I’m back from Iowa. I had a great time at the 25th Anniversary Celebration for the Iowa Women’s Archives last weekend. While I am not a feminist nor a women’s historian, my talk about Laura Gibson Smith and her memoir Almost Pioneers was well received by the feminist women’s historians who made up most of those assembled for the celebration.
This week I was able to read Laura Ingalls’ Friends Remember Her by Dan L. White. White lives with his family on a farm in the Ozarks near where Laura and Almanzo lived from 1894 to their deaths in 1949 and 1957. White has written a series of books on the Wilders and the Little House books, including:
- Big Bible Lessons From Laura Ingalls’ Little Books
- Devotionals With Laura: Laura Ingalls’ Favorite Bible Selections, What they Meant in Her Life, What they Might Mean in Yours
- Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Most Inspiring Writings
- Laura’s Love Story: The Lifetime Love of Laura and Almanzo Wilder
- The Long, Hard Winter of 1880-1881: What was it Really Like?
- The Real Laura Ingalls: Who was Real, What was Real on her Prairie TV Show
White has also put out four volumes of Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist articles with his own introductions and comments (much like Stephen Hines’s many books). All of White’s books were originally published by a small press in Hartville, Missouri, named Ashley Preston Publishing. I believe this must be White’s own operation. They are now all available–with several other books he wrote about Christian living and family finances–as Kindle books on Amazon.com. Since they engage Christianity, I may have to check out the first three books on this list for my project.
Laura Ingalls’ Friends Remember Her is an fascinating collection of materials. Six of the chapters are transcripts from interviews White conducted with Ozark residents who knew Laura and Almanzo when they were living: Nava Austin, Erman and Peggy Dennis, Emogene Fuge, Neta Seal, Anna Gutschke, and Carl Hartley. Other chapters give White’s opinions on some of the premier topics in Wilder scholarship, including Wilder’s political views, the relationship between Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane and the contributions of each to the Little House books, and why the books have become so beloved. Most chapters include extensive quotes from Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist articles; some include lengthy quotes from White’s other books.
White argues that since he lives in the Ozarks and is not a scholar or historian, he can give a perspective on the Wilders that is missing from other books about their lives:
Generally the people who write about Laura and the Little House books are not Ozarkers. They have chosen to be someplace else where life is fast and crowded and bustling. They usually don’t want the simple Ozark life of a homestead and chickens and horses and cows and goats.
Therefore, when these writers pontificate about Laura, they write from quite a different view than she had. When you read writings about Laura, you are reading just as much about the writer as you are about Laura. (22-23)
This hit home somewhat. I live one half block from the city of Chicago. I work at a college that has around 1200 students, which is about the current population of Mansfield, Missouri. But I did notice that this description might also be applied to White’s writing. When one reads the portions he has written, one does learn quite a bit about White’s life. One learns that he raised his family on a nearly self-sufficient farm in the Ozarks, that he and his wife homeschooled their children, that and all of them enjoyed the Little House books immensely. Strikingly, the end of the book includes a comparison between the Rocky Ridge farmhouse, which sits empty every night and has occupants only when a tour guide leads a group of tourists through it, to his own farmhouse, where a happy couple continues to live snugly.
White’s chapter on Laura and Almanzo’s political views does include an extended consideration of Laura’s faith. First, White argues that perhaps it was their shared commitment to limited government that kept them from joining the Methodist Church in Mansfield. “Congregationalists believed in small church government, not big. Surely Laura would have formally joined the Mansfield Methodist or Presbyterian Church had there not been something holding her back. That something may well have been that they were overgoverned for her tastes.” (76) I think that this is unlikely, but it is an interesting perspective. He also asserts that Laura and Almanzo can be seen as “typical conservative Christians,” which seems anachronistic to me. A different chapter does note Laura’s knowledge of the Bible and suggests that is why the books are happy despite the hardships the family faced.
It is the interviews with neighbors who knew Laura and Almanzo which are especially helpful. The portrait that emerges of Almanzo is a witty, funny, fun person to be around, even though his one foot was crippled and he walked with a cane. Laura comes across as a prim, proper, and refined old lady in velvet, always wearing a hat, even when it was no longer in style. They clearly loved one another very much. There are touching stories of Almanzo’s death from Neta Seal and Laura’s death from Carl Hartley. Seal’s interview also notes Laura’s deep knowledge of the Bible.
In some ways, this book is not the right time period for me to be reading right now. I am making plans to begin writing my biography’s first chapter, which is about Laura’s ancestors and early childhood. This book is about Laura and Almanzo’s life when they were in their sixties through eighties. But I needed to read the book so it could be returned to the library, so this week I got it done.
Thanks for reading.
Quotes are from Dan L. White, Laura Ingalls’ Friends Remember Her: Memories from Laura’s Ozark Home (Hartville, Mo.: Ashley Preston Publishing, 2013).