Wilder’s “Little House” Books: Literary Genius

(A continuation of the previous blog post, “Wilder’s ‘Little House’ Books: Capturing Imaginations.”)

When Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books were first published, something about the stories she told made her books attractive to her contemporary readers. This “something” has continued to capture the imaginations of readers from all generations since then. As discussed in the last post in this series, this “something” that has made the books so attractive is likely the elements of truth and goodness in Wilder’s tales. At the same time, however, this sense of truth and goodness avoids the danger of becoming preachy thanks to the elements of beauty in Wilder’s storytelling. She tells her stories with sincerity, bringing them alive with her naturally engaging voice.

laura pic

Laura Ingalls Wilder as a young adult.

In a recent interview, Dr. Dedra Birzer of Hillsdale College noted Wilder’s intentions behind writing her series. Birzer acknowledged that, although Wilder did not realize the significance of what she was doing right away, she eventually came to recognize the extent of her mission as she continued to write more and more of her books. Birzer referred to a letter of Wilder’s that appears in the recently released Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder. In this letter, Wilder explains,

I began to think what a wonderful childhood I had had. How I had seen the whole frontier, the woods, the Indian country of the great plains, the frontier towns, the building of railroads in wild, unsettled country, homesteading and farmers coming in to take possession. I realized that I had seen and lived it all—all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers, and the towns. Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American History. (Selected Letters, page 60)

Her intention, therefore, became to preserve this period of history for future generations through the memories she shared in her children’s books. Pamela Smith Hill, editor of Wilder’s autobiography, also noted the historical influence of Wilder’s books, saying, “Wilder’s Little House books are built on a foundation of historical authenticity. They spring from the American experience—or at least, one aspect of the American experience. This makes her books especially compelling.”

Through her books, therefore, Wilder offers a sincere depiction of the era of American history from her childhood. Wilder does not simply relay history, however. Her skill as a writer and a storyteller keeps her tales from becoming trivial and makes them truly enduring. Birzer noted that “Wilder’s subject matter, childhood on the American frontier, had widespread appeal. But her skill as a writer made her books into classics of American literature.”

According to Birzer, Wilder largely inherited her storytelling skills from her father, whose stories “first inspired her move into Juvenile Literature, which barely existed in 1932 when Little House in the Big Woods was published.” Wilder’s influence as a storyteller points to her engaging style and unique voice as well as the other powerful literary elements of her books that make them stand out among other classics.

In her interview with the Memorial Society, Hill pointed out the elements that make Wilder’s voice especially unique. “Her style is deceptively simple yet lyrical,” Hill said. “It has power, grace, and emotional depth.  Wilder knew how to balance simplicity against beauty; her language brings a scene, a character, or a setting to life. But beyond that, Wilder’s narrative voice matures as Laura—and young readers themselves—grow and change.”

It is not just Wilder’s engaging voice that makes her stories so powerful, however. The characters she depicts are powerful as well. As Birzer asserted, “Wilder’s storytelling abilities are amplified by the compelling characters she creates, and by her talent for descriptive writing.” Through this “descriptive writing,” as Birzer went on to say, Wilder is able to “[draw] Laura and Mary, Pa and Ma in such vivid strokes that readers of all ages become immediately attached to the characters and really care what happens to them.”

Hill zeroes in on the character of Laura Ingallls in particular, calling her an “unforgettable main character.” According to Hill,

[Laura] is courageous, loyal, smart, strong, hardworking, and athletic. But Laura Ingalls is also flawed…. Laura’s flaws make her believable, genuine, and ultimately timeless. Generations of readers relate to her on a uniquely personal level. We discover something of ourselves in Laura Ingalls—our virtues and our vices.

With the character of Laura Ingalls, the more personal aspects of Wilder’s own voice find an outlet. Through this literary character, Wilder depicts her historical self, allowing readers to follow her childhood likeness through the experiences of a young girl on the American frontier. Readers see this growth as Laura’s voice develops from book to book. Hill says that “the Little House narrative voice, from Wilder’s perspective, had to change and evolve, but in a consistent believable way.” The sense of Laura’s growth in these books is so powerful because Wilder was able to maintain that consistency and believability. So, as Hill asserted, “[U]ltimately, Laura is always Laura, which makes the growth and change readers experience with her all the more believable. This is a rare artistic achievement, and another reason why Wilder’s books are American literary classics.”

Through the character of Laura and through Wilder’s beautiful narrative voice, readers get to experience and enjoy the truth and goodness of her stories without being turned off by preachiness or insincerity. These stories remind our fast-paced world of the beauty to be found in the simple things in life. They are timeless because they speak of the true human experience and point to the things in life that have lasting value. This beautiful glimpse of truth and beauty in Wilder’s stories was the “something” that set Wilder’s books apart in her own time and that continues to make the books so attractive to readers today.

“As you read my stories of long ago I hope you will remember that things truly worthwhile and that will give you happiness are the same now as they were then. It is not the things you have that make you happy. It is love and kindness and helping each other and just plain being good” (Laura Ingalls Wilder).

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