State of the Project

It’s time to take stock of where my project on the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder has led me so far and where it is heading.

In January of 2016, I began this blog. The plan was to investigate Wilder’s faith and write an article for a history journal about it. I also had the idea that the article could be the core of one chapter in a book on how Wilder’s work engages topics of interest to readers in the twenty-first century. Many readers of this blog walked with me as I read through the Little House books, the best biographies of Wilder, and other books in the spring and summer of 2016. Last fall, I presented a paper on Wilder’s faith to the Conference on Faith and History. It was there that several individuals suggested that consider writing a book-length biography of Wilder with particular attention to her faith.

The idea of writing a spiritual biography of Wilder was confirmed by students when I taught an Honors Seminar on the Little House books during the spring 2017 semester. There also seemed to be enthusiasm for the project when I gave an invited lecture at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in February. And it received general support from many old friends and Wilder scholars I saw at the Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-Year Legacy conference in Sioux Falls at the end of last month. So writing this book is currently my intention.

Last week, I sent a book proposal to Eerdmans Publishers in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The book would be part of their series titled The Library of Religious Biography. I projected that there will be ten chapters. If I can write two chapters each summer, the manuscript will be complete in five years. Both the series editor and an in-house editor at Eerdmans are receptive to the idea. So we will see what happens next.

This summer, I will be speaking on Wilder’s faith two times. At the beginning of June, I will be on a panel at the Third Annual Midwestern History Conference in Grand Rapids. The panel is titled “The Uses of Public Memory in the Rural American Midwest.” My paper title is “Little House and Little Church: Memory and the Church in the Published Works of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” My paper will suggest that the Midwestern upbringing of both Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane influenced the depiction of the church in Wilder’s works. However, because Wilder and Lane had strikingly different experiences in the church—and therefore strikingly different memories of the church—those differences also influenced how the church is described, especially in the Little House books.

In July I will be speaking at LauraPalooza. This year the conference is titled LauraPalooza 2017: Little Houses, Mighty Legacy: 150 Years of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I am on their agenda first thing on Friday morning. The conference is sponsored by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association and held in Springfield, Missouri. Many of the attendees at this conference will be people who just love Wilder and the Little House books, not academics. Probably a large percentage of them will be women. My talk is just titled “‘On the Pilgrim Way’: The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” The title is taken from Chapter 23 of By the Shores of Silver Lake, which describes the first prayer meeting and worship service in DeSmet, SD, in 1880. I am hoping to roll out some of my observations about Wilder’s faith for this broader audience. It is also my hope to stop at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri, on my way to the conference.

Meanwhile, this summer I hope to continue to read and post about what I read. Thanks for being part of my work.

The Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook

In 2011, the Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook was published.  This should not be confused with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Songbook. The latter was edited by Eugenia Garson and published by HarperCollins in 1968. It is 160 pages long and contains 62 songs. It is out of stock on Amazon, though you can get used copies from used booksellers.

The Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook, by contrast, is an exhaustive and scholarly book edited by musicologist (music historian) Dale Cockrell. I heard Cockrell speak at the first LauraPalooza conference in 2010. He made a convincing argument—one that is given in the introduction of this book—that one of the ways that Wilder was able to include as many details in her books is that she used her memories of music to help her remember her childhood. The bulk of the book, however, is sheet music for the 127 songs that are mentioned in the eight Little House books. After each song, the book and chapter that the song is referenced in is provided, along with a brief description of the context.  As a result, the book is a whopping 425 oversize pages. It was a volume in two different series from the American Musicological Society: “Recent Researches in American Music” and “Music of the United States of America.” It also appears to be out of print on Amazon; the list price was $240, so few individuals would probably be in a position to buy it. I was fortunate to get the library at Trinity Christian College, where I work, to purchase one.

In his introduction, Cockrell describes the different roles that music played in the Little House books. Pa played his fiddle and the family sang both for entertainment and for community-building. The family was the primary community that music fostered, although the local, church, and national communities were also maintained by songs. Cockrell notes that the first time a formal church service is mentioned in the books (in On the Banks of Plum Creek), Wilder describes the congregation’s terrible rendition of the hymn “Jerusalem, the Golden.” Laura’s assessment of the church service is brief:

Pa turned on the seat and asked, “How do you girls like the first time you ever went to church?”

“They can’t sing,” said Laura. (xxxiv)

Cockrell classifies twenty-three of the 127 songs in the book as “Hymns or Sunday School songs.” So almost a fifth of the songs mentioned in the Little House books were used in Christian worship or educational settings. As I read through these songs, I divided them into eight different categories based on the content of the lyrics:

Song about being good and enjoying nature: “Gentle Words and Loving Smiles”

Songs about Christmas: “Merry, Merry Christmas,” “The Star of Bethlehem”

Songs for church services, Sunday School – “Doxology,” “My Sabbath Home”

Song about death: “When Jesus Holds My Hand”

Song about God’s protection: “A Shelter in the Time of Storm”

Songs about heaven: “Canaan,” “The Evergreen Shore,” “The Happy Land,” “The Home of the Soul,” “Jerusalem the Golden,” “The Mountain of the Lord,” “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks,” “Pull for the Shore,” “Sweet By and By,” “When I Can Read my Title Clear”

Songs about Jesus and Salvation: “The Ninety and Nine,” “Rock of Ages”

Songs about working for what is right: “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” “The Good Old Way,” “Lend a Helping Hand,” “What Shall the Harvest Be”

I was surprised by how this division came out. Given my previous observations in this blog about Wilder’s faith tending towards right behavior, I had assumed at the outset that most of the hymns would be about working for what is right. This is the second-largest category. However, the largest single category – ten out of the twenty-three songs – contains songs about heaven. I didn’t expect this.

I think that there are several possible reasons for this over-representation of songs about heaven. It may be that I should revise my ideas of Wilder’s faith to recognize a larger role for heaven in her thinking. On the other hand, seven of these ten songs are referenced in The Long Winter, which I have already noted as having many connections to Christianity. Many of the songs are sung while blizzards bear down on the family as a way of defying the storm. For instance, “The Evergreen Shore” has the chorus, “Then let the hurricane roar, / It will the sooner be o’er, / We will weather the blast, and will land at last, / Safe on the evergreen shore.” (187) So the songs about heaven are used for a particular reason in that particular book. Finally, it may just be that these songs have the most memorable lyrics for Wilder. In other words, the content of the entire hymn may be less important than how particular lyrics functioned in her upbringing and in her memory.

It is not surprising to me that only two of the twenty-three songs are specifically about salvation or Jesus’ sacrifice.

Clearly, Christian music had a great influence on Wilder’s life and upbringing. The type of Christianity that she experienced as a child—and later pursued and described as an adult—may have emphasized doing good works to please God (as opposed to a message of sin and salvation by Jesus’ blood). But it also emphasized singing.

Thanks for reading.

Page number references are from Dale Cockrell, ed. The Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook (Middleton, WI: Published for the American Musicological Society by A-R Editions, Inc., 2011).

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).