Wilder obsession offers true fans a treat

October 11, 1994|By Lynn Van Matre | Lynn Van Matre,Chicago Tribune

When it comes to Laura Ingalls Wilder, author Stephen W. Hines isn't embarrassed to wear his heart on his sleeve.

One of the big pleasures of his childhood, the 40-something Wilder fan notes, was reading "Little House on the Prairie" and all of the other Wilder books about pioneer life -- eight or 10 times each.

Imagine Mr. Hines' surprise, then, to discover as a newlywed that his bride (a librarian, yet!) had never read a Wilder book in her life. Even worse, she had formed her only impressions of the pioneering Ingalls family from the popular TV series based on the "Little House" saga, starring telegenic Michael Landon as family patriarch Charles "Pa" Ingalls.

"Suddenly, I was seized with a mission," Mr. Hines writes in the introduction to this affectionate, attractively presented collection of vintage Laura Ingalls Wilder articles and freshly collected reminiscences of the "Little House" author. "To me, it seemed like a sacrilege that my well-educated wife might confuse 'Little Joe Cartwright' with the real Charles Ingalls."

The next day, Mr. Hines began reading Wilder's books aloud to his chastened spouse; fortunately, she loved them. From there, one thing led to another.

In 1992, Mr. Hines published "Little House in the Ozarks," a best-selling collection of some of Wilder's early writings.

With "I Remember Laura," he has resurrected more articles by and about Wilder that appeared during the first few decades of the 20th century in such publications as the Missouri Ruralist and talked firsthand with an ever-diminishing circle of folks who knew Laura Ingalls Wilder at one time or another during the 60 years she and her husband, Almanzo, spent on their Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Mo.

Besides the articles and first-person reminiscences, there's a chapter featuring pioneer-era recipes, including a pickle recipe favored by Laura's mother, Caroline, and a few dozen vintage photos of the Wilders and their Missouri Ozarks home.

Longtime fans of Wilder, whose simply-written tales of pioneer life continue to captivate children and nostalgic adults more than 35 years after her death (according to publisher HarperCollins, the books have sold 60 million copies worldwide), probably won't be surprised to learn that the author never considered herself a celebrity and shunned the limelight whenever possible.

It probably won't come as a shock, either, when friends recall that Laura and her daughter, writer Rose Wilder Lane -- who edited and possibly revised her mother's books (the extent of her input remains in hot dispute among Wilder scholars) -- had an often rocky relationship.

But you may not know that Wilder loved Swiss steak and chicken and dumplings, read mostly paperback western novels by Zane Grey and Luke Short in her later years, and liked to serve guests hot tea and graham crackers spread with a mix of milk, cream and powdered sugar.

Or that the woman who didn't begin writing books until age 65 once remarked cheerfully that "Life begins at 80."

Wilder was so successful at staying out of the limelight, incidentally, that her fellow townspeople had little idea of her success as a storyteller.

Mr. Hines observes that most of the folks he talked to in Mansfield about the author began by telling him apologetically, "If I had only known that she would become famous, I would have paid more attention to what she said and did."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "I Remember Laura"

Author: Stephen W. Hines

Publisher: Thomas Nelson Publishers

Length, price: 274 pages, $19.99

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