If Rose pushed Laura to allow the “fictional truth” to rise above mere historical fact, where do we see the mother heeding the daughter’s advice? Where do we see evidence of Rose’s storytelling expertise influencing Laura? I have looked at the three final books of the series with an eye to answering to these questions. [Read Part I first.]
The Long Winter
This book documented the Wilder’s near-catastrophic first year in Dakota Territory. The title was to be The Hard Winter but Depression-era editors softened the initial adjective for a population already weary of hard times. “Hard” or “long,” the book was difficult to pull off. The man-vs.-nature conflict was prolonged and repetitive: walls of dark clouds roaring in from the north, shrieking winds rattling the wall boards, ceiling nails turning white with frost, snow sweeping in under the doorway, the food supply dwindling and unvarying. Realism had to be supplemented by narrative device.
Foreshadowing. The first three-day blizzard strikes in mid-October. Pa is spooked by the sight of a small herd of cattle with their snouts frozen to the ground. A bad omen, but there are more: a tiny auklet taking refuge in a haystack, muskrats building thicker-walled homes than Pa has ever seen, an old Indian in Harthorn’s store warning, “Heap big storm come.” Laura catches herself glancing north for no apparent reason. Pa doesn’t like the feel of things: “The weather seems to be holding back something that it might let loose any minute.” Ma calls him a goose for worrying. The weather is fine, she reminds him. They are enjoying an Indian summer. A narrative lull before the storm.
Point of view. As the blizzards proliferate and claustrophobia sets in, the narrative camera takes us down Main Street to Wilder home, the only time in six books that the point of view shifts. Almanzo is a farmer who has planned ahead and brought seed enough for spring planting. He refuses to let his brother disrupt his plans. Royal is a storekeeper who would sell the wheat at an inflated price if the townsfolk became desperate enough. Almanzo hides his seed wheat behind the wall boards, pouring it between two joists. The plug in the knothole through which he pours it is like Chekhov’s Act I gun. The reader “knows” it will come back to haunt later in the story (even if she doesn’t know it just yet).
Dramatic confrontation. Sure enough, when another train fails to make it through, the Wilder’s grain runs out. Pa strides out of the house, pail in hand, ready to confront the Wilders. Told they have no more grain to sell, Pa turns to the wall and removes the saddle hiding the plug. He pulls the plug out and lets the wheat pour into his pail. “I’m buying some wheat from you boys,” he says. “What do you figure this pailful’s worth?” Almanzo is flabbergasted. How could Ingalls have known? Impressed by both his powers of observation and his determination, Almanzo relents. He sells the wheat at an inflated but fair price.
Did the transaction happen just that way? Of course not. The “fictional truth” required a set-up, dramatic confrontation, and satisfying resolution. All complicating facts were omitted in deference to the storytelling. This dramatic turn of events paid dividends, too, for it initiated an important character development in Almanzo. He now feels responsible to the community, not just to himself. When the food crisis persists, he determines to cross the snow-swept prairie in search of rumored wheat stores. It is a quest with low possibility of success and high probability of ultimate disaster. Almanzo rejects his brother’s attempts to reason him out of it. He insists that he is “free and independent,” and can make up his own mind. The reader sits up a little straighter in her chair and reads on a little more eagerly.
Most of these happenings came directly from Laura’s memory, even if their details had been smoothed or and embellished with time. But not all. She could not have “remembered” the events in Almanzo’s house because she wasn’t there. Rose may have pushed her to mine Manly’s memories. The phrase “free and independent” bears all the signs of Rose’s editorializing.
Little Town on the Prairie:
What a difference a year makes! Tar paper shanties and rough-hewn boards give way to curtains and lace (and hoop skirts!). Shriveled potatoes and meager brown bread are augmented (at least on Thanksgiving) by roast pork, chicken pie, mashed turnips dripping with butter, creamed corn, cornbread, white bread, pickles, preserves, and baked apples. Poverty-level barter is replaced by a healthy cash economy. (Laura is given ten cents for admission to a “sociable” and twenty-five cents to purchase personalized name cards, the latest school-girl fad. Such extravagance!) This book presents its own challenge for the author. The civilizing of a frontier town is even less dramatic than a “long winter.” Relations among the girls at school and with their teacher provide the tension in the first half of the book. Overarching the entire book–indeed all three books discussed here–is the problem of paying for Mary’s education at a school for the blind in Iowa.
Laura is determined to do her part earning the money the family will need. She helps sew shirts for Mrs. Clancy and earns nine dollars. She gets hired as school teacher for the Brewster school house even before she turns sixteen. As miserable as it is (and it is!), she takes home forty dollars for nine weeks of work. She earns another nine dollars helping Mrs. McKee “hold down her claim.” Mrs. Bell offers her fifty cents a day to sew in her shop. And when the Perry School opens, Laura is hired for three months at twenty-five dollars a month. Seventy-five dollars! “Laura will be rich!” blurts out Grace. Only Laura doesn’t want the money. She wants to give it to Pa and Ma to help pay for Mary’s college.
It makes a good story, even if it elides an historical fact: Mary’s school was fully funded by Iowa taxpayers. Paying tuition was not among the Wilder’s difficulties. Why the omission? The Wilders–Laura and, especially, Rose–were outspoken critics of the New Deal as these books were being written. Acknowledging a debt to government largesse–handouts!–would have been embarrassing, at the least, damning, at worst. It was understandable Laura changed the facts.
Even more to the point, “fictional truth” demanded she do so. Laura’s succession of jobs in these books–jobs that take her out of the home and into independence/adulthood–obtain heightened meaning when the money earned goes to pay for Mary’s college. Laura is shown to be selfless, her love for Mary boundless. The inherent drama of a young girl working to support her blind older sister holds not just Little Town, but all of the last three books, together more tightly than historical truth ever could have. The truth is more prosaic–and more painful for the author to concede. The Ingallses were struggling. They needed Laura’s income to get by.
These Happy Golden Years:
Laura has grown up. She is only fifteen but has been hired to teach school twelve miles away. She will live away from home for the first time. The reader follows this development with trepidation. Can it be a Little House book without Ma and Pa? Without Carrie and Grace? (Mary has already left for college in the previous book.) When Pa leaves Laura to live at Brewsters’ unkempt shanty, the reader trembles along with Laura. A squalling child, a sullen Mrs. Brewster, a cowed Mr. Brewster: these are to be her “family” now. A home without love. There is nothing “happy” or “golden” about it.
Teaching school provides escape from the chronic angers of the Brewster house, but no comfort. At fifteen, Laura is hardly older than her pupils. (Indeed, she is younger than two of them!) Making them behave, let alone learn, is a source of gnawing anxiety.
The reader feels the anxiety, too. Little Half-Pint has been placed in an intolerable situation. How can she possible survive it? How can the reader endure it? As Friday of the first week approaches, the thought of two unbroken days in the Brewster shanty looms over the Laura’s–and the reader’s–head. Just when the tension reaches its peak, the sound of jingling of bells comes from outside the school shanty. Laura recognizes their tone. Running to the window, she recognizes the horses pulling the buggy–Prince and Lady! Their driver can only be Almanzo Wilder.
But, of course, the reader thinks, with a flood of relief. I knew it all along. (At least, she thinks, she should have seen it coming.) The unbearable tension is broken. Almanzo has come to take Laura home for the weekend. Laura–and the reader–return, gratefully, to a loving family, every weekend for the next nine weeks. With or without Rose’s guidance, Laura has capture the emotional truth of a young girl’s scary first time away from home, making her first tentative steps in the world of adult responsibility.
The story in history must be extracted, its events woven together by a central thread (or threads). How much more so when the story is written to entertain the young. Rose Wilder Lane had fifteen years’ experience shaping stories of many kinds before helping her mother in the shaping of hers. The mother provided the memories, the voice, the tone; but the daughter, at least according to Rose, helped develop the structure, “a kind of under-rhythm in the whole body of the writing, and a ‘pointing up’ here and there.”
Yet, after Laura died in 1957, scholars’ interest in the historical truth of the Ingallses was piqued. Who were these pioneers whose lives sparked the imaginations of the nation’s young? What was the fact and what the fiction? As the researchers circled the truth, Rose ran interference, like a mother fox leading a hunter away from the den. The Little House books, she told critics, were “truth, and only truth; every detail in them is written as my mother remembered it….she added nothing and ‘fictionalized’ nothing that she wrote.”
Oh, really? Rose was singing quite a different tune from the one she favored a quarter century before. Now, like Peter denying Christ, Rose seemed to disavow her faith in fictional truth. Indeed, in her own work she had given up fiction for political tracts. Historical truth was what interested her now. Ironically.
In the end, Laura’s understanding of her own literary project was more credible than Rose’s statements. In the only public appearance she ever gave, a speech at a Detroit book fair in 1937, the author who would become the most influential interpreter of America’s pioneer experience said simply, “All I have said is true but it is not the whole truth.”
- Holtz, William. The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993.
- Fraser, Caroline. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2017: 1-200.
- Wilder, Laura Ingalls. The Long Winter, 1940.
- ———-. Little Town on the Prairie, 1941.
- ———-. These Happy Golden Years, 1943.
- Images: Wikimedia Commons except book covers