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A letter to Mama Bess (a.k.a. Laura Ingalls Wilder)

Last week, Rebecca Onion at Slate dug up and posted a document that might be of interest to all you Laura Ingalls Wilder fans out there: a letter from Rose Wilder Lane, Wilder's daughter, critiquing the first draft of Wilder's book By the Shores of Silver Lake.

Lane, as I wrote in my review of the Library of America edition of Wilder's books, was an advisor and editor to her mother as well as a writer herself. In that relationship she clearly believed herself to be the professional advising the amateur, but this letter makes it very hard for me, at least, to credit insinuations to the effect that Rose was the real author of the Little House books. There is no reply from Wilder, not online at least, but fans know that the finished product ignores much of her daughter's advice as contained in this letter. And thank goodness.

The biggest revelation in the letter is this bit of editing advice from Lane:

You have the brief scene in which Laura threatens to kill Charley with a knife, but that has to be cut out.

Wilder did accept that advice, which is why any fan of her books reads that sentence and thinks, Wait, what?! Preadolescent Laura pulling a knife on her cousin would certainly stick in the memory. Lane gives her mother a lot of psychological blarney about why it isn't "credible" -- which seems awfully presumptuous considering she's talking to her mother about something the latter (apparently) experienced in real life. But what I would guess convinced Wilder to take the scene out was Lane's admonishment that "if you do make it credible it's not a child's book."

Wilder, as we know from her own words, was very concerned about keeping her books appropriate for children to read. Is Lane right that Wilder "can not have [Laura] suddenly acting like a slum child who has protected her virginity from street gangs since she was seven or eight"? Or is she just, as it seems to me, in love with her own worldly cleverness? (See also her weird notions about working men and "sexual degeneracy on the frontier," elsewhere in the cited letter.) Regardless, the very thought of a character "protecting her virginity," however authentic to Wilder's life, must on reflection have seemed beyond the limits of what would be appropriate for young readers. And so it went -- although, in subtler ways, Silver Lake still addresses Laura's ambivalent transition from childhood to womanhood.

Besides the fascinating glimpse of what might have been, the letter is also compelling reading for its tone of condescension. Rose might be right that Laura's cousins living nearby should either have a greater presence in the book than they apparently did in Wilder's real life, or else not be mentioned at all (not having the drafts to compare makes it hard to say), but her explanation of why she's right, and why her hopelessly ineducable mother must "take [her] word for it," is truly a marvel:

Maybe it is a fact that you girls lived a whole summer within easy walking distance of your cousins, out on an empty prairie where there were no other neighbors, and had nothing to do with them, but such a thing absolutely cannot happen in fiction. You will just have to take my word for it. Not once in a thousand million times will such a thing happen among actual human beings actually living.... The mere fact that you did it has no bearing whatever upon the question.

And then there is her insistence that the railroad workers' riot over withheld pay -- you can read about it in the published book -- isn't believable because it happened in the early summer, when people are "more cheerful...more good-natured." Oh, well then. I am left with a horror of sounding this way either as a daughter or as an editor. May this letter be an object lesson in the dangers of getting too big for one's britches.

It is a credit to Wilder's instincts that the work that she produced was not, in all respects, the work that Lane wanted to see. I like to imagine her reading this letter and rolling her eyes, just as she did on Twitter when Slate posted it online:

The "Laura Ingalls Wilder" Twitter account is operated by Wendy McClure, author of the terrific memoir The Wilder Life. I read that book after finishing my trek through the entire Wilder catalog, expecting to find it amusing, but it was much more than that -- insightful, wise, informative, and moving. And also very funny. McClure writes about identifying closely with Laura as a child, including imagining that Laura had shown up in the present to play with her, something I thought only I did. (Apparently it's a pretty widespread phenomenon -- now I know!) So, as an adult, she not only reread the books; she went on a quest to visit the real (or, in some cases, "real") locations where the events of Laura's life took place, hoping to connect along the way with the "real Laura" and understand better why the Little House books had such significance in her own life. McClure describes with good-natured humor her encounters with other Little House obsessives in all their various forms: earnest home-schoolers; apocalyptic homesteaders; awkward tweens eager to believe in the magic of books; and she offers informative, condensed but not simplistic summaries of what's current in Laura Ingalls Wilder scholarship. I recommend it highly for anyone who has loved the books or enjoys a good memoir of the reading life.

On the other hand, perhaps because it is "credible," it is not a book for children. And so I feel I must quote this warning from a review at "The author has the nerve to incorporate profanity and immoral concepts alongside the sanctity of the highly moral Wilder family and I for one highly resent it. Shame on her for exploitation and besmirching the name." St. Laura Ingalls, pray for us!

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an associate editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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"Preadolescent Laura pulling a knife on her cousin would certainly stick in the memory." Um, yes.  I loved the Little House books as a child, but I think for me they are one of those things that I enjoyed at the time, but can't go back to. Willa Cather's books are a more adult take on pioneer life.  We tend to glamorize that life, but only about 40% of would-be homesteaders were able to fulfill the conditions to obtain title to their land.  And a good share of those were not able to making a living and had to sell their land to others. My ancestors were homesteaders in Nebraska; some of my family are still farming our land. But there are some sad and frightening stories which have come down. There was the 1930's, but before that there was the crash of 1893. The frontier was no place for sissies.

I live about 50 miles from Walnut Grove, so Laura Ingalls Wilder is big stuff in my neck of the woods. I don't want to derail the conversation, but the Library of America canon mystifies me. Laura makes the grade, and more deservedly, so does Cather. But there are so many curious omissions. Evan S. Connell, Walker Percy, E. B. White? 

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