She is gentle
She is wild
She’s a riddle
She’s a child
She’s a headache!
She’s an angel!
She’s a girl
— from “Maria,” The Sound of Music
Last week I shared my reaction to the American Library Association renaming what used to be the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. My response to the decision led to reading and writing about Laura for a solid month. And the whole controversy made me miss Half-Pint. Pa gave her that nickname because she was “only a half pint of cider half drunk up.”
When I was eight years old, I had a red sunbonnet with yellow flowers, so I could be a pioneer girl like Laura. On a summer vacation out west, to Crested Butte, Colorado, I pretended Laura came along so I could show her the Rocky Mountains. I wanted her — a fictional character — to be my friend.
I felt that way about Laura even though she was not always a model of good behavior. There is a problem with Laura, a sort of How do you solve a problem like Maria-ness to her. Like Maria, Laura whistles. Her dress often has a tear. She’s impossible to pin down. As a child reader, I loved it when Laura was ornery, when she got jealous, when she was downright mean.
The Little House books were the first I read where the hero was not always a paragon of virtue. In Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, Bruce Handy, who read the series for the first time as an grownup, calls Laura, “a doer, a try-er, a risk-er.” He likes that she thinks she might enjoy hearing a little “rough language” from the railroad men. He likes that Pa counts on her to take care of Ma and the girls at the beginning of By the Shores of Silver Lake. He likes that Laura helps Pa twist the hay for fuel in The Long Winter. Sure, there are other heroes from the world of children’s lit with spunk, but how many of them are presented as autobiographical?
If I were to write a novel based on myself as a child, would I include my faults?
In Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caroline Fraser writes that Wilder described herself as “quick to anger and vengeful to a fault.” Fraser praises Wilder for making the character of Laura as stubborn, restless, and stoic as Laura, the person. As I revisited the series through Fraser’s biography, I realized those were the character traits that drew me to Laura. The Little House series is not the story according to Mary, the good girl; it’s the story according to Half-Pint.
Laura did not start writing about her growing-up years until shortly after Mary’s death. That was right around the time of Black Tuesday, the start of the Great Depression, and the time her grown daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was experiencing a different kind of great depression.
In response, she did what she had always done. She got busy. In this atmosphere of instability — grieving for her sister, distressed for her daughter, anxious about money — Laura Ingalls Wilder decided to write a memoir.”
Wilder’s memoir, Pioneer Girl, was grist for her literary mill, but it did not yield not the loaf. It was not published until 2014, long after her death, but Wilder needed to write it in order to write her fiction. Fraser writes that Wilder began writing “with her earliest memories and plowed right on, as if harrowing a field.”
The character Laura and her adventures are not exactly the same as the person Laura and hers. The Little House series leaves out several family tragedies, like the death of her brother Freddy, Pa’s debt problems, and some harrowing experiences in the towns of Burr Oak and Walnut Grove. It erases completely George and Maggie Masters and their baby, who lived with the Ingalls during The Long Winter. But the series leaves in many other dark chapters, including crop failures, the worst locust plague in American history, a winter in which the entire town almost starves to death, and Mary’s blindness.
If I were to write a novel based on my experiences as a child, which tragedies would I include? Which would I leave out?
The older I get, the more I want Laura — the real Laura, the writer — as a friend. I wish I could bring her in the car on our next westward vacation so we’d have oodles of time to discuss the constraints of fiction and memoir while we drove through farm and ranch land. We could talk about unexpected harvests, how Pa’s failed and Almanzo’s failed but Half Pint’s are still going strong.
In one of Wilder’s columns for the Missouri Ruralist titled “Make Your Dreams Come True,” she told readers that dreaming was important, but so was hard work, because life didn’t always turn out like her dreams for her flock of Leghorns: “if the hens had performed according to schedule; if the hawks had loved field mice better than spring chickens; if I had been so constituted that I never became weary.”
Sometimes Wilder was weary. That’s in her stories, along with her dreams and her hard work and her vengeful jealousies. Half Pint is the girl who can’t be held down, any more that you could keep a wave upon the sand or hold a moonbeam in your hand. How do you solve a problem like Half-Pint?
You don’t. You let her circle her wagons into the stories she wanted to tell — about a woman, who at every twist of the wind and at every turn of fate, refused tragedy. Even her false tales still read true.
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“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro