The Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Yes, I’m obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder. It began when I was a young girl staying up late to read her books. It has grown since I’ve read those Little House books to my daughter. And now that I’ve visited her home at Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri, I can’t stop reading about her.
My latest read for this obsession was West from Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, San Francisco 1915 (1974) edited by Roger Lea MacBride. This book is exactly what it claims to be, Laura’s letters to Almanzo while she was in San Francisco visiting their daughter Rose Wilder Lane during the World’s Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, which was held to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. As much as I was eager to learn more about Laura, I was also delighted to find a historical description of San Francisco and the Santa Clara Valley (especially San Jose, since that was where spent some of my young life) and to find out more about the Panama-Pacific Exposition.
You see, I acquired my great grandmother Alabama “Bonnie” Gray January’s jewelry box several years ago from my dad. In that box, there is a poinsettia pin that says “San Francisco 1915.” When I searched for information about this pin, I found out that it was part of the Panama-Pacific Exposition, so I know that my great grandmother Bonnie had spent time there when she was a girl. Reading about the exposition and that area of California in 1915 through Laura’s eyes gave me an idea of what times were like for my great grandmother, and just how much California has (sadly) changed since then. The orchards are gone.
The letters begin with Laura’s trip from Missouri to California. Missouri also holds a special place in my heart because my great grandparents, the Carmacks and the McMasters, lived there and I spent several summers there as a girl. My dad lives there now and I love to visit. Laura also traveled through Utah, where I live now, on her way to San Franscisco. I felt connected to her through her descriptions of places that are familiar to me, yet have changed so much since then. She wrote, “I crossed Great Salt Lake in the moonlight last night and it was the most beautiful sight I’ve seen yet. Miles and miles of it on each side of the train, the track so narrow that it could not be seen from the window. It looked as thought the train was running on the water” (p. 20). I’ve often marveled at the beauty of the Great Salt Lake, as I live near its shores and I travel along its shores on my way to school. I love knowing that Laura shared that sight with me.
Once in San Franscisco, she also marveled at the ocean. “To say it is beautiful does not half express it. It is simply beyond words” (p. 25-26). “The salt water tingled my feet and made them feel so good all the rest of the day, and just to think, the same water that bathes the shores of China and Japan came clear across the ocean and bathed my feet. In other words I have washed my feet in the Pacific Ocean” (p. 28). Her account of this experience is much more eloquent than I’ve ever described the ocean. I usually say something trite, like “It was fun,” or “The kids loved it!” However, Laura’s description of the ocean is much better.
At the exposition, she appreciated a statue called “The Pioneer Mother.” Tears came to my eyes as I read about this statue, and just how much it represented for Laura and about Laura. She wrote it is “a life-size group on a pedestal so one looks up to it. A woman in a sunbonnet, of course pushed back to show her face, with her sleeves pushed up, guiding a boy and girl before her and sheltering and protecting them with her arms and pointing the way westward. It is wonderful and so true in detail. The shoe exposed is large and heavy and I’d swear it had been half-soled” (p. 37). The symbolism of this imagery is powerful, that the women (and men) who settled the west were strong, powerful, protective, and brave. Laura’s parents were those people.
In other letters, Laura is frustrated with her lack of communication skills. What she is experiencing on her trip is so amazing that she feels she has a hard time doing it justice in her letters to Almanzo, who is home holding down the farm. She wrote, “I am disgusted with this letter. I have not done halfway justice to anything I have described. I can not with words give you an idea of the wonderful beauty, the scope and grandeur of the Exposition. But I will see it in more detail soon and tell you more about it” (p. 40).
She also describes the food she tries. “I do not like Chinese food and shall not try any more of it” (p. 42). I happen to love Chinese food, so this made me laugh. In the appendix of this book, are some international recipes that she sent home from the exposition to try. She liked Russian Forrest, Mexican Tamale Loaf, German Honey Cake, Italian White Tagliarini, Croissants, and Chinese Almond Cakes.
Laura also described Charlie Chaplin as “horrid.” That made me laugh.
Toward the end of her trip, which she had extended by a month with Almanzo’s blessing, she fell off a streetcar and hit her head. She went to the hospital and found it was just a superficial wound, but she had to rest. Rose ended up writing the letter to Almanzo to tell him about this incident, as Laura did not feel well enough to and she was embarrassed that people in Missouri would find out that she was not as capable of getting around the big city as she wanted them to believe.
This was a delightful read that I stayed up late to finish. I couldn’t put it down once I started. While sometimes books of letter collections might seem boring or dry, this one was not. I also came to understand more about Rose Wilder Lane, and I learned to appreciate her work and her role in Laura’s life.