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An interview with Marta McDowell of The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder

by Timber Press on January 2, 2018

in Natural History

The earliest known image of the three older Ingalls sisters. From left to right: Carrie, Mary, and Laura. Image courtesy of Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society.

“Whether child or adult, I think she can lead us all back to nature, to a Wilder garden.” —Marta McDowell

In the preface of  The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, you say this of the Little House books: “It was a coming of age story for a girl and reflected the coming of age of a nation, as homesteaders spread west from the Mississippi.” What is it about this period of America’s history that’s so captivating for modern readers?

I think while most of us love modern conveniences, we yearn for simpler times. And while I doubt I’d really want to trade, say, my food processor for a butter churn, or my messaging app for pen-paper-and-postage, there’s a romance to a fictional trip back to the past. Wilder captured a time before the natural world of the North American continent was completely altered by the march of Western settlement. She saw original forest, unbroken prairie, and she remembered them—the landscape, the plants, the animals, the weather. Then, much later in her life, she captured these places on paper, stitching them together with her own memories and family stories into a series that became the closest thing we have in America to classic myths or fairy tales.

What is it about the Little House stories that first captured your imagination?

Laura’s character. I don’t just mean her role in the novels, but also her personality, the traits that made her an individual. She was feisty but flawed, hard-working and ambitious—if not like the childhood me, at least like an aspirational me. She was sometimes naughty and not always nice. But deep down she wanted to be good. Then there were the battles, elemental battles. The family fought weather (blizzards!), disease (fever and ague!), plagues (grasshoppers!). And finally, there were the details—how Ma made vanity cakes, how Laura twisted hay, how Pa plowed.

Can you describe your writing process? What kinds of writerly habits do you keep?  

I do my best work in the early morning. A cup of tea, very strong. Computer on a tiny desk (left over from my stepson’s childhood bedroom set)—the monitor is almost as big as the desk’s surface. Next to a red lamp, there’s a wacky antique metal frog that serves as a pen holder. There are several toys there—finger puppets, and a Peter Rabbit mechanical pencil from Japan. (I’ve never really grown up.) And I have several tile coasters in floral patterns done by an artist friend. There are generally stacks of books and papers on chairs, open drawers, and the floor, though I try to refile and reshelve regularly. I write to a schedule of word count-by-date. When in heads-down production mode, I try to produce 500 words a day, 5 days a week. They may not be the final words. They may not be the best words. But it’s a start.

When I get tired of words, words, words, I switch to visual research, looking for images to make the book sing. Searching out images seems to exercise a different part of my brain. I hunt through old books, and online of course. This book has over 200 illustrations, and I think that the pictures inform the words and vice versa. My aims for a book are the same as my objectives for the classes I teach in landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden—entertaining and informative.

If I’m really stuck, I go out and work in my garden. But I have to set the timer on my phone. Otherwise I’d never go back to the keyboard.

You do a brilliant job discussing the lives of both the character of Laura and the real Laura Ingalls Wilder behind the books. You write,

The character Laura is sometimes different from the real Laura, like Peter Pan and his shadow, although readers know in their hearts that the Laura on the page and the Laura who was a person have the same character, the same values. The sometimes-blurred line between fact and fiction adds texture to the tale of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

How has your relationship to Laura changed most since writing this book? How about your relationship to Wilder?

Both are fuller. Imagine the outlines of a Garth Williams illustration of Laura filling in from 2D to 3D and aging, like one of those scenes on CSI where they take someone’s photo and age it on the crime lab computer.

The real person of Laura Ingalls Wilder was, not surprisingly, more nuanced and complex than the fictional Laura I first knew. For example, she and Almanzo had their own wanderings—to Minnesota, to Florida, back to South Dakota, and finally, to the Missouri Ozarks. They’d even considered emigrating to New Zealand as sheep farmers! Even after they settled in Mansfield, Missouri—where they finally made a go of their own small holding, Rocky Ridge Farm—she always kept looking at other land and its potential. On the way to see her adult daughter in California, she eyeballed property from the train window as she was passing by, commenting on it to in letters to her husband, and she visited farm properties near San Francisco with the idea of moving. Ultimately they stayed put, though writing is one way of moving in a virtual sense while staying in the same physical place.

I feel like the more I know about her, the deeper the respect I have for Laura Ingalls Wilder. Faced with hardships, she was resilient. She was principled, caring, and considerate. Compared to her peers, Wilder was tolerant of diverse views and people. She was—true to her upbringing—a hardworking, disciplined adult. Wilder was also her own modern woman, working outside the home at many times during her married life, spanning 1885 to Almanzo’s death in 1949. She worked as a seamstress, as an administrator at the Farm Loan Association, as a “lifestyle” journalist for various newspapers, regional publications, as well as a few national magazines. Her success as a children’s writer came late in life—she was in her sixties and seventies when the Little House books came out. She took pride in her home, her garden, her chickens, not to mention her personal appearance. She always was interested in self-improvement, a member in several discussion groups (for a modern equivalent, think “book group”).

L. L. May & Co. of St. Paul, Minnesota, was a seed catalog familiar to Laura. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Libraries.

Based on the feedback you’ve gotten from readers, how has the book changed people’s understanding of Laura?

Most people seem, like me, amazed at the strong connections between Wilder’s natural world and her writing. Perhaps it is because reading the books as children is different from reading them as adults, especially when paired with the actual story of Wilder’s life. The role of place—landforms, plants, animals, climate—shaped her writing. That role was hidden in plain sight, behind characters and plot. Otherwise we might have always considered Laura Ingalls Wilder a nature writer, in addition to a gifted American children’s author. Whether child or adult, I think she can lead us all back to nature, to a Wilder garden.

While your major focus of the book is the landscape and natural world Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in and wrote about, your research dips into a wide range of topics. You write,

Wheat tells a long tale, as one of the first plants domesticated for agriculture in the Middle East some twelve thousand years ago—about the same time as the last glacial remnant of the Ice Age was in its final retreat from Wisconsin and the last American mastodon died.

Your understanding of wheat in the Little House books concerns anthropology, ethnobotany, agriculture, geology, the history of technology, and more. How did you determine the scale of depth for your book? How did you decide what level of detail to include on each plant or aspect of the landscape?

You’ve found me out. Like Pa Ingalls, I have “itchy feet” when it comes to research. He always wanted to go further West, beyond the horizon to a new and better place. I always want to follow one more interesting thread—the history of mason jars or plows or buffalo wallows or beets. Are there interesting connections to be discovered among people, places, plants, and time periods? I think it started with my American Studies major in college. “Interdisciplinary” was in every course description. Professors always wanted original and engaging research. . . . I wrote one paper on the history of the chain letter and how it was uniquely American.

This book was done at a sprint, as the timeline was to get it on the shelves before the end of the 150th anniversary of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birth in 1867. Instead of my usual three-year production schedule, this needed to be done in two. The result? I was correcting my proof pages for All the Presidents’ Gardens in the same month that I was taking my first research trip for The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder. When Presidents launched, I would work on Wilder whenever I could shoehorn it in—morning-noon-night, hotel rooms, airports, and those tiny tables on train and airplane seats. So much for writing rituals! But the pairing of the two books was perfect in many ways. The period of garden history that I had explored through the lens of the White House gardens was an underlay to the agricultural, horticultural, and natural world that Laura Ingalls grew up in. It shaped Laura Ingalls Wilder into the farmer, gardener, and lover of nature and eventually into the beloved writer of the Little House books. The period from her birth in 1867 to her death in 1957 covered a big chunk of American garden history, and let me explore other areas of interest, including the history of farming in the United States. While the Presidents book with its White House gardens focused on upper class trends, Wilder’s world brought me back to the beauties of the natural landscape and gardens of, let’s say, the 99% rather than the 1%.

This book’s research also had the most daunting commute of any I’ve worked on. I’m in New Jersey, and I wanted to visit every homesite and some of the natural areas related to each one. After the Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa (where her papers are housed), I did Missouri and Kansas on one trip, South Dakota on another, then a wide swing to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Burr Oak, Iowa, and back to South Dakota. Then a long but worthwhile drive to Malone, New York. I missed one. Laura and Almanzo lived for a year in Westville, Florida, on the panhandle not far from Alabama. There isn’t a museum there, but one of these days I hope to get there to round out the list.

My favorite part of writing this book was reading old newspapers. You can read 19th and early 20th century newspapers on the Library of Congress website, Chronicling America, and on subscription services like Newspapers.com. It was so exciting to find articles by Wilder in some tiny Missouri newspapers and tidbits about Almanzo’s farming techniques in the Mansfield Mirror. So much fun.

When you were sifting through your research and crafting the narrative for this book, how did you organize the work?

I tend to write in chunks, sort of like a quilter making blocks then assembling the quilt out of component parts. So when I find an interesting bit, I try to write a usable hunk of prose. I always start with an outline, and for this topic it made sense to follow Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life story. Luckily, that fit nicely with the timeline of her work: The Little House series, followed by The First Four Years (a manuscript discovered after Wilder’s death), her travel diary (published posthumously as On the Way Home), her farm journalism, and her letters follow the family across the country from Wisconsin (with a zag to New York for Farmer Boy) to Indian Territory/Kansas, then Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, Florida, and finally to her long-time home at Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri. I just had to hitch up the research-and-writing wagon and take the same trail. In one of those lightening bolt moments, I also realized that Wilder’s biography could be mapped onto a farmer’s year. Hurray for divine inspiration!

This book is wonderfully interdisciplinary. What areas of research were you most surprised to be investigating?

First, I was surprised to be corresponding with botanists across the country. Once Wilder wrote a letter to her husband about dosing her sick daughter with “Missouri snakeroot.” What I call snakeroot is a wild, fall-blooming plant (Ageratina altissima) with white flowers that is poisonous. So I was sure that wasn’t it. I finally tracked down a scientist, Dr. Kelly Kindscher at the University of Kansas, who confirmed that the Missouri snakeroot Wilder referenced was a species of Echinacea. How great was that, to connect Wilder’s world to our own, where immune-boosting echinacea is common on drugstore shelves and coneflowers grow in so many of our gardens. The other example is from Little House on the Prairie, in which Wilder’s wide sweep took in many aspects of the landscape. I found myself in pre-history and paleogeology. I learned a new word, “cuesta,” and that these east-facing ridges are leftovers from the tidal actions of a great inland sea. Yes, Virginia, there was a seacoast of Kansas.

Changes to the American West in the years before and after the Civil War were depicted
metaphorically in this 1873 painting, “American Progress.” Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Wilder and her family settled on ancestral lands of the Osage Nation hoping to be grandfathered into the Homestead Act of 1862. How did the social and political backdrop of the country most influence Wilder and her family’s trajectory?

The treatment of Native Americans poses a problem for readers of the Little House series today. Some of the dialogue about Indians is hateful. And yet those instances can be teaching moments, ways to discuss the prevalent attitude of white settlers at that time. The period of the books (1867-1889 if you include the posthumous The First Four Years) was one of continued armed conflict between the United States and the various indigenous people of North America. As point of reference, one might say that the so-called “Indian Wars” culminated in 1890 at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Wilder married in 1885 and moved to Missouri in 1895. I like to suggest that parents and teachers pair the Little House books with the four-book Louise Erdrich series that starts with The Birchbark House. Those novels focus on a young Ojibwe girl living in the 1840s and ‘50s on Lake Superior, and they show another side of the story.

Throughout the text, you include asides about your own relationship to Wilder’s landscapes. You describe a family road trip from New Jersey to Illinois in an AMC Rambler station wagon with no air-conditioning, noting how your sisters let you stretch out across their laps. Comparing your experience across the prairie to Laura’s, you write, “Travel methods may have changed since the 1870s, but family dynamics? Immutable.” Tell us more about these associative passages that connect your upbringing and Wilder’s work. How did you decide to include them?

In a rare experience for me, the first essay—about my father and shelling black walnuts—emerged as I was writing the first chapter about the Ingalls family. It just came out from keyboard to screen, almost unbidden. Nineteenth-century spiritualists called it automatic writing. Oops, there I go again. . . . Let me back up and say that I am about the age Wilder was when she started writing down her childhood memories. Like Wilder when she was in her fifties and sixties, both of my parents are gone. And I contend that as one ages, one’s memories of childhood intensify.

So there it was, my personal mini-memoir lodged in the middle of a chapter about the early years of Laura Ingalls Wilder. It wasn’t entirely out of place, coming as it did after a discussion of nut-bearing trees, including said walnut, mentioned in Little House in the Big Woods. Now what? I did what many writers do. I sent the sample chapter off to my editor, Tom Fisher at Timber Press, and let him decide. Really, I thought he’d say to take it out, and that it would be consigned to my “cuts-and-queries” file. When Tom said to go with it, it was now up to me to write something similar—short, pertinent, and personal—for the rest of the chapters. As a result, this is by far my most intimate book to date, in the sense that I share my own experiences of nature and gardening, life and family with the reader. And sometimes it was hard. I’m used to writing in the third person, about someone else who writes or gardens, rather than about myself. After I wrote the last essay for the chapter “Putting Food By,” I burst out crying. I still can’t read it without tearing up.

A Currier & Ives print published in 1867 celebrates the pioneer life and the bounty
of farm and forest.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

You say it’s “disappointing—at least to a garden writer—not to find an itemized list of herbs in Wilder’s novels,” and yet, your survey of the crops the family made use of is so thorough! Are there any vegetables or herbs you’ll be adding to your own garden as inspired by Wilder?

I already have. As part of researching the book, I did a bit of “method writing” or at least “method gardening.” Could Caroline Ingalls have grown a whole field of sweet potatoes from holding back a single Christmas sweet potato brought by their friend Mr. Edwards in Little House on the Prairie? My sister provided one organic sweet potato from her farm share, and I did actually grow a crop of them the next summer. What were the ground cherries that Ma wrote to daughter Carrie about, saying to start them inside like tomatoes? I ordered seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, coincidentally in Mansfield, Missouri, and it turns out that the ground cherry is a small, tangy tomatillo relative. Was the “Belle de Nancy” lilac that Rose Wilder Lane planted at Rocky Ridge Farm still available? Yes! Mine came from Klehm’s Song Sparrow in Illinois. How about Laura’s blue flags, the wild irises mentioned in several of her novels and in one of her Missouri Ruralist articles? Yes, again. I ordered mine from Prairie Moon. And now you know why my garden is so crowded.

Tell us a about your next project!

I’m hard at work on a revision and expansion of my first book, Emily Dickinson’s Gardens. I’m restructuring and revising for more recent scholarship and archaeology, and adding an annotated list of all the plants referenced in Dickinson’s letters, poems, herbarium, and other primary sources. There will be new images—it’s going to be in full color, unlike the first edition—and it will enjoy the magic touch of a Timber Press designer. So I know it will be a visual delight. It’s wonderful to revisit Emily Dickinson, her garden-related poetry, and her intense, life-long interest in plants.

Speaking of method gardening, over the course of the 2018 growing season, I’m going to be gardener-in-residence at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts. I’ll have the opportunity to do more real digging in the Dickinson soil as well as archival digging in the rich archival material about Dickinson. Expect the results on the shelves of your local bookseller in 2019. And come volunteer in the garden with me next year!


Marta McDowell lives, gardens, and writes in Chatham, New Jersey. She teaches landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, where she studied landscape design. McDowell also consults for public gardens and private clients.

Click image to look inside this book:

“Gardeners, botanists, and fans of Wilder will love this book.” —Publishers Weekly

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