Minnesotans who grew up on Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books might be surprised to see the new edition of the series. The nine original books have been bound into two attractive hardcover volumes, slipcased. None of the familiar charcoal illustrations by Garth Williams is included; instead, there is a frontispiece photograph of a severe-looking Laura, and, at the end, an appendix, which includes a detailed chronology of Laura's life and work on the books, and extensive scholarly endnotes.
At first, it's alarming -- these beloved books look all grown up. But it's reassuring to realize that Wilder is important enough for serious treatment. She is part of the canon. (And the chronology is fascinating reading all by itself, revealing how deeply Laura and her daughter wrangled over the copy, and how emotionally difficult Laura found it to immerse herself in the past.)
Caroline Fraser, a former writer for the New Yorker and author of "Rewilding the World," edited the new edition for the nonprofit publisher, the Library of America. Here, she talks about why Wilder's books remain relevant, the truth about Jack the brindle bulldog, and how Laura's daughter, Rose Wilder Lake, is like Ezra Pound.
Q It's brave of you to come to Minnesota, home of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Aren't you afraid of Wilder fanatics in the crowd?
A Wilder fanatics! Yeah, no, I think her fans are pretty great. I've read a lot of stuff online, of course, and it's sort of amazing to realize how deeply important these books still are to some people.
Q You're a poet and an academic. What drew you to these books?
A My sister and I kind of read them together as kids and loved the books. We would hear sometimes from my grandmother, who was from Minnesota, about growing up on a farm and how hard that was. She was very unsentimental about that lifestyle and didn't have any desire to go back to that. The books kind of opened that up for us a little and helped us imagine how hard that life was.
Sometimes when you're older and go back and read a favorite book from your childhood you don't always find it as compelling as an adult, and it was really the opposite for these books. I was struck by a lot of things I hadn't seen in them as a child.
Q Such as what?
A I was struck by some of the parallels to our own times -- the historical background is one of real economic uncertainty, bank failures and recessions, and they're continually pushing on because of their failures. Their crops fail again and again, so it's not just a desire on the part of Charles Ingalls to go West, it's also because they're sort of feeling the economic fallout.
I also think the musical history behind these books is really kind of fascinating. Some of them are familiar, like, "Oh, Susanna," but a lot of them are more obscure. I hadn't realized how much of the music was from the minstrel tradition, and that was kind of a fascinating glimpse into the culture of the period.
And also I think the books are just fascinating in terms of the ecological history of the Great Plains -- how rapidly white settlers came in and completely transformed the place in the course of just a few decades.
Q Was there something you learned that surprised you about the books, or about Laura?
A I was very surprised to learn how minimal a role the dog Jack actually played in her life, given that Jack is such a great character in the novels. But they only had a dog named Jack for a very short time, when they were in Kansas. It was really shocking to learn that he was really fictional.
And similarly some of the characters who are really well known are also fictional. Mr. Edwards is -- nobody's been able to figure out if there was a real person and, if so, who he was.
Q There's been some controversy over who actually wrote the books -- Laura, or her daughter, the journalist Rose Wilder Lane. Where do you stand?
A Rose did contribute a huge amount toward the books. I don't think they would have gotten published without her and her connections, but it was a very difficult relationship for both of them. I would define her not as a ghost writer but as an editor.
Once you have looked at Laura's own manuscripts -- she sat down with these tablets from the local five and dime store and wrote these books out by hand, sometimes many times. When you see them, and when you can compare many of the passages in them to the finished work, I just don't see how you can define Rose as a ghost writer. We have a very defined idea of authorship and we give the title of author to the person who sat down with a blank sheet of paper and made something out of nothing. And that's what Laura Ingalls Wilder did.
She was very hands-on, Rose was, but so was Ezra Pound when he revised "The Waste Land." But we don't say that Ezra Pound is the co-author of "The Waste Land." Nobody says Maxwell Perkins is the co-author of "The Great Gatsby." So I don't really know why you would say that Rose is the co-author.
Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302