I am just back from my first-ever LauraPalooza, sponsored by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association (LIWLRA) and held this year in Onalaska, Wisconsin, just over an hour away from Pepin, Wisconsin. The people involved in planning and implementing the conference, including but not limited to LIWLRA president Barbara Mayes Boustead, vice-president Patti Collins, and conference co-chairs Karen Pearce and Melanie Stringer, did an outstanding job. My fellow keynote speakers Bill Anderson, Caroline Fraser, and John Miller all provided meaty portions of Wilder scholarship and lore, even though the presence of the film crew for the American Masters series could be intimidating at times.
The level of presentation throughout the event was outstanding, from fiddler Mary Pat Kleven, who shared her music and her understanding of midwestern fiddling, to Cindy Wilson, whose research in the Chicago & North Western Historical Society archives illuminated the railroad’s snow-moving activities during the winter of 1880–1881. Discussion of the life of Grace Ingalls, the preservation of Laura’s little towns, the history of drought on the South Dakota prairies, time and place in Wilder’s works, diverse voices, quilts, fashion, the psychology behind the relationship of Wilder and Lane, and the stopping points of Wilder’s journey to Missouri made for three days of learning and enjoyment.
Bill Anderson shared his expertise often during the conference and especially during a trip to Pepin on the afternoon of July 10. The Little House Wayside cabin, of course, is a reproduction on the land near Pepin that Charles Ingalls owned in the 1870s, but no one is any longer sure of the homesite location. Anderson, who had visited the site in the early 1970s before creation of the wayside, shared his best understanding of where the cabin originally stood.
The next LauraPalooza will be held somewhere near Malone, New York (Almanzo Wilder’s birthplace), in 2022. I hope to be there.
Warm weather has arrived across the Midwest, and families are loading up the (station) wagon to head to beaches, museums, and lake cabins. School may be out, but that doesn’t mean that reading is taking a backseat. I always cherish summer as a time to revisit old favorites and discover new worlds between the covers. For those of you who have already devoured all of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography and Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder and are eagerly waiting for what’s next, here are some summer reading suggestions.
Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Co., 2017). No doubt many of you have already finished Caroline Fraser’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but for those of you who, like me, have six books currently stacked beside their beds, perhaps this reminder will encourage you to float this title towards the top. Fraser’s well-researched biography weaves the narrative of Wilder’s life in and out of a greater American historical context that presents a nuanced portrait of Wilder’s life and times.
Louise Erdrich, The Birchbark House (New York: Hyperion Books, 2002). Louise Erdrich is one of my favorite authors. The vivid images her prose paints in my mind stay with me for hours and even days. Recent works such as The Round House and LaRose stunned me into contemplative silence, and I’ve been reading my way through her extensive body of work. For readers who grew up loving the Little House series, Erdrich’s Birchbark House collection offers a story missing in Wilder’s work. She centers her series around an Ojibwe girl named Omakayas and follows the family’s adventures throughout the upper Midwest while exploring historical Ojibwe lifeways.
O. E. Rolvaag, Giants in the Earth (New York: Harper & Bros., 1927). Sometimes a book crosses your path at exactly the right moment. I was looking through a car windshield at the South Dakota landscape when I first heard Rolvaag’s opening lines: “Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon. . . . Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come.” Written over ninety years ago, the book details the struggles Rolvaag’s Norwegian characters encounter within the Plains environment, with each other, and with their mental health, providing excellent topics for discussion, all set on the expansive prairies of South Dakota. The struggles of young homesteading wife Beret have parallels in the mental health issues of Mrs. Brewster in These Happy Golden Years.
Norman K. Risjord, A Popular History of Minnesota (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2005). As a historian, I constantly seek out academic scholarship on minute details of events and people. Not all of these tomes make for enjoyable lakeside hammock reads. However, Risjord’s accessible and concise history of Minnesota provides everything I want when I reach for nonfiction at the beach. A Popular History of Minnesota provides an introduction to a state central to many of the Ingallses’ adventures. After you finish with the Minnesota book, seek out Risjord’s Dakota: The Story of the Northern Plains and Shining Big Sea Water: The Story of Lake Superior.
When reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, one is led to believe that things happened exactly as they were written. In addition, at a speech at a book fair in Detroit in 1937, Wilder said, in reference to the most recent book published, that “every story in this novel, all the circumstances, each incident are true. All I have told is true but it is not the whole truth.” After Wilder’s death in 1957, however, readers and researchers began to discover many ways that the books were not historically accurate. That process accelerated when it was revealed that Wilder had previously written an adult memoir she called “Pioneer Girl” that publishers had rejected. The memoir was first made widely available to the public by the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, during the 1980s. The South Dakota Historical Society (SDHS) Press published Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography in 2014, and it quickly became a best-seller. It is now in its ninth printing; more than 165,000 copies have been sold.
Pioneer Girl Perspectives is a collection of essays edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal, director of the Pioneer Girl Project, and published by the SDHS Press. The volume was originally meant to address how the publication of Pioneer Girl shapes our understanding of Wilder and her work. However, contributors take their considerations in a number of new directions, including the life and works of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, the popularity of the Little House books, and the books’ literary value.
The book is divided into four sections. “Working Writers” begins by reprinting Wilder’s Detroit Book Fair speech, and then biographers of Wilder and Lane engage the different types of writing each published. In “Beginnings and Misdirections,” authors consider the history of the Pioneer Girl manuscript and the Little House books compared to other early twentieth-century children’s literature. Historians writing in the third section, “Wilder’s Place and Time,” situate Wilder in regional and historical context. The essays in the final section, “Enduring Tales and Childhood Myths,” explore a variety of literary features of the books.
As in all books of essays, some chapters are more insightful than others. Readers of this journal will be especially interested in John E. Miller’s essay describing the midwestern context of Wilder’s life and work. He argues that the Midwest is depicted in the following characteristics of the Little House books: “(1) the prominence of the land in its residents’ thinking and the centrality of agriculture in its way of life; (2) the Homestead Act and the frontier process as integral parts of its historical experience; (3) the crucial role that small towns played in its culture; and (4) the development and nurturing of specific values as a result of those cultural experiences that helped shape residents’ special identities as Midwesterners.” Paula Nelson does a thorough job placing Wilder’s views on family, women’s roles, farming, and woman suffrage into the multiple contexts of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries. [Caroline] Fraser examines the use of the tale of the “Bloody Benders” in some Pioneer Girl manuscripts in order to assess Wilder and Lane’s relationship to the “yellow journalism” of the early twentieth century. Elizabeth Jameson considers how Wilder’s troubled and poverty-ridden childhood was transformed into the happy childhood of the Little House books. Finally, William Anderson gives a fascinating brief history of the Pioneer Girl manuscript between Wilder’s death in 1957 and its publication in 2014.
Overall, Pioneer Girl Perspectives is an excellent book. It’s slightly larger than a normal hardback, and the dust jacket art is beautiful. It includes many illustrations from the original Helen Sewell editions of the Little House books as well as historical photos of Wilder, Lane and others. Many essays fill gaps in Wilder scholarship or bring together what is already known in helpful ways. It is a worthy companion to Pioneer Girl on the shelves of anyone interested in the Little House books and the way that they depict the West—and the Midwest.
Earlier this year, Fraser contributed to the South Dakota Historical Society Press book Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder with her essay “The Strange Case of the Bloody Benders: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and Yellow Journalism.” In Prairie Fires, Fraser looks further at the questions she brought up in this essay and at much more.
One-hundred and fifty years after Wilder’s birth, the Little House series continues to shape ideas of the historical United States—its settlement, its literature, and the roles of women, among other things. Laura Ingalls Wilder is and always will be an important voice of American heritage.
Forgive us. We at the Pioneer Girl Project need a moment to toot our own horn. For the past several months, we had been working to organize and host the 2017 South Dakota State Historical Society History Conference, April 28–29, an annual event for which the society’s various programs choose the theme in rotation. This year, we chose “Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-year Legacy” to celebrate Wilder’s one hundred fiftieth birthday (February 7). The event was a tremendous success! Those attending represented over twenty states, and all of the contributing authors to Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder made the trip to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to be featured speakers.
In a true meeting of minds, the speakers and an audience that asked superb questions probed important topics and demonstrated that there is still much to learn about Laura Ingalls Wilder. Panelists and conference-goers discussed Wilder’s relationship with truth and whether it morphed under the editorial leadership of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Caroline Fraser and Amy Mattson Lauters considered the career of Lane and in turn debated how her work and experience influenced her mother—the budding novelist—or vice versa. Sallie Ketcham took a different route, examining how the fairy tale tradition and Wilder’s own familiarity with these old tales informed the development of her works. Ann Romines, Elizabeth Jameson, and Paula Nelson pointed out several commonly held misconceptions about family life, childhood, and the female experience on the frontier and explored the historical realities of the woman who shaped our understanding of this time period. John E. Miller compared Wilder to other prominent midwesterners. William Anderson treated conference attendees to an examination of Pioneer Girl’s path into print, relating his own firsthand experiences with the people and circumstances that kept Pioneer Girl semi-underground until 2014. Michael Patrick Hearn presented his observations on the changing attitude towards Wilder’s novels.
Given that nearly seventy-five years have passed since the final Little House book was published during Wilder’s lifetime, what keeps audiences captivated by her writing? Noel Silverman, representative for the Little House Heritage Trust spoke to this question in his luncheon address, “Her Stories Take You with Her.” Sharing his experience in working with Wilder’s literary legacy for over forty-five years, Silverman observed that readers discover something about themselves in Wilder’s writings. Her lasting legacy, he asserts, tells us that we can all live an adventure, learn to be self-reliant, find comfort in our families, and much more.
“Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-year Legacy” was a great experience. The conference focused attention on a legacy that continues to shape our understanding of the American past. Thank you to all of the speakers, attendees, vendors, and coordinators who made it possible.
All of the conference speakers participated in the final panel, which explored the question of Wilder’s lasting legacy.
Throughout 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.
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.
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
Earlier, the Pioneer Girl Project announced that Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder would be coming out in 2017, and it’s on its way—set your calendars for May 18!
Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder takes a serious look at Wilder’s working life and at circumstances that developed her points of view. Along the way, authors William T. Anderson, Caroline Fraser, Michael Patrick Hearn, Elizabeth Jameson, Sallie Ketcham, Amy Mattson Lauters, John E. Miller, Paula M. Nelson, and Ann Romines explore the relationship between Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, as well as their path to the Little House novels. Editor Nancy Tystad Koupal also includes an interview with Little House Heritage Trust representative Noel Silverman, who has worked with Wilder’s works for over forty-five years, and annotates Wilder’s 1937 speech about the Little House series given at the Detroit book fair.
This rich source book from these Wilder scholars from across North America will also explore, among other topics, the interplay of folklore in the Little House novels, women’s place on the American frontier, Rose Wilder Lane’s writing career, the strange episode of the Benders in Kansas, Wilder’s midwestern identity, and society’s ideas of childhood.