Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman behind the Legend (MISSOURI BIOGRAPHY SERIES)

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9780826216489: Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman behind the Legend (MISSOURI BIOGRAPHY SERIES)

Although generations of readers of the Little House books are familiar with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s early life up through her first years of marriage to Almanzo Wilder, few know about her adult years. Going beyond previous studies, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder focuses upon Wilder’s years in Missouri from 1894 to 1957. Utilizing her unpublished autobiography, letters, newspaper stories, and other documentary evidence, John E. Miller fills the gaps in Wilder’s autobiographical novels and describes her sixty-three years of living in Mansfield, Missouri. As a result, the process of personal development that culminated in Wilder’s writing of the novels that secured her reputation as one of America’s most popular children’s authors becomes evident.

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Review:

Legends have attached themselves to Laura Ingalls Wilder, beloved author of the eight Little House novels, but what are the facts? Fans are familiar with her early pioneer years up to her marriage, at age 19, to Almanzo Wilder. But before this biography, little has been known about her adult years. This detail-packed biography amends that. John E. Miller has availed himself of myriad primary sources--Ingalls Wilder's unpublished autobiography, letters, her newspaper stories, and other documentary materials. Miller's approach is to track her evolution into one of American's most popular children's writers, a formidable challenge, because she left behind little in the way of personal revelation. Published between 1932 and 1943, the Little House novels were immediately seized upon; strangely, Ingalls Wilder did not begin her career as a novelist until she was in her mid-60s.

What happened between the adolescent years, dramatized in her novels, and the period between 1943 and 1957, when she was basking in the glow of her readers' affection? "To write her 'autobiographical' novels," Miller notes, "Wilder needed to undergo a process of becoming, which depended heavily upon the inheritance that she had received both from her family and, across the years, from the various environments in which she lived."

One minor flaw in this otherwise reverent biography is Miller's incredulity that such an ordinary, farm-town woman could become such a famous and sophisticated author. He strains to identify the extraordinary, formative moments--Wilder's various memberships in local political organizations; her apprenticeship as a farm-journal columnist; her relationship with her talented and precocious daughter, Rose. More interesting is his curiosity about how she came to be an independent career woman in a time of limited options for women, in a place (the Ozarks of Missouri) remote, isolated, and tradition bound.

Ingalls Wilder's daughter, the extraordinary Rose Wilder Lane (prominent in the American literary scenes in the 1920s and 1930s), had a major role in the production of her mother's novels. Indeed, the remarkable mother-daughter relationship itself makes the book well-worth reading. Laura would learn to write from her daughter; however Miller argues against the widely held belief that it was Rose Lane's sophisticated writing skills that transformed and polished her mother's novels.

Miller begins with the history of the Ingalls family and their first settlement, which was in Wisconsin along the banks of the Mississippi River. The history unfolds at a sprightly pace and paints the hardscrabble pioneer life in bright colors--the family's search for good farmland that drives them to Missouri; the physical challenges of the prairie; plagues of locusts; the fragile farm economy; and the burgeoning immigrant population. This biography will appeal to readers already hooked by the Little House series and hungry for the facts of Laura Ingalls Wilder's life independent of the myths that grew out of her fiction. --Hollis Giammatteo

About the Author:

John E. Miller is a writer and historian who taught American history for three decades at South Dakota State University. He is the author of several books, including Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town: Where History and Literature Meet and Looking for History on Highway 14. He resides in Brookings, South Dakota.

The Missouri Biography Series, edited by William E. Foley

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