Book Reviews

Book Review: Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder by John Miller – A Peek Inside Her Surprisingly Private World

Somewhere in between the end of the Little House series of books and the end of her life, Laura Ingalls Wilder was transformed from a pioneer girl to a celebrated children’s author. How that happened is a mystery and I’ve always kept my eye out for books that gave more detail about her life. There has been a diary of hers published as well as a collection of letters, but it’s hard to get to know who she was in her adult life that led her to turn to writing.

Glimpses of that were shown in two other books I read. Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Donald Zochert seemed to focus on the truth of those pioneer days she wrote about and glossed over her adult life on her farm in Missouri. The Ghost in the Little House by William Holtz was written about her daughter Rose based on her writings and letters, so it was Laura as seen through the biased eyes of a daughter who seems to resent her mother quite a bit even before she started writing.

I picked up Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder in hopes that more of the clues about just who she was in her adult life and what influenced her. The book is extensively researched and footnoted with pages of sources at the end.

Like many of the books about the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, this starts before she is born. It seemed like it extensively rehashed the information I had read in Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Donald Zochert about how her parents, Charles and Caroline, managed to end up in the same part of the country at the same time and meet up. There was also an extensive retelling of her life story to see how it differed from what she wrote in her novels.

Miller then talks about Laura and Almanzo’s struggle to find their way in the world. The Dakota prairie wasn’t kind to the young couple and they found themselves traveling to various parts of the country looking for a footing. It was when they finally departed the town of DeSmet for Missouri that they found a place they could call home and work the land together. Miller depicts Laura as the stronger of the two spouses, pointing out that even in Laura’s books it is she, not Almanzo, who sets the pace for their courting and he is content with that. It’s an angle I had never thought of before, but it rang true to me.

I would have liked to have heard more about her years in Mansfield. Miller sets the tone for most of these times by describing what was going on in the country politically, socially, and economically. However, Laura was a fairly private person and there’s not much of her perspective or what she was doing during this time. What he has gleaned was from articles in the local paper where her name was mentioned. Even people who knew her who were interviewed for various biographies weren’t fountains of information. They had to admit never knowing that Laura had a second child beside Rose (a son who died shortly after his birth) until it came out in one of the biographies. Laura kept things like this to herself and it was impossible to determine how many of the events in her life affected her because she just didn’t speak about them to anyone.

Beyond that, Miller gleaned information from many sources about her life after those books ended. One of those sources is Rose’s own writings about the relationship she had with her mother as well as the work they did together on Laura’s writing. Since Laura never kept extensive diaries the way her daughter did, it’s difficult to know her side of many of the situations described by Rose. However, it’s interesting to read that Miller comes away from a totally different perspective on the mother/daughter dynamic than William Holtz did in his book while using the same sources.

Where Holtz made the claim that Rose basically co-authored the Little House series of books, Miller points out that there are discrepancies in that assumption, without directly challenging Holtz. Through Rose’s own writings he shows that she spent more time editing a 2,000-word submission for a magazine story than she did on Laura’s first book, Little House in the Big Woods. Miller also seems to agree with a conclusion I came away with in that Rose was greatly influenced by her mother’s writing as well, coming away with two very successful novels based on the pioneer stories she heard as a child and then read again in her mother’s manuscript.

Laura’s first baby steps into the writing arena are chronicled with snippets from various articles she contributed to local newspapers and magazines. She had an extensive history with the Missouri Ruralist and did sell several to national publications, probably due to her daughter’s agent and connections. It seemed that Miller took a fairly well-balanced look at the evidence which has been the subject of debate for years on just how much influence Rose had in her mother’s Little House books. The answer seems to be some more than others. I came away with many of the same conclusions he did about Rose after reading the Holtz book, even before I started reading this one.

Miller has presented extensive research about the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. At times the book does not flow and gets bogged down in facts and figures as well as on tangents that seem to have nothing to do with Laura’s life specifically. With the material presented he has done an admirable job. It’s amazing to think that Laura was born in a log cabin in the middle of the woods and traveled in a covered wagon and that by the end of her life she was driving around in automobiles and even once in a jet plane to visit her daughter in Connecticut. The powerful impact this much-loved author has had through her books will never be duplicated and for those of us who always wanted to know more about her, this presents a significant piece of the puzzle.

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