Searching for Laura’s Big Woods

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The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest’s Hidden Lakes Trail in Wisconsin.

Where did Laura’s Big Woods go? That is the question I am currently exploring. In her memoir, Pioneer Girl, Wilder wrote that the woods “went on and on into the north,” (Brandt 14). Today, those woods are not quite so big.

I grew up in Wisconsin, and going “up ‘nort’” meant traveling to a cabin or a tent on the shore of a lake surrounded by what was left of the Big Woods of Wilder’s memory. I remember one trip when, staring out of my parents’ station wagon windows, I watched as we passed an extra-long truck on the highway. When I asked what kind of truck had passed us, my parents said it was a logging truck used to haul the cut timber from the north and was probably headed to one of the paper mills in Wausau or Stevens Point. “Your great-grandparents worked in a logging camp as camp cooks, you know,” my mom told me. At the time, I imagined the cook camp to be like a Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty restaurant, with all-you-can-eat powdered doughnuts and huge stacks of pancakes.

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A group of men transporting logs across the snow-covered ground on a sled near Rice Lake, Wisconsin, circa 1872. Wisconsin Historical Society

As my interest in history and the history of my family matured, family members showed me the letters and photographs of my great-grandparents from the logging camp. Written in a mix of Dutch and English, the letters talked about longing for home. The timber that drew hundreds into the woods, including my great-grandparents, was the Big Woods of Wilder’s childhood. The lumber was used in dozens of paper products and building materials across the nation. Timber floated down swollen rivers to Chicago, where it was shipped east on the Great Lakes by boat or by railroads that took it in all four directions. The lumber industry helped build America, but it also greatly diminished the northern woods. Today, in protected national and state parks, the woods are returning to Wisconsin, a rebirth that is welcomed by so many like me, who love to be surrounded by trees and feel at home in the Big Woods.

Jacob Jurss

 

Reconnecting with the Little House

I last read Little House in the Big Woods in fourth grade during a unit on the history of my home state of Wisconsin. My teacher introduced me to a world more than a hundred years in the past. I remember taking a field trip to a historic one-room schoolhouse in order to experience what Wilder and my great grandparents’ childhood might have been like. I still have the black-and-white photograph of my fourth-grade class taken that day. We were all dressed in our or, rather, our parents’ best attempts to replicate period attire.

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The one-room Reed School near Neillsville, Wisconsin. Wisconsin Historical Society

I do not remember reading many of Wilder’s other titles (Wisconsin’s other great cultural tradition, the Green Bay Packers, captured my interest at the time), but I do remember seeing highway signs for places with historical claims to her legacy throughout my travels in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and now South Dakota. The subject of upper Midwest and western history did make a lasting impact on my life. I went on to study history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and recently completed my Ph.D. at Michigan State University. I study the societal and power dynamics between Ojibwe, Dakota, and white settlers during the early 1800s in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. My research focused on the generation before Charles Ingalls’s birth that laid the cultural and societal foundations for the Ingallses’ world.

Through a great deal of serendipity, I found myself offered a position as a summer researcher and associate editor for the South Dakota Historical Society Press. My first task has been to read through the Kansas, Missouri, and Wisconsin chapters of Wilder’s Brandt, Brandt Revised, and Bye manuscripts of Pioneer Girl. My previous reading of pioneer memoirs has made this both a familiar experience and a unique one as I stumble across passages that recall my distant memories of Little House on the Prairie and Little House in the Big Woods.

As I conduct my research, I hope to bring another perspective to Wilder’s work and the world that Wilder remembered, and I look forward to hearing from the large and engaged community of Wilder readers and scholars. I have winced at the stereotypical depictions of the Osage, an American Indian tribe in Kansas whose lands were invaded by American settlers, have been horrified by Wilder’s tales of the Bender murders, and have laughed at Laura’s antics as a mischievous three-year-old. One message I have thus far gleaned from Wilder’s remembrances is that Pa always, always needed to take his gun with him. It never seems to fail that, when he doesn’t, there is a bear, panther, or pack of wolves nearby to give him and the family a scare. Indeed, referencing Grandpa’s encounter with a panther, Pa said: “A man’s a fool to leave his clearing without taking a gun. But we all do it” (Bye, p. 18).

Jacob Jurss

Past and Future Projects

In 2010, the South Dakota Historical Society Press set up the Pioneer Girl Project as a research and publishing program to create a comprehensive edition of Wilder’s autobiography, as well as to create books dedicated to exploring Wilder’s life and works. We had just earned the privilege of publishing Wilder’s memoir from the Little House Heritage Trust, and we were determined to do a thorough and professional job of it. We modeled the project loosely on the Mark Twain Project at the Bancroft Library/University of California Press, which was then publishing Twain’s multi-volume autobiography. Since 2010, we have had a dedicated team working in period newspapers, census and land records, archival collections in five or more states, and other primary and secondary materials to research the life and times of the original pioneer girl and her manuscripts. In 2012, we began this website as a way to share our research with those who were interested in Wilder’s life and legacy.

PG cover 72dpi 220pxThe first phase of our project came to fruition in 2014, with the publication of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill. And, as you all know, that book found both a national and international audience and went on to become another bestselling volume by author Laura Ingalls Wilder. Moreover, its financial success gave the Pioneer Girl Project team the resources to plan three additional books. The second is Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, published in May 2017.

The idea for the additional books began as the research for and editing of Wilder’s 9781941813089original handwritten autobiography was drawing to a close in 2014.  The project team could see that many questions remained unanswered about Wilder as a person and about Wilder as a writer—and especially about the relationship between Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Because we had been studying the text of the handwritten Pioneer Girl so meticulously and comparing it to the typed and edited versions, it became clear that there was indeed something special about that mother/daughter, writer/editor relationship. This complex relationship reveals itself more fully as we examine Lane’s edits to her mother’s writing and then evaluate the evolution in Wilder’s response. Clues about this process abound in both the nonfiction and fiction texts, drafts, discarded pages, and other materials held at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and elsewhere.

In the upcoming books, we plan to address nonfiction and fiction processes separately. Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts will concentrate on Wilder’s and Lane’s interaction in the creation of the nonfiction autobiography. The book will contain the text of the three surviving typescript versions of Wilder’s autobiography in a side-by-side format. This presentation will facilitate intertextual comparison among the Brandt, Brandt Revised, and Bye manuscripts. The book will also contain annotations that highlight differences among the manuscripts and provide an analysis of Wilder’s and Lane’s working relationship as revealed in those manuscripts and elsewhere. The annotations will not repeat material published in the first volume, offering instead new information about Wilder’s life and its historical context where relevant. The Revised Texts will focus on the editorial work that Rose Wilder Lane performed on these adult, nonfiction manuscripts and the revisions or additions that Wilder herself made to them.

By contrast, the fourth book will analyze Wilder’s transition from nonfiction to fiction writer. In Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction, we will take a closer look at Lane’s role as her mother’s editor and agent in the field of children’s literature and at Wilder’s initial attempts at writing fiction. While the overarching purpose of both books will be to study the relationship between Wilder and Lane, the fourth book will examine the fiction writing/editorial process itself, a process in which both women took active roles. Other books have discussed this process, but The Path into Fiction will be the first to explore it completely within the context of the most critical piece of evidence—the draft manuscripts themselves.

We are excited about these forthcoming books, and we think that the study of the texts themselves will tell us much about the creative and editorial processes as well as about Wilder and Lane as working writers.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

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.

 

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.

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.