Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder

Last week I re-read John Miller’s Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman behind the Legend. It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost twenty years since it was published in 1998. It was groundbreaking then; it is still the most scholarly biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder on the market. It has held up very well. I had forgotten how insightful Miller’s analysis is. He read all that was available about Wilder at the time, and the book shows that he had a very good understanding of the contours of Wilder’s life and personality.

I should say at this point that Miller is a good friend of mine. I first corresponded with him via email in the mid-1990s when I was getting my M. A. in History at Duquesne University. I was working on a seminar paper on Laura’s articles for the Missouri Ruralist, which had just been published in book form for the first time. He was teaching at South Dakota State University at the time, and his answers to my questions were incredibly helpful. Later, when I was getting my Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, he graciously agreed to read a copy of my dissertation prospectus and to get together at a conference we were both presenting at to talk about it. I saw him most recently at the first LauraPalooza conference in 2010. LauraPalooza was a fascinating experience. A third of the program was an academic conference where papers were presented by some of the foremost scholars on Wilder. Another third of the program consisted of presentations by k-12 teachers about how they use the books in their schools. The last third was activities for Little House enthusiasts and their families. Miller was treated like royalty.

Overall, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder not only provided the world with a solid biography that paid attention to questions that academic historians ask, including questions about context, culture, causation, and continuity and change (I tell my history students they’re the “big-C” questions). Miller’s book also contributed to the literature on Wilder in several other particular ways. First, it was the first book to use Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist articles and columns to fill in gaps in what we know about her life between the 1890s and 1930s. Miller also used the Ruralist pieces to explain Wilder’s personality and her development as a writer. Second, it responded to William Holtz’s The Ghost in the Little House, a biography of Rose Wilder Lane, which had been published by the same publisher in the same series—the Missouri Biography Series—five years earlier. Holtz had asserted that Wilder remained an amateurish writer and that most everything that people love about the Little House books can be traced to the work of Lane; in effect Lane was the ghostwriter for the books. By contrast, Miller argued that Wilder’s writing improved over time, both during the ten years that she wrote for the Ruralist and when she composed the Little House books. The Little House books were the result of a collaboration between mother and daughter where each contributed what the other lacked. A close examination of the relationship between Wilder and Lane is the book’s third contribution. Miller describes it clearly, concisely, and in some detail. One of my favorite passages comes from the last chapter of the book:

The two were alike in so many ways: intelligent, self-disciplined, perfectionist, critical of other people’s foibles and shortcomings, capable of bursts of energy, and highly ambitious to achieve something significant. Each was an individualist, and each opposed governmental intrusions. Each one saw herself as being set apart from the ordinary run of people, and each let no one else do her thinking for her. Rose, the precocious child, demonstrated a brilliance of intellect not evident in her mother. But Laura proved her competence over and over as a housewife, farm manager, loan officer, and author. In her own special way, she was as remarkable a person as Rose. Yet, their differences outweighed their similarities. One was devout, the other a skeptic. One was traditional, the other avant-garde. One was ruled by convention, the other ridiculed it. One enjoyed rural ways, the other escaped to the city as soon as she could. One settled down and lived with a man for two-thirds of a century, the other found it impossible to accommodate herself to any other person for any length of time. One was content, the other restless. One found meaning and satisfaction in simple ways and simple people, the other remained at heart an elitist. (253)

Miller’s description of Wilder as “devout” in this passage gives an indication of how he depicts Wilder’s faith. It was Miller’s account of Wilder’s faith, and the fact that I’m not sure that it always matches depictions of Christianity in the Little House books, that first inspired me to undertake this project. However, Miller does trace the influence of Christianity throughout Wilder’s life. The book describes the New England Congregationalist background of her mother’s family. It reveals that there was a church in Pepin when the Ingalls family lived in the Big Woods, but it was Methodist, not Congregationalist. (19, 29) Miller provides some background information from other sources about both Rev. Alden and Rev. Brown. (33, 62) He describes Laura’s childhood church attendance and her sense of privacy about personal beliefs. (42) He notes that as adults in Mansfield, Missouri, the Wilders attended the Methodist church, but never became members. (102)

For Miller, Laura’s religion, her Christianity, her faith in God, were all central to her world and life view. Her faith was one of her most important inner convictions. Furthermore, he views her morality as being mainly derived from the Bible. For example, here is part of Miller’s summary of the overall message of Wilder’s columns in the Ruralist:

Many things drew Laura’s ire, among them selfishness, overreliance on experts, the tendency to find fault with others, negative—as opposed to friendly—gossip, swearing, relativistic ideas, and the failure to follow Christian precepts. If a single lesson stood out, it was the necessity of love, a message she derived no doubt both from the warm and loving family environment that she had grown up in and from her own experiences as an adult. The commitment to love was strengthened by her religious beliefs. While seldom mentioned explicitly in her columns, biblical teachings lay at the core of her thinking. (131)

Miller doesn’t directly address the many places I’ve identified in this blog where the church or particular Christians are not depicted positively in the Little House books. The positive depictions of Christianity in Pioneer Girl, Wilder’s lifelong church attendance, and her overall morality are enough evidence for him. As he wrote in an email to me several months ago, “I think even though she may not have talked much about God and religion in the Little House books, that religious thoughts were always a presence — in the background.”

This idea that her faith was key to her personality also comes out in an earlier passage when Miller describes some of the conflicts between Wilder and her daughter:

We can assume that Laura always considered that what she did was best for Rose and that she was doing it for Rose’s own best interest, and not her own. But the mother’s idea about what constituted her daughter’s best interest did not always coincide with Rose’s. Add to that a large degree of certitude and self-righteousness on Laura’s part, heavily reinforced by religious belief, and we arrive at a situation in which the mother’s stifling presence could frequently seem overwhelming to the daughter and make her want to get out from under her mother’s strict rules and regulations. (105)

Here Miller admits that Wilder’s core convictions about morality, shaped by Christianity, could tend towards self-righteousness.

Re-reading Miller’s book has solidified several things that have been coming together in my mind as I’ve been thinking about Wilder’s faith during the last several months. First, I think that the question I need to answer is not whether Wilder was a Christian but what type of Christian Wilder was. Second, the evidence I’ve considered so far (the Little House books and Pioneer Girl) suggests that her Christian beliefs center on moral actions. One might say that for her, a Christian is someone who does the right thing. She saw the Bible as the standard of what is right and wrong. The Bible calls everyone to worship God and learn about His word. The Bible calls everyone to treat others as they would be treated. Christians are to love God and love their neighbors. This is a version of Christianity that has been very popular in American history. I’m guessing that it was taught in the Congregational church at the time. I will need to figure out what exactly to call it.

The Christianity that I believe in—Evangelical Christianity, or just the gospel—does not preach moral actions as the most important thing in life. In fact, it proclaims that in his or her own strength, no one can do anything good. Everyone is a sinner. No one does what is right. We cannot save ourselves. It is God who saves sinners. He did so by sending His only Son, Jesus Christ. Christ is the only one who has ever lived a sinless life. Then, Christ died to pay for the sins of those who trust in Him. Anyone who believes in Christ will have his or her sins forgiven by God. God will apply Christ’s righteousness to them, and their sins will be paid for by Christ’s sacrifice. Morals are important, but the good news of salvation is more important. Christians obey God’s commands out of gratitude for this salvation.

The difference between these two versions of Christianity—Christianity as the doing of good deeds and Christianity as the message of God’s salvation in Christ—can help to explain why Jesus Christ is not mentioned in any of the Little House books, or in Pioneer Girl, or in any of the Ruralist columns.

I think that this is a step towards a better understanding of Wilder’s faith.

I also think that I need to re-read Laura’s articles and columns in the Ruralist. I have photocopies from when I was doing research for my dissertation, but I’ve also just ordered a copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist. I believe it is the most complete published edition of the Ruralist material.

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

All page number references from John E. Miller, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman behind the Legend (Columbia: University of Missouri, 1998)


Pioneer Girl

Warning: this is a long blog post.

Last week I was able to re-read Pioneer Girl. This was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s unpublished memoir. She wrote it at the end of the 1920s, before any of the Little House Books. She had hopes that it might be published in a national magazine or as a book. Her daughter Rose Wilder Lane had been a published writer for over ten years, and Wilder thought that she might approximate Lane’s success. Unfortunately, although Lane typed the manuscript, sent it to her agent, approached several publishers about it herself, and transferred the manuscript to a later agent, it was never published during either woman’s lifetime.

In fact, it was not published until this century, when the South Dakota State Historical Society raised money for a massive editing project. Pamela Smith Hill (who I have mentioned in previous posts) was the general editor. After five years, the beautiful book was published in 2014. It became a runaway bestseller. The total in print now exceeds 165,000.

Anyway, at some point, Lane pulled some of Pa’s stories out of Pioneer Girl and packaged them as children’s fiction. It was this work that developed into Little House in the Big Woods, which appeared in 1932. From there, Laura went on to write the other Little House books during the 1930s and early 1940s.

Like The First Four Years, Pioneer Girl was written for an adult audience. It is a memoir of Wilder’s life from her earliest memories to her marriage, from about age 2 to 17, during the years 1869 to 1885. It includes many of the events that later appeared in the Little House books, but it also has many that did not. For instance, it describes the year that the Ingalls family spent in Burr Oak, Iowa, which is completely omitted from the children’s books. The writing is less polished and the feelings are more raw in this book. But it is great to be able to read more directly about Wilder’s life in her own words.

Some of the accounts of religion in general and Christianity in particular are basically the same as in the Little House books. These include the descriptions of the Christmas tree in Walnut Grove, of Reverend Alden, of Pa giving his boot money to help buy the church bell, the first church service in DeSmet (in the surveyor’s cabin), and the strict Sunday observance of Mr. McKee.

But Pioneer Girl gives a number of glimpses into Wilder’s childhood faith that never appear in the Little House books:

1. Pictures from the family Bible. Apparently Laura and Mary loved the pictures of “Adam naming the animals” and “the Flood with people and animals all mixed together climbing out of the water onto a big rock.” (36) In the Little House books, the book most likely to be mentioned is Polar and Tropical Worlds.

2. A dramatic story of sin and repentance. Laura eats an icicle after Ma tells her not to, then lies to Ma about it. She repents later and tells Ma. “She smoothed my hair and said of course she would forgive me, because I had told her I was sorry and that now I must say a little prayer and ask God to forgive me too. She told me to say ‘Dear God please forgive me for telling a lie?’ And when I did, Ma said she was sure I would never be so naughty again, then she tucked me in kissed me and went away.” (61) Nowhere in the Little House books does Laura ask God for forgiveness.

3. A Sunday School picnic outside Walnut Grove that vividly reminds Mary and Laura of their socioeconomic status. “The lemonade and ice cream were there too, but the lemonade was 5c a glass and the ice-cream 10c a dish. As we had understood the lemonade and ice cream were provided for the Sunday school scholars we had taken no money, so we went without any. As Mary and I agree we would not have asked Pa to give us money for them anyway so it didn’t really matter.” (120-121)

4. Two churches, not just one, in Walnut Grove.

a. Wilder gives detailed descriptions of revival meetings both at the Congregational Church and the Methodist Church in Walnut Grove. (135-136) It seems that these may be one source for the descriptions of the revivals in Little Town on the Prairie, but Pioneer Girl gives generally positive descriptions, not the negative descriptions given of Rev. Brown looking like the devil.

b. Wilder describes going to the Congregational Church for Sunday School and morning worship, then to the Methodist Church for worship and Sunday School every Sunday afternoon. She did this to be part of a contest to see what child could memorize all the Sunday School “Golden Texts” and “Central Truths” for the year. The prize was a reference Bible. Both Laura and another boy, Howard Ensign, succeed. (136)

There are also several descriptions given in Pioneer Girl that are very different from the Little House books:

1. Laura’s Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Tower, is described, but nothing negative is said about her as in On the Banks of Plum Creek. It just says: “We loved to go to Sunday school. Our teacher, Mrs Tower, would gather us close around her and tell us Bible stories and every Sunday she taught us a verse from the Bible that we must remember and tell her the next.

2. A fuller explanation of how Rev. Brown came to be the pastor in DeSmet is given than in Little Town on the Prairie. Apparently, Rev. Brown claimed that Rev. Alden had sent him to organize the church. He had a letter from Mr. Alden introducing him to Pa. So Pa and Ma assisted him. Later they learned that: “Mr Brown was a retired preacher going west to get a homestead. Mr Alden had given him a letter to Pa out of kindness, but he had no authority to organize a church.” (192-193) Rev. Alden decided later not to interfere.

In fact, Rev. Brown gets even harsher treatment than he does in the children’s books. At one point, he is depicted as showing up at the Ingalls house right before meals. In one instance: “Ma had prepared a kettle of beans with only the small piece of meat necessary to cook with them. As we sat down at the table Mr Brown came. Being company the food was passed to him first. After helping himself to a huge plate of beans, he took the plate of meat, looked at it and around the table, then scooped all the meat onto his own plate saying, ‘Might as well take it. There ain’t much of it anyway.’” (256) In the Little House books he is eccentric and somewhat scary. Here he is depicted as downright selfish.

Finally, two passages that only appear in Pioneer Girl provide important clues to Wilder’s experience of Christianity. The first is her description of an experience of God’s presence. The Ingalls were living in Walnut Grove, but Pa didn’t have much work, and the family needed money. As a result, Laura was staying with a couple whose husband was gone a lot. “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!’” (137) This account did not get into the Little House books, because it is part of the two skipped years between On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake. It is similar to the description in Silver Lake of the special peace that came to her during prayer. This account is more explicitly connected to God and his grace. (Correction, 22 July 2016: This post originally said that this religious experience happened while Laura and her family were living in Burr Oak, Iowa. But it was actually when they were living in Walnut Grove.)

The second passage presents Wilder’s judgment of another young person’s expression of Christianity: “Howard Ensign had joined the Congregational church after their revival and would testify at prayer meeting every Wednesday night. It someway offended my sense of privacy. It seemed to me that the things between one and God should be between him and God like loving ones mother. One didn’t go around saying ‘I love my mother, she has been so good to me.’ One just loved her and did things that she liked to do.” (136) This attitude may explain why expressions of faith seem muted in Wilder’s writing.

How might Pioneer Girl contribute to an overall understanding of Wilder’s faith? I think in several ways:

First, this memoir, her first attempt to write the story of her childhood for publication, is more clear and straightforward in its description of her childhood faith than the depiction found in the Little House books. This difference could be because of her view of audience (this has also been suggested by a commenter on a previous post). It could be because of the influence of her daughter. And it could be just because she believed that faith was primarily a personal matter.

Second, it is clear that Wilder’s relationship to God and Christianity, like all individuals’ faith experience, is complicated. It was shaped by her parents’ influence, the institutional church, individual religious leaders (Rev. Alden and Rev. Brown), and particular religious experiences. Any real understanding needs to take all of these influences into account.

Finally, it is interesting to me that there is no mention of Jesus Christ in the memoir, the same as in the Little House books.

Up next: I think I’m going to re-read the major biographies for what they say about Wilder’s faith.

All page number references are from Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2014).

The First Four Years

This is my first blog entry for three weeks. To those who are following, please accept my apologies. I’ve been grading again, and last weekend was Easter Break.

I was able to read The First Four Years yesterday. Wilder fans dispute whether the book should be included as one of the Little House Books. It does pick up, more or less, where These Happy Golden Years leaves off. However, most scholars don’t include it with the other eight children’s novels, despite the attempts of HarperCollins to sell it that way. Several things clearly separate First Four from the other books:

1) The novel’s voice is completely different than the other eight. This is probably because it was written to be an adult novel, not children’s fiction. Pamela Smith Hill suggests that Laura deliberately adopted a more adult point of view in order to address an adult audience.

2) In this work, Almanzo is called Manly, the name that Laura actually used for her husband, instead of Almanzo, which is used in all of the other Little House books.

3) In First Four, Laura questions the wisdom of Manly making a living as a farmer. They agree to try farming for three years, and if they were unsuccessful, Manly would seek a new profession. A “year of grace” is added to make the four years of the title.

The First Four Years was not published during Laura’s lifetime. It appears that she never showed the manuscript to her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. It was sent to Lane with others of Laura’s belongings when Laura died in 1957. Lane never told anyone about it, and her heir Roger Lea MacBride found it among her possessions after her death in 1968. He moved to get it published. The manuscript was not edited, by Lane or by others, so it is nowhere near as polished or engaging as the Little House books.

I knew all of this when I was doing Wilder research several years ago, but I had to refresh my memory when I reread the book yesterday. For more information about the book, you can see Pamela Smith Hill, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life (Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society, 2007), chapter 8, and John E. Miller, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998), p. 240-243.

What I can say about the depiction of religion in The First Four Years is, regrettably, very little. Sunday buggy rides and sleigh rides are mentioned in the initial chapter. Other than that, Sunday isn’t mentioned anywhere else. There is no mention of Christianity, the church, or any type of religious practice anywhere in the book. This is the case even though Laura and Manly are described as going through some of the most crushing events of their lives: crop failures, financial troubles, debilitating disease, the death of their only son, and the loss of their house and all their possessions to fire.

One must always be careful about making an argument from silence. One part of my mind asserts that it is difficult to believe that Christianity played much of a meaningful part in Wilder’s life if it is not mentioned in connection with these kinds of tragic events. There is no questioning of God’s acts here, no expressions of “Why would God destroy our wheat crop repeatedly?” or “Why would He take our son?” or “Why would He take almost everything we own?” (The chapel speaker here at Trinity Christian College spoke on the Biblical book of Job this morning, so perhaps this is close to my mind right now.) There are also no statements of trust in God’s provision, or expressions that they go forward in reliance on His strength.

However, another part reminds me that there may be other reasons for the omission that have less to do with Wilder’s beliefs and more to do with how she approached writing. Perhaps she was just too matter-of-fact in this draft to describe any mental interactions with God’s providence. Perhaps she wanted to show the isolation of the characters as they fought against the difficult realities they encountered. Perhaps she thought that religion should be kept out of an adult novel.

Thanks much for reading. As always, I welcome comments.

These Happy Golden Years

Once again, it has been two weeks since I posted. At the end of last week I had to prepare to travel again. I was in Pennsylvania visiting my parents over the weekend and the beginning of this week. While I started These Happy Golden Years, the last of the Little House books, last Thursday, I was only able to finish it today.

These Happy Golden Years brings to a pleasing conclusion the the saga of Laura’s coming of age. Becoming an adult means two things: 1) working outside of home for money, and 2) dating Almanzo Wilder. (In an earlier version of this post, I had “being courted by Almanzo,” but I think that dating is a better description. It’s beyond the scope of this blog entry, but I’ll explain if anyone is interested…) The first chapters are dominated by the story of Laura’s first teaching experience. The Brewster school is located twelve miles from town, and she must stay with a homesteader and his angry wife during the week. The pupils don’t always mind her, and one night the homesteader’s wife threatens her husband with a knife. She is only able to handle the situation because Almanzo comes every Friday afternoon driving a bobsled to take her back to her family for the weekend. After these trips, Laura continues to go riding with Almanzo in the bobsled on Sunday afternoons. Then she goes riding in Almanzo’s buggy on Sunday afternoons. Eventually he proposes. Laura later teaches two additional terms (at other schools) and helps a homesteader’s wife live on their claim during the summer. The book ends with Laura and Almanzo’s marriage and settling into the little house that he has built her.

Sundays loom larger in this book than any of the others, because Laura and Almanzo’s courtship takes place on Sundays. There is a clear pattern: Laura attends Sunday School and the morning church service, returns home for Sunday dinner, then goes out riding with Almanzo. Apparently there is a Sunday evening worship service at the church (Laura’s friend Ida mentions it in Chapter 20), but we are not told that Laura or her family ever attend. Also, at times only certain members of the family go to services. In chapter 13, Laura and her younger sisters go to church because her parents stay home to visit with Ma’s brother who is in town for just a short time. In chapter 30, for some reason only Pa and Mary and Laura go to church. Sunday observance is mentioned at several other points. When Laura is holding down the claim with Mrs. McKee, Mr. McKee is described as “such a strict Presbyterian that on Sunday no one was allowed to laugh or even smile. They could only read the Bible and the catechism and talk gravely of religious subjects.” (623-624) Later, Pa buys Ma a sewing machine, but they can’t use it on Sunday. Still, Sunday is a central part of the book; it is mentioned in some way in sixteen of the book’s thirty three chapters.

However, while Sunday is described fondly in the book, that can’t be said of the pastor of the church. As in Little Town on the Prairie, Reverend Brown and his preaching come in for some abuse in this book. In my entry on By the Banks of Plum Creek, I noted that some of the references to Christianity had a bit of an edge. The descriptions of Reverend Brown have a similar edge. For instance, from chapter 4:

“When Sunday School ended, there was only time to say, ‘Good-by. Good-by.’ Then Ida must sit with Mrs. Brown in the front seat while Reverend Brown preached one of his long, stupid sermons.

          Laura made sure that she remembered the text, to repeat at home when Pa asked her; then she need not listen any more.” (575)

From chapter 19: “The day was so pleasant and sunny that Laura hated to sit in the church, and Reverend Brown’s long sermon seemed even duller than usual.” (648) Finally, from chapter 30: “Reverend Brown was preaching earnestly and Laura was wishing that with so much sincerity he could say something interesting.” (712-713) As I noted in my entry on Plum Creek, it’s unclear whether the negative comments here should be applied to Christian worship in general or to Brown in particular. Brown is described positively at the end of the book, however, because he does not require Laura to vow to “obey” Almanzo in their wedding service. (718, 724)

As with other volumes, what is not said can also be considered. The name of Jesus Christ is not mentioned in this book; it does not appear in any of the Little House books. Perhaps more strikingly, God himself is not mentioned in this book. One also would think that Laura might mention praying during her ordeals at the Brewster school, but she does not. Later in the book the good and bad results of a storm with tornadoes are described as “strange,” but not attributed to Providence. As in the other books, Christianity is reduced to right action and Sunday observance.

So I’ve now read all eight Little House books. I need to organize my thoughts and notes to figure out what’s next. I have Western Civilization papers and exams coming again next week, so it may be another two weeks before I post again.

Thanks for reading. As always, I welcome comments.

(All page number references are from Volume 2 of the two volume set of the Little House books published by the Library of America in 2012.)

Little Town on the Prairie

It has again been two weeks since I posted. Last week I went to a conference for work from Thursday to Saturday, and that took out the days I usually have to read and write. But I was able to read Little Town on the Prairie yesterday morning.

There are a lot of things going on in Little Town on the Prairie. A number of plot threads that were introduced in By the Shores of Silver Lake begin to come together in this book, though they won’t get completely resolved until the last book in the series, These Happy Golden Years. In Little Town, Mary leaves to attend the college for the blind in Iowa, and Laura continues her studies knowing that she will have to teach school in order to keep Mary there. Nellie Oleson returns (we met her in On the Banks of Plum Creek) and again serves as foil and antagonist to Laura. Almanzo Wilder also first shows interest in Laura in this book. Through it all, Pa remains Laura’s hero. I hope that my teenage daughter comes to regard me with the love and respect that Laura did her father…

Mentions of God, the church, and religious observance are frequent in Little Town. Laura’s observations about morality and God begin in the second chapter. Laura tells Mary as they walk on the prairie that she (Mary) is truly good. Mary disagrees: “‘We are all desperately wicked and inclined to evil as the sparks fly upwards,’ said Mary, using the Bible words.” (376) The words are from Jeremiah 17:9 and Job 5:7. We then read this part of their conversation about goodness and God:

           “I don’t believe we ought to think so much about ourselves, whether we are bad or good,” Mary explained.

           “But, my goodness! How can anybody be good without thinking about it?” Laura demanded.

           “I don’t know, I guess we couldn’t,” Mary admitted, “I don’t know how to say what I mean very well. But—it isn’t so much thinking as—as just knowing. Just being sure of the goodness of God.”…

           Everyone knows that God is good. But it seemed to Laura that Mary must be sure of it in some special way.

           “You are sure, aren’t you!” Laura said.

           “Yes, I am sure of it now all the time,” Mary answered. “The Lord is my shepherd [here Mary recites the first two verses of Psalm 23]. I think that’s the loveliest Psalm of all.” (376-377)

Laura and Mary appear to be expressing two different understandings of God, one that concentrates on morality and one that is more oriented towards relationship. It also appears that Laura believes that Mary’s relationship with God led her to be morally good, but that Laura herself could never be like Mary. This is the first of three longer passages about the church and religion in the book.

Interestingly, like in By the Shores of Silver Lake, a hymn is used early in the book in a profane way. Laura describes watching two drunken men walk down the sidewalk in DeSmet, singing “Pull for the Shore.” As they walk, one puts his foot through the screen door of each business on the main street. This fits the early chapters’ descriptions of the wild things that sometimes happen in town, as opposed to the serenity of life on the Ingalls’s homestead. But it is mentioned again later.

The second longer passage that includes a reflection about God describes an epiphany that Laura has on the Fourth of July. She and Pa and Carrie have gone to town for the celebration. They hear a man read the Declaration of Independence, and then the crowd sings “America” (“My Country ‘Tis of Thee”). The song ends “Long may our land be bright / with freedom’s holy light. / Protect us by Thy might / Great God our King.” (412)

Suddenly she had a completely new thought. The Declaration and the song came together in her mind, and she thought: God is America’s King.

           She thought: Americans won’t obey any king on earth. Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences. No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself. Why (she thought), when I am a little older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn’t anyone else who has a right to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good.

           Her whole mind seemed to be lighted up by that thought. This is what it means to be free. It means, you have to be good. “Our father’s God, author of liberty—” The laws of Nature and of Nature’s God endow you with a right to life and liberty. Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God’s law is the only thing that gives you a right to be free.

At this point, Laura’s thoughts are interrupted by Carrie and Pa calling her to get lemonade. Although the content is mainly political, the tone of this description sounds like it is a religious experience.

The institutional church looms larger in this book than any of the previous books. In Chapter 4, we are told that a church was organized and the foundation laid for a building. Laura befriends Ida Brown, the adopted daughter of Reverend Brown, the Congregational minister, in Chapter 11. Rev. Brown is described in detail in Chapter 17, where we learn that he talks a lot, has a rumbling voice, and dresses untidily. He claimed to be the cousin of the John Brown who “killed so many men in Kansas and finally succeeded in starting the Civil War.” (487) We also learn that:

Ma and Pa were sadly disappointed that dear Rev. Alden from Plum Creek was not the preacher. He had wanted to be, and the church had sent him. But when he arrived, he found that Rev. Brown had established himself there. So dear Rev. Alden had gone on as a missionary to the unsettled west.

           Pa and Ma could not lose interest in the church, of course, and Ma would work in the Ladies Aid. Still, they could not feel as they would have felt had Rev. Alden been the preacher.

Later in the book, we are told that “Laura even enjoyed Rev. Brown’s preaching. What he said did not make sense to her, but he looked like the picture of John Brown in her history book come alive.” (496-497) She enjoys “changing his sentences in her mind, to improve their grammar.” (497) And we read that Laura “need not remember the sermon, for at home Pa required her and Carrie only to repeat the text correctly.” (497) These are not the most stellar of endorsements for the church or for Christianity. While it is clear that Brown himself is the object of the comments, the church also does not come off very well.

The church comes off even worse in the third lengthy description of Laura’s feelings about religion: her description of the church’s revival services in chapter 23. We are told initially that if “a revival meeting could be nothing but singing, Laura would have loved it.” (527) During the “long prayer,” Rev. Brown’s “harsh voice singsonged on and on.” (527) Then the sermon gives Laura chills, but not in a good way:

           She seemed to feel something rising from all those people, something dark and frightening that grew and grew under that thrashing voice. The words no longer made sense, they were not sentences, they were only dreadful words. For one horrible instant Laura imagined that Reverend Brown was the Devil. His eyes had fire in them. (528)

Brown calls people to come forward to be saved from damnation. When he begins to sing “Pull for the Shore,” however, Laura remembers the drunks singing the same song, and that dissolves her anxiety. “Now she felt all the noise and excitement was not touching her.” (528) The revival service is also a key moment in plot development, as Almanzo Wilder first asks Laura if he can walk her home from church that very night. When she gets home, in answer to Pa’s question of what she thought of the revival service, she merely answers “It isn’t much like Reverend Alden’s quiet sermons. I like his better.” (530) The next night, “she did not mind the sermon at all, she only wished she need not be there, when so many people, all together, grew so excited.” (530)

I believe that it was this volume that initially got me thinking about the nature of Wilder’s faith the last time that I read the Little House books. These negative characterizations of religious practice seem to clash with simple descriptions of Wilder as a devout, lifelong Christian. They got me thinking about whether her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who was an agnostic if not an atheist when she was helping Wilder write the books, influenced these sections. Lord-willing I can find out; I hope to look at the original manuscripts during a research trip this summer.

However, since I am now reading these descriptions in the context of all of the Little House books and looking specifically about how the church and Christianity are described, I can more clearly see that Wilder may have been describing the particular phenomenon of revival services negatively, not the church or Christianity more broadly. As a result, this could be reconciled with the more positive depictions of Christian practice in The Long Winter and sporadically in other books.

A couple last thoughts: the name of Jesus has yet to appear in any of the books, and I’ve read seven of eight. If one is counting how many chapters have references to the church, Christianity, or religious practice, this book ties The Long Winter with 13, but that is out of 25 chapters while Winter has 33.

Thanks for reading. As always, I welcome comment.

(All page number references are from Volume 2 of the two volume set of the Little House books published by the Library of America in 2012.)

The Long Winter

It has been two weeks since I last posted because I’ve been grading papers and exams for my Western Civilization course. Also, as I write this, it is 21 degrees in Palos Heights, Illinois, where I work at Trinity Christian College. This morning when I got up it was 8 degrees. There is about an inch or so snow on the ground from several days ago. It was an appropriate day to read The Long Winter.

Reading The Long Winter is an intense experience. I remember reading it to my kids and feeling the oppressive weight of the story. In it, the Ingalls family survives the “Hard Winter” of 1880-1881, described in the book as seven months of multiple-day blizzards. These storms cause trains to be unable to reach DeSmet beginning in December. Gradually, Laura, her family, and the other 75-80 people in DeSmet run out of food. They are only saved by the heroic actions of Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland, who drove 20 miles from town in sub-zero weather to buy sixty bushels of a settler’s seed wheat.

The book has perhaps the tightest story of all of the Little House books. During the first chapter, Laura and Pa cut hay and see a muskrat house that is unusually thick, a sign of a hard winter to come. Later in the book, the hay is used to keep the family and their stock alive, as their coal runs out and hay is twisted into sticks for the fire. An Indian also warns of the hard winter to come. The blizzards begin in October and continue until April. We watch as the Ingalls family confronts want and possible starvation. Pa loses weight and is unable to play the fiddle due to fatigue and the cold. Even more striking is the book’s description of the psychological effects of the repeated storms. Pa curses the blizzards, the children are irritable, and Laura shows signs of clinical depression. When the chinook wind blows and melts the snow, the reader shares the characters’ deep feelings of relief.

This volume has many more references to Christianity, God, the church, and religious observance than any of the previous Little House books. For comparison, here is the number of chapters that mention one of these topics (by my count):

Little House in the Big Woods: 2

Farmer Boy: 6

Little House on the Prairie: 2

On the Banks of Plum Creek: 8

By the Shores of Silver Lake: 5

The Long Winter: 13

Another possible comparison is when Christianity, God, the church, or religious observance is first mentioned in the book:

Little House in the Big Woods: Chapter 5

Farmer Boy: Chapter 8

Little House on the Prairie: Chapter 2

On the Banks of Plum Creek: Chapter 21

By the Shores of Silver Lake: Chapter 4

The Long Winter: Chapter 1

Not only are religious themes more present than in previous volumes, but there is a wider variety of references made. In the first chapter, Pa explains to Laura that God tells muskrats when to build houses with thicker walls. Scripture is quoted three different times: Psalm 55:6, Psalm 23, and Proverbs 16:18. Laura’s schoolteacher opens the day by reading Psalm 23. Bedtime prayers are mentioned four different times in the book. To pass the time during a blizzard, the girls have a contest to see how many Bible verses they have memorized. When the mail is anticipated, we are told that Ma looks forward to receiving church papers (probably Christian newspapers). The family receives a letter and later a Christmas barrel from Reverend Alden’s church in Minnesota. Carrie gazes at a Sunday school card with a picture of the Good Shepherd. Laura and Mary pray for the safety of Almanzo and Cap on their mission of mercy. The family sings portions of at least ten different hymns. Finally, at the end of the book, as the family sits down to a belated Christmas dinner in April:

Ma looked at Pa and every head bowed.

“Lord, we thank Thee for all Thy bounty!” That was all Pa said, but it seemed to say everything. (364)

 Early in the winter, Laura and Carrie are at the schoolhouse when a blizzard hits. A man from town comes to get the kids safely home but almost leads them onto the prairie. By chance, Laura runs into the last building at the north end of town. Once she is safely home, she muses:

It was wonderful to be there, safe at home, sheltered from the winds and the cold. Laura thought that this must be a little bit like Heaven, where the weary are at rest. She could not imagine that Heaven was better than being where she was, slowly growing warm and comfortable. (227)

In other words, while the earlier books make nods to the church and Christianity, The Long Winter is bathed in references to Christianity and religious imagery.

One might advance several theories for why this is. Perhaps Laura’s recollections of the role of Christianity in her life grow more extensive as she wrote about events when she was older. Maybe it is because, like many humans, we are more likely to reach out to God when hard times and suffering face us. There might be other reasons.

As in previous books, what is left out is as interesting as what is put in. The name of Jesus still does not appear in the book, although Carrie’s card is obviously of him: “The picture was of the Good Shepherd in His blue and white robes, holding in His arms a snow-white lamb.” (276) Jesus has not been mentioned in any of the first six Little House Books. Also, fascinatingly, when the Christmas Barrel finally arrives and is opened, the chapter does not mention who it came from (i.e. that it came from a church).

In previous weeks I have been able to write this and set it aside 24 hours before posting it. However, I must post today because I am busy the next few days. I apologize for any errors. As always, I welcome comments.

(All page number references are from Volume 2 of the two volume set of the Little House books published by the Library of America in 2012.)

By the Shores of Silver Lake

Often when I read a well-written book a subsequent time, I see things that I didn’t before, or at least that I didn’t remember from before. (I think the same is true of well-made movies.) This is especially the case when I’m looking for something in particular. I believe that this is the sixth time I’ve read the Little House books. My wife Paula first got me to read them when we were first married in the early 1990s. I read them again when I was in graduate school at Duquesne University. I think that Paula and I read them to our children twice. Then I read them again ahead of two talks about Wilder’s political views I gave at Grove City College in 2009 and at Trinity Christian College in 2011. However, when I read By the Shores of Silver Lake yesterday, I saw something that I didn’t remember at all: Laura’s description of a religious experience.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Silver Lake begins two years after On the Banks of Plum Creek. Laura is 13; Mary is 15 and blind. The family decides to move west so Pa can take a job with the railroad and then find a homestead for the family in Dakota Territory. The book describes their time in two railroad camps, a winter in the isolated surveyor’s house (which you can still visit in De Smet, SD), and their first days on the homestead.

I was beginning to think that there wasn’t going to be much mention of Christianity or the church. Wilder states multiple times that the family had moved beyond the line of civilization. For more than two thirds of the book there are only brief mentions of what might be called religious ideas. In chapter 2 the Ingalls family’s beloved dog Jack dies and Pa tells Laura that “He has gone to the Happy Hunting Grounds.” (12) In Chapter 4, a railroad worker sings worldly words to the tune of Ma’s favorite hymn, “There is a green hill far away”: “There is a boarding house far away…” (21) Ma is scandalized. In chapter 19, “Christmas Eve,” the family reminisces about other Christmases they had together, including the one described in Plum Creek with the Sunday School Christmas Tree.

Then I reached chapter 23, “On the Pilgrim Way.” The family is singing hymns one Sunday Evening when they are answered by voices outside the surveyor’s house. It’s their old pastor from Minnesota, Reverend Alden, along with a young home missionary and two homesteaders. The company is on their way to a new town named Huron to see about starting a church there. All stay for the night with the Ingalls family. Laura is overjoyed to see Rev. Alden. In reference to Mary’s blindness, Pa notes that while it is hard to be “resigned to God’s will,” (126) he is glad that none of his children had died. (This is especially poignant for those of us who know that the historical Ingalls family did lose a child in infancy – their only son.) Rev. Alden responds that Mary is “a rare soul, and a lesson to all of us,” and furthermore, “whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth.” (127)

More importantly to the plot development in the book, Rev. Alden tells the family that there is a college for the blind in Iowa that Mary could attend. Everyone is excited, although they have no idea how they might be able to pay. Laura is not sure what to think. Earlier in the book we are told that Ma and Pa had told her that they hoped one of their daughters might teach school. Laura does not want to teach school, and she is torn between duty and desire.

That night they have a prayer meeting, and while Rev. Alden is praying Laura has what only can be described as a religious experience:

They all knelt down by their chairs, and Reverend Alden asked God, Who knew their hearts and their secret thoughts, to look down on them there, and to forgive their sins and help them to do right. A quietness was in the room while he spoke. Laura felt as if she were hot, dry, dusty grass parching in a drought, and the quietness was a cool and gentle rain falling on her. It truly was a refreshment. Everything was simple now that she felt so cool and strong, and she would be glad to work hard and go without anything she wanted herself, so that Mary could go to college. (127-8)

Later that night, she promises Mary that she will “study hard, so I can teach school and help” her go to college. (128) Some Christians, like myself, can think back to experiences such as this that have happened while praying. Laura’s description is lyrical and matter-of-fact at the same time. This account is also the first time that forgiveness is mentioned as part of the Christian message. In general, depictions of Christianity and the church in the first four books have to do with right behavior, including Sunday observance, doing the right thing in all situations, and loving one’s neighbor. (While these are important Christian virtues, the central message of the gospel concerns the free offer of forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ.) The next day they have a preaching service since the preacher is there with them, even though it is Monday. All are excited to have celebrated the first church service in the new town of De Smet. Rev. Alden promises to come back to start a church there the next year.

There is no edge to any of the descriptions of Christian practice here that would be similar to what I described in my post on Plum Creek. There is a little comic relief, however: Ma is a little concerned about the ability of the younger pastor to cook for himself, worrying that he might “ruin his heath.” “‘He’s Scotch,’ said Pa, as if that meant that he would be all right.” (130) I’ve written this down in my notes about Wilder’s depictions of ethnic diversity in the books, though I’m not exactly sure what to do with it.

Two other miscellaneous comments: God, Christianity, and the church are not mentioned in the rest of the book. Jesus Christ has yet to be mentioned in the series.

As always, I welcome comments.

(All page number references are from Volume 2 of the two volume set of the Little House books published by the Library of America in 2012.)

P. S. I may not be able to post next week. The first paper in my Western Civilization courses was due today, so I have 66 papers to grade by next Friday. We will see how they go.