In The Next Page, Erin Newcomb reads stuff she likes and reflects on things eternal and earthly in the popular literature of our time.

In the “Introduction” to his Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, editor William Anderson explains that his volume “is the final collection of unpublished writings from the author of the Little House books. There no longer remains a well of her words left to print.” He goes on to list the posthumously-published works, including the bestselling Pioneer Girl, recently released by the South Dakota Historical Society Press. Where that text reveals the grittier details and historical flexibility of Wilder’s work, Anderson’s epistles illustrate the humanity of an adult Laura not so different from the frontier girl readers have loved for decades. The letters span from the late-nineteenth century to Wilder’s death in the mid-twentieth century, and they depict her transformation from “The Farmer’s Wife” of Chapter 1 to “The Author of Classics” in Chapter 6. I am one of the many readers enthralled by my early experiences reading the Little House series, and I’m taking this book’s permission—“Certainly You May Call Me Laura” to heart.

At the heart of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories is an urge to preserve her family’s lore and legacy, both of which I am thankful she preserved.

As a child, I loved the Little House stories. I admired their family dynamic and loved immersing myself in an historical world so fascinatingly foreign. I recall being horrified by the pig’s bladder balloon from Little House in the Big Woods, awed by the prairie blizzards in The Long Winter, and delighted by Laura and Almanzo’s eventual marriage in These Happy Golden Years. I’ve read the picture book series My First Little House Books to my girls since they were toddlers, and I’ve recently started reading the full novels with them as well. Rereading the books rekindles my affection for the stories while troubling my experience at the same time. Now I see the racism in Little House on the Prairie and its disturbing representation of Native Americans. Now I see the libertarian strain (most likely introduced by Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane) in The Long Winter, justifying Almanzo taking a homestead claim even though he wasn’t legally of age. I see the shift in tone and voice in The First Four Years, which was published after Laura’s death. When I was a child, I saw Laura as a myth; as an adult reader, I see Laura now as a woman.

In a 1937 letter to her daughter Rose, Laura wrote “Strange how the old timers would all like to go back to those old, hard times. They had something that seems to be lost. Perhaps it is our youth.” Laura was nearly 70 when she wrote this, and it’s easy to interpret her words as nostalgia, though other letters suggest a persistent and escalating belief that Americans (especially under The New Deal) were going soft. Yet even for readers who never experienced the radical shifts in American culture that Laura witnessed in her ninety years, there is some magic in “those old, hard times.” One night my six-year-old asked me, after reading our nightly chapter from the Little House series, how the pioneers became human. “How do you mean?” I asked, confused by her question. “I mean,” she explained, “how did things get easier?” We talked about technology and innovation, themes that arise throughout the series, too. And we talked about the give-and-take, where “progress” sometimes means good things get lost or forgotten. And I think Laura means that here, too, beyond her quip about her own lost youth. These stories still appeal to so many readers from such an historical remove because they hold on to good things that have largely gotten lost.

At one point, Laura writes to Rose, her editor, tutor, advisor, and collaborator on the series, “Can’t we let the readers see the children were more grown up then?” She wants to highlight the real responsibilities she took on for herself and her family as a teenager. Yet in a speech delivered at a Detroit book fair in 1937, Laura explained “It seemed to me that my childhood had been much richer and more interesting than that of children today, even with all the modern inventions and improvements.” That vision certainly shines through in the novels’ depictions of Christmas, where an orange or a penny or a tin cup delight children who never dreamed of such wealth. Whether children in Laura’s time were more grown up or richer, or both, I cannot say with certainty; I am inclined to agree, even as I understand the generational impulse to shake our heads at kids these days. Whether her perceptions are true or not matters little to the zeitgeist of readers who, for decades, have marveled at her frontier family.

In her letters, Laura laments “here we are at 78 and 88 years old, with our farm idle for lack of help, still doing our own work and paying taxes for the support of dependent children, so their parents need not work at anything else; for old age pensions take [sic] care of those same parents when children are grown, thus relieving the children of any responsibility, and all of them from incentive to help themselves.” Truly, she did not approve of FDR and his “alphabetical relief.” There’s a harshness to these words, penned in 1944, as well as that same libertarian streak her daughter possessed. At the same time, the lifelong habit of hard work makes her gush with gratitude toward her daughter Rose. In a 1939 letter, she writes of all the comforts in her home provided by Rose, concluding “It is always that way. When I go to count up our comfortableness and the luck of the world we have, it all leads back to you. And so, snuggled under my down quilt, I went to sleep thinking what a wise woman I am to have a daughter like you. Oh Rose my dear, we do thank you so much for being so good to us.” The sincere affection and love in these words is part of that same pioneer spirit as the bootstraps mentality; Laura is prickly and precious.

At the heart of her stories is an urge to preserve her family’s lore and legacy, both of which I am thankful she preserved. In a 1954 letter accepting the award named in her honor, she directed a musical tribute to Pa, requesting two songs played on a fiddle: “the first to be ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and the second [his favorite hymn] ‘The Sweet By and By.’ A tribute to the past and a hope for the future.” Those words summarize Laura’s life and work as well, honoring the past and hoping for the future. They encapsulate a fundamentally Christian message as well, where we remember even as we look forward. When I was a child, I read the Little House books as a child. I see past the myth now to the flawed humans who dwelt in my childish mind as legends. I can read more critically now, for sure, and I think the Little House books deserve both acclaim and scrutiny. As Christians, we must consider what and how we read, but the problematic joy is a mature joy, too. It is, as Laura offered for Pa, a tribute and a hope. I read the Little House books now as a tribute to these saints and sinners like myself, who lived in hope of that sweet by and by.

1 Comment

  1. Erin, I was raised on a Kansas farm located on a horseshoe bend of the Verdigris River. I was in the third grade when I read Little House on the Prairie, and I still remember my surprised awe when I read–as I recall–about Pa crossing a flooded Verdigris River. I had seen a flooded Verdigris a good many times up close, right on our own land. The “Little House” was in the next county south of us where the “big” little town was Independence. My sisters lived their early married lives in Independence, and my sister Diane, an interior decorator, helped in the restoration of an old schoolhouse for the “Little House” memorial site. Last summer, we held a portion of a memorial service for Diane on a rural bridge over the Verdigris just upstream from our old farm.

    I do remember being disturbed as a child by the treatment of Native Americans in the book. The first deed of sale for the farm where I was brought up was from a member of the Osage tribe to a European-heritage pioneer. I have often wondered whether the Osage man was treated fairly.

    Laura, I think, characterized her early life with a great deal of authentic detail.

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