The Story of the “Diggers”

I was dubious when Nancy Koupal invited me to contribute to Pioneer Girl Perspectives. What, I thought, could I possibly add? The comprehensive, incisive essays in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography ably tell the origins of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s apprenticeship manuscript.

Then Nancy gave me a pep talk. She has done this for lo, these past thirty years, during writing projects and sundry historical-literary affairs. She challenged me to consider the “first diggers”—the fraternity of people who started the initial research on Wilder. One enthusiastic old regular in early Wilder studies cheerily told me, “I hope our spades never get rusty.”

As a fledgling researcher in the 1960s and 1970s, I was welcomed into that coterie of folk dedicated to Wilder. The “diggers” were scattered throughout the Wilder country in America’s heartland and farther afield—even reaching to Japan and Australia. Many of them actively toiled to preserve Little House sites. Aubrey Sherwood, editor of the De Smet News and a friend of the Ingalls daughters, was among the most influential, a true mentor to me and countless others.

I had a brief brush with the great Rose Wilder Lane. She answered my letters, vetted my first writing, and lectured me on research technique. She autographed books for me and was incredulous that I had unearthed many of her early writings. She claimed she’d forgotten writing some of them.

How does all this connect with Pioneer Girl? Through ongoing involvement with Wilder people and places, some best-forgotten early writing of mine, and continuing research, I was cognizant of Pioneer Girl’s existence. The manuscript had its own surreptitious life, long before its 2014 appearance. I was charged to prepare a version for publication during the 1980s. I witnessed others using Pioneer Girl, all within an aura of secrecy. It was a dishy slice of literary lore, indeed.

I’ve told the story from my perspective in the chapter “Pioneer Girl: Its Roundabout Path into Print.” Writing this history was one more Wilder adventure, locating forgotten files of mine, drawing on long-held memories, and constructing a previously untold tale.

Yes, Laura Ingalls Wilder is still most relevant during this, her sesquicentennial year.

William Anderson, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017.

Perspectives of a Working Writer

Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder features the points of view of various writers working in the fields of history, literature, journalism, and children’s literature, but the single most important perspective is that of Wilder herself. She is the original pioneer girl who turned a memoir into seven bestselling novels; her thoughts about her achievement are crucial to any exploration of her literary works.

Wilder formally shared insights about her writing on two occasions in the mid-1930s. In 1936, she gave a speech to the Mountain Grove Sorosis Club entitled “My Work,” in which she talked about the importance of words and their meanings and about the problems of memory, among other things. She also told her audience about research she had done, such as checking the temperature at which grasshoppers lay the most eggs.1 In 1937, Wilder attended a book fair in Detroit, where she told her audience that as she wrote one book after another about her family she came to realize that she had lived on succeeding frontiers and that her books collectively told the story of that epic American adventure. She also shared her plans to carry that theme through future volumes, outlining the books she had yet to write. Between the two speeches, Wilder’s Detroit talk seemed the better fit for a book in which so many of the contributors referenced her life on the frontier. And while the document has been published before, the speech has never really been annotated or placed in the context that Pioneer Girl Perspectives provides.

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Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

We are fortunate to have Wilder’s Detroit speech to share with readers seventy years after she gave it. For that, we may have Rose Wilder Lane to thank. When Wilder wrote the speech, Lane was living in New York, where she had contact with Wilder’s editor, Ida Louise Raymond, who was also speaking at the book fair. From Raymond, Lane must have learned that the event had been a success, for she immediately began to insist that her mother send her a copy of her talk. When it finally arrived, Lane wrote back that the speech had arrived and “it is fine. No wonder you made a great hit.”2 The handwritten document has been preserved in the Lane Papers at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. To read more about it, see the opening chapter of Pioneer Girl Perspectives.

—Nancy Tystad Koupal

  1. Wilder, “My Work,” in Wilder and Lane, A Little House Sampler, ed. William T. Anderson (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988), pp. 174–80.
  2. Lane to Wilder, [late Oct. 1937], Box 13, file 193, Laura Ingalls Wilder Series, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.

 

Sioux Falls History Conference Features Laura Ingalls Wilder, “Pioneer Girl Perspectives”

Ten contributors to the Pioneer Girl Project’s new book on Laura Ingalls Wilder will be featured at the annual South Dakota State Historical Society History Conference to be held at the Holiday Inn Sioux Falls—City Centre, April 28-29, 2017. “Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder,” edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal, gives fresh insight into Wilder’s success as the author of the Little House series. The book and the conference, themed “Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-Year Legacy,” commemorate Wilder’s 150th birthday, which was February 7, 2017.

SDSHS 2017 History Conference, April 27-29, Laura Ingalls WilderThroughout the event, authors William Anderson, Caroline Fraser, Michael Patrick Hearn, Elizabeth Jameson, Sallie Ketcham, Amy Mattson Lauters, John Miller, Paula Nelson, and Ann Romines will discuss topics ranging from Wilder’s collaboration with her daughter Rose Wilder Lane to her influence on our image of the frontier and her lasting place in children’s literature. Noel Silverman of the Little House Heritage Trust, who has worked with Wilder’s writings for over forty-five years, will give a luncheon address, expanding on his interview with Koupal that appears in Pioneer Girl Perspectives. A Friday night reception will include renditions of Pa Ingalls’s fiddle music and other songs of the era played by the Sergeant Creek Stringband. Conference attendees will have the opportunity to purchase and pick up Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder prior to its public release date of May 18, 2017. On Thursday, a special fundraiser will provide the opportunity to have books signed by all of the book’s contributors.

Conference registration is limited and can be completed at history.sd.gov or by calling (605) 773-6000. Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder will be available to the public for $29.95 on May 18, 2017.

An Avid “Laura” Fan

Writing my book Constructing the Little House: Gender, Culture, and Laura Ingalls Wilder in the 1990s was a wonderful and transformative experience for me. It allowed me to return fulltime to my favorite childhood books, made it possible for me to receive grants that paid for trips to the historic Wilder sites, and gave me permission to spend days poking through Wilder’s private papers and manuscripts. It gave my adult self—by then a middle-aged professor of American women’s writing—a chance to reconnect with her passionate, partisan childhood self: a girl who was an avid “Laura” fan.

Now that book, published in 1997, is twenty years behind me. I’m still a Little House fan, but as I have grown older and lived through the last years and deaths of my parents and other beloved elders and confronted some of the constraints of aging in my own life, I’ve begun to notice some details in the Little House books that I did not see earlier. Wilder continues to reveal new nuances for me. Like many mid-twentieth-century American children, I grew up with frequent access to elders, grandparents and others who told stories that transmitted history, culture, and values. Upon rereading the Wilder books, I realized that Laura, Mary, Carrie, and Grace had not—the only active storyteller of the Little House books is Pa Ingalls. In fact, once the fictional Ingalls family leaves the Big Woods of Wisconsin (and the vigorous Ingalls grandparents) behind, at the beginning of Little House on the Prairie, there are almost no old people in the Ingalls daughters’ world. And, despite the dangers and relatively high mortality rate of their frontier lifestyle, they have no direct confrontations with death.

Jack the Bulldog

“Laura tried to comfort Jack.” Helen Sewell, 1935

As, the 2014 Pioneer Girl Project publication Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill, confirms, however, Laura Ingalls did confront deaths in her childhood and adolescence. Most notably, she witnessed the death of her baby brother. In Pioneer Girl Perspectives, I explore the reasons why Laura Ingalls Wilder and her collaborating daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, created a “little house where nobody dies.”

Of course, as my fellow “Laura” fans will remember, one death does occur in the Little House books—the powerfully fictionalized death of Jack, the family bulldog.  That memorable and invaluable scene is at the center of my exploratory essay.

Ann Romines, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Advocate

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books immortalized her family’s efforts to build homes and farms on the nineteenth-century frontiers of Kansas, Minnesota, and South Dakota. In my small town in southern Minnesota, my grade-school teachers read to us from Wilder’s novels almost every day after recess. Her words changed my life. She described the beauty of the prairies, from the tiniest flowers to sweeping vistas and enormous skies. Her words and appreciation of place helped me articulate my love of the grasslands. Wilder’s reflections on family, memory, and time (along with its passing) laid the foundation of my personal principles for the study of history: individuals matter; everyone has a story to tell; human nature, personal history and experience, and circumstance profoundly shape the lives of everyone.

Laura Ingalls Wilder began her writing career as a farm columnist long before she became a novelist. Laura and Almanzo settled in the Missouri Ozarks in 1894 and lived on their Rocky Ridge Farm until their deaths. Laura was known regionally as a successful chicken farmer. In 1911, the editor of the Missouri Ruralist read her paper on chickens and promptly offered her a job as columnist for the publication. Laura began a long career as an ardent advocate for farm women, their families, and farming as a way of life and a calling.

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Wilder and Almanzo (left) posed with neighbors near Mansfield, Missouri, circa 1920. Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

Wilder wrote her columns during a time of crisis and rapid change. World War I, woman suffrage, the changing roles of women, rapid industrial change, mass migration from the countryside into the big cities, automobiles, radio, mass advertising, and the birth of consumer culture—all posed challenges to traditional ways for farmers and their families. Wilder wrote as a steadying force for her farm audience. She believed that farm wives had the opportunity, more so than in any other occupation, to be full partners in the enterprise, as she and Almanzo were.  Some of her ideas might surprise her modern fans. She saw suffrage for women as an obligation rather than a right and opposed it. She feared the impact of the vote, and of politics generally, on women’s most important role, rearing the next generation of children to be good, productive citizens. Wilder did not share the suffragists’ belief that women voting would bring wonderful social reforms. In her opinion, women were not a class apart but instead were individuals who would vote according to their personal inclinations. When suffrage became law, however, she urged women to do their duty and vote.

Wilder’s columns in the Ruralist resonated with her love of the farm. Love of nature, the changing seasons, the birth of livestock, birds, flowers, the rhythms and rituals of farm work animated her days. Even as the mass movement from farms to cities continued, Wilder extolled the beauty in nature to remind women that their most important and primary duty to their communities and the nation was raising the next generation of farmers and citizens.

Wilder’s vision of farm life continues to be a lodestone for me. Since first hearing a Little House novel, I have frequently dreamed of being a farmer in Wilder’s time.

Paula Nelson, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017.

In Search of the Great American Fairy Tale

“But the real magic was in the telling.”

—Virginia Kirkus, Horn Book Magazine, 1953

Even though I grew up in Nebraska with a western historian for a mother, I did not read the Little House books as a child—my loss. At the time, I took the lonely plains of my childhood for granted and dreamed of other, undoubtedly more romantic fields: the Yorkshire moors of the Brontës, the secret gardens of Emily Dickinson, the haunted Black Forest of the Brothers Grimm. But like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s New York editor, the legendary Virginia Kirkus—who famously became so engrossed reading Wilder’s first novel that she missed her evening train home to Connecticut—when the real and shimmering magic of Little House in the Big Woods took hold of me, it did not let go.

When I finally turned the last page of These Happy Golden Years, I had one overriding, visceral reaction: I know Laura Ingalls; I know this girl.

Like so many readers before me, young and old, I did not want her story to end because I knew how much I would miss her. As a children’s writer with a special interest in the history of children’s books, I was curious about how Wilder had pulled off this kind of literary alchemy, how she had forged such intense identification between her readers, her heroine, and her heroine’s lost world.51ojikh0z2l-_sy344_bo1204203200_

Out of the raw material of her own life, Wilder had created something I had never read before: America’s Great Frontier Fairy Tale. “Once upon a time,” Wilder wrote, “sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.” It was the first line of Little House in the Big Woods and it presaged the highly original, unusual, and evocative artistic decisions Wilder would make as she fused childhood memory, family chronicle, western history, fairytale, folklore, and her love of the living prairie.

By the time she brought her story full circle, culminating in the happily-ever-after marriage of Laura Ingalls to her storybook hero on horseback, Wilder had executed a remarkable literary feat, irrespective of its historical, cultural, or political significance. Her classic American stories of the western frontier have old-vine roots, deeply entangled in European fairy tale, which Wilder uses to strange and surprising effect. Fairytale lies at the heart of Wilder’s artistic vision; it is central to the wandering hero’s journey of Laura Ingalls, not because it is trivial, childish, and superficial, but because it is dark and cautionary, profound and true. Fairy tale is particularly relevant to Wilder’s narrative because fairy tale, in its traditional form, preserves and passes down complicated stories of faith, hope, identity, betrayal, struggle, and redemption. It is the charming red apple in Wilder’s work, luring the reader into the heroine’s quest for self-realization, existential meaning, and the elusive place called home.

It’s the “real magic” in the telling.

Sallie Ketcham, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017.

 

 

 

A Midwestern Pioneer

When Nancy Tystad Koupal invited me to contribute an essay to Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, I felt honored. Then I wondered, “Is there something that I can contribute that hasn’t already been done?”

becoming-liw_illusNearly a quarter century ago, while researching my first book on Laura Ingalls Wilder, I, like every serious scholar working on her, visited the Hoover Presidential Library, which houses the major collections of papers on her and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. At that time, I photocopied the drafts of Pioneer Girl that Lane had typed and sent to her editors in 1930 and 1931 (she switched agents in the middle of the submission process). I culled information from Wilder’s memoir of her childhood and used what I found in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town and then in the biography Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder. The information contained in those manuscripts was gold for anyone who wanted to know “what really happened” in Wilder’s childhood, and those of us aware of the material treated it as the treasure it was. Pioneer Girl provided a more detailed, nuanced, and surprising picture of Wilder than we could find anywhere else.

But now is now, and I had to come up with a novel idea for Pioneer Girl Perspectives, or so I thought, but a subject rose to the surface that I had been considering for some time: the idea of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s identity as a midwesterner throughout her life. The places she lived in and wrote about are steeped in the identity of the Middle West, and it seemed to me that that fact alone had a significant impact on her life and writing.

Reinforcing this line of thinking was the 2014 publication of a book I had been working on for over a decade and a half, Small-Town Dreams: Stories of Midwestern Boys Who Shaped America. It contains twenty-two stories of small-town and farm boys who grew up in the Midwest and whose rural boyhoods significantly shaped their identities and success as adults. The men I wrote about range from Henry Ford, William Jennings Bryan, and Carl Sandburg to Ernie Pyle, Walt Disney, and Sam Walton. My interest in the subject also stems from the fact that I am a small-town boy from the Midwest myself. In addition, the brand-new Midwestern History Association, spearheaded by a former student of mine, is directing major attention to the region. So, I decided to look at Wilder as a midwestern pioneer girl.

My chapter studies midwestern places that shaped Wilder’s life, values, thoughts, and actions through her experiences and interactions with the people who lived there. It places Wilder alongside other important midwesterners—Harvey Dunn, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Willa Cather—to deal with concepts of the frontier, land, rural values, cultural patterns, and socio-economic realities that provided the context for her life and writing. In this way, I note the supreme importance of place, in terms of the Midwest as a region, in Wilder’s work.

John E. Miller, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017.