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Monday, December 03, 2012

Library of America - Laura Ingalls Wilder

December 3, 2012, the Iowa City Public Library and Prairie Lights sponsored a program with Caroline Fraser, the editor of the Library of America Edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books.

Fraser was born in Seattle and now lives in Sante Fe, New Mexico.  She attended Harvard and earned a Ph.D. in American Literature and English.  She is an accomplished author with credits for articles in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Outside Magazine and other prestigious publications.  Fraser has earned a PEN award for the best young writer and numerous awards for her poetry.  Originally Fraser had been scheduled to be in Iowa City during October, but was kept in New York City by the severe storm/hurricane that swept the Eastern coast.  Two months later the event was rescheduled.

During the evening Fraser recounted general information about Wilder. Laura Ingalls was born in 1867 and lived until 1957.  Showing slides Fraser commented on elements of Wilder's life at the time.
This photo is of Laura and her two sisters, Carrie (left), Mary (middle) and Laura (right).  The photo was most likely taken in the late 1870s or the early 1880s.  Historians do not seem to be in agreement about whether or not Mary is blind by this time or not.

 Mary became blind in 1879 and by the time this picture was taken, the three girls had seen and experienced a lot.  They had traveled to Kansas and back to Wisconsin, survived blizzards and endured (and survived) the drought and conditions that resulted in the Locus Plague of 1874-1875.  Over 198,000 square miles were affected when more than 3.5 trillion insects swarmed a great swath of the Midwest -- from Canada to Texas.  More about this plague can be read on the Hearthstone Legacy's site and the article "When the Skies Turned to Black: The Locust Plague of 1875."

Laura and the entire family worked hard to earn enough money to send Mary to the Blind school in Iowa (College for the Blind, Vinton, Iowa) -- they worked in service, cleaning hotel rooms, waiting tables, caring for children - anything they could do to earn money.  At age 17, Laura went to teach school.  On weekends Almanzo would pick Laura up at the school and take her home for the weekend.  Almanzo earned the hearts of many when he "saved the town of DeSmet" during the severe winter in the early 1880s.  He and another young man rode out of town, at great danger  to himself, to get wheat for the townspeople to make bread which kept the townspeople from certain starvation.

The couple became engaged to marry in 1885, Almanzo was 10 years older than Laura -- and she seemed somewhat embarrassed by that.  In her stories she made that age gap somewhat less than it really was.  But in fact such an age gap was quite common in those days.  Almanzo built a very nice house for Laura, on his tree claim.  He was farming and the first few years the crops failed miserably.  Rose (their only daughter) was born and later a son (Frederick) who died in infancy.  Both Laura and Almanzo became affected with Diphtheria.  Laura seemed to recover completely but Almanzo returned to work too early and as a result suffered a stroke that would affect him the rest of his life.  Shortly after the wonderful house burned to the ground.  The Wilders were firmly in debt and had no way to recover.  They lived with her parents for a time and then spent a few months (or more) in Florida thinking that the weather might be good for Almanzo.  It did not seem to help.  The family moved back to DeSmet and then heard about land in Missouri that was rather cheap.
Before Laura left DeSmet the family posed for a family portrait.  It was the last time Laura was to see her father until she returned when he was on his death bed (Pa died September 8, 1902).  Laura's family was very close and much of her later writing attempted to capture that closeness.
L-to R: Ma, Carrie, Laura (with her hand on Pa's shoulder), Grace, and Mary seated on the right.
They eventually purchased a few acres there.  The land was filled with rocks and thus Laura named their new home Rocky Ridge Farm.  The first year they spent clearing (and selling) trees from the land.    Times were hard.  Travel was not easy during Laura's and Almanzo's early marriage years.  In fact, she last saw her family in 1902 during the time her father Charles died.  Laura's mother Caroline died in 1924.  Laura did not attend her mother's funeral and had not, in fact, seen her since the death of Charles.
Laura and Almanzo continued to eke out a living in Mansfield.  Laura fed travelers who came through town and Almanzo acted as a delivery person of sorts - meeting travelers at the train station and delivering their baggage to their destination.
Laura was deeply affected by the death of her mother (1924) and her sister Mary (1928).  By now Laura's only child Rose Wilder Lane was a successful writer and journalist and it was Rose who encouraged Laura to begin to write.  Laura became quite an expert on the raising of chickens and was a columnist (twice a month) for the Missouri Ruralist.  Rose encouraged her mother to write her memoirs.  Much has been written about the process of rejections and final acceptance of a manuscript for the first book that was to become the "Little House" series.

 Laura's books were published during the Depression and the expectations for their success was minimal.  But they were successful and the books continue in their popularity today.  Laura was 65 at the date of her first book's publication.
One of Laura Ingalls Wilder's public appearances was at a book signing, October 1952, in
Brown's Book Store, in Springfield, Missouri.  At the time she was 85-years-old.  Almanzo had died in 1949 - three years earlier in October.  Shortly after this appearance Laura became very frail -- she died three days after her 90th birthday.  (b. Feb. 7, 1867 - d. Feb. 10, 1957)
Note in this picture of the 1952 signing that the bookshelves hold copies of the earlier published Little House books.   The books published in the 1930s were illustrated in by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle.  In 1953, a republication of the books, with black and white illustrations by Garth Williams was published by HarperCollins.  Currently the Williams illustrations have been colorized and the books have been published with those illustrations.

Los Angeles Review of Books (October 10, 2012) carried an essay by Caroline Fraser, Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Wolves in which she discusses the eight novels published between 1932 and 1943 and what Fraser considers the "politicization" of the Wilder books.  Some of these sentiments were revealed during the Q&A session that followed the formal presentation by Fraser.

The comments about the American Library's unillustrated volumes containing the 8 Little House books were slight but Fraser did mention that some changes were made in spelling/typos in the earlier published books and that extensive notes and bibliographic sources for notes were included in the book.
Learn more about Caroline Fraser at

Interestingly, in the audience was one of our area's experts on Laura Ingalls Wilder, Sarah S. Uthoff.  Sarah often portrays Laura and provides presentations about her and her life, writings, and topics related to Wilder.  On my YouTube channel: mcelmeel 101 -- on my children's literature playlist, you can find links to Sarah's Laura Ingalls Wilder FAQ video and to a summary of Laura Ingalls Wilder's life "Little House on the Prairie."
Visit Sarah's website at

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