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.

 

Bloody Benders

In 2011, when I was working on notes for the Library of America edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, the one that was the most fun to write and research was about the Bloody Benders. These serial killers in Kansas played a starring role in the most important statement Wilder ever made about her work, the speech she gave at the Detroit book fair.  And no wonder:  the Benders had it all—murder, mystery, sex appeal.

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The illustration page from a feature on the Bender murders in Harper’s Weekly on June 7, 1873

When Pioneer Girl:  The Annotated Autobiography was published, I was thrilled to see that it included, among its other gorgeous accoutrements, a meaty little appendix about the Bloody Benders.  Then Nancy Tystad Koupal and Pioneer Girl Perspectives offered me the perfect excuse to indulge my morbid fascination with this killer family and to delve into the story of why the Benders became something of a touchstone for Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.  Why were they always bringing up the Bender account—what did it mean to them?  And what does their adding the episode to the Pioneer Girl narrative say about their understanding of the difference between fiction and nonfiction?

My essay aims to provide some answers to those questions, but to give you a teaser:  Lane’s early journalism goes back to a lurid period in the history of newspapers—what used to be called “yellow journalism,” named for the “Yellow Kid” comic strip immortalized during the circulation battles between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.  Yellow journalists gave rise to both good and bad trends, to investigative journalism as well as tabloid fodder—they were the pioneers of “fake news.”

Lane cut her teeth in the “journalistic kindergarten” of yellow journalism in San Francisco, California.  Within weeks of being hired at the San Francisco Bulletin, she began churning out fake celebrity “autobiographies.” At the same moment, she was teaching her mother the tools of that strange trade.  It’s an astonishing chapter in their story. The saga of the Bloody Benders dramatizes the editorial struggle between them, a struggle over values represented by truth, on the one hand, and fiction on the other.  My essay features new information on the Bender-Ingalls connection and how Wilder and her daughter may have come across the salacious tale, as well as a long-lost letter of Lane’s, described for the first time.

Caroline Fraser, 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 Mother/Daughter Story

I have been a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder since I was a little girl. Like many, I received my first copy of Little House on the Prairie when I was five or six from my grandmother, Elsie Mattson, and I continued to receive all of the books, out of order, for varied birthdays and Christmases. Playing “Little House” was a favorite pastime; I lived in northern rural Wisconsin when I was small, and my cousins and I had no shortage of personal experiences to relate to our reading and playing of “Laura’s” story. Grandma Elsie was even friends with the real Laura’s cousins who lived in the area, and I knew early on that the fictional Laura had a real-life counterpart. That knowledge lent realism to my childhood experiences, and that connection fostered my adult interest in women’s history.

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Rose Wilder Lane in 1942. Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

But as I grew up and uncovered the story of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, I discovered that I related much better to her than I did to Wilder. Lane was a “modern woman” who left rural America and built a career as a freelance writer in a time when that just wasn’t done. Lane defied convention and gained notoriety in a period when women were actively encouraged to stay home. She also faced significant hardships—a failed marriage, a lost child, and lifelong struggles with depression—and when it came to public opinion, her “give-a-darn” broke long before her divorce in 1918. Lane educated herself, and she valued intellectual thought. I admired her willingness to speak out for her beliefs. Her tenacity led her to carve out a career that allowed her to support herself, her parents, varied friends, and foster children throughout her life.

In the chapter I wrote for Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, I focus on Lane’s story, particularly her later career, her interactions with the FBI, and her less-than-subtle political commentary in the Woman’s Day Book of American Needlework. My essay reflects on the fact that this extraordinary person was every inch her mother’s daughter. The values that Wilder articulates in Pioneer Girl and her early journalistic writings clearly appear as a theme in Lane’s work and personal choices.

Rose Wilder Lane was not perfect; she made some poor choices that put her at odds with her mother and, later, with her mother’s fan base. Laura Ingalls Wilder was not perfect either, but the lessons each woman’s story holds for the contemporary reader remain valuable to women’s history in the United States.

We can learn a lot from Lane’s story.

Amy Mattson Lauters, 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.

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Wilder!

Today, February 7, 2017, is the 150th anniversary of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birth. It is an important date for readers of the Little House series and for all of us at the Pioneer Girl Project, and it got me to thinking, how did we begin celebrating birthdays?

The true origin of the birthday celebration is lost to history, but we can say that the party started in Egypt, and the Greeks added the candles. However, these ancient celebrations were not like our modern birthdays; they were reserved for gods and goddesses only. It was not until the Romans came onto the scene that the common people began to commemorate their own births. In the eighteenth century, German bakers made cakes popular, and the industrial revolution brought dessert to the masses. Finally, in 1893, two women, Patty and Mildred Hill, created a tune that Robert Coleman would turn into “Happy Birthday to You” in 1924.1 The modern birthday basics were set.

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Division of Pomology U. S. Department of Agriculture, 1887

So, where does a little girl on the American frontier fit into all of this? For starters, I find it interesting to note that Wilder’s childhood birthdays could not have included the fiddle rendition of “Happy Birthday” that I always imagined they did in my youth. In fact, in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, Wilder’s birthday episodes are minimal. During the Ingalls family’s time in Wisconsin, Wilder remembered: “After awhile I had a birthday. I didn’t know anything about it until when I got up in the morning, Pa played spank me, . . . one for each year. Then he gave me a little wooden man he had whittled out of a stick. Ma and Mary gave me a rag doll that Ma had made and Mary helped dress. And I was a great girl 4 years old!” (p. 41).2

Not until Wilder moved to De Smet did she experience her first birthday party, given for a boy named Ben Woodworth, and in true introvert fashion, she “felt very awkward.” She did have a good time, though, recalling: “The long dining table was set and ready when we got there. It was beautiful with its silver and china its beautiful linen tablecloth and napkins. At each place, on a pretty little plate was an orange standing on end with the peel sliced in strips half way down and curled back making the orange look like a golden flower. I thought them the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, even prittier than the birthday cake in the center of the table” (p. 251). Oranges were a luxury on the frontier, as was the oyster soup that the Woodworths served along with a “generous piece” of cake. Afterwards, the young people played games. “We went home early well pleased with the evening” (p. 252), Wilder remembered.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society

Generally, Wilder’s youth occurred before birthday celebrations became popular in the United States. As time went on, annual birthday parties became a normal part of people’s lives. Wilder even dressed up to commemorate her eighty-fourth birthday at the library in Mansfield, Missouri, in 1951.

So, today, let’s wish a fine and modern happy birthday to Laura Ingalls Wilder from all of those whose lives she touched.

Jennifer McIntyre

1. Todd Van Lulling, “This Is Why You Get To Celebrate Your Birthday Every Year,” huffingtonpost.com.

2. Wilder was actually five at the time.

Some things I learned while editing Pioneer Girl Perspectives:

  • Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about fairies and fairy tales at various times in her career, and her first book reads like a fairy tale.
  • The first illustrator of the Wilder books, Helen Sewell, also illustrated Cinderella.
  • Rose Wilder Lane had an FBI file.

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    Cinderella written and illustrated by Helen Sewell, 1934

  • When Lane left Missouri in 1937, she did not return until her father’s death in 1949.
  • Wilder’s Pioneer Girl was rejected many times, not only in the 1930s but also in the 1980s.
  • Wilder never supported the passage of woman suffrage and, after it became law, only urged women to vote so that politics would not become unbalanced.
  • Lane was a yellow journalist.
  • She taught her mother how to be one, too.
  • Nobody died in the Little Houses.
  • Wilder ended most of her books with song.
  • The Benders of Kansas were most likely never caught.
  • Wilder spent significant portions of her childhood working outside of the Little Houses in order to help support her family.
  • Caroline Ingalls also worked outside the home at times to increase family income.
  • The Little House narrative is one of interdependence.
  • Lane had visions of writing a multi-volume novel based on United States history.
  • After 1938, Lane wrote almost no fiction.
  • Lane’s best-known book is probably The Woman’s Day Book of American Needlework.
  • After Almanzo died, Wilder kept a gun close-by for protection in her farmhouse, where she lived alone.
  • Lane went to Vietnam in 1965 as a war correspondent.
  • Wilder spent most of her life in southern Missouri, but she immortalized the landscape and values of the upper Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota).
  • We can always return to the Little Houses where everyone is eternally young and adults behave as they are supposed to.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

 

Stacking Hay, Cover Art with a Story

The best cover artwork has a backstory about its creation, and in the case of the latest Pioneer Girl Project book, I have a personal connection.

Once the Pioneer Girl Perspectives authors were on board, we had to consider what the book would physically look like. The first decision was obvious; we wanted another original watercolor from the artist Judy Thompson, who created Silver Lake Reflections for the cover of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. We asked her to follow the spring-like Silver Lake Reflections with a summer painting, and she suggested a haying scene.

This topic is appropriate as Wilder’s Pioneer Girl is littered with examples of her own hay-stacking familiarity:

 “The wild grass, so tall and thick in the sloughs and the blue joint grass on the upland all made good hay. Pa cut and raked the hay. Ma and I helped load it on the wagon and unload and build it into the large stacks to feed our horses and two cows through the winter that was coming.”—Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl, p. 198

Though you can still find a few hay stacks in the Dakota countryside, by the time I was helping my dad in the late-1990s and early 2000s, a single person used a tractor to cut, rake, turn, and bail the hay rather than stack it. Technology also helped lessen common haystack problems like spontaneous combustion due to summer heat and moldy stacks from the inability to repel water during a storm.

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Camilla, Janet, Janice, and Doug Pflaum rake hay into a stack on their farm near Letcher, South Dakota, circa 1924. Photograph courtesy of Jennifer E. McIntyre.

I am a third- or fourth-generation South Dakotan, depending on which ancestral line you follow. The prairie and lifestyle of Dakota also inform my own childhood experiences, even though I grew up over one hundred years after Wilder did. My maternal grandmother, Janice Pflaum, graces the monitor background of my work computer, making haystacks with her siblings in the mid-1920s. Much like today and in Wilder’s time on the farm, the whole family pitched in to get the work done. I shared the photograph with Thompson as she was researching positioning and other aspects of her painting, such as the long, thin-handled rakes.

In addition to the photograph of my family, Thompson and I looked into hay stacking during Wilder’s time, ensuring accuracy in the figures’ clothing and the tools that would have been used.

The final product is Summer Fields, a watercolor painting that shows Laura Ingalls as a young pre-teen raking the hay into a stack as her father, Charles Ingalls, loads more onto the wagon. Off in the distance viewers can see the Ingalls homestead. What a great image to introduce a book that studies Wilder’s life and work!

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Summer Fields by Judy Thompson, © 2016

Jennifer E. McIntyre