“I Remember Laura”

Last week, when I would normally have tried to read a Laura Ingalls Wilder book and write a blog entry, I was working on the draft of my article “The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” I actually succeeded in writing an additional seven pages (I now have twenty-one pages written.) I’m hoping to finish the article next week so that I can circulate it to some of my colleagues here at Trinity Christian College. We have a reading group of scholars from several disciplines—history, English, music history, theology—who read each other’s work and share comments and suggestions.

This week, I was able to work through I Remember Laura”: Laura Ingalls Wilder, a book edited by Stephen W. Hines and published in 1994. The book’s dust jacket has this additional subtitle (though the title page does not): “America’s favorite storyteller as remembered by her family, friends, and neighbors.” The book is a collection of a number of different types of materials, including some of Wilder’s columns from the Missouri Ruralist, some articles in other publications about Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, and some first-hand reminiscences gathered by Hines from people who knew Wilder at the end of her life.

I used the verb “work through” at the beginning of the previous paragraph because there is much material here that is also published in other books. Almost three entire chapters are Missouri Ruralist pieces that I had already read. Other chapters republish articles from a variety of sources that are available elsewhere. There is also much material here that does not bear on Wilder’s faith. For instance, one chapter reproduces recipes from people who knew Wilder.

The unique material the book provides is in Hines’s interviews with people from Mansfield, Missouri who knew Laura, Almanzo, and Rose. Most knew them during the 1940s and 1950s, when the Wilders were in their eighties. In addition, the interviewees were quite advanced in years when Hines met with them during the early 1990s. Still, there is some new information here.

As far as material that bears on Wilder’s faith, there are several new revelations and several that connect to other bits of information I turned up previously. One thing I did not know was that her parents had given her a family Bible when she got married to Almanzo. She gave that Bible to Nava Austin, a friend, before she died:

She gave me her family Bible, the one her mother and father gave her when she and Almanzo were married. The family Bible had clippings and obituaries in it, including one for their boy. I thought Rose was the only child they ever had because Mrs. Wilder herself never mentioned anything about a son.

It was a huge Bible, and there were obituaries for both her mother and father. I’d never seen a Bible like it before, and she had pictures tucked away in it. If I am not mistaken, there was a paper clipping of when she and Almanzo got married. (117-119)

This Bible was never mentioned in either of the books that describe her wedding: Pioneer Girl or These Happy Golden Years. It is also not mentioned in The First Four Years.

“I Remember Laura” also includes an account from Carleton Knight, the pastor of the Methodist Church in Mansfield from the mid-1940s to the early 1950s. He and his wife visited the Wilders at their home a number of times. Almanzo often was working in his workshop or somewhere outside on the farm. Laura would take graham crackers and put powdered sugar icing on them to serve to her guests. Otherwise, the pastor didn’t remember much about their meetings.  However,

One thing I do remember so much is that when she came to church, even in the summer, she nearly always wore a red velvet dress, a dark maroon red, with a lace collar. Her black shoes had a big old silver buckle on them. That was her Sunday outfit. Her hair was beautiful and white and done up in a knot on the back of her head.

By that time she wasn’t terribly active. I never heard anyone say that she taught Sunday school, though she might have done before we came.” (225)

The one bit of information about Wilder’s faith that connects to another book is provided by Iola Jones. Jones spoke of taking Wilder to the Methodist Church for worship services after Almanzo’s death:

Mrs. Wilder had a good sense of humor and lots of wisdom, really; and she put it across in such an interesting way. She had been quite active in her church. In fact, she went to church with me quite a lot, which was a pickup in her activity because before that she hadn’t been going. You see, I don’t think she ever drove, so I think Almanzo’s death kept her in.

She did talk about spiritual things, and we went together to the Methodist Church where she had always gone. I can remember her telling me one time that she had memorized a book of the Bible, but I don’t remember which one. She just didn’t talk about herself a lot.  (136)

 The idea that Wilder had told someone that she had memorized a book of the Bible is striking. This connects to a letter to a Suzanna that I noted in my blog entry on William Anderson’s book, The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder: “The whole book of Psalms is a favorite of mine and I can repeat all. Can you?” (Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by William Anderson [New York: HarperCollins, 2016], 342). Can it be that she told multiple people that she had memorized all 150 Psalms? Fascinating.

It’s late Friday afternoon and I must post this. Thanks for reading.

(All page numbers are from Stephen W. Hines, ed., “I Remember Laura:” Laura Ingalls Wilder [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994].)


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.)