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Lecture encourages a complex nostalgia
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Kachi Mozie

Kachi Mozie

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In a lecture entitled, “This Is What Men Call God,” guest speaker John Fry from Trinity College delved into Wilder’s life; her relationship with daughter and editor of her manuscript, Rose Wilder Lane and the importance of religion in the Little House on the Prairie series.

“In some ways, Laura Ingalls Wilder created young adult fiction before it even existed,” said Fry, explaining that the books start out with Laura as a toddler and continue following the character into young adulthood. The books grow with her.

The early books talk mostly about moral formation, and given that Wilder grew up in an early American prairie culture, faith and religion was a very integral part to her moral upbringing. However, this does not translate into her published manuscripts.

According to Fry, references to God and the Christian culture are abnormally scarce in the books. Scholars are unsure as to whether this is a result of Wilder, herself, or whether Lane imposed her own viewpoints onto the manuscript. Fry read two instances where the original manuscript contained references to the characters’ faith and had a relatively positive connotation, and, granted the final published edition was written with a more engaging result, it contained a more negative even cynical view of Christian faith. Lane would have been the one to rework these passages, though Wilder would have had the final say. Fry believes this reveals one of two possibilities: either Wilder agreed with the changes or Wilder was choosing her battles with Lane and let these modifications slide.

Another poignant aspect of the relationship of faith in the stories is that the final published version includes some biblical inaccuracies, meaning that Lane, the editor, would not have been familiar enough with the Christian faith to recognize these errors.

Wilder’s faith was more evident in her writings for the Missouri Ruralist, a newspaper she wrote for during the Great Depression to help sustain her family.

This tension between the author’s faith and the editor’s lack thereof is evident in the differences between the original and the published, as well as the elements that were included in the final version.

“The Little House books have these mixed descriptions of Christianity,” Fry said.

The general consensus of scholars is that Wilder, though a devout, sincere and faithful Christian was more of a Congregational Christian than an Evangelical, preferring her faith to remain personal instead of putting it on a platform through her books.

“She was very reticent to talk about her faith. She doesn’t talk about Christ. She doesn’t talk about that relationship very much,” Fry said. “[Her] faith is strong, but she doesn’t talk about it much. It doesn’t draw itself towards thinking about Christ and salvation.”

Lane, on the other hand, rejected the faith as a young woman and was not a member of any faith for an extended period of her adult life, though showing interest in Islam at a certain point.

Fry concluded, saying that the books most likely expressed Lane’s view more than they did Wilder’s.

Many of the attendees at the lecture were quick to defend the series, some saying that “the quantity of what [religious themes] are in the book is not so much important as the quality,” citing a simple prayer scene that demonstrated the Ingalls’ devout faith.  

A frequent reaction to his work, Fry responded to the statement saying, “There’s a process when you realize that not everything you read in the books is exactly how it happened. It’s sort of an adjustment. You have to think, ‘Well, there’s the historical Laura Ingalls Wilder who is a person who lived and then there’s the Laura who’s depicted in the books who is fiction,” he said. “You have to accept that both of these exist and they’re different and that’s okay.”

This lecture is part of research that he is doing for a book on various aspects of the Little House books and their response to current issues. He hopes the book will allow people to look at the books in a different light.

“[I want people] to get past Laura Ingalls Wilder as the icon, as the symbol for the kinds of things we were talking about and get to the Laura Ingalls Wilder that grew up and was an ordinary person that had a lived life and it’s kinda like trying to get past that marble Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial to Lincoln as a real person,” Fry said. “She was a person just like us with struggles and things she was dealing with.”

In recent years, the book’s popularity has been on the decline. Fry cited negative portrayals of Native Americans as a potential reason for this. However, he believes that such views, do not have to render the books completely void of value: “This is something that historians have to do a lot. We study people who live in the past who don’t think the way we do and who may think in ways that we really don’t like, but we still have to respect them.”

The lecture was hosted and sponsored by the Mellema Program in Western American Studies. Professor William Katerberg is the director of the program. He believes that these types of lectures are useful: “A lecture like this that takes stories that people grew up loving, what a lecture like this can do is help them understand those stories and what’s behind them with greater complexity,” he said. “If we can learn from a lecture like this that the reality behind a story that we love is more complicated, but we can still love the stories anyway, it’s kind of a more adult way of relating to the novels.”

Katerberg thought the lecture particularly excellent in that Fry, himself, is an example of how to engage something beloved, but not be close minded about the potential flaws and errors.

“I think that’s one of the best things than an academic lecture like this can do is help us to understand something that we love with greater complexity. And you can hear that in his voice. He clearly loves these books and they make him weep,” he said. “And yet, he looks open-eyed at the messy complicated nature of [the books] … If we can love the story anyway, even though we know, that’s a really mature life decision. One that we can use for all sorts of reasons in society.”

Fry believes that his work has modern day implications as well as literary ones: “Faith has always been an important part of how people make sense of the world. I think some people today don’t think that religion is as important or persuasive, but people still think it is important today and they did in the past as well.”

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