Pioneer Girl

pgSo you feel like you’ve lived an interesting life, maybe a life that illustrates one of the archetypal American themes — Manifest Destiny, for example. How do you go about writing your life story for public consumption?

For Laura Ingalls Wilder, the process involved writing a long, seamless, sequential narrative to her writer daughter, Rose Wilder Lane — complete with personal notes (“You remember the dress…”) and directions indicating an awareness of a public audience that might one day read her story. Some passages are boxed with strict instructions to keep them secret. Others seem to dwell excessively on mundane details while racing right over more intriguing fare that’s left undeveloped.

The contrast in content between this heavily annotated draft and the famed Little House books for young readers didn’t catch me altogether by surprise. Some of the details of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life outside the books were familiar to me from Miller’s Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder. I knew about the little Ingalls brother who died, the rather depressed chapter of the family’s life spent in Iowa, the fact that the Ingallses were in Indian territory illegally. And some of the rougher experiences of pioneer life were apparent already from the books, even though they aren’t dwelt on: tornadoes and blizzards that take lives, a wife who threatens her husband with a butcher knife, alcoholism, and racism.

But more of these details are provided in Pioneer Girl, written matter-of-factly, with only occasional passages of the description Laura’s character develops in the novels as Mary’s “eyes.” Pioneer Girl gives us glimpses of domestic violence, drunkenness, even one episode where a very young Laura is nearly molested.

Even the Ingalls family comes out looking a little less saintly. Pa skips town with the family without paying rent; they show little concern for laws or treaties in their attitude toward the west (despite Pa’s stint as justice of the peace on Silver Lake); even their care of Laura seems somewhat lax in the way they send her to stay with others as a companion, even as a child. Mary comes across more realistically, less perfect than in the novels (though even in them we see her bossiness and, at times, narcissism). Laura herself is every bit as feisty and determined as in the stories — and then some. Sometimes she comes across as manipulative and overbearing. But in the essentials of resourcefulness, faithfulness to one another, neighborliness, and civic duty, the family remains consistent with their fictional counterparts.

There are plenty of surprises in details — the sequencing of the family’s travels westward, for instance. Characters are sometimes compilations of real people. In some matters, Wilder’s memory is simply unreliable, as the annotations point out by reporting on the degree of correspondence between Wilder’s memory and historical fact. All of this raises interesting questions about the process by which life is converted into fiction — or even into autobiography. When I mentioned to my daughters that Jack the brindle bulldog was actually traded away with Pet and Patty, they felt betrayed — as though Laura Ingalls Wilder had deliberately lied to them! But the Little House books are fiction. We know this — yet we develop such an attachment to the cast of characters that it’s difficult to accept the ways the books differ from reality.

The books, Wilder said, were not pure history — but they were true. Truth vs. accuracy. Certainly one dimension of the stories’ truth that came through to me as I read Pioneer Girl was Laura’s feeling as she sits with Almanzo on the doorstep of their home on the night of her marriage and feels grateful that she will never have to live among strangers again. She has a place of her own. There is a sense of danger and insecurity emanating from Pioneer Girl that I never felt in the Little House books. Its release to a public audience after all these years supplies a fascinating and necessary context to the series.

Other posts on Laura Ingalls Wilder:

A Little House Traveler

lhtI picked up A Little House Traveler by chance on the juvenile biography shelf last week. Barbara at Stray Thoughts hosts a Laura Ingalls Wilder Challenge this month, and when I saw this title it looked interesting.

It was a very quick-moving read comprised of Laura’s letters and journals from three of her trips: from DeSmet to Missouri as a young married woman; to San Francisco as a middle-aged woman to visit her daughter Rose; and back to DeSmet with Almanzo (and Nero the dog) for a visit as an elderly woman.

It was interesting to see her world narrow over the course of these writings. The first journey was filled with keen observation and literate reading of the landscape. I was struck by how very smart Laura really was, with an intelligence well furnished with practical knowledge. She can read the crops, know the prices they bring, identify the vegetation, and describe the lay of the land and its health. This first journey was the most interesting to me. The second journey registers her interest in developing her writing, but other than that it was slow going for me, perhaps because it doesn’t carry the drama of the first journey. And the final trip to DeSmet was anticlimactic, even depressing. We get no sense of her emotional response to seeing her sisters for the first time in 40 years, and almost no description of Almanzo or his reactions, but we get lots of detail about the food and how Nero the dog is doing. (This is fascinating, considering that at this point she has written Little House in the Big Woods and is at the very beginning of a very fertile period as a writer.)

We get a sense of the grimness around the edges in Laura’s personality. She can be loving, but she’s often critical and searingly blunt. I liked seeing the affection Rose seemed to have for her, though I felt the picture we get of Rose, and of Rose and Laura’s relationship, is quite incomplete here. (Then again, any biography is highly selective.) Laura and Almanzo’s marriage shared a very deep bond, forged through shared hardship and determination, and both were very gifted people in their own right. But it’s always interesting to me how little she actually says about him among the many words she’s written. Maybe that can be regarded as an achievement: even though she achieved a level of fame, her marriage kept its privacy from the outside world, and its mystery.

My favorite book about Laura Ingalls Wilder is Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder by John E. Miller. I’ve read it twice, and reviewed it here. I also read The Wilder Life, which I liked less. This book falls somewhere in between. It was on the juvenile shelf, but none of the content was composed with children in mind. I can see how it would be useful for a school report, and it contains a few photos that would be of interest. I enjoyed reading it, especially the first section, and getting a glimpse of travel before the age of automobiles. I also liked being able to see Laura’s frame of mind as they traveled to Missouri in hopes of starting over after such a disastrous first few years.

I’ve written on Laura Ingalls Wilder in these posts, too:

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge

Books in the atmosphere

I’ve been reading in undisciplined fashion this summer — which means that instead of being in my usual one-book-at-a-time mode, I’m in multi-read mode. Currently I’m alternating between Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Edith Nesbit’s Treasure Seekers, and, in preparation for my soon-to-be sixth grader’s reading list for next year, Don Quixote. (Hers will be an abridgement!) The multi-read mode is risky for me; I always wait with bated breath to see if I’ll finish any of the books on my nightstand. But it’s part of my summer state of mind to take an airier approach.

Meantime, the girls and I have thoroughly enjoyed Cynthia Voight’s Angus and Sadie as a read-aloud. For a family of border collie owners, this lighthearted story about two border collies adopted by a young couple on a farm hit the spot. Angus and Sadie have distinctive personalities and strengths, and as they undergo training and make the adjustment to their new home, we learn about their experiences from their point of view. Both active, bold Angus and biddable, timid Sadie eventually find their niche on the farm and illustrate the different ways the herding instinct can manifest itself.

This week we started Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare in a belated effort to enrich our history study. I showed the girls the typical play format in my imposing Pelican Shakespeare, then made the transition to the paperback edition of Lamb’s book of summaries for children. So far it’s going well and seems like an effective and pleasurable way to introduce an overview of England’s most famous playwright.

In the airwaves, the girls have had various audiobooks playing. Little Town on the Prairie was timely to hear just before the fourth of July, since it devotes a chapter to the embryonic town of De Smet’s Independence Day celebration — complete with a reading from the Declaration of Independence. I was struck by the keenness of these pioneers’ gratitude for their freedom. They had their share of hard times and were far from wealthy, but they had a work ethic, an impressive range of practical skills and useful knowledge, and a fierce desire to make their own way in the world that made their freedom deeply meaningful. I feel my lack of such a knowledge inheritance, and I wonder what its loss will ultimately cost. I can’t help but wonder if freedom is frightening to a people who have lost the basic ability to survive without dependence on machines, systems, and consumable products.

The other story in the air around here has been The Magician’s Nephew. I’m always struck by the rollicking humor in the story, which I never really picked up on till I heard Kenneth Branagh’s reading. The scenes involving the White Witch’s adventures in London are pure comedy, and there is something magical, always, about hearing the stories read with a British accent. The other theme I was interested in this time was the “olden times” theme. It’s establishing a history of Narnia, so it’s a narrative necessity for it to take place in the past for Lewis’s audience. But there is a touch of satire, too. Lewis’s narrator doesn’t really glorify the past, but in some places he does seem to acknowledge that he is free to take artistic license with it — to exaggerate a bit here and there, or to generalize. When Aunt Letty is hurled across the room by Queen Jadis and recovers, we’re told that aunts were often tough old ladies “in those days.” And when Polly is sent to her room after a supper with all the “nice parts taken out,” we’re told, “It was a thing that happened to one quite often in those days.” It sounds to me like he’s gently poking fun at the tendency we have to recast history and make a better story out of it — kind of like Frost’s speaker in “The Road Not Taken,” who sees no essential difference between the two roads before him at the moment of choice, but who knows that later he’ll make a good story out of it.

Last but not last — and not entirely literary, either — is Pride and Prejudice, courtesy of Netflix. This television mini-series from 1995 with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth is my favorite movie version of the story, and I re-watch it periodically to regale my ears with elegant language and my eyes with elegant manners and clothing. The girls have tuned in this time with great enthusiasm. We don’t watch much T.V. around here, but it’s been a lot of fun celebrating what appears to be our first chick flick fest together. I hope that when they get around to reading the real thing the good memories will serve as motivation.

The Wilder Life

I picked up The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie at a publisher’s book sale that comes to our area once a year. It has one of the most attractive covers ever, in my opinion, and as someone who has read and reread the Little House books, I dropped it into my book bag without having to think about it.

Reading it was a different story. I actually considered throwing it away after the first fifty pages or so. It’s billed as “irreverent,” but the tone and attempts at humor weren’t my style. It made me consider whether there’s a difference between “irreverent” — which implies interrogating myths in a good way — and merely “disrespectful” — which involves recasting someone else so thoroughly in one’s own terms as to simply bury them.

In the end, though, The Wilder Life grew on me.

I couldn’t ever fully relate to Wendy McClure’s overwhelming desire to find a way into what she calls “Laura World,” the imagined world of the stories. But her travels to almost all the Little House historic sites, her efforts to churn butter and twist hay, and her reflections on the interaction between the books and her own developing identity drew me in and got me thinking.

I read the Little House books as a kid, then reread them as an adult when my daughters discovered them and listened to the audiobooks. It prompted me to write some of my random thoughts about the Little House books, inspired me to reread a Laura Ingalls Wilder biography, and kept Laura in my mind as a standard for comparison when we read Caddie Woodlawn. We did attempt a milk-fed pumpkin like the one Almanzo grows in Farmer Boy last spring (a failed endeavor that resulted in a dead pumpkin vine and a margerine tub full of milk and slugs), and I did print out an internet recipe for vanity cakes like the ones in Plum Creek. (It stayed on the fridge for months but never got tried — maybe because of the prominence of lard as an ingredient.) And I remembered as I read The Wilder Life that I’ve been to Laura and Almanzo’s Missouri home site, and the photos my mom purchased there of the Ingalls family are interspersed with our own family photos in our album of that trip. So while I don’t think of myself as a Laura-devotee, I guess you’d have to say I’m a committed reader — someone who has wrestled at times with the distinction between legend and reality.

I found myself really enjoying visiting the different Laura places with McClure, and hearing her descriptions and reactions. She visits the historic sites in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, South Dakota, and New York, seeking the mysterious point of intersection between fictional and lived life. In some sense it’s a personal quest as well as a literary one, and McClure gets somewhere in her travels.

She meets other Laura-readers along the way, some of whom are described. They help to underscore the point that in addition to the shaping effects of fiction when the Ingalls family is translated to the written page, there are also layers of readerly perception that we impose on the stories — baggage we bring to our reading. There is a group of what she calls “End-Timers” at a homesteading weekend who are trying to learn to live off the land so as to be prepared for the end of the world. There are various families with kids dressed in prairie attire. There is a stereotypical homeschool family. When they try to put into words the appeal of the Little House books, many of them cite the “simplicity” and “contentment” they feel Laura Ingalls Wilder exemplifies.

I haven’t ever really thought of Laura in these terms. I’m no doubt influenced by Wendell Berry’s comment once that though people frequently extol his “simplicity,” what he’s actually trying to do is “complexify.” Running through his writings is an attempt to uncover the relationships between different aspects of “culture and agriculture,” and I think the Ingalls story is full of a similar complexity. What impresses me about them is how much they know about the natural setting in which they live out their lives, and how enormously capable and skilled they are at finding or making what they need to survive. They often have bad luck, but they survive because they have so many practical skills and so much inherited knowledge. I admire that about them, although I’m not motivated to emulate them in this respect because it doesn’t seem necessary to know how to make a latch with a string or a puncheon floor. Growing food and canning are practical skills I’d like to master. But the Ingalls’ epic context of wilderness and weather and yet-to-be-formed civilization no longer exists.

[Okay, I’ve gone off track here. I meant simply to say that I don’t think their lives are “simple.” I think they are very accomplished in a wide and intricate range of life skills. Somehow I got into my own ambivalence about having a similar set of life skills in an era when many of them seem no longer to be necessary…]

As far as “contentment,” isn’t Laura’s discontent one of the traits that makes her so appealing in the stories? Like Pa, she always wants to keep traveling, to keep searching. Mary is the content one, and it’s what makes her less interesting. Laura’s whole life, in and out of the books, seems to be about self-improvement, building and building-on until you’ve finally carved out the place you imagined. Even her writerly ambition, not acted upon until later in life, implies a restlessness. So I don’t really relate to the view of Laura as “simple and content.” It seems more apt to call her accomplished and motivated.

I think the other thing about Laura Ingalls Wilder that makes her such a strong presence is her passionate nature. She has some intensely lived moments, and while I wouldn’t say she ever gets to that sense of “arrival” that belongs in my understanding of contentment, she is able to fully delight in certain moments. It’s what gives her such keen powers of description, and enables us to feel like we’re there with her in the stories.

As I read The Wilder Life, I remembered The Magician’s Book, Laura Miller’s account of “a skeptic’s adventures in Narnia.” Like Wendy McClure, Laura Miller wrote about her intense identification with the fictional world of a set of stories, and she tried to come to terms with it as an adult. I’ve enjoyed both the Little House books and the Narnia books; more than that, I’d say both have been very important to me, and my affection and appreciation for them has endured into my (alleged) adulthood. But I don’t know if I’ve ever been so completely involved in a reading experience as either of these writers. The degree of imaginative identification they feel as child readers (both were around 8 or 9 when they first read the books they write about) amounts almost to a religious quest. They seem to have been looking for a worthy object of faith, or a vision of who to be.

I can’t say that I’ve ever approached a book with that kind of intensity. Maybe books are a safe place to entrust some of our tenderest aspirations and dreams. Or maybe they’re not so safe, if we invest too much of ourselves in them, and then have to untangle the me from the not-me later in life. But I have to say that in both cases I’ve been glad these authors have done the work and written about their experience. I have a different worldview than Wendy McClure, different experiences with reading the Little House books, and different ideas about how to write about a beloved author or set of books. But in the end The Wilder Life invited me to think about my own ideas about the books and their author. At some points — when McClure writes about the relationship between Laura and Rose, for instance, or about the historical context of the little house on the prairie, or about the impulse some have to impose a rather showy evangelical faith on the Ingalls family — I felt like I was getting to be a part of a discussion I’ve wanted to have. I’m glad I pressed on through my first reactions and took the whole journey.

Caddie Woodlawn

My copy of the book looks like this.

It took us a long time to read Caddie Woodlawn. But we never lost the thread, and our interest never waned.

I enjoyed this book when I was a child, and I enjoyed revisiting it with my children just as much. Assuming most folks are familiar with the plot of this frontier story about a girl in Wisconsin around the time of the Civil War, I’m going to concentrate on our reactions as we close the book.

First, comparison to Laura Ingalls Wilder is hard to resist. With the girls, I brought up the episode where Laura lures Nellie Olsen into leech-infested waters in On the Banks of Plum Creek, and asked them to compare it to the episode in this book where Caddie and her brothers play a series of practical jokes on their prim cousin Annabelle from Boston — culminating in an egg dropped down her dress. It was interesting to hear their thoughts. Nellie is more unrelentingly mean than Annabelle; Laura never feels sorry, but Caddie is already having pangs of conscience even before the final joke is played; Laura is never disciplined, but Caddie is. (Unfairly — leading down another bunny trail discussion about justice and equality.) On the whole Carol Ryrie Brink’s tale is more rich and instructive.

When I asked the girls whether they liked one book more than the other, one daughter said immediately, “Caddie.” That was startling to me… After all, we’ve had all eight of the Little House books to build affection for Laura, and here comes Caddie, rising to first place in just one book about one year. When asked, my daughter said it was because Caddie has more adventures. I’m not sure that’s an accurate perception, but I do think that Caddie has a more compassionate heart than Laura, who is interested in justice but doesn’t really do anything comparable to what Caddie does when she rides to the Indian camp to warn them away from disgruntled settlers, or uses her silver dollar to buy gifts for little Indian boys whose mother has left, or recognizes that her tattletale little sister is lonely.

I’m not sure where I intended to go with this review when I started… I don’t think I meant to write a comparison between Caddie and Laura, but here I am. Oh well. As long as I’m in this swamp, I’ll mention that I felt this book gives a greater sense of the historical context than the Little House books. You never hear much about any outside events that anchor the Ingalls family in a specific period of history. From the beginning (when the circuit rider leaves his watch to be repaired) to the end (when Dunnville has celebrated the ending of the Civil War and mourned the assassination of the President), Caddie Woodlawn is a world conscious of the passing of time.

1944 ed. illustrated by Kate Seredy. It pictures Caddie and Nero welcoming the circuit rider, whose visits frame the story.

Most basically, the passage of time marked by this book is personal. It’s a coming of age story, and Caddie’s awakening is gentler and kinder than Laura’s in the years between Plum Creek and Silver Lake. Laura’s sister goes blind, her family goes west, and her dog dies, and as she watches Pa drive away Laura comments briefly that she realized at that moment that she’d grown up and had a job to do. Caddie’s family enjoys a comfortable margin, her family opts to stay together in Wisconsin instead of going away to England, and her dog returns (a favorite scene for all three of us!).

The best and most pointed passage to adulthood comes in a conversation between Caddie and her father, when he gives her a vision of the future that inspires her in a time when she desperately needs the encouragement. Speaking of the need for women who can temper the masculine pioneer world with gentleness, he says,

It takes nerve and courage and patience, but good women have those things. They have them just as much as the men who build bridges and carve roads through the wilderness. A woman’s work is something fine and noble to grow up to, and it is just as important as a man’s. But no man could ever do it well. I don’t want you to be the silly, affected person with fine clothes and manners whom folks sometimes call a lady. No, that is not what I want for you, my little girl. I want you to be a woman with a wise and understanding heart, healthy in body and honest in mind…

His words make the difference for Caddie. She wakes feeling like a different person:

Something strange had happened to Caddie in the night. When she awoke she knew that she need not be afraid of growing up. It was not just sewing and weaving and wearing stays. It was something more thrilling than that. It was a responsibility but, as Father spoke of it, it was a beautiful and precious one, and Caddie was ready to go and meet it.

Random thoughts on the Little House books

My mother read us the Little House books when my family drove across the country. We drove from New York to California, tent-camping all the way, the summer before I entered 7th grade, and these stories about another westward-moving family were a wonderful accompaniment. Those were the days before iPods or portable dvd-players (or even dvd’s, truth be told). We were in it together.

Now my daughters and I have gone through them all — all the books for children, that is. The First Four Years we’ll save for when the girls are older.

Some random thoughts, revisiting the books as an adult:

*It’s so striking, the happy, optimistic ending of These Happy Golden Years. Knowing the hardship of the life that followed, and the distance that eventually separated Laura and Almanzo from their families, gives it a bittersweet feel.

*Growing up with Laura. From the Big Woods all the way to Almanzo’s tree claim, we’ve watched a little girl mature. I felt that Laura’s courtship and marriage gave my girls a way of imagining themselves one day as young ladies. I loved hearing their opinions and interpretations along the way. And I especially hoped they noticed how much both Pa and Almanzo seemed to care about providing for their wives’ needs, and how much respect both couples radiated.

*Race. The books give an honest insight into their age. For instance, Pa seems open-minded about the Indians — even though he does take part in their displacement, and even squats on Osage land in Little House on the Prairie. But Ma, along with Mr. and Mrs. Scott, are as anti-Indian as can be, utterly racist in their views. Then in Little Town on the Prairie Pa performs in a minstrel show for one of the town sociables in a parody of “darkies.” It seems racially degrading, but I’d have a hard time believing it’s intentionally so. Later in life, Laura writes in her newspaper column against a racist or provincial attitude. So there are different levels of awareness running through the age — and through the books.

*Almanzo is willing to risk his life for wheat for the town-dwellers in The Long Winter. He makes a heroic trip with Cap Garland and persuades a settler to sell his seed wheat for the starving women and children of DeSmet. Yet Almanzo himself has a big supply of seed wheat that he hides and refuses to sell.     ?

*A few weeks ago my hairdresser was talking about Laura Ingalls Wilder with my daughters, and she told them that if Laura were alive today she would be “green.” How would Laura feel about being put in that category? I don’t sense any of the agrarian nostalgia in Laura that I (and other readers) are tempted to feel when we read her books. She and Pa both seem to see the railroad, and the idea of Progress, as glamorous. And Pa isn’t only a farmer, but a jack-of-all-trades (and master of most).

*Last but not least, a word on my ongoing discussion (with myself, even if no one else is interested!) about audiobooks: We read the first half of These Happy Golden Years aloud, at a fairly slow pace. Then we listened to the last half via audiobook in the car. There were things I liked better about doing the reading myself; the girls obviously had the story on their minds more, and asked more questions, and thought things through more. On the other hand, I like the audiobooks, which include occasional accents from the fiddle, and include the tunes of songs Pa sang. Besides that, they carried on long past the point where I would have gotten carsick or sleepy.

I like both approaches to the books, for different reasons. I’ve given some thought to the reservations I’ve had about audiobooks. It does bother me that my oldest is not quicker to pick up a book and work at it; she’d rather multitask, and listen to a story while doing something hands-on. I’ve wondered if I’ve allowed too many audiobooks, and made her lazy about the more skill-dependent process of reading.

However, it occurs to me that she is a hands-on person, with or without audiobooks. When I stop and think about it, I’m not sure she’d be any quicker to pick up a book in a silent house than in a house forever breathing stories. But with audiobooks, she has the opportunity to be exposed to much more literature, many more instances of the rhythms of written speech, and many more imaginative furnishings of her mind than she would have in a house silent except for when I’m reading aloud. Like anything else, there are pros and cons, and excesses to be avoided. But on the whole I think audiobooks are a good thing.

And Cherry Jones does an excellent job with the Little House books, too — even though I can’t keep from picturing her as the U.S. President, as she was in 24 last season.

Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder

I read Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend for the first time in the fall of 2007. My daughters and I had been exploring the earlier Little House books for the first time since I’d experienced them as a child, and I had a desire to learn more about the author behind these wonderful stories. Now we’re into the later books in the series, and my interest was piqued again. Why the same biography? Because it left me feeling deflated the first time, and I wanted to give it another chance.

Some of the reviews over at Amazon fault this book for being “too scholarly.” I don’t feel that way at all. I love the wealth of detail John E. Miller supplies about the world that surrounds the fictional world of the Ingalls family. Reading the stories, we have a strong sense of one very tightly-knit family facing the elements and living the great adventure (or the great version of the adventure) of American independence and resourcefulness against the backdrop of westward expansion. Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder provides a broader, more documentary, fascinating lens for experiencing the Ingalls family story.

The books leave me with a sense of warmly loving security. This biography reminds me that Laura’s life was more than anything else a tale of extreme and unrelenting poverty, and little of the material success usually associated with “the American dream.” The homespun contentment of the Little House books is expanded here into a more complex fabric of accompanying heartache and failure and courage made more admirable through this unromanticized reflection on the details of the life that began as Laura Ingalls, became Mrs. A.J. Wilder, and ended up “becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder” the beloved children’s writer.

As I read, I had many opportunities to speculate on a subject that’s long interested me: how life is written into autobiography. The Little House books are fictionalized autobiography, but Laura at one point asserted that every event was accurate. This isn’t true; names and characters were changed, events were reordered for the sake of narrative structure, and much is left out, pointing to the mysteriousness of how we create ourselves in our own life story. Why do we include some things and not others? How reliable is our memory? And to what extent is the result, if not accurate, “truthful”?

But more interesting (and sometimes sad) than this kind of abstract rumination are the facts of a long life, well-lived. Almanzo emerges from these pages as a largely silent man, very different from the genial and expansive personality Laura’s father exhibits in the stories — able and hard-working despite physical weakness, but not merry or especially striking. Laura is depicted as a cheerful, ambitious, sometimes manipulative person, in some ways the stronger party in the marriage. And their daughter Rose Wilder Lane is prominently featured as an extremely intelligent and gifted person who never seemed to manage to find her own identity. In these pages she appears to be a tangle of love and generosity mixed with resentment and a strong desire to dominate and control.

Miller uses Rose’s letters and diaries to reconstruct some of the tension that existed between mother and daughter. He takes a balanced view of the controversy over Rose’s role in the authorship of the books. I come away with the sense that Laura’s was the lived life, hers the descriptive eye and the interpretation of her experience, whereas Rose was the editor — an editor given quite a free hand, but not on an equal footing with her mother by any means in the creation of the stories. She and Laura discussed their revision and editing at great length, and it was Laura who retained the authorial decision-making power.

When it comes to questions of personalities or the subtleties of family relationships, I’m not sure how reliable Miller’s inferences are. When all is said and done, Laura and Almanzo’s life together retained a veil of privacy that prevents anyone from truly knowing what their relationship was like. And Rose’s copious diaries and letters betray a rollercoaster of feelings about her relationship with her mother of which there’s no evidence Laura was even aware, and about which the lack of any comparable personal revelation on her side makes it impossible to judge. For the most part, Miller handles this inconclusiveness with delicacy.

There’s no question that Laura Ingalls Wilder was determined, capable, keenly observant, devoted, faithful to her Christian profession, and a skilled and knowledgable farm wife who exhibited an equal partnership with her husband advanced for her time. On top of all of this, at age 44 she began to write, and in her sixties emerged as a talented author whose books are truly unique as lived history. She lived consistently with her ideal, as she expressed it: “Love and service, with a belief in the future and expectation of better things in the tomorrow of the world, is a good working philosophy.”

Socialization or sufficiency?

This is Katie.

She’s a border collie. She’s bred for intelligence and stamina, made to herd sheep all day long. Instead, she spends most of her days sleeping or chasing frisbees or going for walks on a leash. She’s a good sport. But her life with us is not the purpose she was made for.

What are people made for?

This is Almanzo Wilder:

His boyhood life is the subject of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, which we’ve been reading. It’s a life loaded with purpose, skill, knowledge, and stamina. It’s a life loaded with hardship before it’s done.

In Farmer Boy, he’s part of a prosperous farming family in northern New York State. It’s a big farm, diversified to include livestock and crops. He’s the youngest of four children in the story (though the family eventually expands by 2 more children). All of them work hard, and by the age of 9, Almanzo already has more skill and knowledge in many practical areas of life than I will ever have.

It struck me today that the concept of socialization would be puzzling and amusing to this family. By today’s standards they are “isolated.” They go to school only when not needed on the farm. The family comprises the main social unit, and it’s a viable economic, agricultural, physical fellowship. It requires everyone to work long and intelligently, and when there’s time to rest they provide each other with companionship.

How different from the disembodied abstraction “community” has become in much of our talk. I helped to develop and organize community on the worship team for a few years in church, and it was an uphill battle. How do you build a viable community without practical interdependence?

As a homeschooler I can provide my children, perhaps, with social experience that excludes some of the negatives of contemporary culture. By making family, not the schoolroom, our microcosm of society, we can structure it around different values than those that prevail in public school. But can I do any better at supplying the purposefulness of pre-industrialized “community”?

The Wilders needed one another to survive and prosper. They shared a common enterprise that was as practical, concrete, and daily as could be imagined as they ran their farm. What is there in my life as a suburban mom that compares?

Here are Almanzo and Laura at the start of their marriage:

Here’s what they looked like at the end of their lives:

After diphtheria, partial paralysis, the death of a son, the loss of a home to fire, struggles against crippling poverty at the start of their marriage, and several moves, they made a successful life on a diversified farm. They had the toughness and adaptability and practical life skills to survive. And they had their family. That was it. It didn’t “take a village.”

Sometimes I think we look to “community” to supply other missing pieces of the puzzle. Just how much is it socialization that my kids (or myself) need? Or how much is it knowledge and character of a kind that’s perhaps lost to us?–as lost to us as the awareness of real practical need in a physically challenging world.