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