Most readers, I think, have books firmly lodged in their childhood memories that hold a special place in their lives. Sometimes those books stay there, cherished but not reread, and other times they are let loose, revisited regularly, and become adult comfort reads, books that you can retreat into when you just want to make the world go away. Natalie talked at length about one of her childhood favorites, A Wrinkle in Time, recently, while having a look at a new graphic novel adaptation.
Probably no series of books from my childhood has had a bigger hold on me as an adult than Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. I own most of my original copies still, although I’ve had to replace a few that have fallen apart over time, and I reread them probably every 18 months or so, usually when I find my life getting unbearably complicated by all the stuff around me. Because let’s face it: our lives have a lot of stuff in them, and I sometimes think that stuff is way more trouble than it’s worth. Backing away from all that and into a simpler time in history is wonderfully restorative for me.
I hardly need to describe the books here—their stories are well-known. Wilder wrote her books for children, sure, but believe me, there are plenty of adults who are just fascinated by the Little House mystique: Laura is a booming business. There is an annual convention dedicated to her called Laurapalooza, there are museums at all of the home sites, a pageant in Walnut Grove every summer, books, such as this one (disclaimer—I have not read McClure’s book, but I enjoy her tweets as HalfPintIngalls), websites, facebook pages, and much more.
The books are historical fiction. And if it surprises you to hear the word fiction associated with those books, sorry. Let me put it this way: what happens in the books is true, but not all of it happened on the timeline the books present, and some episodes were probably remembered only as a vague event, the details emerging from Wilder’s imagination or through consultations with her sister. A lot of Wilder’s life was left out of the books (like the nearly two years the family spent in Burr Oak, Iowa, and the birth and death of Wilder’s only male sibling, to name two very big examples) and some of the characters are composites of several real people (among the composites is the infamous Nellie Oleson, who is actually based on three separate girls Laura knew. Apparently none of them was very nice, though, if that’s any consolation). Nevertheless, they present a reasonably accurate picture of everyday life at a time in our country’s history, and they are, as well, a reasonably accurate, if incomplete, representation of Wilder’s own childhood.
It’s a time period when people took pleasure in simple things, like making maple syrup candy and having glass for their windows, and when people didn’t complain—at least, not much—about how hard their lives were. About having to grow their own food, make their own clothes, perform back-breaking chores on farms, and churn their own butter. And for me, that simplicity is the appeal of these books. You got up, you got dressed, you did your chores, you went to school, you did more chores, you went to bed, and you did it all over again the next day. Family was the central thing—they read to each other, they helped each other, they entertained themselves with simple pleasures like music played on a violin or community spelling bees. The Ingalls family does not yell at each other. It’s all so rosy and happy. Adult readers don’t take long to realize that the Ingalls family was desperately poor (as a child, I never saw that, though). Somehow though, they really don’t seem to mind, or even realize it themselves, in the stories, although one suspects that in fact they did mind very much. But her purpose in writing the books was much larger than their own personal tribulations, and the books are meant for a younger audience, so she sticks to a basic message: they have each other, and that’s all that really matters.
This seems like the best place to address an ongoing issue with these books, and that would be the racist elements in them. My love of these books does not include those parts. However, prejudice in many, many forms against Native Americans and African Americans was standard in the late 19th century in this country. Doesn’t make it right—it’s clearly NOT right—but that’s the way it was. And these books were written in the early to mid 20th century, when things hadn’t changed much, so they represent not one, but two periods that are part of this country’s shameful history. The way I see it, the offensive bits in these books provide two things to the modern reader: a reminder of an ugly time in our past, something that we should not forget lest we slip backward, and an opportunity to talk to younger readers about why these attitudes were wrong then and are wrong today so that we can continue to move forward. The only way we can avoid repeating past mistakes is to acknowledge them and learn from them.
There is a point to this winding bit of babble. What a lot of people don’t know about the Little House books is that there is also a more adult version of Wilder’s autobiography. Called Pioneer Girl, it’s the original manuscript that eventually was broken down and became the children’s books. It is, at the moment, only available from certain sources, and getting a copy of it can be a bit tricky and expensive. I am fortunate enough to own a copy of the typescript. The differences between this original draft and the final books are pretty stark, really. There’s little narrative framework, for starters, and a lot of the most beloved bits from the books are not included. It’s a little grimmer than the children’s books, and therefore emotionally more accurate in its depiction of the time she grew up in. Things that she eventually decided were inappropriate for younger readers are included here, such as her brother’s death.
Have I whetted your curiosity enough yet? Are you wondering why I’m bringing all this up? Well, it’s because I have some good news for Laura fans: The South Dakota State Historical Society Press has announced that they will be publishing an annotated version of Wilder’s Pioneer Girl manuscript in the future. This page will take you to a website devoted to the project, and it includes a blog marking the progress of the author on the annotations, a more thorough description of the project, pictures and videos.
I have to admit, I check in fairly often. One, I’ve always been mildly obsessed with Wilder (I get that way sometimes about authors) and if the internet has done one thing for me over the years, it’s been to feed these kinds of interests. When I was a kid, I wanted to know more about what happened to her after she married Almanzo Wilder (who died at age 92 63 years ago this week). As an adult, I grew more interested in the edges of the stories—what happened to her family, to the people she was friends with in De Smet, what the actual town was like, things like that. So I like looking at the photos of the artifacts, yes, but I’m also hoping the annotated version will fill in some gaps in my own knowledge. But even more interesting, to me, is the blog detailing the progress of the project of annotating her manuscript. Getting a look behind that curtain is fascinating.
Still, publication day for Pioneer Girl is a long way off, and if you’re interested in learning more about Wilder, I have two books I am happy to recommend. The first is John E. Miller’s Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, which closely examines the working relationship between Laura and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, and does so in a far more balanced way than a book I really recommend you don’t read, William Holtz’s The Ghost in the Little House (I’ve read both, and Holtz seems hell bent on destroying Wilder’s personal and professional reputations in order to restore Rose to what he sees as her rightful place in American Literature, a position he clearly feels her mother usurped. The result is a biased depiction of Wilder and a rather untrustworthy portrait of Lane, and that’s a shame. Rose was a star in the American literary scene in the early parts of the last century and she deserves better treatment than this). The Miller book avoids being petty–he acknowledges their difficult relationship and explores it without pointing fingers, which I appreciated. Miller’s a bit dry and academic, but his research is pretty meticulous.
Better still, though, is Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, which, while also a biography, focuses on just how a farm wife with a limited education by today’s standards turned into one of the most successful authors of all time. Hill, who is a successful author of children’s historical fiction herself, has great insight into how Wilder, with Lane’s help, turned a manuscript meant for adults into a series of best-selling children’s books after spending years toiling as a farm journalist. And it is Hill, incidentally, who will be annotating the Pioneer Girl manuscript for the South Dakota State Historical Society Press, a job she is well up to. Either of these books will give the interested reader a look not only at Wilder, but at Lane, the Ingalls family, and life during one of our most interesting historical periods.
As a Laura geek, I’m so looking forward to the release of the annotated Pioneer Girl (in case you haven’t figured that out yet), although no date has actually been given for its publication. So for the time being, I’m making do by following along on the blog and hoping it’s not going to be years and years, although annotation is a slow process. And rereading my Little House books, of course.