A Prairie Girl’s Faith: The Spiritual Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Stephen W. Hines
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Waterbrook Press/Net Gallery. All thoughts and opinions are my own.]
Like many kids, especially those who grew up in rural areas, I read the Little House In The Prairie Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder . Even during my adulthood (before the time I started writing this blog), I had obtained a full set of the novels, including The First Four Years, which I gave to a young woman in Chile I unsuccessfully courted, as she was looking for decent but also relatively simple books in English to read. Like many readers, then, I have a certain understanding of and fondness for the novels and at least some interest in the person behind them. No doubt some people will have made pilgrimages to the places referred to in the novels or to the home of the Wilders in the Ozarks area of Missouri, where they lived for much of their adult life, but I have not done that as of yet. Even so, this book does a great job at showing the importance of religious faith, both the private faith practiced in the home and the public faith of being in a town-based church, to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family (apart from her somewhat wayward daughter Rose).
This book’s contents take up about 150 pages including the lengthy notes, in the version of the book that I read, divided up into ten chapters with two appendices. The author, after an introduction, begins his book by talking about pioneer faith and the difficulties that those in the West had in building churches and in remaining faithful while isolated (1). He then discusses the lengthy journey of the Ingalls and others who continued to search for a promised land where they could find a good living away from the crowded areas of the East (2). He discusses how both men and women were partners in faith and how this was true in the Ingalls family in particular as well as with Laura and Alonzo Wilder (3). The author then brings up how Rose Wilder Lane was much less spiritual and how this led her to write much darker material about mankind’s struggle with nature in the absence of faith (4). The author then turns his attention to looking at the mixture of Mary and Martha within the fretful Laura, a mixture that is common to many people (5). The contentious relationship between Laura and Rose about the Ingalls family saga is then explored with a look to the collaborative nature of the efforts (6). The author turns his attention then to how the Little House series was constructed from the raw materials of research and memory and imagination (7). From this the author looks to the music and hymns of the spiritual life of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family (8). A bit of a cookbook follows with some old-timey recipes from the time (9) before the author discusses what Laura Ingalls Wilder means to us as a representative from a “Great American Family” (10). The book then closes with two appendices on remembering the De Smet of olden times and an interview with Laura’s friend and Missouri neighbor Neta Seal.
What a reader gets out of this book is a somewhat nuanced understanding of the importance of faith in the early frontier. Those early settlers who were motivated to have formal religious services were led to meet in whatever structures were available and often had to meet across confessional boundaries, and thus develop a broad tolerance among Protestants and even including Catholics. Likewise, religion depended on the home and the importance of attending services for families, especially those families who lived on homesteads out of town who had to travel into town weekly for services, and at other time for various other charitable organizations. The author does a good job at conveying the work that had to be done by ladies who were often considered only auxiliaries to the men in such groups. The author skillfully captures the change in ambitions for women, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s conservative values, and the stresses of collaboration that take place when strong-willed people work together in writing and publishing works. Overall, this is a good book if one wants a better understanding of the importance of God and religion to not only the Little House on the Prairie series, but also to the establishment of towns in the West in general.
 See, for example: