Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Writing the Little House books

Laura Ingalls Wilder, A Writer's Life, Pamela Smith Hill

After I finished A World on Fire, I had trouble settling down to read something else.  The novels I tried seemed almost inconsequential.  Reading this biography turned out to be a good transition.

I found Laura Ingalls Wilder in the library catalogue while I was waiting in the long queue for Wendy McClure's The Wilder Life.  There was no line for it, so I put in a request, thinking it would tide me over the wait.  But the single copy in the county library system, at a distant branch, took so long to get to me that The Wilder Life arrived at almost the same time, and I read it first.  As I mentioned in my post about The Wilder Life, I saw several references in it to Hill's book, which made me eager to read it as well.

The main thesis of Hill's book is set out in the subtitle: "A Writer's Life."  In the division between those who believe Laura Ingalls Wilder was the author of the Little House books (with editorial assistance from her daughter Rose Wilder Lane) and those who believe Lane the ghostwriter for her less-talented mother, Hill is planting her flag in the Wilder camp.  I had taken that side myself ever since reading some of Lane's fiction, which seemed pretty flat and derivative, and I found Hill's argument convincing.

The first line of the book is a quotation from Laura Ingalls Wilder: "All I have told is true but it is not the whole truth."  Hill presents Wilder as an artist who took the raw materials of her life and deliberately, carefully reworked them in ways that "altered the truth to create a better story."  In the first part of the book, as Hill narrates Wilder's early years, she uses Wilder's unpublished autobiographical manuscript, "Pioneer Girl," as well as the Little House novels covering these years, to show where these alterations were made, and in some cases to suggest why. 

I have to admit that one of these alterations came as a real shock to me (and this might constitute a spoiler): Pa traded Jack away, with Pet and Patty, the ponies from Little House on the Prairie.  Jack! the faithful bulldog, companion and guard for so many years, whose death at the start of By the Shores of Silver Lake is one of the most moving scenes in the entire series!  Traded for farm horses - and never mind that Wilder says he wanted to stay with the ponies.  My Little House world rocked on its foundations, for a moment.

Hill notes that in childhood and young adulthood, Wilder was a voracious reader who began composing poetry soon after the family settled in DeSmet. This is naturally part of the case that she is building about Wilder as writer.  As the events of Wilder's life move beyond the Little House books, Hill's narrative turns more on her writing, first for newspapers and magazines, and then in fiction.  It is here that the question of Rose Wilder Lane's role in her mother's work arises.  Lane was an established writer long before her mother, she encouraged Wilder to write, and she edited her writing.  Hill presents evidence to suggest that in editing Lane imposed her own ideas and style on her mother's work, but that Wilder gained the experience and confidence to insist on her vision for the books and to make her own voice heard.  In Hill's view, Lane was a talented editor, but she did not know how to encourage and nurture her mother's unique gifts as a writer.  Their working relationship was of course complicated by their personal relationship, which seems to have been a volatile one.  I found myself wondering what Almanzo Wilder thought of all this, and of his appearance in Laura's books.  Unlike his wife and daughter, he was apparently a man of few words.

This was an interesting and informative read, and a good companion to The Wilder Life.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!