Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life

Time is running out on 2018. I only have time for one more blog post this year.

I read a fun book in the last several weeks: Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life, a young adult novel by Shelley Tougas. It’s about a twelve-year-old whose family moves to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, because her mother wants to write a book and thinks that getting close to Laura Ingalls’s spirit will help. It has some good lessons about friends, about family, and about growing up. Tougas certainly understands the feel of the Little House books. She is also able to describe clearly the complexity of both American history and family dynamics. If you have time over Christmas break, I found it a quick and enjoyable read.

I have also received my copy of Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser’s biography of Wilder, and I’m about two hundred pages in. It is certainly encyclopedic. More later when I finish.

I hope that everyone has a blessed Christmas and a good start to 2018.  Thanks for reading.

Links:

Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life

Prairie Fires

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Articles and Anticipation

It has now been almost a month since I last posted here. My attention and time have been taken in several directions, including teaching, grading papers and exams, committee meetings, and my work as an Academic Dean. In addition, I have been asked to speak about my last book, Almost Pioneers, at a 25th Anniversary celebration for the Iowa Women’s Archives in Iowa City next weekend. Almost Pioneers is the memoir of Laura Gibson Smith, a woman from Iowa who homesteaded in Wyoming during the 1910s; I edited it and got it published in 2013. I’m glad to be part of the celebration, but it has taken me out of my pattern of reading for the Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder project.

However, I have spent some time each week with Laura Ingalls Wilder materials. I’ve been able to read four articles that concern Wilder, the Little House books, and history. I also stand in anticipation of the next book-length biography of Wilder which is due to be released this month.

Articles: “Little House, Big Lessons” is actually a conference paper presented by historian Pamela Riney-Kehrberg at an agricultural history conference this fall in Belgium. Pam and I have known each other since I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa in the late 1990s and she was teaching at Illinois State University. She now teaches at Iowa State, one of the flagship schools for the study of rural and agricultural history. We see each other every couple of years at a conference. She reached out to me last summer for help with how Europeans responded to the Little House books; I was able to connect her with several Wilder scholars who provided a lot of leads. The paper is both about European reception of the Little House books and what they teach about everyday life in late-nineteenth century American rural areas. She concludes that the books are useful in enabling students to better understand “the environment of the American Great Plains, and the complexities of gender ideals versus gender realities.” Fascinating stuff.

The second article was “Re-examining the American Pioneer Spirit: The Extended Family of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” It was published in the Wisconsin Magazine of History last March and uses materials at the Wisconsin Historical Society to fill in some information about the families of Charles Ingalls and Caroline Quiner, Laura’s parents. It’s pretty interesting. I fed some biographical information from this article into the timeline of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life that I am constructing for the book project.

I also read “American Indians in the Fiction of Laura Ingalls Wilder” by John Miller. I had previously read the three books that Miller has written about Wilder (Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane), but I had never read this article, published in South Dakota History in 2000. Miller provides a nuanced consideration of the depiction of Native Peoples in the Little House books and Wilder’s other published work. Clearly there are multiple voices in the books: Ma and others are very anti-Indian, but Pa and Laura are not unremittingly so. Pa respects the Native Americans that he encounters, but assumes that they will be moving on so that whites can have their land. Laura is more like Pa than Ma, and Laura identifies with Indians at times. Miller argues that Americans in 2000 might see the depictions of Native Peoples in the books as problematic, but that Wilder’s views were probably more open than those of most others who lived in the Ozarks during the 1920s and 1930s. I know that I will have to engage this issue in some way in my biography of Wilder.

Finally, I was able to read “Homesteading Remembered: A Sesquicentennial Perspective” by Brian Cannon, published in Agricultural History in 2013. 2012 marked the 150th anniversary of the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, and Cannon investigates how homesteading was depicted in popular culture—both books and movies—during the twentieth century. Major literary works examined include the last three Little House books, Rose Wilder Lane’s Free Land, Elinore Stewart’s Letters of a Woman Homesteader, and O. E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth. The article engages movies from The Homesteader in 1919 to Shane in 1953, Heartland in 1979, and Far and Away in 1992. Cannon points out that “The most pointed criticism of the government’s administration of homesteading in these works is actually the writing of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Without exception these works valorize the homesteaders’ tenacity, work ethic, and family values. Only one, Giants in the Earth, seriously questions the prudence of homestaders’ decisions although many show the travails of homesteading.” He concludes that scholars’ assessment of homesteading have rarely been taken up in popular culture, and that some works reveal more about the time that they were produced than the time that they depict.

Anticipation: Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder is set to be released on November 21. Advance copies have been reviewed by major library outlets, and there are already 10 customer reviews on Amazon.com. At 640 pages, it promises to be a nearly comprehensive biography setting Wilder’s life and writings in historical context. I hope to get a copy as soon as it’s released.

Thanks for reading.

Links:

My Almost Pioneers blog

Almost Pioneers at Globe-Pequot Press

Iowa Women’s Archives 25th Anniversary Celebration

Pamela Riney Kehrberg at Iowa State University

John Miller’s books at Amazon

Caroline Fraser’s website

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.