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.

 

 

 

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And to Think That It All Began with “The Long Winter”

This week, as a heavy winter snowstorm blanketed the Northern Great Plains, I found myself with the happy task of reading or rereading a lot of the popular and critical literature about Wilder: Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow, Ann Romines’s Constructing the Little House, and Elizabeth Jameson’s “In Search of the Great Ma” (Journal of the West 37 [Apr. 1998]), among others. The personal journeys of the women who wrote these works include a childhood familiarity with and love for the Little House books that ultimately led them to make the author the subject of their research. Each has her own personal encounter with Wilder herself (Romines) and/or the books (Fellman, Jameson). Other writers make their encounters with Wilder’s books the subject of their work: Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie or Nancy McCabe’s From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood, for example. I came to realize that, just like these women, I have my own “Laura” story.

NTK in 5th Grade

Me in fifth grade.

It begins in the fifth grade at Notre Dame Academy in Mitchell, South Dakota, when Sister Kieran began to read The Long Winter out loud after lunch one day. The timing was significant because most of her pupils lived nearby, and we had just trudged through snow and wind, parked our rubber over-boots and snow-crusted winter coats and scarves in the cloakroom, and taken our seats in the warm classroom. Laura’s hard winter outlasted our own and made us all grateful that our winter had not matched hers (although there were one or two years in the fifties and sixties when that could not be said). It also made us proud that the Ingallses were South Dakota pioneers—after all, De Smet was just a few miles up the road.

Even before Sister Kieran finished The Long Winter, I had visited the Carnegie Library downtown and borrowed all the Wilder books in the original edition with the Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle illustrations. My favorite book would always be The Long Winter, but I also developed a fondness for On the Banks of Plum Creek (which had plenty of blizzards, too) and These Happy Golden Years with its harsh beginning at the Brewsters’ (more snowstorms!)  and its happy ending. As I grew up to become a sort-of hippy at the end of the 1960s, I thought that all I needed was a plot of land and a copy of Little House in the Big Woods to become self-sufficient (in the event of a nuclear blast or some other catastrophe). I never tested the theory, but I remain convinced that, just like Ma and Pa, I am fully capable of making cheese and smoking meatLongWinter1

While I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that Wilder’s influence directed my career choices, I did eventually turn to American literature (via foreign languages, linguistics, and a brush with archaeology) as my academic path of study and to editing as my profession. Along the way I was fortunate enough to edit and annotate some of the Dakota writings of L. Frank Baum (Our Landlady, 1996), who spent a couple of formative years in Aberdeen, South Dakota. As editor of South Dakota History, I also got to work with and edit two of William Anderson’s groundbreaking biographical and critical studies of Wilder: “The Literary Apprenticeship of Laura Ingalls Wilder” (1983) and “Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane: The Continuing Collaboration” (1986). In 1997, I was invited to become a member of the board of directors of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, Inc., of De Smet, which is the curator of both the Surveyors’ House and the Ingalls Home. Serving on that board has been a privilege and a pleasure, and it has brought me close to many aspects of the Little Houses.

Then in 2005, when the South Dakota Historical Society Press decided to publish a biography series featuring the region’s important citizens, the first one the Press commissioned was Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life (2007). A few years later, we began work on Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, and again, I found the winter of 1880–1881 to be one of the high points of Wilder’s memoir, allowing me to sink my teeth into research in the newspapers of the period. Here I found that the burning of hay was an economy farmers practiced even before the long winter, that price gouging among merchants was not a failing only of Mr. Loftus, that the lonesome whistle of the last freight train into De Smet came a little later than Wilder remembered, and that American Indians had in fact acted as weather forecasters on other occasions.

And, for me, it all began on that snowy day in 1957, when Sister Kieran stood in front of the class and started to read, “The mowing machine’s whirring sounded cheerfully from the old buffalo wallow south of the claim shanty, where bluestem grass stood thick and tall and Pa was cutting it for hay.”

Nancy Tystad Koupal

I am grateful to classmate Susan Tessier Mollison who helped me refresh my memory of those long ago days at Notre Dame Academy.