Books · Laura Ingalls Wider · What We're Reading

More About Laura and The Story of an Autodidact

What we’re reading

Mary—Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Biography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill

Before she wrote the Little House Books, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her autobiography for adults. She was never able to find a publisher for it, and the manuscript remained in the Wilder archives for over 80 years.  In 2014, it was published by the South Dakota State Historical Association as the culmination of the Pioneer Girl Project.

It is a stunning work of scholarship. A large book, the page size accommodates the text and adjoining notes. Based on primary sources: census data, government records, and newspapers, these notes elaborate on the characters and the incidents in the little House books. And they explore how Wilder manipulated the material in the autobiography to fashion the Little House series, now considered classics of American literature. 

It’s unclear just when Wilder decided to use the autobiography as the source for the Little House books and to change the point of view from the first person of the adult narrator to that of the limited third person, telling the stories from Laura’s point of view. With that transformation, magic happened, as we see the westward journey through the eyes of the growing child. Unless you’re a student of Wilder’s works, you probably won’t want to read this book in its entirety, but if you read any of the books as a child, the next time you are in a library, look it over. There are over 125 interesting illustrations, including many photographs. Pa, by the way,  doesn’t look anything like Michael Landon.


Herb—Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour

The stories about celebrities cheating to get their kids into brand name colleges didn’t surprise me. The motivation of these parents has nothing to do with seeing that their kids are well educated of course. You don’t have to go to an elite college to be well educated. 

As it happens I have just been re-reading Louis L’Amour’s Education of a Wandering Man. L’Amour was an extraordinarily popular writer of Western novels and short stories. He left school at fifteen in 1930, never graduated from high school, and never even thought of going to college. He read the books he found on boxcars or that had been left behind in the rooms he rented. When he saved enough money, he rented a room near a library and read until his money ran out. When the kids in his class were graduating from high school in Jamestown, North Dakota, he was in Singapore, buying a copy of Kipling’s Department Ditties from a bookseller named Muhammed Dulfalkir. He liked to recite Kipling or Robert W. Service to his bunkmates and they loved listening to him. 

I used to dream of doing the same—of quitting school and educating myself. But by the time I came along, child labor laws, union rules, and my sheltered upbringing made that impossible. L’amour lists all the books he read during his wandering years, 1930–1935 and 1937. (He lost the list of the books he read in ’36.) They range from pulp fiction to Plato. 

Because this book is a memoir not an autobiography, he doesn’t say much about how he became a writer, and nothing about how be became friends with the historian, Daniel Boorstin, who wrote the introduction.

L’Amour made a lot of money from the sales of his books and the movies that were made of some of his tales. Boorstin mentions that the bookshelves he designed for his ranch are like massive doors that can be swung back to reveal a second tier of bookshelves behind them. He was a nondiscriminating reader.

Books · Childhood learning · Laura Ingalls Wider

So You Think the Polar Vortex Was Bad?

The Long Winter was a Newberry honor book for 1941.

Have you  heard about the hard winter of 1880-81? Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder will remember it as the winter that 14-year-old Laura and her pioneer family endured in the remote Dakota territory.

Recurring white out blizzards began in October and continued until spring with little respite between storms. Temperatures dropped to 40 below, snow accumulated as high as the house, and the trains became stuck in the snow packed cuts, unable to get through with supplies. The Ingalls’ family’s coal and kerosene dwindled until there was none left. For months they spent every day all day huddled together in the small kitchen performing the laborious tasks of twisting hay into sticks to burn in the cookstove for warmth and grinding seed wheat in the coffee grinder to make flour.  They were finally rescued from starvation by the heroic efforts of two young men, one of whom would later become Laura’s husband.  And then the Chinook wind started blowing and spring came—as it always does.

Pa teaches Laura how to twist the hay into sticks which they burned in the cookstove for warmth.

Reading this book as an adult was an interesting and rewarding experience. So rewarding in fact that I have resolved to reread all nine books in the series—in order. I just finished the third book and will have something to say about the controversy surrounding them in the future. 

In the Little House books we see the westward journey through a child’s eyes. It is beautiful, exhilarating, sometimes dangerous and frightening,

But these books are much more than adventure stories. They convey a reverence for the natural world and are thought provoking in a way that makes sense to children (and adults as well). It’s no wonder that so many of us remember these books as such an important part of our growing-up years.

Countless sermons have been delivered and gallons of ink spilled by theologians pondering the thorny subject of free will.  In the first chapter of The Long Winter,  Wilder addresses the subject.

The story opens on a sunny, summer day. Laura has talked Pa into letting her help with the haying. By noon they have gathered the hay from the little haystacks (“haycocks”) and loaded it into the wagon.

Laura spies what she thinks is a haycock they missed. Upon inspection, however, it proves to be a muskrat house.

Pa notes he has never seen one so thick, and that means the muskrats have built their house to prepare for a hard winter.

Pa, how can the muskrats know?”  she asked.

“I don’t know how they know,” Pa said. “But they do. God tells them, somehow I suppose.”

“Then why doesn’t God tell us?” 

“Because,” said Pa. “we’re not animals. We’re humans, and, like it says in the Declaration of Independence, God created us free. That means we got to take care of ourselves.”

“I thought God takes care of us.”

“He does,” Pa said, “so far as we do what’s right. And He gives us conscience and brains to know what’s right. But he leaves us to do as we please. That’s the difference between us and everything else in creation.”

“Can’t Muskrats do what they please?” Laura asked, amazed.

“No,” said Pa. “I don’t know why they can’t but you can see they can’t. Look at that muskrat house. Muskrats have to build that kind of house. They always have and they always will. It’s plain they can’t build any other kind. But folks build all kinds of houses. A man can build any kind of house he can think of.

And maybe for the first time in her life the child thinks about the serious subject of what it means to be human and she just may file the information away, for later consideration.

Books · Childhood learning · Education · Laura Ingalls Wider

In Defense of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Part One

Laura Ingalls Wilder

When I read of the decision by the ALSC, a division of the American Library Association, to strip Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from their prestigious children’s literature award, I was outraged. Now that I think about it I am also insulted.

The seven volumes of Wilder’s Little House books trace one restless pioneer family’s journey as they push their way west. Wilder once said, “In my own life, I represented a whole period of American history. I had seen and lived it all—all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers, and the towns.”

And at the age of 63, she determined to set it all down. The eventual result was a masterful accomplishment. The books are not memoir, but historical fiction, which is 414+HGFRK1L._SX306_BO1,204,203,200_not to say they are in any way false. Quite the contrary. They tell a story that is historically and emotionally accurate, based on Wilder’s own childhood, crafted with such artistry that in 2012, The Library of America issued a two volume edition of the Little House books, acknowledging thereby Wilder’s place, along with Dreiser,  Fitzgerald, Hemingway et al. in the canon of American literature.


It seems that the ALSC believes that Wilder’s legacy is inconsistent with their “core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsivenes..”


It’s been a long time since I read these books, so I thought I’d take another look to see what on earth they were complaining about. Since their objections have largely to do with the treatment of native Americans, I decided to reread Little House on the Prairie, which covers the year the family lived on the Osage Diminished Reservation in what is now the state of Kansas.

What I found is just what one would expect in an accurate historical account of white settlers in 1870 living in Indian territory.

The point of view of the story is what English teachers like to call “limited third person.” As readers, we are only privy to what Laura can see, hear, or feel. We are notWceGgDUNlCA8RPHOz66AbHHs4RI12Vqg+OoBRGBrKx0gjMb1TSGn63!P3!BaM61Ycim7TPw2yzIaTKEqk4wNnOSIUTFPL26LZtn9KZVC7!lQ5iDKyCBWtzAWMsmQ+7PK in on adults’ private conversations or thoughts. The disparaging remarks made about Indians are fragments of adult conversation which are overheard by Laura, never elaborated or explained by her parents. It’s clear that Laura’s ma doesn’t like Indians, but she is not specific and always deflects her daughters’ questions about them. Pa is wary but consistently sees circumstances from the Indians’ perspective. Honestly, I find nothing indefensible in these pages.  As for “inconsistent with current values,” this is HISTORY, for crying out loud. Historical attitudes are not always consistent with current beliefs. And there’s no getting around that.

I am insulted because the implication is clear that the librarians consider themselves morally superior, having detected what they consider offensive racist treatment of minorities (they also object to the account of a minstrel show in a later book in the series) and so have decided that the books and their author are not entitled to the respect their children’s award signifies.

They assure us that this does not mean that they think we shouldn’t read these books if we want to or even love them if we do, but of course, it logically follows that if we do read them and love them, either we are just too insensitive to understand that these books are unacceptable or more likely we do understand and are simply bigoted racists ourselves.

The Little House books tell about people who are hard-working, self reliant, and courageous in the face of hardship. They take joy in simple pleasures and strengthened by their faith in God, they are confident in the future, always ready to move on, to see what lies ahead. These are the values that are currently under assault, most recently by the American Library Association’s supercilious dismissal of one of America’s most cherished and talented literary artists.

Come back Saturday for Part Two in which I’ll quote passages from the book to defend my position.