Book Reviews

Book Review: West From Home by Laura Ingalls Wilder – Travels to San Francisco with Laura

Following the death of Rose Wilder Lane in 1968, the executor of her estate, Roger Lea MacBride came across a box containing letters written by her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, to her husband Almanzo. The letters were sent by Laura in 1915 when she traveled from their home in Mansfield, Missouri to visit their daughter Rose in San Francisco.

At the time, Rose Wilder Lane was working as a reporter for the San Francisco Bulletin. Laura traveled alone by train and her visit coincided with the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a World’s Fair to celebrate both the completion of the Panama Canal as well as the rebuilding of San Francisco following the terrible earthquake and fire in 1906.

MacBride gathered the letters together and published them, along with a letter from Rose urging her mother to come to visit. This was a time before people picked up a telephone and talked to someone on the other side of the country. Correspondence was slow between people, but it also leaves behind a recorded history of events that we sometimes miss today.

Although I didn’t know it at the time I first read West From Home more than thirty years ago, Laura was already something of an accomplished writer at the time. She had published numerous articles for her local paper, the Missouri Ruralist and near the end of the collection of letters, she mentions writing about the Panama-Pacific International Exposition for that paper.

Laura describes her journey to Almanzo using much the same style I can remember from her earlier Little House books where she is describing the world for her blind sister, Mary. Reading her letters even all these years later, I could picture the trip she took on the train across the country. Her descriptions of the land and the people she encounters are vivid and detailed, allowing me to close my eyes and envision a time long ago when rails crisscrossed the country, not highways.

We passed through the most desolate country this morning – the first desert I’ve seen. The mountains were around the edges and as the sun rose they showed the most beautiful soft colors. There were miles and miles and miles of sand dunes without a spear of grass or a green thing, only now and then where there was a tiny ranch and a ditch of water from the river.

The seeds are sown in these letters in more ways than one for the writing Laura would do in the future. Throughout the letters several times she mentions “writing something that will count” to her husband working the farm at home in Missouri. Her descriptions in the letters read much like her descriptions of people, places, and events in her later novels.

I really enjoyed reading her letters describing her time as a tourist in San Francisco. She does such things as putting her feet in the Pacific Ocean, which she describes as a deep wonderful blue), rides a cable car, and visits Chinatown. Reading her marveling at such things as a movie theatre which cost $600,000 to build and seats 4,000 people is really grounding as to how far we’ve come in the last 100 years. Reading of her daughter being a “career woman” in 1915 is also quite interesting and a change from the image I usually have of a woman’s role during this time in our history. Although Rose is not telling the story, there is enough of Laura’s words about Rose’s job that it gives a good feel for what she is doing as a reporter and writer.

There are also some little hints in the letters that all is not happy in the family. Rose must provide funds to pay someone to help Almanzo on the farm in Laura’s absence, and at one point Laura describes Gillette, Rose’s husband, as “having money run through his fingers”. Like any family, they seem to have their points of contention, but the love especially between Rose and Laura is evident.

MacBride worked together with Margot Patterson Doss to create the historical setting for these letters, and the book works quite well with her words about San Francisco during this time. MacBride also wrote an introduction about how the letters came to be found and a bit about both Rose and Laura.

This is a great read for fans of the Little House books and for anyone who is interested in first-hand accounts of this historical time. It provides a first-hand look at San Francisco rising from the aftermath of that earthquake which is sure to interest historians. Laura’s letters are easy reading for young and old alike, although some of the references might get lost on those younger fans of the series.

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