Interview With Sarah Uthoff

Today we celebrate Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 150th birthday! I had the opportunity to interview Sarah Uthoff, who is well-known for her knowledge of Wilder.

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• A background of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family provided by Ms. Uthoff •

Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born February 7, 1867 and would grow up in little houses across the Midwest to become the author Laura Ingalls Wilder of the “Little House” books. Her parents were Charles and Caroline Ingalls. She had three sisters: Mary, Carrie, and Grace. In 1885 she married Almanzo James Wilder (who she called Manly as a pet name or the Man of the Place in her writing). Laura and Manly had one child who lived to adulthood. She grew up to become the famous author Rose Wilder Lane. After moving several times Laura’s family stayed in De Smet, South Dakota but Laura, Manly, and Rose moved several more times before ending up in Mansfield, Missouri.


 

What prompted Laura Ingalls Wilder to start writing her Little House on the Prairie series?

“Writing was a part of the Ingalls family life. Laura’s sister Mary wrote poems and essays, her mother Caroline had kept her own school essays, and before Laura wrote the “Little House” books Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane had become a famous writer. Laura had started writing a newspaper column and magazine articles because she wanted to share information about life on a small farm which she believed in. Laura said in her famous Children’s Book Week speech (find it in the “Little House Sampler”) that she realized she’d lived throughout all the waves of settlement from the frontier, to homesteading, to established farms. She felt that history and knowledge of that way of life was being forgotten, so that was one prompt to write the series. Another important point – especially in Little House in the Big Woods – was to preserve the stories Pa (Charles Ingalls) told his children while they were growing up. Laura felt they were too good to be lost. Finally, like almost every writer, Laura wanted to be well-known and respected, and knew the farm could use the extra income.”

 

Did she have any literary inspirations? If so, how did they impact her writing?

“Probably the author who had the most direct influence on Laura’s writing was her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Lane served as Laura’s in-house editor, taking the place of the publisher’s editor that would normally serve that function preparing the books for publication. Ursula Nordstrom, head of the children’s department at what is now HarperCollins, said Laura was only one of two authors whose books came in without the need for editing. That was because Rose had already done it. Although I think reading any amount of what Rose wrote will show a marked difference in style, Rose was a very active editor and greatly influenced the final form of the books. Laura was very well read, especially for that time and place. We don’t have a list of the things she read, but we know that “Millbank” by Mary J. Holmes (https://trundlebedtales.wordpress.com/2012/01/14/mary-j-holmes-famous-writer/) is the only novel mentioned by title in the “Little House” books although researchers have been able to figure out likely candidates for several more she mentions in passing. I don’t think Laura would say she had any particular author she modeled herself on, but in general reading broadly does effect and improve your writing.”

 

 Did she have a daily routine for writing? Did she have any unique rituals while doing so?

“Laura wrote at a secretary style writing desk in a small room beside her bedroom in the Rocky Ridge Farmhouse. The first couple of books were actually written in the Rock House, a far more modern home that Rose built for her parents. After Rose left the farm they moved back to their farmhouse and the rest of the series was written there. In the farmhouse there was a fainting couch style sofa by the desk and if she got up in the middle of the night to write, which she often did, she would then lay down on the sofa rather than going back into the bedroom and waking Almanzo.

Laura got a lot of fan mail and with a few exceptions, answered every letter. She would write these answers at her dining room table with her writing supplies scattered around. She had a fairly set standard letter and she would ask questions. A collection of these letters was published last year as The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by William T. Anderson.”

 

When she published her first book, what was the initial public reception of it?

“Laura’s first book to be published was Little House in the Big Woods, and public response was tremendous. It came to be known as “the book no Depression could stop.” It was named as a Junior Guild book, the sales were great, and fan letters to Dear Laura started pouring in.”

 

While she’s well-known for her Little House on the Prairie series, what are some other lesser-known works of hers?

“The books that Laura herself intended for publication were only Little House in the Big Woods through These Happy Golden Years. Included in the set today is The First Four Years which was a draft of an adult novel that she abandoned at some point. Several books were created after her death by editing her material. On the Way Home is her diary as she, Manly, and Rose took their final fresh start and drove down to Mansfield, Missouri from De Smet, South Dakota. West from Home was a collection of letters Laura sent back to Manly telling him about what she saw during her long visit to San Francisco for the 1915 World’s Fair. There have been multiple collections of her articles written before the books were published in various forms. I especially recommend A Little House Sampler and A Little House Reader. There was even a collection of fairy poems, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Fairy Poems. The draft of Laura’s autobiography has been published under the name “Pioneer Girl.” It caused a great sensation and last year an edited volume of Wilder’s letters came out as The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder.”

 

What has been Laura Ingalls Wilder’s impact on literature?

“Laura has had a strong influence on both children’s literature and pioneer fiction for any age. Laura is often the first thing people think of when they think about history. When I was at the Jamestown Historic Settlement, a recreation 200 years and 2,000 miles from Laura’s childhood and the setting of the “Little House” books, I heard a father say to his children “Look girls, it’s just like ‘Little House on the Prairie.’” The “Little House” books helped legitimize series books showing that a book could be part of a series and still be good which encouraged more mainstream series. She also has inspired many other writers. Knowing that the Laura they get to “know” in the books is indeed the author of the books encouraged many girls to try writing, especially about spunky heroines.”

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