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.

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.

Presentations and Meditations

Well, it’s March. It’s incredible how fast time is moving this semester.

On Wednesday of last week I spoke at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The talk was sponsored by the History Department and the Mellema Program in Western American Studies. It was a great time. Over fifty people turned out to hear me speak—at least I took fifty handouts and they were all gone. My presentation gave a report of what I’ve come to understand so far about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s faith: 1) that the descriptions of God, Christianity, and the church in the Little House books were shaped by her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, and 2) that Wilder’s faith was deep and genuine, but it emphasized God the Father and His laws more than Jesus Christ and salvation. These conclusions will be familiar to those who have been reading this blog for any length of time.

The question and answer period was especially rich. The audience had students, faculty members, and members of the community, including a mother with two young children. I took questions from all three groups. It was a fascinating experience. At one point, I had to try to explain to a faculty member why so many Americans for the last eighty years have been drawn to the Little House books. (Briefly: engaging descriptions, emotionally gripping prose, and a vision of human flourishing that provides an attractive alternative to modern life for many.) I also at times had to explain to some members of the community that not everything in the books represents exactly how things happened. I’m still working on how to characterize the complex collaboration of Laura and Rose.

Many thanks to Will Katerberg for inviting me and Jenna Hunt for taking care of so many of the details for the talk. If you’re interested, the audio recording may be made available, and I’ll put up a link when it is.

While I was in Grand Rapids, I also met with David Bratt, an editor for the William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, which is headquartered there. David would like me to write a proposal for a book-length biography of Wilder with particular attention to her faith. Eerdmans has a series titled the Library of Religious Biography, and the series editors are also very interested in seeing a proposal. Eerdmans publishes books for academics and readers in the church, so they may be a good fit; it is my hope that any book I do write will not only speak to college faculty and students but also to a broader audience of people who are interested in the books. My plan is to write the proposal by the end of this semester.

In addition, on Monday of this week, I spoke at a Faculty Coffee sponsored by the Faculty Development Committee here at Trinity Christian College. It was an abbreviated version of the Calvin talk, because I only had forty-five minutes rather than ninety to speak and take questions. I was very happy that one of the students from my Honors Seminar course came, as well as many faculty and staff.

My conversation with David, my lecture at Calvin, and my talk here at Trinity have led me again to think about audience and reception. As I talk with more people about the project, I’m realizing that my research points in two directions. First, it seems that Laura Ingalls Wilder was a committed Christian, and that at least some of the straightforward and positive descriptions of God, Christianity, and the church in her handwritten original manuscripts were changed by her daughter into the more mixed or even negative depictions that appear in the published Little House books. One might imagine that this would be welcomed by many of those who love the books, especially those who are serious Christians themselves. However, I also think that my research suggests that Wilder was not what we might call a born-again or evangelical Christian. Her descriptions of God, Christianity, and church emphasize God’s power, His laws, and personal morality. Wilder’s writings hardly mention Christ, the gospel, or salvation. I think that this runs against what some readers believe about her. I think that the television series may play a role in this. Although I have never watched an episode (I guess that I need to watch at least some soon), it is my understanding from others that Christianity was pretty central to the series.

I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to navigate this, except to say, as I said in response to a question on Monday morning, that one thing that historians often have to do is to try to get behind how a historical figure is remembered to the historical person himself or herself. I don’t want to do it just for the purpose of cutting down Laura in people’s estimation or telling people that what they believe is wrong. But I do think that loving one’s neighbor who lives in the past includes being honest about who they were, what they believed, and how they lived.

I’m still thoroughly enjoying the Honors Seminar on the Little House books. This week we finished Little Town on the Prairie. Perhaps I can do a post next week (next week is spring break, so I’ll have some more time) where I reflect a little on what has been going on in that class.

Thanks for reading.

Honors Seminar

Happy 2017. Thanks for coming back to read this after I’ve taken so much time off. I guess it has been exactly a month.

This spring is a complicated semester for my work here at Trinity Christian College. I’m juggling duties as a faculty member, chair of the History Department, and an Academic Dean. But this semester I am also blessed to be teaching an Honors Seminar titled “The Little House Books in the Twenty-First Century.” I have eight students and they are some of the best students at Trinity.

During the first part of the course, we’ll be reading one of the Little House books each week. During class, we will discuss the books and how they might speak to Americans today. Themes that students have chosen to study include the books’ depiction of family roles, nature and the environment, cultural interaction, love, individualism and community, survival, education, and economics. The plan is for everyone to keep their eyes open for all of the themes, but for one student to pay particular attention to each. I’m going to anchor discussions on Wilder’s faith.

Yesterday we discussed Little House in the Big Woods. There are two students in the class who had never read the Little House books before this week. There are several students who have read all of them and are big fans. And there are several students who have read some but not all of the books. So it’s a great group for thinking about how the books come across to different readers at different times.

When I asked what students thought Big Woods said about God and Christianity, their answer was “not much.” Then one student noted that while the book doesn’t say much about God and Christianity, it does show the influence of Christian religious ideas. She explained that she meant that while the chapter on Sundays and the saying of evening prayers are the only explicit mentions of God in the book, there is an underlying morality that is connected to Christian values. I think that she’s probably right.

Next week we’re on to Farmer Boy. Because of my workload, I expect that I will only be able to post every other week. We’ll see how it goes. Thanks again for reading.

The End of 2016

It’s almost Christmas, and my family and I will be traveling starting on Friday, Lord-willing. So this, my end-of-the-year post, is going up today.

This blog launched on Monday, January 4, 2016. In that post, I expressed my desire to write an article on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s faith and my plan to read the Little House books and post about them. Since then, I’ve written and posted twenty-nine additional entries.  I read the eight Little House books, twelve additional volumes of material by her, three biographies, and several other books. I got a grant to look at material by Wilder and Lane at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. I blogged about early manuscripts of the Little House books and correspondence I read there. I presented an article to a group of faculty here at Trinity Christian College and a paper to the Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History. I was encouraged to propose a book-length biography of Wilder giving particular attention to her faith by representatives from two different publishers. As a result of my reading and interactions with others, I believe that my understanding of Wilder’s faith is much deeper than it was a year ago.

What’s next? I will be teaching an Honors Seminar here at Trinity titled “The Little House Books in the Twenty-First Century” during the spring semester. We will be reading and discussing the Little House books together as well as some other materials (I haven’t finalized the syllabus yet). I hope to write the book proposal as I teach the class.  It will be good to talk about it with students; as they write their research papers, I’ll be writing my proposal. I’ve also been asked to give a lecture on Wilder’s faith at Calvin College next February. There is a good chance that I will be able to present a paper at the Midwestern History Conference, sponsored by the Midwestern History Association, next June. Finally, I will be writing a book review of the latest book on Laura and Rose, Libertarians on the Prairie by Christine Woodside, for the journal Fides et Historia. So I have been blessed with many opportunities to engage Wilder and her faith.

I hope that everyone who reads this has a truly blessed Christmas and that the new year opens for you with optimism, peace, and trust in the child born in Bethlehem, who is also the King of all creation.

Will be back in 2017.

The Conference on Faith and History

Last week a student of mine from Trinity Christian College and I attended the 30th Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. My student presented at the Undergraduate Research Conference, I presented at the Professional Conference. We had a great time meeting students and faculty from other colleges and universities, listening to other Christian historians present their research, and (for me) meeting old friends and catching up. On the last day of the conference, we went to Jamestown to see the site of the first successful English settlement in America.

My last post was a preview of the paper I was going to present. Here is a report on my panel. The panel was held on Friday, October 21, at 2:45 pm. It opened with a presentation titled “Where are the Women: Writing Religious Biographies of Women” by Kristin Kobes du Mez, a historian from Calvin College. Kristin has written a biography of Catherine Bushnell, and she is currently working on a project tracing the faith of Hillary Clinton. Second, Karen Swallow Prior, who teaches literature at Liberty University, spoke about writing a biography of Hannah More in a presentation titled, “Just a Handmaiden: An English Professor Attempts to Write History.” I then presented my paper on the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Finally, Tim Larsen of Wheaton College responded to the presentations. Then the floor was opened for questions and comments from those assembled. I counted thirty-five people in the audience, of whom around twenty-five were women.

Everyone that I spoke with thinks that looking more closely at Wilder’s faith is a great idea, and I received a lot of encouragement. Unfortunately, I did not get much help from anyone with my questions about historical context. I’ll have to pound on that a little myself. But I did get some interesting ideas about audience in the shape of two suggestions that I write an entire book on Wilder’s faith:

After the session, Tim Larsen spoke to me about whether I was interested in writing a book-length biography of Wilder with particular emphasis on her faith. He edits a series of books for an academic press that examines the faith of a variety of famous figures in history, and he said that he believes that the publisher would be interested in a book on Wilder. I hadn’t thought much about this, because I was thinking that the faith of Wilder would be one chapter in a book that addressed Wilder’s views on a variety of topics (politics, the environment, ethnic diversity, etc.). But I said that I would think about it.

When I got back to where I was staying Friday night, I had an email from another Christian historian who edits a series of religious biographies for a trade publisher. He wanted to set up a time to talk about whether I’d be interested in writing a book on Wilder’s faith for that series. So I spoke with him yesterday. He was downright excited about the project.

So I’m warming up to the idea of writing a biography that highlights Wilder’s faith. I do think that multiple publishers are interested in Wilder because those who read the Little House books buy other books. I believe that I will begin thinking about how I would structure a Wilder biography. I’m not sure who I would rather have publish it.

So overall the conference was a great experience—even though all the meetings on Saturday had to be shifted to another building on Regent’s campus because of a rally for Donald Trump (imagine that). Jamestown is an amazing place. There has been an archaeology project going on there for the last 20 or so years that has uncovered the foundation of the first church in the settlement, a number of graves, and thousands of artifacts. Fascinating.

Many thanks to Trinity for paying for many of our travel expenses.

Thanks for reading.

A Little House Traveler

It’s been a while again since I’ve posted. I’ve been working on several things. Two weeks ago, I finished a draft of my article, now titled: “‘This is what Men Call God:’ The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” I then emailed it to nine of my colleagues from the English, History, Music, Philosophy, and Theology Departments here at Trinity Christian College. Last week, some of those colleagues and I met for our monthly Historical Scholars Workshop. We discussed my article; they asked some really good questions and gave me some really good suggestions for the project going forward.

Since then, I’ve been working on a draft of my conference paper for the Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History to be held at Regent University. The session I will be presenting in is titled “‘On the Pilgrim Way:’ Writing Religious Biographies of Women.” (The quote in the title is from Chapter 23 of By the Shores of Silver Lake.) The other presenters are Kristen Kobes Du Mez from the History Department at Calvin College and Karen Swallow Prior from the English Department at Liberty University. The respondent for the session will be Timothy Larsen from the Biblical and Theological Studies Department at Wheaton College. I will only get 15-20 minutes for my presentation, so I have to pare my article back from 28 pages to about ten. I’ve already gotten it down to 15. More cuts to come.

However, yesterday I also got the chance to look through the last published volume of primary source materials written by Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Little House Traveler: Writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Journeys Across America, published by HarperCollins in 2006. Like many recent publications of Wilder materials, much of it is material that has already been published. In fact, the first four-fifths of the book reproduce two books that I have already written about on this blog, On the Way Home and West From Home. There are some more photographs in this volume, it is hardcover, and the type is larger, but otherwise it appears that the text is exactly the same as the originals.

That leaves the last 70 pages of the 350 page work. The editors of the volume (who are not identified) call this part of the book “The Road Back: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Record of the Journey Back to DeSmet, South Dakota, 1931.” It reproduces notes that Wilder wrote to herself on a trip that she and Almanzo took from Mansfield, Missouri to DeSmet, South Dakota in 1931. They function as a diary, with daily entries describing how far they traveled, what they did, and how much they spent. Apparently Wilder wrote on loose sheets, and some of them were sent to her daughter for safe keeping while they were on the road. It may be that Wilder wanted to use them for future publications, or it may just be that she had written so much by this time (including fifteen years of Missouri Ruralist articles and columns and Pioneer Girl) that she found writing a valuable way of recording and making sense of what she saw.

I understand why the publishers decided to put these three sets of Wilder’s writings together. On the Way Home, a diary of the trip the Wilders took from DeSmet to Mansfield in 1894, describes their travels in a covered wagon. West From Home, letters Laura wrote to Almanzo from her trip to San Francisco to visit Rose, describe her travels by train. This third trip was taken in their Buick, which they named Isabelle, with their dog Nero. Once they reached South Dakota, they stayed with her sister Grace and her husband Nate Dow in Manchester, South Dakota, and visited DeSmet several times. Laura and Almanzo then drove to the Black Hills to see her sister Carrie and her husband David Swanzey. While there, they visited Mount Rushmore and the badlands. They then drove home, taking a different route. Wilder’s ability to describe a scene minutely and eloquently is often on display here. She saw much evidence of the depression, including idle factories, abandoned farms, and frustrated townspeople. It was a hot, dry summer, and many times she describes billowing clouds of dust.

It would have been helpful if the publisher had provided some kind of map for these travels for the benefit of readers. Also, the introduction to this portion of the book, by Abigail MacBride, says that this was the first time that Laura had visited DeSmet since leaving in 1894. (288-289) However this is not true; Laura had traveled to DeSmet by train in the summer of 1902 to see her father before he died of heart disease. (John E. Miller, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend [Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998), 111.)

The new material in this volume adds little to our understanding of Wilder’s faith. It does not mention God, Christianity, or the church. I did use my perpetual calendar to look up what Laura and Almanzo did on Sundays during the trip. It appears that they did not keep the pattern they had kept in 1894 of not traveling on Sundays. On Sunday, June 7, they traveled 277 miles from Shady Side, Missouri to Eureka, Kansas. (292-293) On Sunday, June 14, they were staying with the Dows and they visited their parents old house in DeSmet and Nate’s farm. (310) They drove to Mount Rushmore with the Swanzeys on Sunday, June 21. (321-323) Finally, on June 28, they were on the way back to Mansfield and they drove 233 miles. (341-342) I wrote in my entry on West From Home, “One gets the impression… that Wilder was most interested in church life when she was settled in a community and she knew the people. She was not as interested in attending worship when out of her normal surroundings.” It seems that the information about this additional trip confirms that observation.

Thanks for reading.

(Page number references are from A Little House Traveler: Writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Journeys Across America [New York: HarperCollins, 2006].)