Honors Seminar Review

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I’ve been teaching an Honors Seminar this semester on the Little House books. In fact, that course is one of the reasons that I have not had as much time as I would have liked to write for this blog. Teaching a class that I had never taught before required an extra amount of my time to prepare for the class, which met every Tuesday and Thursday. On the other hand, it was a real pleasure to read the books with an extremely sharp group of students.

The title of the course was “The Little House Books in the Twenty-First Century.” Trinity’s Honors program requires that honors students take at least one of these seminars during their college career. The courses are intentionally interdisciplinary; mine was especially investigating the books as both history and as literature. This semester, eight students took the course. Majors represented included Accounting, Art, Biology, Education, History, Nursing, and Math. Students came from Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Washington, and Wisconsin. It was a true cross section of Trinity’s Honors program, except for the fact that all of them were young women. This fact is probably not surprising to anyone.

After a brief introduction to the study of history and literature, the class read one of the Little House books every week. During class time, we discussed what we had read. When we were done with all eight books and The First Four Years, we read Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life. At the start of the semester, students chose a theme that they were interested in tracing through the books. They journaled about those themes, and reported to the class regularly on what they had observed. At the end of the semester, they wrote research papers that made arguments about how the Little House books and Wilder’s other writings engage those themes.

Last week, the students handed in their final papers and presented their research. The director of Trinity’s Honors Program came to hear the presentations. I couldn’t have been prouder of how the students carried themselves and the conclusions they came to. Here are the topics of the research papers:

– Cultural difference – Argued that the description of non-white cultures (Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants) in the Little House books exhibited characteristics of late-nineteenth century understandings of cultures different than the majority.

– Economics – Argued that while Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane opposed government intervention in the economy, the Little House books themselves described situations that many have used to call for increased government involvement in business.

– Education – Argued that the depiction of education in the Little House books connects hard work and success.

– Family and Survival – Argued that the family was vital to survival on the frontier of the American West, using the analytical categories from an article by sociologist Mary Douglas.

– Family Roles – Argued that the Little House books presented the ideal family as one where all members fulfilled their traditional roles.

– Individualism and Community – Argued that Wilder’s experiences with the communities depicted in the Little House books prepared her for community involvement later in life.

– Love – Argued that all four types of love described in The Four Loves by author C. S. Lewis are represented in the Little House books: family love, friendship, romantic love, and love for God.

– Nature and the Environment – Argued that the environment in the Little House books is depicted either as a setting, focusing on the natural beauty of the Midwest and West, or as an actor, focusing on the unpredictability and destructive force of the natural world.

I have been trying to find out whether it would be possible to publish these essays in some way in order to attract more young people to read the Little House books. Stay tuned.

Finally, at the end of the semester, while the students were working on writing and revising their research papers, we used class time to watch some episodes from the Little House on the Prairie television show. We watched “A Harvest of Friends,” “Country Girls,” and “Town Party-Country Party.” All were from the first season and aired in 1974. I had never watched the TV show before, and I found it somewhat difficult going at times. The pacing is much slower than television today, and the spirit of the show is very different from the Little House books, even when it is portraying events related in the books. It is clearly the vision of Michael Landon and the show’s other directors and producers, not the vision of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I did discover that if I used my computer’s playback software to run the DVD at 1.1x speed, it made the show more watchable for twenty-first century viewers.

During the semester, I also shared what I’ve discovered about Wilder’s faith with the class – that was the theme I was tracing through the works we read. Students were receptive to my observations and kind in their criticisms. They also read and gave me comments on my book proposal (more about this in my next post).

All in all, I greatly appreciated the work that all of the students put into the course. I will miss it very much.

Thanks for reading.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life

This week I re-read Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life. I was glad to read this book when it came out in 2007, and I was glad when John Miller introduced me to Hill at LauraPalooza in 2010.

Hill brings the knowledge and sensibility of a published writer to her task. While the book is a full biography of Wilder, it focuses on how the Little House books were written. Thus, the chapters that focus on Wilder’s early life compare accounts in the Little House books to Pioneer Girl and other extant records for the Ingalls family. The chapters about her adult life describe how the Little House books were written. Hill is particularly interested in understanding the collaboration between Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane.

To the question of “how should we understand Wilder’s and Lane’s contributions to the Little House books?”, Hill answers that Wilder should be considered the author of the books, and Lane should be seen as an editor. Hill describes several letters that Lane wrote to Wilder about her writing as editorial letters, examples of a type of letter written by an editor to a writer in response to a manuscript. The aim of such a letter is to improve the resulting book. Hill also notes that the editors at Harper and Brothers who received Wilder’s books rarely had to make many changes to the manuscript; this was because Lane had already edited them—in some cases heavily—as she typed them. In general, Hill argues that each woman brought her own strengths to the series. For Wilder this included vivid descriptions and a deep understanding of her characters. Lane contributed in the areas of large scale structure, sentence editing, and the creation of drama.

Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life does not say much about Wilder’s faith. It mentions the Ingalls family’s interactions with Congregational Churches in both Walnut Grove and DeSmet (21, 45). It also notes that Laura was disappointed that there wasn’t a Congregational church in Mansfield, Missouri. (85) Finally, it states that “The Wilders joined the Mansfield Methodist church, where they worshiped for the rest of their lives.” (89) The second half of the statement is true, but the first is not. John Miller in Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder more reliably notes that while they attended the Methodist church, they never joined. (John E. Miller, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend [Columbia: University of Missouri, 1998], 86, 102.)

Hill does make some observations about choices Wilder made concerning audience in relation to The First Four Years. Hill asserts that Wilder had a particular approach to an adult audience, that “Wilder’s perception that a novel for adults should appeal to a mature, perhaps even jaded, audience; the book’s characterizations, plot, and theme had to reflect adult readers’ more careworn vision of reality.” (75-76) Interestingly, Hill argues that Wilder modeled her writing in that book on Lane’s work, especially her book Let the Hurricane Roar, which was based on Wilder’s parents’ story. I believe this supports some of my impressions about The First Four Years. Specifically, when considering the possible reasons that faith is nowhere mentioned in the book, I wrote in my blog entry, “Perhaps she thought that religion should be kept out of an adult novel.”

Thus I think that the contribution that Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life makes directly to a project on the Wilder’s faith is small. However, Hill’s insights about the relationship between Wilder and Lane will be helpful as I approach the Little House manuscripts at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library this summer. I’m hoping to specifically examine the places where the church or Christianity is mentioned in the Little House books and determine if the particular form it takes is primarily because of Wilder or Lane’s influence.

As always, your comments are welcome.

Page number references are from Pamela Smith Hill, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life (Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society, 2007).