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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9781941813089

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

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One thought on “An Avid “Laura” Fan

  1. Looking forward to your essay in the forthcoming “PG Perspectives.” I, too, knew all of my grandparents while growing up. It was through my maternal grandmother that I truly connected with the LH stories because they were so similar in content and lifestyle. Now with your question, thinking back through the LH stories there are several incidents of loss (if not death) that Laura explores. In LHBW there’s the farming cycle of hog butchering, and the spooky fear of Pa encountering a bear and tree stump in the woods. In LHOP there’s the farewell of family in the Big Woods, the temporary loss of Jack at the river crossing, the overcoming gas fumes in digging of the well, and the delirium of malaria. In OBPC Laura grieves over her beloved Charlotte when the doll is taken and later found brutally damaged. And, who can forget the scary scene in THGY when Laura is witness to Mrs. Brewster wielding a butcher knife at her husband? These may not have been actual deaths but they were near death and fearful experiences depicted for children through a child’s eyes. Lots to think about!

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