive. Pa is gone working for wages, and one Sunday afternoon, Ma reads from the Bible of the locust plague that God brought upon Egypt (Exodus 10). Ma then also reads about the promises of God to bring His people into “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Mary asks where that might be, and Ma says that Pa believes that it might be right where they were in Minnesota, “if we stick it out.” (521) The heat becomes so unbearable that Laura exclaims that she wishes she were an Indian so she didn’t have to wear clothes. “‘Laura!’ said Ma. ‘And on Sunday!’” (521) The rest of the chapter describes the coming of a raincloud in almost Biblical terms. While it doesn’t explicitly refer to I Kings 18, it reminds me of the descriptions there of the coming of rain to Israel after 3 years of drought during the time of Elijah. The rain shower is clearly depicted as God’s provision for the Ingalls and their land.

These three appearances of church and Christianity are positive. The church is described as an important institution for Pa, Ma, the children, and the community they lived in. The pastor is especiaslly beloved. It is not mentioned what type of church it is, though we know from other sources that the Ingalls went to the Congregational Church in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, that was pastored by Edwin H. Alden. (630, footnote 2)

However several descriptions in the book are somewhat discordant with the positive depictions mentioned so far. One is in the midst of the description of Laura’s first trip to Sunday School; her Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Tower, insults her twice by treating her as younger than she really was. First, Mrs. Tower tells the children a Bible story that Laura already knew: “Laura did not listen any more. She knew all about Moses in the bulrushes. Even Carrie knew that.” (505) Second, she gives Laura a Bible verse to memorize that is offensively easy: “‘The shortest verse in the Bible… just three words!’” (505) In addition, the congregation’s singing is depicted as incredibly poor: “They all opened their mouths and tried to sing ‘Jerusalem the Golden.’ Not many of them knew the words or the tune. Miserable squiggles went up Laura’s backbone and the insides of her ears crinkled. She was glad when they all sat down again.” (506) Rev. Alden’s sermon is long: “Laura thought he would never stop talking.” (506) Finally: “At last, everyone stood up and tried again to sing. When that was over, there was no more. They could go home.” (506) It appears that these things struck Wilder such that she would remember them and describe them vividly in ways that children would understand. These comments do not completely undermine the positivity of other descriptions of Christianity and the church. But they do provide a bit of a sharp edge to the stories.

So I’ve read four of the eight Little House books and so far I’m not sure what to make of their descriptions of Christianity. I’m still working with the same questions. If Laura was a lifelong Christian, why isn’t organized religion mentioned extensively until chapter 21 (of 41 chapters) of the fourth book in the series? If church was a vital part of life, why do the descriptions of services have an edge? Were the negative comments from Wilder or her daughter Rose Wilder Lane? Right now, I don’t think I have to have answers. I still have a lot to read. Historians have to cultivate their questions to get a fix on what we don’t know. Eventually, Lord-willing, we find answers to them. Ken Cmiel, a mentor of mine at the University of Iowa, called this “the thrashing around period” of a research project. He encouraged students to not cut short the thrashing around period, i. e. not to jump to conclusions.

As always, I’d be glad to hear others’ comments.

(All page number references are from Volume 1 of the two volume set of the Little House books published by the Library of America in 2012.)

Interlude: the Television Series

I’ve been talking with some colleagues here at Trinity Christian College about this project. One was surprised that I would have any questions about the nature of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Christian faith. When I described what had prompted my questions, we realized that she was thinking about how much faith was part of the 1970s television series “Little House on the Prairie.” I had to admit that I have never watched the television series. In fact, I did not read the Little House books until I was married and my wife got me to read them.

At any rate, it is my understanding that the TV series (which ran from 1974 to 1983) was the vehicle of Michael Landon and shaped by his vision of the west, the family, and faith. The 1970s were a decade when western and/or rural cultural products were still very much mainstream. “The Waltons” (1971-1981) was popular, and one could buy wood products to put on the outside of your house to make it look like a log cabin. At any rate, on television, the Ingalls family lives in Minnesota for the entire series, and there are hundreds of events that were not recorded in the books. It is not my plan to draw on their depictions of Wilder’s faith.

 

Little House on the Prairie

Just finished Little House on the Prairie. I have a different reaction to that book every time I read it. It shares many of the excellent aspects of the other books in the series, including lyrical evocations of landscape and nature, quick but careful depictions of character, and clear and engaging dialogue. Unfortunately, then there is the depiction of Native Americans, which rings incredibly jarringly in the 2015 ear. If I write a book about Wilder and the Little House books, I will probably have to have a chapter on her engagement with cultural differences.

The book’s depiction of religion is much more brief and straightforward than its descriptions of the incredibly tangled relationships between whites and Indians. There is no mention of Christianity, the church, or Jesus Christ in the book. There is not even a description of what the Ingalls family did on Sundays, as there was in Little House in the Big Woods. The book mentions God once, in Chapter 2 when the family believes that their beloved dog is dead and Laura asks if he could go to heaven. Pa replies, “‘Yes, Laura, he can. God that doesn’t forget [sic] the sparrows won’t leave a good dog like Jack out in the cold.’” (279) In chapter 5, after Ma’s foot was only sprained by a falling log, the narrator opines, “It was Providential that the foot was not crushed.” (293) Otherwise, the story is completely secular.

Not much more to say about Little House on the Prairie. Next week, I hope to read the first of the books where the family is living near town so that church is more regularly in view. As always, I would be glad to hear your comments.

(All page number references are from Volume 1 of the two volume set of the Little House books published by the Library of America in 2012.)

Farmer Boy

I read Farmer Boy yesterday. In Pamela Smith Hill’s biography of Wilder (Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, South Dakota State Historical Society, 2007), Hill noted how striking it was that this was the next book Laura undertook after the success of Little House in the Big Woods. Wilder had already written an entire adult memoir of her own childhood, and therefore had plenty of material for a second book. But she decided against having her second book move forward with her own life story. Instead, she wrote a book about Almanzo’s childhood that would get boys interested in the series. It was a market-savvy choice, and Wilder carried it off well.

Like Big Woods there are plenty of life lessons described in Farmer Boy, but almost all have to do with traditionally male activities: crop-raising, bargaining, choice of vocation. Almanzo’s desire to take care of horses is lovingly described throughout, and as a result there is a clearer narrative arc than in Big Woods. Again, I am extremely amazed at Wilder’s writing ability. She describes things vividly, even lovingly: house, family, landscape, animals, work, food. Her prose ably evokes the world of a 9-10 year old boy. I was reminded once again why the series has such staying power.

The church is mentioned mainly in one chapter: Chapter 8, “Sunday,” which is similar to the single chapter on Sunday observance in Big Woods. Almanzo’s family dressed in their best clothes and took the sleigh ride to town to attend the morning worship service. The type of church is not mentioned. Almanzo’s experience with organized religion is described mainly in two vignettes: First, he must stay awake for a two-hour sermon and keep his eyes on the pastor, because Father will know if he doesn’t. (139) Second, during the afternoon he does “nothing at all” (141) while his mother reads the Bible in the dining room. “Almanzo just sat. He had to. He was not allowed to do anything else, for Sunday was not a day for working or playing. It was a day for going to church and for sitting still.” (141) These descriptions seem to be pretty far from “calling the Sabbath a delight” (Isaiah 58:13). As in Big Woods, the emphasis seems to be on the strictness of Sunday observance in the nineteenth century.

One other chapter mentions God, and it does so in several interesting ways. Chapter 13 “The Strange Dog” tells the story of Father’s sale of two horses for $200 each. He receives a down payment of $200, and it is too late in the day to take the bills to the bank. Mother is worried about having that much money in the house, but Father tries to calm her:

“‘The Lord will take care of us,’ Father said.

        ‘The Lord helps them that help themselves.’ Mother replied. ‘I wish to goodness that money was safe in the bank.’” (164)

Mother, of course, was not quoting the Bible, though many Americans have thought this quote was from scripture. I think that it is at least as old as Aesop’s fables, though it most likely entered American usage via Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. (See this site for more on this.) Even more interesting is Mother’s observations at the end of the chapter, after the family feeds a stray dog and that dog guards the house from thieves during the night (Father finds fresh tracks in the woodlot in the morning):

“Mother said she would always believe that Providence had sent the strange dog to watch over them. Almanzo thought perhaps he stayed because Alice fed him.

        ‘Maybe he was sent to try us,’ Mother said. “Maybe the Lord was merciful to us because we were merciful to him.’” (167)

Thus, Mother’s beliefs seem to be that God was behind their deliverance, but perhaps their own activities marked the family as worthy of His care.

There are several other fleeting mentions of church, Sunday, and God (used as a swear) in the book. (215, 230, 235, 249). Jesus’ name is not mentioned.

One can interpret these as expressing Laura’s views about Christianity and the church or Almanzo’s and his Mother’s. Perhaps they just express Almanzo’s memories of his childhood. And the same caveats I mentioned in my previous entry about Wilder and Lane’s ideas of audience may apply here. However, the church and Christianity certainly are more present in Farmer Boy than Little House in the Big Woods.

As always, I would be glad to hear your comments.

(All page number references are from Volume 1 of the two volume set of the Little House books published by the Library of America in 2012.)

Little House in the Big Woods

I was able to read Little House in the Big Woods yesterday. So this puts me a little bit ahead of schedule. Big Woods is such a lyrical book, full of beautiful descriptions of nature and family life. Wilder does an excellent job evoking the world of a toddler in rural Wisconsin during the late nineteenth century. The centerpiece of nearly every chapter is a story, either told by Pa or enacted by the characters. These stories express timeless moral truths about concern for nature, kindness to others, and survival in difficult circumstances.

Since this blog is about the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I was especially looking for how the church and Christianity are described. To tell the truth, they are not as present as one might expect for someone described as “devout” or having an “abiding religious faith.” While morality and propriety are ever-present, there is very little attention given to the Bible or the church. The name of Jesus Christ is not mentioned at all.

Chapter 5, “Sundays,” is where religion is mainly addressed. It describes the Ingalls family Saturday night ritual of taking a bath and their normal practices on Sunday: the kids could not play, Ma read Bible stories, and they could look at pictures. Laura impulsively says that she hates Sunday, and Pa responds sternly at first, but then tells a hilarious story about his father and uncles. The thrust of the story is that things used to be much more strict when Laura’s grandfather was a child. The day ends with Pa playing hymns on his fiddle.

The only other mention of religious observance is the mention of bedtime family prayers at the end of several chapters. Chapter 6 records that the children said the classic prayer from the New England Primer: “Now I lay me down to sleep,/ I pray the Lord my soul to keep./ If I should die before I wake,/ I pray the Lord my soul to take.” (I, 47)

When the family goes to town in Chapter 9, the store dominates the description of Pepin. Church is not mentioned. The book says it was a seven mile ride to town in the wagon. One might imagine that it would be possible to go that distance to church, but they didn’t.

I hope that this doesn’t sound too critical. These were some of her earliest memories of her childhood, and Wilder was over sixty years old when she wrote this during the early 1930s. Perhaps Christianity proper did not dominate Laura’s early life such that it registered in her earliest memories. Also, Wilder—and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who edited the manuscript—were presumably writing with a particular audience in mind. It may be that they did not see more overt references to Christianity as important or appealing to that audience.

Obviously, I’m not saying that Wilder was not a Christian. And I’m not saying that we should jump to any conclusions about the nature of Wilder’s faith from this first of the eight little house books. But I had to start somewhere. I’d be glad to hear others comments.

(Note on references: I am reading the Little House books in the two volume set published by the Library of America in 2012, and I will give the volume and page number.)

Launch

This is my first entry for “The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.”

I am a history professor at Trinity Christian College, a Christian liberal arts college in the Reformed tradition. This means that we take faith seriously, and we seek to teach all subjects from a Christian perspective. I have done some previous writing and speaking about Wilder, and I have been interested in Laura’s faith for the last several years.

I’m not sure that anyone has yet done a scholarly, article-length examination of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s faith, so I hope to write one myself. By far the most scholarly biography of Wilder is John Miller’s Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Miller describes Laura as “devout” and asserts that her “abiding religious faith” that was an “indispensable part of her life.” (p. 62, 253, 261)  However, the last time I read the Little House books, I was thinking that there were enough negative comments about the local church and Christianity to make it not quite that simple.

A Google search turns up a number of different takes on Wilder’s faith. In my opinion, the best is by Rebecca Brammer. Many bloggers seem to confuse Wilder’s faith in God with her faith in other things – herself, her family, the future.

At any rate, it is my hope this spring semester to read one of the Little House books each week and write a blog entry about what I observe from that book. That means that Little House in the Big Woods will be my goal for next week.

I am familiar with the list that Wilder wrote in her Bible with passages to read for different purposes (“In facing a crisis, Psalm 48; Lonely or fearful, Psalm 27, etc.).  I am also familiar with Stephen Hines’s book Saving Graces: The Inspirational Writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I will get to them after I’ve worked through the Little House books.

I’d be glad for people to give their comments about Wilder and her faith, including things that you think that I should read.