Stephen W. Hines read the Little House books several times as a child and then introduced them to his wife after they were married. Upon finding that Laura had been a columnist for the Missouri Ruralist before she wrote her books, Hines published those columns together in a book, Little House in the Ozarks: the Rediscovered Writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder (I’m a little over halfway through with that one). He heard from many readers who loved and wanted to know more about Laura. He discovered no one had ever conducted interviews with the people who knew her at her last home in Mansfield, Missouri, so he decided to do so, publishing those and several articles by and about Laura in I Remember Laura. This book, then, is not so much a biography as it is a companion book to Laura’s other work or to biographies of her. At its publication (in 1994), Hines felt that there had not been a definitive biography of Laura written which included new papers and letters that had since come to light.
These articles and interviews are grouped into sections, the two biggest being reminiscences of her life in De Smet, South Dakota, where many of the Little House books took place, and then reminiscences of Mansfield, Missouri, where she spent most of her adult life. There are other sections on “Women in the 1920s” and “Laura and Rose,” her daughter. There is a bit of overlap with Hines’ book of her columns: he reprints a few of them here.
Laura was in her mid-60s when she began writing the Little House books. It seems they began as a way to preserve family memories. There is a bit of controversy over whether publication was her idea or her daughter Rose’s, and several people take credit for urging her to make a book out of them. But however they came to be, her town of 800 had thought she and her husband were retired, and then “took many years to become reconciled to Mrs. Wilder’s latter-day fame as a story-teller.” Many people the author talked to began by saying, “If I had only known that she would become famous, I would have paid more attention to what she said and did” (p. 61). It’s a little ironic that some of the people Hines interviewed said they hadn’t read her books until she either gave them a copy (they were expensive back then at $2.75 🙂 ) or until they got to know her a bit. It’s amusing, then, that in a piece on the Wilders for Mansfield’s centennial album, one writer says, “We know Laura was special. But there has to be something special about the town that provided the environment necessary for her talent to shine through” (p. 274).
Most remember the Wilders as fairly quiet people who kept to themselves, Almanzo especially, but many had memories of visiting with Laura or seeing her in town. She was generally regarded as friendly and industrious. At the dedication of the local library, it was noted she was “famous in her own community for her fine needlework, delicious gingerbread, and in general known as a good neighbor” (p. 269).
When asked why she didn’t write more books, one time she replied that the money she received from them cost her more in taxes. “She never found taxes on those who had labored their way to prosperity to be an incentive for even more labor” (p. 97). But another time she said that if she wrote more, she’d have to get into some of the sad times of her life (p. 122).
Her first years with Almanzo were pretty sad, marked by the loss of a baby, years of drought and crop failure, then his diptheria and a stroke which left him unable to work a full day. They arrived in Mansfield in that condition, with enough money to put a payment down on a rocky piece of land where they literally built an existence with their bare hands, cutting and selling wood until they could grow crops and build a house. That is truly amazing to me: I don’t know if most people these days would have either the knowledge or the spirit to do such a thing. “The Story of Rocky Ridge Farm” and “My Apple Orchard” tell in their own words how they started and then improved upon the grounds and land through the years.
A few other highlights I noted:
When a friend commented that life begins at forty, Laura replied, “No, dearie. It begins at eighty” (p. 134).
She told another friend how, after her sister Mary became blind, Laura “would make word pictures for Mary so she could ‘see'” (p. 136). Perhaps that was early training for the stories she would write later on.
It was especially interesting to me that, with all the opportunities opened to women as a result of their needing to work in a variety of places during WWI, she wasn’t against those opportunities, but she urged, “We must advance logically, in order, and all together if the ground gained is to be held. If what has hitherto been woman’s work, in the world, is simply left undone by them, there is no one else to take it up. If in their haste to do other, perhaps more showy things, their old and special work is neglected and only half done, there will be something seriously wrong with the world, for the commonplace, home work of women is they very foundation upon which everything else rests” (p. 170). She was at least one voice who didn’t dismiss that “home work” as drudgery or demeaning but rather as a meaningful contribution to home and society.
I hadn’t realized before that there was a bit of controversy over how much Laura’s daughter, Rose, contributed to the writing of the Little House books. Rose was a known writer and editor, and speculation runs from the thought that Rose only advised her mother and used her own connections to get the books published, to the other extreme that Laura’s writing only the bare bones of the books, and Rose arranged and ghost-wrote much of them. The truth is likely in-between.
There are a few photos of Laura throughout the book, and to me she seems one of those rare people who become prettier as they get older.
There are even a few recipes in the book. Hines and his family tried many of them. Most came out fine, but the results of a few left them wondering if what constituted a successful cake or dish then might be different from our preferences mow.
The book was a little dry in places: many of the interviews Hines conducted and published cover some of the same information, and perhaps that could have been summarized and harmonized rather than recorded individually. But his affection for Laura shines through.
Overall this was an interesting book that gave a fuller picture of Laura in her adult years and helped separate fact from fiction.
On another note, I didn’t realize until last night that Februray 7 was Laura’s 145th birthday. I had originally chosen February as the month for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge specifically because her birth and death both occurred in February, but it didn’t even occur to me to have a “birthday party” or some kind of special remembrance of her on that day. I’ll have to keep that in mind for next year.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)