Pa sent Jack with the ponies, and other Laura Ingalls revelations: An interview with Wilder biographer Pamela Smith Hill
This interview was originally published at AlainaMabaso.com in 2013.
I’ve loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels since I was a child, and writer Pamela Smith Hill, author of Laura Ingalls Wilder: a Writer’s Life, stopped by my blog with a phone interview from her Portland, OR home. Hill is a Missouri native who grew up just a few miles away from Rocky Ridge Farm, and her research and insights will fascinate Little House fans.
Here are highlights from our conversation about the surprising details of Wilder’s life, her little-known path to becoming a mythic American author, and the release of Wilder’s earliest non-fiction memoir, Pioneer Girl.
Pamela Smith Hill: It’s pretty clear that Laura is a fascinating character, and [the fact that] she went on to become a writer intrigued me almost more than anything else…I loved the fact that this woman was writing about her life, and that she was from Missouri…My vision of writers was all writers lived in New York City, they were incredibly chic and sophisticated, they wore beautiful suits, they drank strange alcoholic beverages in exotic glasses and they all smoked cigarettes with those long cigarette holders. And then when I realized that Laura Ingalls Wilder was a woman from the Ozarks, that she was a farm woman, that really encouraged me to pursue my own dreams to become a writer.
Alaina Mabaso: A lot of people love Wilder’s books, and many people have written books about her, so what made you decide to write yours? What needed to be said that other biographers had not already written?
PSH: I was actually commissioned to write it. [At first,] I wasn’t sure that I had anything new to say, because I had been following the books on Wilder and some of the academic research. I use Wilder as an example in my creative writing classes of a writer who has a deceptively simple voice to deal with complex and meaty issues that go beyond what most adults think of as children’s literature…But I also felt that something was lacking in that I still didn’t have a sense of her as a writer.
While I was debating whether to accept the commission or not, my husband was in the last stages of prostate cancer, and he looked at me and he said, ‘What are you thinking of? Laura Ingalls Wilder’s been a huge influence on your life; you’re going to need this book when I’m gone, and you’ll find your way back to writing when I’m gone, with this book.’
I had this sense that no-one had written about her writing life…because there wasn’t anything to say about it. But I started reading the editorial correspondence between Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, and boom, I knew what I had.
No-one had actually put those letters in context. They are the kind of letters that are routine between a writer and an editor, [but] the only thing that was unusual about this set of correspondence was that it was between a mother and a daughter who were acting as writer and editor, and that Wilder’s real editors back at Harper and Brothers apparently did not know that there was this relationship between mother and daughter…I saw a way to talk about Wilder’s writing that I don’t think had been discussed before.
AJM: As you were digging into Wilder’s life, was there some facet of her life that was especially surprising to you?
PSH: I think for me what was really the most revealing and the most exciting was that throughout the correspondence with Rose Wilder Lane, it’s clear that Laura really respected her daughter’s opinion, but over time what I saw was a growing confidence that Wilder had in her own editorial insights and her own ability to tell a story. I love to see growth and change in writers. The myth about Laura Ingalls Wilder is that she just kind of emerged fully-blown, this beautiful, gifted, amazing writer in her 60’s, but she had been a hard-working writer for a long time. And then once she made the switch into fiction…you can see more depth, more confidence, more polish, more artistic vision, as she works…As a writer, I just love knowing that even accomplished, mythic writers can grow and change.
AJM: Do you have a sense of what has been most surprising for people to learn about Wilder’s real life after growing up loving her fiction?
PSH: I think people have different takes on that question. Most Wilder fans and readers have a very intimate and personal relationship with her…Everyone has their favorite slice of Wilder’s life, and so when they find out certain [real-life] things…that differ from that particular novel that they’ve always loved, it’s hard for them. For me personally, what was really the hardest thing to discover was that Jack [the Ingalls family’s beloved bulldog] was fiction. When I read Pioneer Girl the first time, I had to read over and over again that in Indian Territory, Pa sends Jack with the ponies because Jack ‘wanted to go with the ponies,’ and that was really hard for me.
AJM: It’s amazing to think that scene in By the Shores of Silver Lake, when Jack dies overnight before Pa sets off, is all fiction.
PSH: And that particular scene was one that I often taught in creative writing classes, because it’s so restrained and elegiac, but very emotional. I think restraint in writing about death or loss or grief is a real artistic skill. Then to find out this is complete fiction—it elevated Wilder’s status as an artist in my mind, but it was also really sad and disappointing because I wanted Jack to follow the family all the way West.
AJM: The thing that really caught me was learning about Laura’s baby brother that died.
PSH: Ah, yes. I had known about her baby brother for a long time, so I was prepared for Freddy’s birth and death, but I think there are people who haven’t been as close to the Wilder story who would find that surprising, and it’s still very moving, very sad and a huge loss. And [the family] dealt with it in a very restrained and stoic kind of way, which Wilder had to explain…to her daughter, because they exhibited that same kind of restraint throughout the Hard Winter, and Rose Wilder Lane found that very unusual.
AJM: And Mary’s illness and blindness.
PSH: Yes. And that was a huge artistic challenge, too. In fact, the opening to By the Shores of Silver Lake was a really difficult one for Wilder, and she and Lane exchanged extensive correspondence on the opening because of Mary’s blindness, and because Wilder didn’t want the story to be overwhelmingly dark.
AJM: Can I get you to address a theme that you talk about briefly in the end of your book? It’s the controversy over how Native Americans are handled in the Little House books. I got the sense that you felt very strongly that, contrary to what a lot of people have thought, Wilder’s work on that topic was very humane and nuanced.
PSH: You’ve raised one of the thorniest contemporary issues about Wilder. I have to say another Wilder scholar, John Miller, has done some excellent work on this….I think that for the time in which she was writing, Wilder was very nuanced. I think she was trying to balance the typical frontier mentality among essentially white European immigrants about the Indians, and that’s really represented through Ma and some other secondary characters [who talk] about the inherent inferiority, in their point of view, of American Indians and their culture and their rights in the American west. And [Wilder] balances that against Pa’s more open-minded approach.
So there is an inherent conflict that runs through all the books that deal with the American Indian issues: Conflict not just between American Indians and the immigrants coming in, but between the immigrants themselves as to what is a humane and just way to approach living side by side with Native American cultures… [By] portraying her own experiences with this as representative of her family and the people she knew, I think that was a responsible treatment on [Wilder’s] part. I know that some critics have felt that she should have portrayed the American Indian perspective more directly, and yet she wasn’t an American Indian woman herself. So she was very careful to write from her point of view and her perspective, in depicting the attitudes that she grew up with. In approaching Wilder today, I think it’s wise…to read Wilder but also to read works by American Indian writers and illustrators.
AJM: Can you talk a bit about the Pioneer Girl project that you’ve been working on? Why hasn’t Wilder’s earliest life story been published before?
PSH: I’m not exactly sure why Pioneer Girl hasn’t been published. It’s kind of a mystery. Perhaps it’s because Pioneer Girl was in some ways an experiment. It’s Wilder’s first attempt to write a longer-form book, it’s non-fiction, and she wrote it for adults. She was hoping Pioneer Girl would be published in serial form [and then become a book].
And there are so many different versions. There is her rough draft version, which was written by hand, and she wrote it on tablets, just as she did her novels, with #2 lead pencils. There’s an early typewritten draft that makes a few changes, probably typed by Rose, then there’s [two manuscripts for literary agents]…It’s hard to choose which version to work from.
The First Four Years, which was published posthumously— I don’t think Wilder ever wanted anyone to see that…and that was published in the 1970’s. And it’s taken all of these years to get Pioneer Girl to press. That’s really interesting, that the manuscript that Wilder attempted to publish is just now coming to light, and the one that she hid away from the world, [and] didn’t even show her daughter, was published in the 70’s.
We used Wilder’s rough draft version as the basis for the text of Pioneer Girl, because we know that that’s the closest we can get to Wilder’s voice, and I thought that that was important: to try to hear Wilder expressing her memories, her feelings, her life story, in what was clearly her own words.
We did a wonderful photo shoot at Rocky Ridge Farm. We got to take pictures of Pa’s fiddle; we got to take pictures of the original manuscript. So the book will be beautiful and lavishly illustrated.
What’s important to keep in mind is that Laura Ingalls Wilder was a hard-working writer. And that her professional career started when she was in her forties, as a farm journalist. For all of her readers who long to be writers, and who struggle for a long time to get those first novels published, I think Laura Ingalls Wilder’s career shows us that sometimes the long paths that are indirect really do pay off creatively.
Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life was published in 2007 as part of the South Dakota State Historical Society Press’s South Dakota Biography Series. To learn more about Pamela Smith Hill, A Writer’s Life, and Hill’s novels, visit the author’s website. To keep up with Pioneer Girl news, visit pioneergirlproject.org.