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Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman behind the Legend (MISSOURI BIOGRAPHY SERIES) Hardcover – May 31, 1998

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Editorial Reviews 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 John E. Miller has availed himself of myriad primary sources--Ingalls Wilder's unpublished autobiography, letters, her newspaper stories, and other documentary materials.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

From Publishers Weekly

It takes Miller one-third of this fact-clogged biography to start showing Laura Ingalls Wilder as "the woman behind the legend," but when he finally does, the picture is fascinating. Wilder, whose seven semiautobiographical Little House on the Prairie books have been read by millions and inspired a television series, was a bossy wife, a penny-pincher who once protested her power company's rates by having her electricity shut off and a political right-winger. By far the most absorbing aspect of Miller's book is the story of Wilder's relationship with her only child. Rose Wilder Lane was a childless divorc?e and an established writer by the time her mother began writing novels at age 63, and she edited her mother's books and got her agent to handle them. Miller draws heavily on Lane's diaries and letters, which often contain diatribes against a mother she alternately loved and resented. But while Wilder left no personal papers presenting her side, Miller seems to paint a balanced portrait. He's not so balanced elsewhere, and in an effort to contextualize his subject, he often presents reams of redundant or unnecessary political, geographical and cultural details that bog down what is otherwise a very interesting story.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Grade Level: 9 and up
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: University of Missouri; First edition. edition (May 31, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0826211674
  • ISBN-13: 978-0826211675
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #561,309 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

72 of 73 people found the following review helpful By Jenna D. Franceski on November 8, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I read with interest the reader reviews on this book before I purchased it and saw mixed opinions and many comments, but the one that stood out the most was something to the effect of "this book might be too much for the casual Laura fan, but great for those who want to dig a little deeper." I heartily agree with that and think that needs to be stressed. If you've only ever read the "Little House" books, perhaps you should start with some of the lighter books and biographies about her. If you are like me, however, and can't get enough information about the true life of Laura, this book is fantastic. Its focus is a bit shaky at first, as it breezes through the first 20 or so years of her life in first third of the book. At that point it changes focus so much that it is almost like two books in one. Here is where we meet Laura the writer and witness her long path from town columnist to published national author. Throughout this section of the book her daughter, Rose, plays a pivotal part and has her own biography of sorts within these pages. While at first I was reluctant to read about the controversy over how much Rose actually helped her mother write the books, once I got into it I was fascinated and hooked. This book is a biography, a history book, the story of a young pioneer, and a look into a complex and conflicting mother/daughter relationship. And for those out there who simply can't get enough of Laura, curl up and dive in.
One other note: I learned a lot of new information about facts that were left out of the Little House books or changed to make the story flow better for children. John Miller even goes so far as to call her Little House books fiction.
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80 of 82 people found the following review helpful By yarden on June 15, 2000
Format: Hardcover
BECOMING LAURA INGALLS WILDER reads like a dissertation. Because it is an academic book, written for the history-buff crowd, it's somewhat dry. There is a great deal of information to be read here, however, and you will feel that you know "the real Laura Ingalls" after you read this book.
The author is an expert on Laura Ingalls Wilder, and spent a huge amount of time in research for this book. He basically recounts as much as he can of Laura's life, based on written accounts of her, and on her own writings. Much of his book also deals with a dominant person in Laura's life: her daughter Rose. The book also features quite a few photos of Laura and her family.
Die-hard fans of Laura should read this book only if they are ready for more than 250 pages of history. It's not a novel, it doesn't contain a lot of color, but it is worth reading if you really want to know every detail about Laura's life.
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48 of 50 people found the following review helpful By RogerV on December 16, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Miller pretty well refutes the contention that Rose Wilder Lane ghostwrote the "Little House" books. There is no question that she edited her mother's manuscripts, and without her connections in the publishing industry there is a good chance the books might not have been published at all. However, the books were and are Laura's.

It's also important to remember that the "Little House" books only cover Laura's life up to her marriage, and that she in fact lived less than 15 years in DeSmet. She spent the remaining 63 years of her life in Missouri. I always thought that Missouri was an odd choice of destinations, but there in fact were compelling reasons for the move, and Miller does explain them.

Some have criticized this book because they feel that it almost becomes a biography of Rose Wilder Lane about halfway through. A more careful reading gives an explanation for why this seems to be the case; Rose left massive amounts of personal archives, letters, and other documents when she died. On the other hand, Laura ("Mama Bess")left very little of this kind of information behind, and were it not for Rose's archives there would be even bigger gaps in the narrative. Miller does mention that a roomfull of possessions left behind in Laura's parents' home in DeSmet was discarded by the new owners of the house, and it's just possible that some of her letters were lost there.

If some people wish the book provided more in-depth detail about Laura's life in Missouri, then they should also wish for even more information about Almanzo. At the end of this book we know only a little more about him than we did at the end of "The First Four Years." He was apparently a man of few words, either spoken or written, so he largely remains an enigma.
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65 of 72 people found the following review helpful By KC on December 6, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I just re-read this book for the third time...unlike some reviewers, I am interested in what was going on culturally and otherwise in De Smet, Mansfield, etc. This book sheds more light on Laura's life after moving to Missouri than any other I have read thus far. I also enjoyed learning more about Almanzo and Laura's marriage. Along with "I Remember Laura" and "A Little House Sampler" one of my favorite LIW reads (Other than her actual books, of course!)
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34 of 36 people found the following review helpful By M on March 14, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I would expect that the well known author Rose did help her mother with the editing of the Little House books.Because Laura Ingalls Wilder left very little written material behind of a personal nature, we do not get to know her as well as her daughter Rose. Rose wrote many letters to people complaining of her Mother but we do not see Laura's side of this relationship. There usually are two sides to every story. We also know almost nothing about Almanzo. Except for the some what humorous account of his driving lesson from his daughter. Rose seems to be suffering from some sort of depression which worsens when she goes back to the farm according to her letters. Rose even suspects she has manic depression. She may well have. There was no treatment for it back then and very few psychiatrists at all. I also suspect that Rose hated living on the farm with her parents and this caused the depression. She was being the good daughter. By helping Laura with the Little House books she insured that her parents would live well in their old age. By listening to her Mother's stories, she would be inspired to write pioneer stories of her own. The book is quite informative. Rose gets a letter from her Aunt Carrie requesting any garments that she might be going to give away. This gives you a hint into the plight of Carrie as she grows older. None of the books I have seen address exactly what happened to Mary in the 4 years between her mothers's death and her own. We know Mary was visiting Carrie when she suffered her fatal stroke. However of all the books I have read on Laura and her family, I feel this book gave me the most information. It is well researched and well worth reading. It even mentions a few place Laura visited like Universal studios in Hollywood, California which were not mentioned in any other biographies I read. I would recommend this book to any fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder or Rose Wilder Lane. It was most informative.
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