Tag Archives: Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Stories We Tell

Frontier

“Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American history.  That the frontier was gone, and agricultural settlements had taken its place when I married a farmer.  It seemed to me that my childhood had been much richer and more interesting than that of children today, even with all the modern inventions and improvements.” – Laura Ingalls Wilder, as referenced in Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser

Storytelling just seems to be on my mind lately.  Recently, while substitute teaching a high school English class, students were asked to respond to a journal prompt asking them to name the best storyteller in their life and what made that person such a great storyteller.  As students wrote, I responded in my own way.  I thought about what I would write.

Hands down, my dad is the best storyteller I know.  Maybe it is the fact that he is a hunter and storytelling is such a rich part of the hunting tradition or maybe he just likes to gab.  It could be a little of both.  As a young girl, I loved listening to my dad’s stories, no matter what the subject.  Throughout my childhood, he told me local legends, none of which I quite believed.  In fact, my dad has a reputation for making a story more exciting or scary for his children.  When he told me the local legend of the witchy wolves (you can read what I wrote about them here), I truly thought he made it up in an effort to scare me and my sister.  Our family happened to be walking in the Omer plains, the supposed home of the witchy wolves, when he told me this story, which added to the ambiance.  One of many, dad always seemed to have some story to share.

What makes him such a good storyteller?  I am not sure, but I do know that he likes to include elements of truth, humor, and fear in his stories.  His best stories include all three.  Some of his hunting stories, which always contain more of a human element than anything, stick with me after all these years. More than anything, he knows how to keep interest and seems to always have a story for any occasion.

If there is one thing that I hope to inherit from my parents, it is their storytelling abilities.  While children’s love of good storytelling doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, there is a disconnect.  They way we tell stories changed.  If we are looking to encourage kids to engage more with the world around them instead of the digital world, maybe we should encourage them to tell their own stories and develop their own storytelling abilities and style.

Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I am a part of the micro-generation between Gen Xers and Millennials, born between 1977 and 1983, now called Xennials.  Those of us in that microgeneration watched our world transition from analog to digital.  This is one of the main reasons we are considered our own microgeneration.  While Gen Xers largely experienced a largely analog childhood, Millennials are the first true digital natives.  As a Xennial, I experienced the transition firsthand.  This is precisely why I can relate to the Laura Ingalls Wilder quote above.  I may not have experienced the frontier, but I did experience a fundamental change in culture and way of life.  I can only hope to tell my story of that transition.  All I can do is keep trying.

Xennial

Book Review: Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser

Prairie Fires

As an avid fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work, I felt I had to read Prairie Fires:  The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser.  While it is marketed as a new biography and even won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for biography, it seems to be so much more.  In her work, Caroline Fraser not only takes the time to ground very personal decisions made by Laura and her husband Almanzo into the larger backdrop of American history, she takes it several steps further.  She analyzes decisions made by Charles Ingalls, Laura’s father, and Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s daughter, against their political leanings and larger political climate.

Frankly, if a book looks at least reasonably well-written (not fan-fic) and promises new insight on anything related to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life and work, I am likely to pick it up.  However, that doesn’t mean that I agree with everything or there aren’t inherent biases in such work.  As much as I enjoyed Prairie Fires, there is one overarching issue I believe is being overlooked.

Before I get into the issue, which, as with all things controversial relating to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her work, involves her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, some background is needed.  First, I read this book this past spring.  I enjoyed it, and it just fermented for a while.  I couldn’t quite figure out what bothered me about the presentation of politics throughout the book, until I happened to witness another conversation about the book.

A month or two after I read the book, I happened to be having lunch with some friends from Mid-Michigan Writers when two other women came to have a conversation with my friends.  One woman began gushing over Prairie Fires and stated that she would love to have a political conversation around the book. While I do not know this woman well, her politics proceeded her due to several mutual acquaintances.  I didn’t join in the conversation other than to say that I loved the book; however, it finally came to me why I felt something was off.

For those who don’t know, Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane is one of the founding members of the modern Libertarian party and all that that entails.  In fact, Rose deserves her own blog post or even series of blog posts.  There is that much material.  Early in the 20th century, Rose was the famous Wilder.  The political legacy she left is messy and quite complex.  While my own personal politics lean more towards that of Laura and Almanzo (center-right), particularly when considering fiscal matters, than Rose, I don’t feel that the Caroline Fraser understood any of the politics completely.  Caroline Fraser seemed to analyze the political tendencies of the Ingalls and Wilder families through a modern liberal lens.

The most glaring example of this bias for me comes when Fraser implies that Laura is perhaps a hypocrite for serving on a local farm loan board near her home in Mansfield, Missouri while not supporting the sweeping federal farm loan programs of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Actually, I completely get it.  Laura and Almanzo favored local control of government.  I do as well.  The implication and omission of this distinction stood out to me.

If Fraser didn’t understand the politics of Laura and Almanzo, she didn’t know what to make of Rose Wilder Lane.  In all fairness, I don’t if anyone will ever completely understand her life.  In her life, Lane goes from supporting elements of communism and fascism to standing up for the founding principles of the United States of America.  She did all of this, of course, while helping her mother complete her famous series of children’s books.

Perhaps we will never know where Rose’s influence began and ended when it comes to the Little House books.  It is an enduring debate surrounding the series.  Fraser comes right out and describes the mother and daughter writing relationship as “incestuous.”  I came to a stop for a minute at that description, silently accusing Fraser of sensationalism.  Then I thought about it.  As I stated earlier, there is no way to know precisely what role Rose played in the series.  While I do not believe that Rose largely wrote the books, I do believe that the books would not exist in their current form without her influence.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book.  Political bias aside, Caroline Fraser extensively researched her material.  Prior to reading Prairie Fires, I found Rose Wilder Lane to be a fascinating character.  After reading the book, I left even more intrigued.  As a fiscal conservative with libertarian tendencies, I can relate to some of Lane’s political ideas.  I love the fact that she promoted individualism, personal liberty, and self-determination.  Those ideas still hold value and are needed today more than ever in the face of increasing collectivism.  Can individualism and self-determination be taken too far?  Absolutely, and so can collectivism.  We need a balance.

By the way, I find talk surrounding the book to be politically divisive.  You can read a Slate review here (the reviewer really doesn’t get the politics).  In the book, Lane’s political activism is compared with the other two “mothers” of the libertarian movement:  Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson.  You can read more about them here.  If you are interested in Laura Ingalls Wilder, American history, or politics at all, Prairie Fires is a must-read.

Libertarian

RWL Quote

Middle Grades Versus Young Adult Fiction

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The topic of young adult literature fascinates me.   As part of her MOOCs discussing the life and work of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pamela Smith Hill, an author herself, explores the development of the YA genre, as well as the ever-shifting boundary between middle grade and young adult literature.  As a writer who intends to eventually write in both genres and as a future middle school/high school teacher, her explanations of both genres left me wanting to learn more.  It also left me feeling as though there are no hard and fast rules.  Pamela Smith Hill credits authors such as Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, and Laura Ingalls Wilder with creating the young adult genre, even though the modern classification didn’t formally come into use until the 1950s.

Until I watched this series of videos, I never thought of the Little House series as divided into middle grades and young adult fiction.  I classified it all as middle grades, even though I reread the entire series, including The First Four Years, as an adult.  However, throughout her series of videos, Pamela Smith Hill makes a compelling case for considering On the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years among the first young adult novels.  While I always knew that The First Four Years could not rightly be considered a part of the Little House series, I now have a much better understanding as to why.

According to Pamela Smith Hill, the book was Wilder’s attempt to write for an adult audience.  Indeed, it does deal with adult themes such as marriage, choosing a vocation, and economic hardship.  Interestingly, the book only came to the attention of Rose Wilder Lane, Wilder’s only child and literary heir, upon her mother’s death.  There are several theories as to why, but what I find interesting as a reader is that The First Four Years just feels different.  There is a different tone, and in many ways, it is sparse where other novels in the series are not.  As a writer, I understand why it was not published in Wilder’s lifetime, even though it is a good book.  It simply did not fit her literary legacy.

All of this leads me to a few conclusions.  First, it is possible to allow a series of books to grow with the reader.  As a child, this is what left me disappointed with mystery series.  The main characters never seemed to grow.  This is also why the Anne of Green Gables series and the Little House books remain among my childhood favorites.  Second, rules in publishing can be broken.  What it is important is to tell the truth, even if it isn’t the whole truth.  Dealing with difficult issues honestly is particularly important in YA literature.  Laura Ingalls Wilder did this well, even if she did fictionalize some aspects of her story to conceal identities or to simply make a better story.  Finally, it is important to control one’s literary legacy, even if only during one’s lifetime.  As a child of the ‘80s, I am completely conflicted when it comes to the Little House on the Prairie TV series.  I loved it as a child.  As an adult, I question the liberties taken with the source material, among many other things.  That leads to an overarching question:  How much control can a writer exert over his or writing from the grave?  If nothing else, it is an interesting topic.

Creative Non-Fiction: Real Life, Only Better

CNF

This past semester, I spent the last three weeks of my creative writing class studying creative non-fiction.  I looked forward to this part of the course from the beginning.  Even though I didn’t necessarily know the term per se prior to my class, the idea and technique long fascinated me.  It is one of many reasons why I am so intrigued with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work.  As an adult, I learned that many scenes and even characters in the Little House on the Prairie series were compiled from various people and events from Wilder’s childhood.  For example, Nellie Oleson is actually a compilation of three of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classmates.  Combining traits to create a more threatening character and condensing the chronology of events just makes for a better story.  This is largely what we do with the stories we tell ourselves anyway.

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I view creative non-fiction as simply getting those stories, the stories we tell ourselves about our past and our world, in writing.  Both of my parents are wonderful storytellers and have this process down, but they rarely commit their stories to writing.  Without adding fictional elements, a straight non-fiction approach to family and personal stories would not have the same impact.  It is an art to get it just right.  The true story cannot be lost in the fiction; at the same time, there are people, places, and events that may need to be stressed or rearranged to make a compelling story.

One of the most surprising ideas that came out of three weeks of studying creative non-fiction is the sheer variety of writing that can fall under the creative non-fiction umbrella.  It can include works addressing personal memories; essays on people, places, and ideas that inspire or fascinate the writer; or exploration of a real event through creative writing.  That is just the beginning.  A writer can take a real event from his or her personal history and explore it through the eyes of someone else.  I’ve also taken a piece of fiction I wrote earlier and expanded on it, explaining what really happened and what inspired the story in the first place.

I now have a home – a label as a writer.  I could never fully say that I write fiction or non-fiction.  Neither label fit.  I now have a name for what I’ve long known:  In order to write about real life well, writing must contain all or most of the elements of fiction.  It is as simple and as complicated as that.  I am ready to explore it all.

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