by Susan Bagg
In 1932, a sixty-five-year-old woman from Mansfield, Missouri, Laura Ingalls Wilder, published her first book, Little House in the Big Woods. It began a series of eight volumes, which appeared over the next eleven years, recounting for children Laura’s girlhood in the Midwest during the late nineteenth century. The books take the pioneer family from their isolated cabin in Wisconsin, by covered wagon, to Kansas, Minnesota, and finally the Dakota Territory, where the Ingallses settled.
From those who know them, these stories elicit great devotion, but they are hardly universal favorites, like Little Women or Peter Rabbit, or even the works of Dr. Seuss. This season, though, NBC has a new television series based on the second volume, Little House onthe Prairie, using events rather loosely adapted from it and the other books, sometimes invented out of whole cloth. The series, if not very faithful to its source, is warmhearted, and presumably is introducing thousands of people to the books.
The books, on the other hand, are something more than warmhearted. At the most immediate level, they are entrancing tales of a vanished way of life. You learn how to slaughter a pig (and to play ball with a pork bladder), how to train oxen, milk-feed a pumpkin, build a door with a latchkey, dig a well. You meet bears, Indians, wolves, locusts. There are blizzards in which you can’t see your hand in front of your face, hailstones that knock a man out, tornadoes that strip off a boy’s clothes. You know what it’s like to sleep on the floor of the prairie, to learn in a one-room schoolhouse, to treasure glass windows, to go hungry.
In The Long Winter (the sixth volume), the town of De Smet, South Dakota—where the Ingallses homesteaded—endures seven months of blizzards, unrelieved by the supply train. The Ingalls family twists hay for the stove because they have run out of other fuel; they parcel out potatoes, salt pork, and finally just flour until spring. But every morning, Ma, Pa, and their daughters rise, wash, dress themselves properly, comb and arrange their hair, sweep, and make the beds, only to sit and wait for another day to pass.
Quiet adherence to the routines of daily life abuts adventure and hardship. The adventures are sensational, yet they are told without flourish. They are tucked into their place, not altering the discipline and merriment of the family. Their private values remain untouched by whatever outside forces appear. There must have been doubts over the treacherous life through which Pa led his family. But Laura celebrates the twinkle in her father’s eye and the rare independence of his spirit.
I didn’t read these books when I was young, but came to them for the first time when I read them aloud to my daughter. I understood at once how intensely a child would respond to Laura’s life; I was slower to realize how affected I was by these stories. For the year and a half we spent completing the series I wondered what it was that so moved me. We shared (my daughter and I) certain ways of liking the Little House books. She was no more immune than I to the romantic appeal of a time when life was hard but full of moral surety. For example, at a Fourth of July picnic, Laura reflects:
Americans won’t obey any king on earth. Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences. No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself. Why (she thought), when I am a little older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn’t anyone else who has a right to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good.
What saves that moment from sentimentality is the fact that it is described from a child’s point of view, and the faithfulness of these books to young Laura’s sensibility is a large part of their charm. For the story is told through the eyes of Laura; each book seems to duplicate in tone the age Laura was at the time the story takes place. Book by book, the narrative grows gradually in difficulty. In Little House on the Prairie, Laura watches the house being built:
Pa reached down and pulled up a slab. He laid it across the ends of the sapling rafters. Its edge stuck out beyond the wall. Then Pa put some nails in his mouth and took his hammer out of his belt, and he began to nail the slab to the rafters.
She must have been six or seven then, and her mind latched onto the process. When Laura is fourteen, her language reveals how her perceptions have changed. She has taken a job making shirts in De Smet, and she walks into town every morning:
A dank smell came from the saloons and a musty sourness from the ground by back doors where the dishwater was thrown out. But after you had been in town a little while you did not smell its smells, and there was some interest in seeing strangers go by.
As a child, Laura had been urged by her father to be “eyes” for her blind sister, Mary. This responsibility clearly intensified her view of the physical world, and must have established the images of her girlhood firmly in her memory. She leads us verbally by the hand, too, and a mother and daughter can respond to her loving specificity.
But there is something an adult and a child cannot share. It is a response that I have, because I am older, to certain passages, such as the one that ends Little House in the Big Woods:
When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”
“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said. “Go to sleep, now.” . . .
She thought to herself, “This is now.”
She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.
in this passage, Mrs. Wilder is remembering what it was like to be so fiercely involved in each moment that its transience is beyond recognition. She is describing, in the voice of the young Laura, the most precious instinct of childhood: intense feeling toward the present. But I feel the grown Laura’s presence there, aware of mortality and the passing of time.
Hemingway said that what matters most is what one leaves out, and this dictum is true with a vengeance of a children’s book author— or at least one who would deal in reality. Mrs. Wilder’s carefully controlled relinquishment of her adult sensibility makes the life she once led available to every child. And yet the adult voice behind the child’s never condescends; she simplifies, omits what may be too difficult for a young listener to understand, but never shirks an experience. The result is a prose that is always dignified and restrained, often eloquent, a rarity in children’s literature. Gradually you understand your pleasure: you are reading something that promised to be entertainment and that turns out to be art.
Mrs. Wilder’s autobiography builds to her courtship and marriage. When the Ingallses came to the Dakota Territory, Laura met Almanzo Wilder, son of a prominent New York farmer. (Almanzo’s boyhood is told in the third volume, Farmer Boy.) They homesteaded on a small claim in De Smet.
A ninth book, The First Four Years, incomplete and published posthumously, tells of their early married years on the claim. Late in their second autumn together, Laura gave birth to a beautiful and precocious daughter, Rose. This seems the only bright moment in their first years together, which were scourged by illness and crop failure.
The young Wilders left De Smet for Mansfield, Missouri, and a fresh start. (Laura kept a log of the journey, which was published in 1962 as On the Way Home.) We know little of the long life that followed. (She died in 1957 at the age of ninety.)
A small volume, West from Home, Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, San Francisco, 1915 (Harper & Row, $4.95), provides the first published glimpse of Laura as a grown woman. She was at that time forty-eight years old and visiting Rose and Rose’s husband, Gillette, for the San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition.
It was a curious situation. Rose was a feature writer for the San Francisco Bulletin, achieving considerable success writing articles on celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin and Henry Ford. Laura had left Almanzo in Mansfield to handle the farm work alone during the harvest. She had her own poultry business and did some writing for the Missouri Ruralist.
Mrs. Wilder was a farm woman from the inland and a pioneer girl who had stopped halfway across the West. It is no wonder that her view of San Francisco, the city that culminated the pioneer movement, is full of feeling: “You know I have never cared for cities but San Francisco is simply the most beautiful thing. Set on the hills as it is with glimpses of the bay here and there and at night with the lights shining up and down the hills and the lights of ships on the water, it is like fairyland.”She is effusive, but she is also accurate, offering colorful detail about the city and about the Exposition itself: “There is one building and courts that the city is planning to keep for a museum and park. This is where the most wonderful statuary is grouped along the walk and against the walls. ‘The Pioneer Mother’ is one—a life-size group on a pedestal so one looks up to it. A woman in a sunbonnet, of course pushed back to show her face, with her sleeves pushed up, guiding a boy and girl before her and sheltering and protecting them with her arms and pointing the way westward. It is wonderful and so true in detail. The shoe exposed is large and heavy and I’d swear it had been half-soled.”
But West from Home will be read with some frustration as a chance to see the woman Laura had become. The letters are not reflective. (Rose and Gillette were divorced in 1918, and Laura offers no motherly assessment of her daughter’s marriage.) Apparently she was using these letters as a first draft of articles about her trip with the intention of selling them, not merely as a communication with Almanzo. However, there are telling moments.
As Laura begins to think seriously about writing, it is odd to witness a daughter as patron to her mother’s ambitions. In her letter urging Laura’s visit, Rose writes: “I think by getting away from it all for awhile, and playing around with a bunch of people who are writing and drawing and otherwise being near-artists, you will get an entirely new viewpoint on things there, and be able to see a lot of new things to write when you go back. If the farm-paper market is closed, there are scads of other markets open. I got an invitation to submit stories to an eastern magazine the other day which I could turn over to you. I haven’t time to write for it myself— it is only a little magazine, but would probably pay $50 or so for a story. When you get things to running so that the farm work won’t take up so much time you can do things like that. And with the notes and mortgages paid off and your lovely home all built, you and Papa can take things easier.” Rose was far better off than her parents. She paid Laura’s fare from Mansfield to San Francisco and managed to give her mother an allowance as well to make up for the farm work she had to leave behind. During Laura’s stay. Rose spent some time helping her mother block out “stories.” One senses that Laura must have felt great pressure not to betray her provinciality: near the end of her trip she fell off a streetcar, an event so humiliating that she could barely acknowledge it to her husband, be" cause it would look “as if she could not take care of herself in a city.”
One can only guess at Laura’s discomfort with her daughter. She must have felt envy, perhaps scorn, for Rose’s successful life; by this time, and indeed long before, she had surely had ambitions of her own. Mrs. Wilder speaks only offhandedly about her own writing, but the inkling appears to have been with her for a long while, and was most likely profound. According to her eighth book, These Happy Golden Years, she wrote her first essay at fifteen; she read it aloud in class, before her teacher, Mr. Owen:
Ambition is necessary to accomplishment. Without an ambition to gain an end, nothing would be done. Without an ambition to excel others and to surpass one’s self there would be no superior merit. To win anything, we must have the ambition to do so.
Ambition is a good servant but a bad master. So long as we control our ambition, it is good, but if there is danger of our being ruled by it, then I would say in the words of Shakespeare, “Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition. By that sin fell the angels.”
That was all. Laura stood miserably waiting for Mr. Owen’s comment. He looked at her sharply and said, “You have written compositions before?”
“No, sir,” Laura said. “This is my first.”
“Well, you should write more of them. I would not have believed that anyone could do so well the first time.” Mr. Owen told her.
Laura stammered in astonishment. “It is s ... so short ... It is mostly from the dictionary . . .”
“It is not much like the dictionary,”Mr. Owen said. “There are no corrections. It grades one hundred. Class is dismissed.”
Enclosed with her letter of October 4 to Almanzo was a single sheet of paper marked “Private.” There Laura wrote: “The more I see of how Rose works the better satisfied I am to raise chickens. I intend to try to do some writing that will count, but I could not be driven by the work as she is for anything and I do not see how she can stand it.”
When finally she had made her choice, she chose to tell how the day went when she was young. And “it was not much like the dictionary.” Several years intervened between her trip to the West and the publication of her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, but I like to think that on the long ride home from worldliness, toward the prairie where she was reared, she was closer to knowing her own mind, and to discovering the way to reveal the treasures of her past.