My Laura Ingalls Wilder series continues today with an interview with Laura Ingalls Wilder expert Sarah Uthoff. Sarah hosts a podcast and speaks about Laura Ingalls Wilder and one room schools around the country.
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?
Someone told my mother when she found out she was going to have a little girl that she needed to get the Little House books for her. So she did. I really don’t remember a time before they were being read to me, but I always did love them. My mom used to make us record these little oral history tapes and in one of the earliest we found (I must have been 3 or 4) she asked me what my favorite thing to do was and I said “play Laura” and I’ve been playing Laura ever since.
I love that you played Laura at such a young age. My daughter’s 3 right now, and I’ve read some of the scenes to her. She’s enjoyed it, but only in brief spurts.
You’ve made a name for yourself by researching Laura Ingalls Wilder. How did you make the transition from the three year old playing Laura to the Laura expert who hosts a radio show, speaks at conferences and helps organize Laurapalooza?
I think I owe a big part of it to my mother who was a big believer in supporting things your children are interested in. It’s because of her that I visited almost all the Laura sites as a child and for years she would give me a life membership into one of the Laura organizations every Christmas. She even suggested on the way out after my first county level 4H presentation that my next one should be about Laura which helped get me started on presenting. She continues to be a source of support so she should get credit. My other family members were supportive too. My grandmother on one side made me my Laura dress and that grandfather always was willing to play Pa when I was playing Laura. My other grandmother made me a Laura doll and that grandfather made me a little covered wagon that I still use in my display.
Really though I think reading Laura’s words just makes you want to learn more. As you dig into the books there are layers upon layers and although I think you get a lot out of reading the books without background knowledge the more you know about 19th century life the more you get out of them. Once you figure that out you want to know more and start digging. Different people are attracted to different parts of the story and focus their research efforts there. A big part of my interest has always been sharing that knowledge. I keep looking for more and better ways to do that and I think that explains why people recognize my name and why I keep working on getting Laura into new arenas.
It must all start with great moms and support from your family! They sound really great.
I’ve definitely noticed a lot more depth to the books that I didn’t notice as a child, so this reread has been a really fun and eye-opening experience for me. What piece of knowledge about Laura have you uncovered or come across in your digging that you think is the most interesting? Also, excluding the fact that the Little House series is at least somewhat fictionalized, what surprises most people about Laura’s life when you speak to them?
One of the things that surprised me the most was when I was taking a tour of the Watkins Woolen Mill I was watching them demonstrate how they twisted a skein of wool. As his hands moved I suddenly realized what he was doing was the same actions Laura described as making a hay twist. I never could quite picture it before and suddenly it was clear that whoever came up with the haytwist must have been familiar with how the wool was twisted. It was a nice surprise of a part of Laura showing up where you didn’t expect it.
I’d say the thing that shocks people the most are the TV fans when they find out everything in the TV show isn’t real. You get a lot of people who seem to think that the show was a documentary of Laura’s life, which it definitely wasn’t. That comes as a true shock to people and sometimes they won’t even believe you. I’ve heard about TV show fans arguing with the people at De Smet that the marker in the cemetery there for Laura’s baby must have the wrong name on it because Mary’s baby died in the TV show. (Actually Laura’s baby died on the show too, but that was after ratings were down, maybe that didn’t register as much.)
Hay twisting is just one of the manual task descriptions, amongst other descriptions, that I’ve actually gotten lost while reading. It sometimes seems like pioneer people had at least a third hand to help accomplish the task.
The TV only fans seem to be an odd group, but that’s coming from someone who really doesn’t want anything to do with the TV show. Mostly, though, it blows my mind that people don’t realize the TV show is at least somewhat based on the books. ::sigh::
Apparently the Little House realm is filled with at least a few people who identify with Mary over Laura. Someone who played Laura as a child would probably pick her as their favorite. Is that correct?
That’s an interesting comment. I don’t think I’ve ever had someone tell me they identified with Mary over Laura. Normally Laura, Pa, and Almanzo come up and then often people re-reading the books later in life will sometimes realize they totally underappreciated Ma, but Mary doesn’t come up. In fact when I could get my friends at school to “Play Laura” which wasn’t very often because they weren’t as accommodating as my family was, it was always a struggle to get someone to play Mary. Everyone wanted to be Laura and it was often a heated discussion. I normally ended up taking the part because she really is crucial to a lot of the scenes you could act out, especially with a group of people, but there wasn’t a lot of people clambering to take the part.
You have to have a lot of respect for Mary later in life. She got dealt a bad hand and really truly lived her moral belief in the importance of acceptance and faith. It’s a lot easier to fight for your morals, than to live by them, and she definitely did live by hers. As a younger child though, the definitely was “showing off how good I was” as she says in the later books that makes her kind of annoying sometimes.
Mary did get her own spin-off book “Mary Ingalls on Her Own.” I was disappointed with it. Not only did it ignore some of the few facts we know about her time there, it also planted some myths that I don’t know if we’ll ever get out of the fandom. Plus, the author wrote Mary as kind of a lite version of Laura, instead of as Mary herself and as I say post-childhood Mary was really an interesting person in her own right, she didn’t need to borrow any of Laura’s personality to carry a book on her own.
Mary definitely has a quiet courage that doesn’t really show well on the page, especially next to bold Laura.
We know that Rose Wilder Lane had a controversial role in the Little House books and her parents’ lives. I find her incredibly fascinating. What are your thoughts on her?
Rose is definitely an interesting person and well worth a quality biography in her own right. I’m sorry that she hasn’t had one. She lived an interesting life. As far as her role in the Little House books I think that is pretty clear to anyone who looks at it objectively. While a full scale study based on existing manuscripts to the published version hasn’t yet been undertaken, I think anyone familiar with the publishing industry and with the published writings of Wilder and Lane and their correspondence correctly identifies their roles in the process. The original writing was Laura’s, but if it hadn’t been for Rose I doubt they would have been published. It was Rose’s connections that got Laura an agent and then a publisher and she handled most of the business end with both. Rose was also the one who wouldn’t give up and it was through her influence that books went from memoir to picture book to chapter book. Rose also definitely edited the books, but here’s the big “secret” all books that aren’t self-published are edited. That is usually what’s wrong with so many self-published books, they lack editing and it truly does make a difference. Ursula Nordstrom who was the head of the children’s department at Harpers (considered a major force in children’s book publishing in the early 20th century)said there were only two authors’s books that didn’t have to be edited, E.B. White and Laura Ingalls Wilder. White took forever on a book and edited them themselves. Lane edited Wilder’s.
Rose was a very interesting woman who made an impact in many parts of American culture. I’m pretty sure though she wouldn’t have liked me at all and a choice between Laura and Rose, I’d take Laura every time no matter what the question was.
Do you have a favorite Little House book? If so, which one and why?
Also, do you have a favorite book about Laura?
My favorite Laura book growing up was always the one where she was the closest to my current age. Now I am, sadly, older than Laura in all the books, I tend to see them as one big book in multiple volumes so I don’t really have a favorite. If you press me, a lot of my favorite stories come in On the Banks of Plum Creek. The best designed book in the Helen Gentry-Garth Williams version is the Long Winter. I could go on quite a while about that.
I think that was another great interview! You can find Sarah at http://about.me/sarah_uthoff. Stay tuned for more Laura related goodneess!