Alright, Laura fans! Today is the first of at least two interviews with Laura experts. Kelly Kathleen Ferguson is an author and Ph.D. candidate in creative nonfiction at Ohio University.
My first question truly starts at the beginning. Please tell me a little about your first experience with the Little House books. How did you discover/learn about the books? Did you immediately fall in love with them?
Here is an excerpt from my book, in which I explain the beginnings of my Laura obsession.
The origins of my pioneer story began October 2, 1974, in a little house made of red brick in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. On that day my mother gave me the Laura Ingalls Wilder box set for my sixth birthday, the yellow-covered Harper Trophy Edition illustrated by Garth Williams. I don’t know what the set cost, but each book retailed for $1.50 ($1.70 Canada). At some point I took a magic marker and wrote my name in the space provided (Belongs to _________). I scribed each letter with extreme focus, careful to remain on the line. This was serious business.
From first read, I was obsessed with my life as Laura, and set out live like her in every possible way. It wasn’t easy, proving up a claim in the suburbs. I built cabins out of Lincoln Logs and tended faithfully to my plastic mustangs. Autumn I gathered acorns and dried Kudzu berries on the back deck. Winter I braided pine straw to burn in the fireplace, watching with satisfaction as my fuel turned blue then white then withered into smoke up the flue. Spring I plowed the centipede grass, cursing those pesky roots. Summer I sowed birdseed crops in the houseplants that my mom, sighing, yanked out. Like Pa, I dutifully replanted despite the destructive forces of nature.
Ahhh, I love that! So, it definitely seems like Laura inspired your career path. Is that correct?
Yep, Laura has pretty much been a huge life inspiration. I was always fascinated about how she became a famous author later in life, in her fifties. So I still have time! Laura’s path was always in the back of my mind as I played in bands and bartended and renovated my old house and whatever else it was I was doing through my twenties and early thirties, this idea that it’s better to have experiences to write about. And I’ve always loved how The Books are about fearless reinvention but this sense of stability, a sense of self, at the same time. The Ingalls family had a china shepherdess that Ma always placed on the mantel—soon as Pa built one. I have a Maneki Neko (the Japanese “welcome cat.”). When I unpack it that means I’m home. Once I decided to be a writer I became a homesteader of sorts, I’ve had to move where the opportunity lies. Laura’s willingness to move and change has been with me since I was six. In a way, she’s the stability I bring with me, because yes, I still have that yellow box set and it is also a symbol of home for me.
You’re absolutely right. I’d always known Laura was a bit older when she started writing the books, but I was surprised and inspired that she has such a body of work after her “late” start in the writing world.
Taking a bit of a different turn, I understand that some readers identify and side with Mary over Laura. Wendy McClure says they’re usually the older siblings, who enjoy her bossiness. I’m a Laura fan. Until reading The Wilder Life I didn’t realize people gravitated toward Mary. I’m particularly uncharitable in my thoughts towards her because she constantly bullies Laura. So, Mary or Laura? Who’s your favorite? I’m pretty sure I know the answer!
You know it! I’m the girl who shoves too many pebbles in her pocket so it tears. with boring brown hair all restless and flutterbudgety who’d rather help Pa with the chores than sit inside. Bo-ring. Although one of my favorite parts in the series is when Mary admits to Laura about how as a young girl she wasn’t really good, because she was showing off.
This seems like a good transition to Laura’s progeny. Rose Wilder Lane is a complicated individual who has played a controversial role in the writing of the books and Laura’s life. I think she sounds incredibly fascinating; if not at the very least a little shady. I can’t wait to read more about her and her own writings. What are your thoughts on Lane?
Unfolding the wondrous life of Rose Wilder Lane was one of the many fascinating side journeys my Laura trip took me. On my to-read bookshelf is Travels with Zenobia: From Paris to Albania in a Model T, the writings Lane kept while roadtripping with her bestie Helen Boylston. That trip would be an adventure now, much less in 1926. And who thinks to name a car Zenobia? Lane lived in San Francisco, New York, and Paris as well as extensive periods in Albania. On the night of her death she was scheduled for a next day flight to work as a war correspondent in Vietnam. Although she was known more for her fiction, I prefer her nonfiction. She had so much to write about. I don’t know that she ever found herself as fiction writer—except through her mother’s stories.
Pamela Smith Hill has written a great book, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life that examines the role of Lane in the Little House books. I think Smith Hill nails it, that Lane was an intense editor along the lines of Maxwell Perkins—meaning extensive shaping and key suggestions. Undoubtedly, Lane took her mother’s writing to the next level with her professional experience. But any time spent with each writer’s voice tells the story. Lane simply didn’t have the prose chops.
Throughout all of your Laura-related research and travels, I’m sure you’ve come across some interesting information. What surprised you most? What seems to surprise non-Laura experts?
Aside from the Rose/Laura “scandal,” which I think can get blown out of proportion, under scrutiny Laura really pans out to be who you would expect—a hard working farmer, a lifelong love to Almanzo, a great baker of gingerbread, and active member of her small town of Mansfield. And she continued to enjoy a snazzy dress or two along the way! The person from the Books whose true story surprised me the most is Eliza Jane Wilder, who is mostly known for being the mean teacher who picked on Carrie and gossiped with Nellie Oleson. But she was a pioneer in her own right.
Here’s a post I wrote about her:
From there, mostly when I talk to non-Laura experts, I have to remind them that I’m talking about the BOOKS, not the television show. People either loved the books or never heard of them.
And last thought, what surprised me the most during my travels (the “archive of the feet”), was the diversity of the Midwestern landscape. It’s easy to think of the middle of our country as a big blot of cornfield, but driving the two lane highways showed me the difference from the rolling green, almost Southern feel to eastern Kansas to the high, moonscape prairies of South Dakota.
I grew up in eastern South Dakota (my childhood dentist was in DeSmet). I went to college in western South Dakota and now live outside Minneapolis, so the very changing geography of our area of the Midwest is one I’m quite familiar with! I do think most people do misunderstand it and think it’s all flat with lots of grass. Like Laura keeps pointing out in By the Shores of Silver Lake and Little Town on the Prairie, eastern South Dakota is deceptively flat. You only have to take a walk out into a field to realize that there are bumps and rolling hills all around you, but drive an hour down the road, and you’re probably looking at an entirely different landscape.
Do you have a favorite Little House book? If so, which one and why? Also, do you have a favorite book about Laura? (Besides your book, of course. 🙂 )
1) Well, favorite always seems to be whichever one I’m reading. But the book that flashed in my head at the question was By the Shores of Silver Lake. I love Lena, and how she and Laura gallop the black ponies across the prairie. I also find compelling the juxtaposition of the Ingalls family’s final destination in this blank slate of a landscape with Laura’s turn from girl to young woman. Silver Lake is where she really comes of age, when she realizes she’ll have to teach and help send Mary to school. She has to be (gulp) grown up and hey, hold on!—isn’t that Almanzo Wilder and his brown Morgans on the horizon? I also love the discovery of the items of the Surveyor’s House. And, and, and.
2) My fav is William Anderson’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography. It’s written for a young audience, and emulates Laura’s style. I loved reading bios on Martha Washington and Florence Nightingale as a kid. Sometimes I don’t want my idols “complicated” or all the dirt. I just want a good story that balances crises with a positive spin. Anderson’s Bio is large part of what launched my whole project, this idea of Laura being a real heroine I could admire, not just literary one, as well as making me think of Pepin, South Dakota, et. al., as actual places I could visit.
Thank you so much for participating in my interview! Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I suppose my parting note is that my goal is for people to pass the Books on to the next generation. Whenever I hear of someone giving the books as a present or reading them to their kids, I get a warm feeling inside.