Volume 18 • Issue 35 | January 13 - 19, 2006

Talking point

Learning from ‘Little House,’ even as an adult

By Jane Flanagan

Somehow I got through my childhood without reading or being read any children’s classics (Long story!). So now that I’m a parent, I’m reading all of this stuff for the first time. But I’m not complaining. We just finished the “Little House on the Prairie” series and it was a thrill joining my kid in the discovery of 19th century pioneer life. I also learned some key grown-up writer lessons, too.

A year and a half ago a friend gave my son, Rusty, now 7, the first installment of the nine-part series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Since then we have been riveted by her tales of prairie blizzards, fires, near starvation, locusts, malaria and Indian raids. Through it all, Wilder instilled an unmatched sense of warmth and humanity.

I’ll never forget reading how Laura’s sister Mary became blind after an illness. Laura, still battling her sibling jealousy of “perfect Mary,” now struggled with feelings of shame. She compensated by serving a useful role, being “Mary’s eyes.” Laura began describing things to her sister, working to make the scenes as vivid as she could. Every writer should be forced to do this at an early age! And to think that I spent my childhood in front of a TV set!

The things that woman described.

She wrote about prairie blizzards so blinding, she literally couldn’t see an inch in front of her. She recounted stories of farmers found frozen to death, only feet from their homes, because they couldn’t find their houses. In one blizzard, she saved both herself and her younger sister, by bumping into a building. If she had been a foot away, she would have missed it, and in all likelihood perished.

We learned that farmers could do backbreaking work for two years awaiting their first crop and then lose it in an hour because of an unusually foul storm. Or they could have such a brutal winter they would have to subsist on bread for nine months, worried they would run out.

So enthralled were Rusty and I that it was with great trepidation that we approached the final installment, Book No. 9. “I don’t want to read it!” said Rusty, and I knew exactly what he meant. Because when that book was finished, that would be the end of the “Laura and Mary” stories and we weren’t sure we could cope.

Only, it turns out we could. In fact, by the time we finished Book 9, I was actually relieved. That’s because it just wasn’t nearly as good as the first eight. Trying to figure out why, I discovered that this final book was not published during Laura Wilder’s lifetime. After she died, the manuscript was found buried in her belongings. It was an unrevised draft. It is believed she was working on it when her husband died, and she was so grief stricken she was unable to continue. Her estate decided to publish it, assuming that is what she would have wished.

I’m not so sure about that.

For it just wasn’t as good as the first eight. And it’s not that she didn’t have the material. Book 9 — “The First Four Years,” follows her first years of marriage and motherhood, a period that included the death of her 3-week-old child and her house burning to the ground. But as momentous as these events were, there was astonishingly little suspense, something that prevailed in the previous books.

Also missing was her warmth and compassion, which made these tragedies impossible to take in. They were just too brutal. The tools that enabled we readers to “cope and grow” along with Laura were absent.

And that was a big lesson for grown up/writer me. No matter how compelling your material, you still have to present it well, and no small trick is that. Those first eight books were masterfully written, yet evidently even masters don’t achieve this the first time out. Or even the second or third. Those books must have been revised many, many times.

If you ask me, Wilder never would have let that last book out of her hands. She would have gone back and reworked and revised, just as she surely did those other books.

Still, even after the disappointing last book, my son still hungered for more Laura. So one day at the bookstore I uncovered one more Laura publication. It was a diary that Wilder wrote during her trek with her husband and young daughter in a covered wagon. But it is a literal diary in the sense that it is simply a listing of what took place. “Packed up wagon at 8:am, stopped for dinner at noon.” etc. It was very dry! (Needless to say Laura did not publish this one either.)

After reading too many pages of this I finally put the book down and said to my son, “Do you really want to read this?” “Yes, I do!” he said. “Yes I do!”

Talk about loyalty. Now that’s a humbling lesson. To be a writer who generates that kind of affection!

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