West From Home is a compilation of letters Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote home to her husband, Almanzo, while she was in San Francisco visiting her daughter and the 1915 World’s Fair, also called the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal, which opened trade with other countries. Her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, had kept the letters in a box after her mother’s death, and they were among other possessions passed along to her heir, Roger Lea McBride. When he discovered them, he decided to publish them in a book for Laura fans.
Laura spent about two months with Rose and her husband. She was 48; Rose was 29. Besides all the sights and wonder of the Exposition, Laura got a glimpse of San Francisco, Rose’s work, different ways business was done, and the ocean. I love the description of Laura and Rose taking their shoes off and running in the water.
She visited to a cannery, and “her doubts about the cleanness of canned goods from a large plant are removed” (p. 54). She was intrigued by the different nationalities of people she saw. She was enthralled by the light show in the evenings. And she took in a great deal from the city and the Exposition and tried to describe it in great detail to Almanzo.
Though there are photos included in the book of some of the sights around the time she was there, they are not hers. I don’t know if they did not have a camera, or if it was just inconvenient or expensive to shoot many photos. But Laura tried to describe with as much detail as she could what she was seeing so Almanzo can experience it as much as possible, too.
Almanzo couldn’t leave the farm, and it is clear in several of the letters that Laura feels conflicted about leaving him with all the work herself. A number of things I read last year about her showed that she was an integral part of the farm work.
Her letters are quite practical, not romantic or even affectionate much at all. That may have been due to the era, but overall she was a very practically-minded person, so that may just be how she expressed herself.
In several places it is mentioned that Rose was trying to persuade her parents to move near her, and Laura (actually called Bessie by Almanzo because he had a sister named Laura and called Mama Bess by Rose) explored the costs and details involved in moving some of their ventures to CA. But ultimately she felt, “There is no place like the country to live and I have not heard of anything so far that would lead me to give up Rocky Ridge [their home] for any other place” (p. 89).
Laura was also writing her farm-paper columns at this time, and Rose had several writing assignments, but there was talk of wanting Rose to help her block out a story. I’m assuming these were some of the first efforts towards what would eventually become the Little House stories.
One of the reasons I especially wanted to read this book was for a glimpse into Laura’s relationship with Rose. I had read mixed reports about how well they got along. There is nothing in these letters to indicate they didn’t get along, and if they didn’t, it would seem Rose wouldn’t be so keen on wanting them to move near her. There are indications that Rose was more emotional and Laura more practical and down-to-earth, so I am sure that caused some misunderstandings sometimes. Of course, these cover just a short period in their lives, so they are not the whole story.
There are some family glimpses as well, in Laura’s concern about whether they’d get back $250 they had loaned to Rose and her husband, and Rose’s note to her father with concerns that Laura was getting too fat (!!!)
All in all it was a fairly quick (171 pages, if you count some recipes at the end) and enjoyable read. It wasn’t riveting, but it was an interesting peek into Laura’s real life.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)