Saturday, February 11, 2012

Becoming "Laura Ingalls Wilder"

Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, John E. Miller

Last year I read two new (or new to me) books about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Wendy McClure's The Wilder Life and Pamela Smith Hill's Laura Ingalls Wilder, A Writer's Life, while overlooking this book sitting on the shelves unread for years.  The TBR Double Dare is really making me aware how often I do this, distracted by the new and shiny books I come across.  It has led me to a belated new-year's resolution to read the books acquired each year within that year - as well as continuing to whittle down the TBR stacks.

On the other hand, though, I'm glad I read Pamela Smith Hill's book before Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder.  The title reflects the author's thesis, which he states in the Introduction:
"In some measure, therefore, this book is about how the real Laura Ingalls Wilder became, to her readers, the fictional Laura.  More important, however, it is about how the young Laura Ingalls became a successful and popular author recognized far and wide as Laura Ingalls Wilder.  In that process of "becoming" she would be addressed by several different names . . . Getting to know Laura Ingalls Wilder, therefore, partly involves discovering how her personality evolved coincident to a variety of name changes over time."
In the Introduction, Miller also addresses what seems to be the main issue in Wilder studies: who wrote the books. "At the heart of any analysis of Laura Ingalls Wilder lies a paradox: how did this seemingly ordinary woman come to produce such extraordinary work?"  For many, the answer is simple: she didn't, her daughter Rose Wilder Lane did.  Miller takes the middle position, arguing that while Lane's contributions as editor were crucial, the stories and the books were still Wilder's (Hill is a staunch Laura-ist).

The first third of Miller's book recounts Laura's life in the years covered by the "Little House" books, pointing out where her life diverges from the story of the fictional Laura.  I found this section rather flat, in part because the flood of information about all the different places where the Ingalls family lived over the years.  Miller seems to love statistics.  Laura and her family sometimes get lost in census figures and production statistics and community histories, which are clearly meant to provide context for their lives but take on a life of their own.  And his narration of Laura's life lacks the spark found in the books themselves, particularly when he recounts specific events like Ben Woodworth's birthday party or Laura's recitation of American history for a school exhibition.

Where the book took off for me was in the middle section, starting with Laura's early married life.  I know much less about her life after the events of the books, and I found this part very interesting and informative (though still weighed down at times with statistics).  Laura did not leave behind a lot of documentation, letters and so forth, and I was impressed with Miller's research in uncovering what information he could about her.  One of his main sources would be the columns Laura wrote for a farm paper, the Missouri Ruralist in the early 1900s.  In many cases he has to infer what Laura and her family were doing at particular times, but his inferences are always grounded in his research, and he puts her life in the context of what was going on in their local community, as well as the United States as a whole.  I had no idea, for example, that all three members of the family, Laura, Almanzo and Rose, despised Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, or that they were staunch isolationists before World War II.

In addition to tracing the roots of Laura's writing career, Miller focuses on her complicated relationship with her daughter Rose, which becomes a major theme of the second half of the book.  Rose did leave behind a wealth of primary source documents, including journals she kept while living with her parents as an adult.  Miller seems to have found these sources iresistable, and at times Rose takes over the book, particularly during the years after she returned from Albania to live on their Missouri farm. In one of the most fascinating episodes of their lives together, Rose built her parents an English-style cottage on the farm, which they didn't want, but into which they dutifully moved, while she took over their beloved home, complaining meanwhile about the expense of building the cottage.  I think they could have all benefited from some family therapy, Rose in particular.  She struggled for many years with depression and other mental and emotional problems, to which Miller returns again and again and again.  While I sympathized with her problems, I resented the way she took over the story.  It is only after she left her parents' home for good in 1935 that the focus can again return to Laura.

By that point, the first two books in the "Little House" series had already been published to great acclaim, with the third, Little House on the Prairie, ready to come out.  Miller traces their writing process in detail, making his case for their collaboration, while also placing it in the context of Rose's own career.  Though she was the more experienced and established author, she would be eclipsed by her mother's rocketing popularity.  Rose's greatest successes came with novels drawn from the pioneer stories of her parents and grandparents - Little House books for adults.  One point I have yet to see addressed anywhere is what Almanzo Wilder thought of the books, either Laura's or Rose's, particularly about his own fictionalization as a character (and a heroic one at times).  He was apparently a man of few words.  Laura was the talker, but like her he also left behind few records, so we may never know.

The story ends with Laura's death in 1957 (Almanzo had died in 1949), which according to Miller came as a great relief to Rose: "The mother who had brought her into the world, who had loved her, smothered and controlled her, and who had depended heavily on her had caused both pain and joy."  He describes her as "almost buoyant."  Whatever the complications of their relationship, it seems a shame to leave the reader with that impression of Rose - or perhaps that is just my Laura bias showing.

I am glad to have this book on my shelves as an informative biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, particularly on her later life.  For anyone interested in Wilder's life outside the Little House books, though, I would recommend starting with Pamela Smith Hill's book.


  1. I'm pretty sure I read this shortly after it came out, along with Ghost in the Little House, which focused on Rose Wilder Lane. From what I remember, I found his position regarding the possible collaboration to be pretty persuasive and reasonable.

  2. The evidence for collaboration seems pretty conclusive and convincing to me - unlike the "Rose wrote it all" thesis. I've read one of her pioneer novels, and it just doesn't compare.

  3. I just read William Anderson's biography of Laura Ingalls. I just discovered her books last year, and now of course want to read everything. :)

  4. How fun, and you still have so much to explore! I do know the feeling of wanting to read everything. I haven't read Anderson's biography yet, but I do have his The Little House Guidebook - and I really want to visit Rocky Ridge - as well as another book he edited of stories & reminiscences by both Laura and Rose, A Little House Sampler.


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!