An imaginary conversation with Laura Ingalls Wilder in honor of her birthday
February 7, 1867-February 10, 1957
Laura Ingalls Wilder rocks my world as an author. Most people assume she is only a children’s author due to the popularity of the “Little House” books. Allow me to provide glimpses of her other work long before her “Little House” book. Her family was among the few to witness the last of the American frontier from the time the Civil War ended to when the Wild West was settled and she described so much of the beautiful landscape due to her family’s extensive travels via covered wagon.
What if she had been a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show? How would the conversation have gone? Her “responses” are my best guesses after reading several pages of her most recent publication, “Pioneer Girl” and editorial commentary by other researchers and editors committed to keeping her legacy alive.
Me: Joining us today is the one and only Laura Ingalls Wilder! Of course I was enchanted with the “Little House” books as a child. I can’t remember who introduced them to me or when. I could not have verbalized it or articulated when I was at the cusp of my own adolescence, but my own budding creative writer brain was nourished by those brilliant books. I connected so intimately with the spirited character you created as Laura. I think part of that is because we come from similar family backgrounds. Your entire life has centered around the importance of family and faith. While your family sang hymns to your dad’s fiddle, my family sang hymns around the piano. In four-part harmony, the only way Lutherans know how to sing.
Laura: Oh how wonderful! I would have loved to have to joined you, if my family had access to a piano. I’m so glad you enjoyed my books. That’s what every author yearns to hear.
Me: The more I read the letters you and Rose exchanged during the process of writing and publishing “Pioneer Girl” or the letters you and Almanzo exchanged in “West From Home,” while you were in San Francisco, and the other journals, the more it is impressed upon me how important it is to record, write or preserve family history. I don’t ever want my children to wonder “how mom felt about that.” I have always wondered how my ancestors felt about their joys and dealt with their adversities. Family histories are so important in knowing who you are and where you came from, to either learn from past mistakes and not repeat them or to gain wisdom.
Laura: Yes, and again, we certainly weren’t writing letters for an audience, but I suppose they helped shed some insight as to who we were and what we believed was important. And at that time, it was our only of communicating long distance, you know, before telephones. The only other way was telegrams and you can’t communicate much through them.
Me: Exactly. We’re both Midwesterners. You spent two years of childhood in Iowa and I grew up in Iowa. Why didn’t you include those two years in your “Little House” books?
Laura: Sighs. Those were the two most difficult years for my family. My father wasn’t happy running the awful Master’s hotel. We weren’t happy living there, but we had no other alternative living space or source of income. It just wasn’t home. We lived above that wretched saloon. Then to add insult to injury, our baby brother died. None of that seemed appropriate to put in a children’s book. I didn’t think our troubles would interest my readers.
Me: Oh I disagree. Children understand far more than you think, and honesty about those challenges makes you real and relatable. And that time period, when you were somewhere between 10 and 12 years of age, you experienced something that changed your life forever. It was a turning point. Your Dad was still broke and frustrated despite his many efforts at sustaining your family financially. Bad luck. The Master’s not paying your Dad what was owed. Growing debt from doctor bills. Your Mom is grief stricken over losing her first baby boy, Freddie. What did you do?
Laura: I got down on my knees, and for the first time in my life, and I prayed for my parents. And I remember feeling an incredible peace overcome me and somehow I knew everything was going to be all right.
Me: “Saving Graces,” which was published in 1997 and edited by Stephen Hines, is a delightful collection of your writings about your faith. He also published your “I Remember Laura” in 1994 and “Little House in the Ozarks,” in 1991. It is often during the darkest, most difficult times in one’s life when God chooses to reveal himself and give us hope.
Me: Okay. Back to “Little House” books. They have been criticized for not being historically accurate and some claim that they were primarily the work of your daughter, journalist and editor Rose Wilder Lane.
Laura: Well, first of all, I didn’t realize I was writing history as I started writing about my childhood. When my Father passed away, I wanted to honor him by writing down all his wonderful stories. He was a wonderful story-teller when my sisters and I were children! But I didn’t get around to it until my sister Mary passed away and I got to thinking about my own mortality. That did it! I got to work!
Me: The introduction of “Pioneer Girl,” published this year, provides a lot of insight into the lengthy process of getting the first “Little House” book published. So, you wrote the initial rough drafts, with the original title, “Pioneer Girl.” It was one book that eventually evolved into “Little House in the Big Woods.” They were your memories, not a daily record of the reality of a pioneer’s life. To criticize those books for not being “historically accurate” is absurd.
Laura: Laughing. Yes, my memories, and of course my daughter and I worked closely together on the rest of the books. It was such a delight! I could not have done that without her help. As a journalist and editor, Rose was more aware of the realities of the publishing world than I was.
Me: “Pioneer Girl” was initially rejected by your publishers. It was 1930. The stock market crashed the year before. Publishers weren’t interested in new work because nobody was buying. No market.
Laura: Nods. And I wasn’t thinking about marketability when writing “Pioneer Girl.” I just started with my memories from about age three until the time I married Almanzo. I suppose it was a mess. Rose recognized the major changes that needed to be made. And, honestly, both of us were motivated to get my work published because we needed the money as well. So Rose made changes to my narrative and then our publishing company suggested that I break the stories into separate sections. Those separate sections were the genesis for how “Little House in the Big Woods” was shaped.
Me: I find it brilliant that each subsequent “Little House” book becomes more sophisticated in the reading level. The reading level gradually increases as Laura grows up, and I didn’t realize that as a reader until I was doing a research project on you when I was a senior in high school.
Laura: Thank Rose for that decision.
Me: You wanna to know the craziest thing I did as kid as I read your Little House books – from “On the Banks of Plum Creek” to “These Happy Golden Years” 10 times each in the summertime? I put on three or four skirts from my sister’s hand-me-downs, and a long-sleeved blouse, a sunbonnet, and ran all over my backyard pretending to be you. I “argued” with my “older sister Mary” and had a blast. I had quite the imagination. In the summer, mind you, so yes, I was hot! And our backyard was secluded with a big woods along the edge so very few neighbors actually witnessed my ridiculous antics.
Laura: You sound like a free spirit, just like I was! We would have had great fun if we were born in the same century and the same year. Only thing you were missing were the horses, cows and chickens.
Me: Yeah, I’ll probably never understand the rigors of taking care of farm animals.
Laura: hmmm. That’s a shame. I always enjoyed working with the animals.
Me. Oh, and I actually enjoyed washing dishes. I insisted. But with hot water.
Laura: Hot water? Now that’s not fair.
Me: You are so much more than a children’s author, but we still love to celebrate that. You were a columnist for the Missouri Ruralist which had a huge circulation in the 1920s. You wrote about the best ways to care for and raise chickens because you had successful poultry farm. Stephen Hines has also managed to publish those 140 columns.
Laura: Yes. Those “Little House” were the stories I was finally able to write after years of practice with the magazine.
Me: They are your magnum opus. Your masterpiece, Laura. Stop being so modest! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me.
Laura: Oh it’s been my pleasure!
Me: It would be my ultimate delight to share your “Little House” books with another little girl someday. I have a son, but I assume he won’t have much interest. I’m planning on reading him other children’s stories with boys as the main character.
Laura: He will love whatever you choose! Don’t assume your son will have no interest in my work. I know several young boys who enjoyed Farmer Boy.
Me: And some day I promise will make the trip to Mansfield Missouri and visit your farm! Some day when my son is old enough to either manage without me for a few days or travel with me.
Laura: I will leave the light on for you!