Pa sold Jack with the ponies, and other Laura Ingalls revelations: an interview with Wilder biographer Pamela Smith Hill

Laura Ingalls Wilder at age 27.
Laura Ingalls Wilder at age 27.

I’ve loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels since I was a child, and last week, writer Pamela Smith Hill, author of Laura Ingalls Wilder: a Writer’s Life, stopped by the blog with a phone interview from her Portland, OR home. A Missouri native who grew up just a few miles away from Rocky Ridge Farm, Hill’s 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 upcoming release of Wilder’s earliest non-fiction memoir, Pioneer Girl, which has never been published.  

Smashing that “New York” stereotype of writers

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.

Discovering Wilder’s untold story

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.

The Wilder myth

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.

Troubling real-life truths

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.

The Ingalls and the Indians

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.

Wilder’s first autobiography

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.

A long-hidden manuscript

PSH: 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.

The South Dakota State Historical Society Press is planning a Pioneer Girl announcement sometime soon. I contributed essays and annotations. We used Wilder’s rough draft version as the basis for the text, 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.

The comforting truth about Wilder’s career

PSH: 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.

Thanks for stopping by! For more essays and author interviews, scroll down to subscribe. 

For more Alaina Mabaso’s blog interviews, click here.

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25 Comments

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  1. Reblogged this on Merry Farmer and commented:
    This is a fascinating look at the writing life of one of the great American women novelists and her life on the frontier. I just had to share!

  2. Very interesting interview – makes me want to read more about her.

  3. Fascinating. I’m sharing this one on FB.

  4. Yes, I too am heartbroken learning about Jack but I also appreciate so much the wonderful writer that LIW was and hope Jack’s death as told by Laura maybe in her mind it was a tribute to losing loved ones – people or pets! I can still “see” Jack walking in the shade of the wagon as they moved from place to place.

    • Yes, I agree the fact that Jack’s death scene is fiction doesn’t make it any less powerful. LIW tapped into something universal that is not limited to the family pet. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Teresa Yarbrough July 17, 2013 — 7:13 pm

    Thank you for the incredible insight! I am truly looking forward to Pioneer Girl and really see Laura at her best!

  6. I’ve never read a single one of her books, though I’ve seen a few episodes of Little House on the Prairie because my mom loved it.

    I just have a really hard time getting into those settings at all. I have a strange aversion to them and westerns…so much so that even when a show I love chooses that setting, that episode (or scene if it is a book) seems to drag forever and gets listed among my least liked moments.

    I actually kind of regret it though, as I hear so much about how wonderful a writer she was. My Aunt Miriam claims my mom named me after her (Saronai is my internet nickname, my birth name is Laura).

    Nonetheless, it was interesting learning more about the real life Laura behind the stories.

    • We all have our preferences. I don’t mind westerns, I guess, but I do remember that “the Good, the Bad and the Ugly” was probably the most boring movie I ever watched. For some reason the genre that bores me most is stories or movies about gangsters or organized crime.

      It’s not too late to pick up Laura Ingalls Wilder if you’ve got an inkling you might enjoy it. If it’s any comfort, they went west by 19th century standards, but the action of the novels doesn’t go beyond South Dakota, so it’s not too much of a Western!

      • I probably will at some point. I do dabble outside my reading comfort zone from time to time. If for no other reason than to appreciate the work of an early female novelist.

        got a specific book you’d suggest someone start with?

      • Start at the beginning with “Little House in the Big Woods.” Yes, it’s a children’s novel, but that doesn’t matter. Wilder is a study in evoking timeless emotions and characterizations with the simplest prose and a graceful year-in-the-life setting. Later, the complexity of Laura’s point of view grows as she (and her reader) ages.

    • The tv series bears so little resemblance to the books that you might like the books if you didn’t like the series. They’re not “Westerns” at all. They are about a truly fascinating family who just happens to live in what is now the Midwest.

      • I have seen a few episodes of the TV series, but realized it has almost nothing to do with the books, and I’m not really a TV watcher anyway. I agree that someone who wasn’t interested in the show might enjoy the original novels.

  7. I agree with the comments about the television series having pretty much nothing to do with the books, at least after the first season or so. In fact, in our family we chirstened it “Little Soap Opera on the Prairie”

  8. what does pioneer girl say about Laura’s engagement ring? I have never seen it in all of the museums I visited

  9. My soul just died a little. Growing up she was always my hero, I would microwave my milk so I could pretend it was from a cow, I named my dog jack, for high school I was planning to put Laura Ingalls quotes all over my locker. I still think she’s an amazing person, but I’ve kind of learnt my lesson on heroes, because she WAS a person, and people aren’t Heros.

    • Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much. I think Ingalls is just as notable an author as she always was to me. Understanding more about her unvarnished life story makes me appreciate her storytelling skills even more. And remember — unless you’re drinking soy or coconut milk or something, your milk still IS from a cow, even if you keep it in the fridge. Thanks for reading!

  10. I have to say one thing. I do not agree that Rose was an important part of the book series or the secret editor. I have seen copies of some of their letters in question but Laura didn’t take all the advice. It was a draft she sent her and I think it is ridiculous to assume she didn’t know enough to write a second draft and so forth. Rose gave much advice to Laura because Rose was bossy and I think jealous. I too have a complicate relationship with a daughter and ego and other issues tend to get in the middle. She tells me what to do often; I take only advice that I find to be worthy and ignore the rest. Often I ignore it all. Laura did much of the same I think. If Rose truly had a real literary impact on her mother’s writing (and not just trying to wedge her way into it) she would have shouted it from every newspaper she could. After all Rose was very complicated but most realize she was very egotistical too. After all it was Rose that used “Let the Hurricanes Roar” to basically steal off her mothers back!

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