We had the opportunity to interview Pamela Smith Hill, the editor of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, and author of Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life. Pamela has contributed several articles to this site already, with more to come in the future.
Q: How did you become interested in Laura Ingalls Wilder?
I’ve been a bookworm from the moment I first learned to read. A neighbor, perhaps a kindred bookworm, recommended the Little House books when I was ten. My choices, however, were limited. The bookmobile contained just one selection that summer: Little Town on the Prairie.
But I was hooked right away—because the character of Laura Ingalls grew up to be the author Laura Ingalls Wilder. I was already dreaming of becoming a writer, and searched for clues in the Little House books to see if Laura had had a similar dream too. Over the next year, I read all of Mrs. Wilder’s books.
Eventually, I learned that Laura Ingalls Wilder had written all the Little House books from a farm about forty miles away. Like me, she was from the Missouri Ozarks. It was almost more than I could believe. At that age, I had assumed all writers lived in New York, California, or England. Until I read the Little House books, I thought my ambition to write was hopeless; I’d been born in the wrong place.
My parents took me to Wilder’s Rocky Ridge Farm the next year. On May 29, 1965, I wrote about that first visit in my very first diary. Seeing Wilder’s handwritten manuscripts on display in her farmhouse made me think that maybe, just maybe I could become a writer after all. I wouldn’t have to convince my parents to move to New York, California, or England!
Years later, after I’d launched my own professional writing career, I moved to South Dakota, where five of Wilder’s novels are set, and there I began to more fully appreciate her artistry, not just as a writer of children’s books, but as a gifted and important American author. At the same time, I also began writing about Wilder—her life and work. My appreciation for her talent deepened.
Q: Do you have a favorite Wilder book?
As a young reader, my favorite Wilder book was These Happy Golden Years. Like most young readers, I especially enjoyed reading about someone older than me, someone who was standing on the verge of a Happily-Ever-After Life. Laura was still as fearless, capable, and smart as she’d been in the earlier books, but in These Happy Golden Years, she was also grown up, sophisticated, and fashionable. Dressed in her brown poplin and brown velvet hat, she could, nevertheless, take the reins behind Barnum after singing school, and control his frenzied dash past the church, out onto the open prairie, and back again. Laura was courageous yet elegant, assertive yet humble. She was exactly what I aspired to be.
As an adult, however, my favorite book is The Long Winter. I now feel that it’s Wilder’s greatest creative achievement. The book has a flawless story arc; a powerful setting; a primal central conflict; strategic shifts in point of view that advance the story and illuminate character; and a dreamlike narrative voice that heightens the fictional family’s struggle with cold and hunger. Yet despite these technical achievements, the novel’s emotional intensity always remains center stage. It is a masterpiece.
Q: Why have Wilder’s books endured?
Wilder’s books are at once timeless and universal. Although they explore a very specific slice of American history, they continue to feel contemporary for two primary reasons: the character of Laura Ingalls and the narrative voice of her story.
Laura is a richly drawn, complex, three-dimensional character full of believable contradictions: she is assertive yet shy; open-hearted yet restrained; hot-tempered yet contrite. But then again, she isn’t always contrite. When Mary confesses in On the Banks of Plum Creek that she couldn’t possibly be as mean as Nellie Oleson, Laura thinks, “I could. I could be meaner to her than she is to us, if Ma and Pa would let me.”1 Readers across cultures, continents, and generations love Laura for this. Like all great literary characters, Laura Ingalls is flawed yet noble.
Readers relate to Laura’s character in a very personal way, primarily because of Wilder’s unique and deceptively simple narrative voice, the second enduring quality of the Little House books. The voice is direct and conversational. There are breaths and spaces in and between the words, allowing readers the freedom to project their own ideas, feelings, and assumptions into the books—and into Laura’s character. Readers come away feeling that Wilder has spoken directly to them.
Furthermore, the narrative voice ages as Laura does, and speaks to readers at different levels of maturity. Think about Chapter 19 in Little House on the Prairie where Mr. Edwards describes his encounter with Santa Claus. Very young readers, older children, teens, and adults can find the chapter satisfying, yet take away very different meanings from it. The scene is brilliantly nuanced.
Laura Ingalls Wilder makes artistry seem effortless. The stories she tells in the Little House books seem both believable and inevitable. Perhaps ultimately, this is why her work has endured.
Q: What are your future plans to teach and write about Laura Ingalls Wilder?
Part Two of “Laura Ingalls Wilder: Exploring Her Work and Writing Life,” the massive open online class I teach for Missouri State University, launched April 6, 2015. The university is tentatively planning to repeat both Parts One and Two of the class during the fall 2015, and I will continue to teach an academic literature course about Wilder for MSU students.
Will I write about Wilder again? Probably. An idea for a new book is already beginning to take shape, but it’s far too early to talk about it in detail just yet.
1. Laura Ingalls Wilder, On The Banks of Plum Creek (Harper & Brothers: New York, 1937), p. 110.
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