John E. Miller, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas, 1994). 208 pages, pictures and maps.
On our recent vacation, I quickly found out that I was in over my head when it came to Laura Ingalls information. My daughter knew the answers to all the questions asked by the various museum folks and was even able to correct them when they said something that wasn’t quite correct. The only person that seemed to be able to go head to head with her was a retired teacher who was also on the tour of the sites. The teacher had used the Little House books for over thirty-five years—meaning that she’d read them nearly thirty-five times. Yet, even she was impressed with my daughter’s knowledge. So, in an attempt to keep up with my daughter, I picked up this book in one of the museums to learn a bit more about Laura Ingalls world.. John Miller is a professor of history at South Dakota State University. From a quick thumb through the various chapters, it appears that he, like me, is interested in social and literary history, so I picked up the book and began reading and citing Laura Ingalls facts back to my daughter.
This book is a collection of essays about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her time in DeSmet, SD. Several of the chapters originally appeared in various academic journals and it appears that the author basically collected these essays and put them together in a hodge-podge manner. Through these essays, the author explores the intersection of history and literature, themes such as “place;” “freedom” and “love;” “facts and interpretations,” Ingall’s “narrative style” as well as social life in DeSmet and a census study of where people came from and where they went after leaving DeSmet. The final chapter looks at two artist of the prairie, who grew up near each other but never knew each other. Wilder lived in DeSmet and the painter Harvey Dunn grew up about fifteen miles a way. I may blog more about him later.
One of the more interesting parts of this book is where Miller, having examined Wilder’s original manuscripts, points out the way Wilder’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane sharpened her mother’s storytelling as well as occasionally inserting her own conservative/individualistic philosophy into the narrative. It was also interested in what Wilder left out of the books, notably any discussion of politics and especially populism that was sweeping the country at the time Ingalls novels were set. Miller points out a few cases where it seems Lane added her own philosophy, such as one Fourth of July speech that Laura couldn’t have possibility remembered in the detail recalled, but he also admits that the older Wilder would have shared a similar philosophy. Miller also suggests that because these books were children books, and especially because she was writing from the point of view of a child, political topics were avoided. Miller does remind his readers that the novelist’s goal is different from a historian (especially a children’s novelist). At best, Wilder wrote “stripped-down history.”
Although I enjoyed this book, much of my joy came from being in DeSmet when I read most of it and from my interest in social history. I would recommend it only for those of you who have a burning desire to know a lot more about Laura Ingalls Wilder. Otherwise, stick to Wilder’s books. Click here for my post on visiting Wilder’s home in Wisconsin. In the next week I’ll post more photographs and tells of our visit to DeSmet, SD and Walnut Grove, MN.
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