Saturday, May 07, 2016

April: 7 Books 30 Days Part 2 (I Speak Bonnethead)

The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder - Laura Ingalls Wilder, William Anderson, ed.

I can't say enough nice things about this collection of Laura's letters, but I'm sure going to try. First of all, the volume is beautifully and meticulously edited by William Anderson. It's not just editing; it's annotation. Truly a labor of love and scholarship. I'm thinking Pulitzer.

What a great read for nerdy Bonnetheads such as yours truly! I loved hearing Laura's writing voice directly, without the Rose-colored filtering. Speaking of Rose Wilder Lane, there was some good stuff in regards to the writing of the Little House series. I was surprised to learn that it was Laura's brainchild to have the situations and the prose itself 'grow up' as Laura Ingalls became a young adult. Rose seemed to be all for keeping the entire series on a much younger level, which seems ludicrous now. Judging by the letters on Laura's side, they nearly came to blows over The Shores of Silver Lake. Laura won, for which we can all be glad.

 In the early 1930s, when she was broke and back in Mansfield, Missouri, Rose asked her parents to tell her stories about the homesteading days. Laura and Almanzo complied, probably thinking that they were just passing the evening. Rose took the information and turned it into a short novel, Let the Hurricane Roar (1933) and called her protagonists Charles and Caroline.

 Laura was frosted. Firstly, she was in the beginning stages of plotting out her series and had planned to use the material herself (she used the grasshopper plague and Pa losing the crop and having to go away and find work in The Banks of Plum Creek.) Secondly, Charles and Caroline??!!  Even to the end of her life, she was still impatiently explaining to fans that LTHR was a fictional story and had nothing to do with Ma and Pa, and Rose's choice of names was "unfortunate". (The book now shows up as Young Pioneers and the main characters are David and Molly.)

OK, I admit it: I'm not done with Rose yet: Only ONE LETTER from the 1940s from Laura survived among her papers. It doesn't make sense, since by then Rose had quit Mansfield and was living in Danbury, Connecticut. Up to that point, the two had exchanged letters every few days except when they were living together. Rose must have had a Laura bonfire, which makes me feel angry enough to shake a double desk to pieces after drawing an unflattering caricature of her and writing a mean verse about her on my slate.

Speaking of Laura's letters, they are gems of brevity. She manages to be informative, warm, witty, caring and thoughtful in the space of five sentences. She did write longer letters to Almanzo when she traveled west to San Francisco with Rose, and they are so full of description and observations and the pure essence of Laura-ness that had I been Almanzo, I would have pitched a tent at the mailbox.

Laura's readers often had questions about what became of the characters in her books. Interestingly, the girl based on Nellie Oleson moved to New York (presumably after her failure to get Almanzo interested in her) and married a man who stole some money and ended up in prison. Cap Garland (the young guy you can tell that Laura was crushing on for at least two books in the series) had some kind of accident and died young.

What surprised me most was a questionnaire that Laura filled out, listing her favorite books from childhood. From a list of 100 books provided, she checked only two, Lorna Doone and Uncle Tom's Cabin. Her reading background was downright scanty, consisting of Tennyson's Poems and stories from Youth's Home Companion and presumably, The BibleI like to think that this contributed to her strong storytelling voice and she didn't have to struggle through imitating several writing styles before finding her own voice.

What else? The Hard Winter was Laura's working title for The Long Winter, but her editors thought that The Hard Winter was "too grim" for young readers.  They evidently ran themselves ragged trying to offset the grimness, because that cheerful cover for TLW is just so so so wrong.

Kudos to editor William Anderson for turning up so many letters from so many sources. My very favorite of Laura's correspondents (besides the young boy from Japan) was the renowned children's book editor and author Ursula Nordstrom. I wish I could have read Nordstrom's side of the correspondence; she was one of the earliest Bonnetheads and Anderson briefly quotes one of her letters praising Little Town on the Prairie in which she says that when Nellie Oleson shows up at the school in Dakota Territory, it was so perfect that she nearly burst into tears.

I've got to wrap this review up somehow. In one of the letters, Laura gives one of her fans her gingerbread recipe. Baking's not really my thing, but I've got to try it. While I'm firing up a "moderate" oven and assembling the ingredients, you should go out and find a copy of The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

1 comment:

Unruly Reader said...

I've always felt deficient (even as a child) that I'm not more of a Bonnethead, but I gotta say: your review of this book makes me wish even more that I were! This sounds like the ideal mix of comforting and juicy.