Saturday, March 26, 2016

Inch One Hundred Ten: Another Look at Laura

There is a new Laura Ingalls Wilder book out just this month: The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I read it last week.

Warren asked me after I had finished what I thought. As I suspect is so often the case, he asks a question hoping for a short answer or amusing anecdote, and instead unleashes a torrent of words.

What did I think? I think the book added little to my understanding of who Laura Ingalls Wilder was. I think it could have been condensed into a good, solid, scholarly article with a handful of representational letters. And I think it darkened the image of the little, smiling, white-haired "Laura Ingalls Wilder, American author."

Well, that's what I thought of the book.

William Anderson, a biographer of Laura, edited this collection. To his credit, he makes clear in the introduction that there are large gaps in the body of extant LIW letters. Almost none of Laura's letters to her family, especially her mother and her older sister Mary, exist, most of them thrown out in the 1920s when the family home in De Smet, South Dakota, was cleared out after Ma and Mary died. More disappeared after sisters Grace and Carrie died. Rose Wilder Lane, Laura's problematic daughter and only child, destroyed large numbers of letters from her mother. In fairness to Anderson, he worked with as much as he had available, but too much material, especially the letters that would show the personal side of Laura, is gone.

So what do I know about Laura after reading her letters? She was a tireless correspondent with her reading public and until she was well into her 80s (she lived to be 90), Laura pushed herself to answer personally every note that came her way. Even after her publishers took over answering the correspondence that came directly to their offices, she continued to answer those that ended up in her mailbox in Mansfield, Missouri. Given that she received hundreds of letters annually from children and adults reading the Little House books, her tenacity is admirable.

The collection also makes clear much more than any critical works published to date how much Rose collaborated with Laura on the Little House books, especially By the Shores of Silver Lake and The Long Winter. Rose was an accomplished author of the times (the 1930s)) and brought a critical eye and a sense of narrative flow to Laura's writing. But make no mistake: the letters show that when it came to understanding both the story itself and what readers wanted, Laura reigned supreme. Rose has been characterized as a woman who was ashamed and resentful of her poverty laced childhood, ashamed and resentful of her parents for their humble backgrounds, and always sure in her conviction that she was superior in all ways to almost everyone else in the world. When she tried to put her attitude into the books and degrade the settlers of De Smet, Laura fought back tartly and precisely. Didn't Rose understand, she wrote, that the only way to survive the horrific winter was to hunker down into a stoic survival mode? Daily life was not the potboiler existence that was a feature of Rose's writing and Laura was not about to show the townspeople in unrealistic and unfair ways. Life that winter really was a matter of grinding wheat every day to survive. Laura also understood that the fictional Laura had to mature and that the story line had to mature with her, despite Rose's insistence that Laura continue to write only to young children.

In the end, of course, Laura was right. Her readers matured along with her storyline, a premise that J. K. Rowling understood well when she wrote the Harry Potter books decades later. The Little House books have never gone out of print, while much of the interest today in Rose Wilder Lane's books is to analyze how much she stole from her mother's history.

You cannot read even this small collection of Laura's letters without being aware of her politics, which were both conservative and harsh. Laura disliked Franklin Roosevelt and disliked the relief programs of the Great Depression. Better that children starve than give their lazy parents a helping hand (yes, she really did feel that way). She conveniently overlooks the great social welfare program of her youth, the Homestead Act, that allowed her parents finally to get settled and financially secure. As to her father, the immortal Pa Ingalls of the Little House series, she could be judgmental in assessing him: he was a dreamer, a ne'er do well until she was grown, and too quick to reach out and help his fellow man. Laura makes Pa larger than life in her books, but her real feelings were much more complicated. In those regards, she is not kind, she is not generous, she is not nice.

I am not sorry I read the letters, but it is not a book I will add to my personal library. Unlike other letter collections that I have read (E. B. White, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, to name but a few), collections that left me with a fuller sense of the man or woman behind the name, the LIW collections puts distance between me and the author.

I own the entire Little House series, well worn paperbacks with the Garth Williams illustrations, and they are still occasionally go to books when I need comfort reading (skipping the wildly inaccurate for the era of the stories and wildly bigoted for our era portrayal of Native Americans, which is why I will probably never buy the series for Ramona). As for Laura Ingalls Wilder the person, though, I will let her go. The author and the story are not the same, and I don't need the one to read the other.


Laurie said...

This sounds like one I can do without reading. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it.

Darla said...

Interesting review. Somehow the whole "Little House" series never caught me up - not the books or the TV series. I'm not sure why.