An Interview with Pamela Smith Hill

Pamela Smith Hill was recently interviewed by Alaina Mabaso of Alaina Mabaso’s Blog. From Laura’s dog Jack to the Pioneer Girl Project, Hill and Mabaso discussed, among other things, Wilder’s career and work.

Click here to read the full interview on Mabaso’s blog, titled Pa sold Jack with the ponies, and other Laura Ingalls revelations: an interview with Wilder biographer* Pamela Smith Hill.

 *Pamela Smith Hill wrote Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, published by the South Dakota Historical Society Press in 2007. For more information or to purchase this book visit www.sdshspress.com.

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Pa Ingalls—Fact or Fiction

After visiting De Smet, a follower of the Pioneer Girl Project posed the following questions:

“Was he [Pa] different than the one portrayed on Little House? Laura does say in a biographical piece that it was the Pa she wanted. What are your thoughts?”

The Pa of the Little House novels was the father Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered and sought to immortalize.  As she wrote her daughter Rose Wilder Lane in 1937: “Pa was no business man.  He was a hunter and trapper, a musician and poet.” His stories, Wilder said, inspired her to write the Little House books.  Even before her first novel was published, she noted that Pa’s stories “impressed me very much as a child and I still have a great affection for them.”

The essence of Pa’s character in the Little House books is consistent with Wilder’s portrait of her father in Pioneer Girl.  He was affectionate, warm, playful, musical, and restless.  But based on the historical record and Wilder’s recollections, it is clear that the fictional character in her novels is romanticized and idealized.  In Pioneer Girl, for example, Pa sneaked his family out of town in the middle of the night after failing to negotiate the rent with the landlord. Wilder suggested that Charles Ingalls justified it to his family by calling the man a “rich old skinflint.” Wilder’s fictional Pa would never have done such a thing.   Quite simply, the fictional Pa is more heroic, more noble, and more mythic than the real Charles Ingalls or the one who emerges from the pages of Pioneer Girl.

Wilder had much to draw upon in creating her character. The real Charles Ingalls made significant contributions to the communities in which he lived, serving as justice of the peace, school-board member, church officer, and civic-minded leader.  At his death in 1902, the De Smet News and Leader wrote of him: “As a citizen he was held in high esteem, being honest and upright in his dealings and associations with his fellows.  As a friend and neighbor he was always kind and courteous and as a husband and father he was faithful and loving.  And what better can be said of any man?”

Pamela Smith Hill

Mary’s Illness

USA Today contacted the South Dakota State Historical Society last week to discuss an article that was soon to appear in Pediatrics about Mary Ingalls’s blindness (read USA Today’s coverage here). An assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan speculates that the illness that caused Mary Ingalls’s blindness was probably viral meningoencephalitis—a big term that was not likely to find its way into Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books or her autobiography.

Mary Ingalls in 1889

Mary Ingalls in 1889
(photo: Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, De Smet, S.Dak.)

In Pioneer Girl, Wilder described the circumstances in this way: “Mary was taken suddenly sick with a pain in her head and grew worse quickly.” A few days later, one side of her face was “drawn out of shape,” and “Ma said Mary had had a stroke.” Two doctors in Walnut Grove attributed Mary’s failing eyesight to the stroke that had damaged the nerves in her eyes, which “were dying.” Wilder concluded: “They had a long name for her sickness and said it was the results of the measels [sic] from which she had never wholly recovered.”

In her fictional retelling of this episode in her sister’s life, which appears in the opening pages of By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura Ingalls Wilder ascribed the condition to a bout of scarlet fever, one of the most deadly childhood illnesses of the nineteenth century. Pamela Smith Hill, Wilder biographer, suggests, “Wilder probably chose scarlet fever for the fictional version because it was such a deadly disease and because after arguing with Rose about whether to include Mary’s blindness in the Little House books at all, it was a swift, clear, and believable alternative.” For the age group she was writing for, scarlet fever was understandable; viral meningoencephalitis is a term best understood by medical researchers and doctors.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

A Pioneer Girl’s Treasures

On my most recent visit to Rocky Ridge Farm in the Missouri Ozarks, I was once again struck by all the things Laura Ingalls Wilder had managed to save from her childhood— her sampler, her handkerchief, the slates she and Mary used when they attended school in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, even the jewel-box she describes in such loving detail in On the Banks of Plum Creek.

It’s remarkable that so many objects from her childhood survived, given how often the Ingalls family moved—from Wisconsin to Missouri to Kansas and back to Wisconsin again; on to Minnesota, then Iowa, and back to Minnesota; finally on to Dakota Territory. All these moves were made either by covered wagon or by train, which meant the family had to travel light. I suspect Caroline Ingalls supervised her girls’ packing closely, but based on accounts in “Pioneer Girl” as well as the Little House series, both the real and fictional Ma understood how important it was to make a home wherever the family settled. That clearly included letting her girls take their small but precious possessions with them from one little house to another.

Wilder and her husband Almanzo made plenty of moves too—from South Dakota to Minnesota to Florida to South Dakota again and from there to Missouri, where they lived out their lives together. And they too traveled by train, wagon, or buggy. So it’s literally a small miracle that Wilder’s jewel-box from Plum Creek days survived.

A Childlike Sense of Wonder

I’ve long assumed that Wilder saved these things because, in a childhood marked by frugality and poverty, even the purchase of those slates must have seemed like an extravagance. But I’m not sure that an impoverished childhood entirely explains why Wilder saved those treasures from her past. My father, a child of the Great Depression, grew up in an Arkansas log cabin and like the Ingalls girls, he and his sisters delighted in simple pleasures and learned to live happily with less. Yet nothing except photographs from my father’s childhood remains; he didn’t save his childhood treasures.

I suspect that Wilder kept hers because part of her never entirely grew up. Yes, like most of us, she kept important and official family documents, the papers that define a family’s history. The archives at Rocky Ridge Farm, for example, include Charles and Caroline Ingalls’s wedding license, Mary’s diploma from the Iowa College for the Blind, and Wilder’s own teaching certificates. Wilder became the family member responsible for preserving family history and documentation. But she also continued to nurture that childlike sense of wonder, a characteristic that often defines children’s book writers.

A Writer’s Ambition

Among the items Wilder saved is her essay titled “Ambition,” written when she was seventeen for her teacher, Mr. Owen, in De Smet, South Dakota. It was a piece of writing that she was proud of. Perhaps her secret ambition had long been to become a writer.

Years later when Wilder, her husband, and daughter moved to Missouri, she began to act on that ambition. Almanzo had made her a portable writing desk, and throughout the journey to Missouri in 1894, Wilder kept a diary in a small notebook of her impressions along the way. She drafted a letter home to friends and family in De Smet, and it was published in the De Smet News and Leader in August 1894. Of course, she kept the clipping with a handwritten note, “First I ever published.”

Wilder began to write her life story in 1930, two years after she and Almanzo moved into the Rock House, a gift from their daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Here Wilder wrote Pioneer Girl, as well as the first three novels in the Little House series. It’s impossible to know all the details of Wilder’s writing process, but I like to think of her at the dining room table in the Rock House, a supply of No. 2 lead pencils and a Fifty Fifty tablet from Springfield Grocer Company at the ready. Perhaps as she struggled to find the right word or to describe the sound of Pa’s fiddle, she looked across the living room and out the window at that hazy Ozark sky and found the inspiration to continue, one word at time, one memory at a time.

Pamela Smith Hill