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Three Vital Chapters in Wilder's Life

by Mike Burns published 2021/01/28 10:13:07 GMT-5
Three Vital Chapters in Wilder's Life

As William Anderson has pointed out, ninety minutes doesn’t begin to do justice to the richness and complexity of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life and work. If Prairie to Page, the American Masters documentary which aired last month on PBS, could have been expanded even just another half hour, here are three vital chapters in Wilder’s life worthy of fuller exploration.

Family Life in Missouri

Prairie to Page skimmed over the Wilders’ life in the Missouri Ozarks but Rose Wilder Lane hints at what their life together might have been like in Old Home Town, her semi-autobiographical novel. She sprinkles tidbits of history and memory throughout the book, including intriguing parallels between her narrator’s fictional family and her own.

Lane’s counterpart in Old Home Town is Ernestine, whose parents are poor but respectable. In one memorable scene, Ernestine observes a tender moment between her parents; it could also be a rare glimpse into the Wilder’s marriage: “I saw my mother standing before the bureau, combing her hair. My father stood close to her admiring its shining length, and they were absolutely absorbed in each other.”1

Lane gives us what could be another intimate portrait of family life when Ernestine, after feeling her mother was unbearably irritating, suddenly sees her “as a person, separate; not as my mother at all. There was the feeling that she was just a woman; and that she had been a girl herself, once, and had married and had me to bring up, and that she wasn’t quite sure about everything yet. . . . She was really beautiful.”2

Lane wrote publicly about her “poverty-besieged home,” but most farm families in that time and place were “of modest means who could live off the land,” as the Wilders did.3 They were resourceful and innovative people who created the truly exceptional Rocky Ridge Farm.

Editorial Collaboration

Writing fiction for publication is almost always a collaborative process between writers and editors. It was in the 1930s; it remains so today. The fact that Wilder worked with an editor on the Little House books isn’t extraordinary. Nor does it diminish her artistic achievements. As Ursula Nordstrom, Wilder’s last editor at Harper & Brothers and an editorial legend in children’s publishing, once noted, “The Wilder books and the two E. B. White books were the ONLY manuscripts I ever published here with no repeat absolutely no editorial suggestions from me or anyone else.”4

The surviving editorial letters between Lane and Wilder sound remarkably contemporary. They address plot, description, structure, and point of view—subjects writers and editors continue to address together today. What was extraordinary about Wilder and Lane’s editorial collaboration was that they were mother and daughter, working together in secret.

Certainly, the Little House books benefited from Lane’s editorial instincts. But Lane also benefited professionally from her editorial collaboration with Wilder. During the 1930s, most of Lane’s published work—short fiction (including much of Old Home Town) and two pioneer novels—were drawn from the pages of Pioneer Girl. In fact, her mother’s pioneer stories helped Lane finally land her first contract with the prestigious Saturday Evening Post.

Artistic Achievement

After viewing Prairie to Page, a colleague unfamiliar with the Little House books wrote to tell me that he now understood Wilder’s position in American literature. She was, like James Fenimore Cooper, not a great “prose stylist.” Instead, her re-imagined version of the American West had generated influential but romanticized ideas about the past. I suspect other viewers came away with similar assumptions. The film emphasized Wilder’s popularity, not her artistry.

Yet Wilder was a lyrical writer. Her prose is deceptively simple, often masking layers of complexity. She pioneered the field of young adult literature by introducing grittier, more mature themes, and brought realism to books for young readers. Her dialogue, descriptions, and characterizations are masterful. And the voice of the Little House books is both consistent and ever-changing, taking on more maturity as Laura grows up. Very few American authors have achieved such a memorable narrative voice. As for Wilder’s descriptions of prairie landscapes, they are as vivid and authentic as Willa Cather’s.

In 1954, the American Library Association’s named its new lifetime achievement award in children's publishing for Laura Ingalls Wilder, not because she was popular, but because her artistry had forever changed American children’s literature. Ultimately, her artistry is why we’re now reexamining her work. The Little House books cast a long literary shadow.

 —Pamela Smith Hill

 

Pamela Smith Hill is the author of Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life and the editor of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography.

At top, Laura Ingalls Wilder stands along the banks of a stream in the Missouri Ozarks. Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum

 

Notes

  1. Rose Wilder Lane, Old Home Town (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985), p. 116.
  2. Ibid., p. 157.
  3. Lynn Morrow and Linda Myers-Phinney, Shepherd of the Hills Country: Tourism Transforms the Ozarks, 1880s to 1930s (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999), p. 82.
  4. Ursula Nordstrom to Zena Sutherland, November 18, 1969, in Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, ed. Leonard S. Marcus (New York; HarperCollins, 1998), p. 289.