Monday, May 4, 2015

Book Review: Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Iowa Story by William Anderson

I don't remember when I learned about Laura Ingalls having lived in Iowa and her family having run a hotel. I know the information came to be in drips. First I learned about her skipping over her baby brother who died. That I knew even as a kid. I think I noticed the gap of time between On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake and my mother looked into it, or possibly I read it in an Encyclopedia entry or in some children's biography. Later, when I learned about them helping to run The Masters Hotel, I found it ironic that one of the only things that TV show of Little House on the Prairie took from Wilder's life, was a part of her life she'd chosen not to write about. But of course, a detail skipped over is intriguing. I do agree with her decision from a plot and theme point of view, to keep the Ingalls family always moving west, and occasionally diverging from her own actual biography in writing the novels. But still, fans wonder, what happened? So at The Little House on the Prairie a couple of years ago, I picked up this short book.

William Anderson has done his research, and you do get as full a view of what it must have been like for young Laura, in a bigger town than she'd been in before, working in trade instead of farming, being next to a saloon with the inevitable trouble that created. And it's also endearing how the town of Burr Oak has embraced Laura Ingalls Wilder, despite being omitted from her novels. I think I (and I imagine others) wish this could be written like a lost chapter, from Laura's point of view, but that would be wrong. Instead, it's straightforward depiction of what the town was like when she lived there, what remains of that history, who she would have met, who she did later recall (unfortunately, few people asked her about Burr Oak until very late in her life and her memory was failing her, at least of that period, so she had trouble remembering much.) The book suffers from poor production. It is published by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum in Burr Oak, and I suspect they didn't have appropriate access to book publishing professionals. The font is too close together, the photo captions run into the text, and the way the book is laid out, it appears so short as to be nearly a pamphlet (the book isn't thick enough to put the title on the spine) and yet when I read it, I saw that if it had been formatted differently, it would have made much more sense, been easier to read, and felt more substantial. That's too bad. But formatting errors are not a reason to not read a good book. If you are a Laura Ingalls Wilder completest like I am, this book is worth seeking out, to shed new light on a brief but interesting sojourn in Laura's life.

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