www.common-place.org · vol. 3 · no. 3 · April 2003
Rachel F. Seidman, a freelance writer and independent historian living near the prairie in St. Paul, Minnesota, is the author of The Civil War: a History in Documents (New York, 2001).
"I'm not sure how I made it this far without realizing that I would find Wilder's books on the fiction shelf."
This Little House of Mine
It's embarrassing to remember now. We were in the library and I was trying to find The Little House in the Big Woods for my six-year-old daughter. I was looking for the famous series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder in juvenile nonfiction. My husband looked at me, bemused. "But they're novels," he said. The voice that squeaked out of my mouth and the tears that sprang to my eyes as I vehemently disagreed came not from my adult self but from the little girl still deep inside me. Complicated emotions welled up as I started to laugh at my own reaction. In a single instant I saw myself passionately defending an assumption that I was simultaneously letting go: my previously unchallenged childhood belief that the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories were really, truly true. A panicky feeling swept over me as visions of Laura and her sister Mary, and Ma and Pa and baby Carrie raced through my mind.
If these stories were made up, it was not only my child-self who would feel betrayed; my job was on the line as well. I have long held that Laura Ingalls Wilder was one of the reasons I became a historian. My intense reading and rereading of her books was a central pleasure of my girlhood. I stored away tidbits of information about "the pioneer days"—like how Ma used carrots to color winter butter—that stayed in my mental treasure box for years. Despite being a relatively docile, blonde older sibling, I deeply identified with the headstrong, brown-haired, younger sister Laura. The act of projecting myself back into her world, of imagining another time, of absorbing the details of daily life, now seems like a direct precursor of my vocation as a women's historian. The mere suggestion that the source of all that early "research" was unreliable struck me as deeply unsettling.
I'm not sure how I made it this far without realizing that I would find Wilder's books on the fiction shelf. Partly, I guess, I really didn't want to know. But after my forced epiphany in the public library, that changed. Now, indeed, I did want to know. Flooded with memories of the Ingalls family pioneer trek across the Midwest, I wanted to know how much was true, and how much was not. I felt ready, even eager, to read biographies of Wilder and scholarly analysis of her work. I was nervous, certainly; afraid I might lose something dear to me. But I set out with a sense of excitement, too, newly willing to see Laura through grown-up eyes.
Now, having researched "the truth" about the Little House books, I find I can live with my new knowledge. In fact, the process of learning about the stories has been quite bittersweet, in a way akin to growing up. I have had to let go of my fond, naïve trust in the narrator and learn to accept new realities, including the impossibility of knowing certain things for sure. My relationship to Laura Ingalls Wilder has been changed, but not destroyed.
What I learned can, I think, be divided into two categories. First is a set of simple facts that conflict with the books. For those of you who did not thrill to these books as children, let me remind you of the basics. There are eight in the series, written by Wilder in the 1930s, when she was in her sixties. The books follow the late-nineteenth-century Ingalls family from their home in the "Big Woods" of western Wisconsin, to Kansas, Minnesota, and finally South Dakota. Written in a straightforward, realistic style, the books have seduced generations of readers with their apparently true rendition of the Ingalls's pioneering life.
The devil, as they say, is in the details. For instance, Laura's sister Carrie was born on the Kansas prairie in 1870; she wasn't alive yet when the family lived in the Big Woods although she is present in the story. A baby brother, Freddie, who died at nine months old, never appears in the books. Ok, I could handle those. But the fact that Laura Ingalls left the woods of Wisconsin for the open prairie when she was only three years old suddenly reconfigured my whole relationship to the stories. It surprised me because in the Little House in the Big Woods, the first book in the series, she is five. How could Wilder remember all those things from when she was three years old? I immediately recognized, of course, that she couldn't. Suddenly the foundation of the little house seemed much shakier.
The second category of my discoveries revolves around this new perspective; I came to think of the little house as a stage set, rather than an actual home. It seems basic, but for me it was a completely different approach to these works, as I began to invoke the tools one uses to read fiction, not autobiography. Anne Romines's excellent book, Constructing the Little House: Gender, Culture, and Laura Ingalls Wilder (Amherst, 1997) confirmed what I was beginning to sense: the intricacy and depth of these books as novels. I grew to treasure not only Wilder's recollections, but her invented world. While I mourned the loss of my belief in these books as what really happened, I gained a new appreciation for the work of a mature artist. I found it exciting to follow through on themes embedded in the text. I began to look for the implicit, rather than only the explicit, messages. I was newly fascinated by the nature of Wilder's portrayal of the frontier and the "others" she encountered there. My adult reading of her books and of the scholarly comments on them amplified and made clear whispers I had heard from the text as a child but had never been able to fully understand.
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