Thursday, September 8, 2011

Almanzo, Where Art Thou?

Yeah, you can walk me home from church.
(Before I get into this post, I have a sidebar on the Jane Austen Mansfield Park virtual book club: I ran into one of the participants recently, and she confessed with dragging feet that the reason she had yet to comment was that she was really not liking the book. Not Fanny, not Edmund, not the dithering over which play to do. She thought Fanny ought to buck up and speak up, and the other characters were just irritating her (with the exception of Aunt Maria's pug).
May I just say that, from time immemorial (or at least since the book came out) many a reader has objected to Fanny. Austen's own mother called her "insipid," which, speaking from an author's perspective, is like having Grandma call your darling child a Loser.
Consider even those who love the novel--one author of a Mansfield Park mystery novel "takes the characters and episodes in the original, and turns them into a lighter, sharper, and more playful book, with a new heroine at its centre – a heroine who owes far more to the lively and spirited Elizabeth Bennet, than the dreary and insipid Fanny Price." With friends like these...In any case, if you persevere in reading, Fanny might grow on you.)

But on to the actual post!

Recently I read about a bike race through southern Minnesota called the Almanzo 100, so named because it passes a historical marker about the man himself. Since I'm quite fond of the fellow from the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, I did some internet stalking and came upon daughter Rose Wilder Lane's 1938 novel Free-Land. Poor Rose. She started out as a much bigger deal than her mom, but now, eighty years onward, people like me just pick up her books because they want to know more about the Ingalls' and Almanzo. It was actually a riveting read! LIW fans will recognize many details and incidents from the LHOP books, including the family and background of protagonist "David": his sisters' names are Eliza and Alice, his older brother "Raleigh" went into retail, the family moved out from Malone, New York, David has a pair of matched Morgans, and so on. The Ingalls' appear as well, somewhat more disguised as the Peters family, but very sadly for LIW fans, there's no fictionalized courtship between David and "Nettie," just an unresolved vibe.

Free-Land is definitely written for adults, although there's nothing inappropriate for a YA audience, meaning FL has much more in common with Willa Cather's My Antonia or O, Pioneers in its depiction of unrelenting hardship. The unyielding land, the Hard Winter, drought, cyclones--it's crazy out there in the Dakotas! No wonder the government had to give the land away for free, and even then it wasn't worth it.

Someday somewhere I hope a graduate student will do a dissertation on the whole Laura Ingalls Wilder-Rose Wilder Lane thing. Some claim RWL ghost-wrote the LHOP series, to which I say, if she did, her writing really improved. Lane lacks her mother's flair for characterization. By the end of the book, you really don't have the firmest grip on who these people are, even though she tells you what David is thinking. And what did mother and daughter do, when they both used much of the same material in a short span of time? Free-Land (1938) just barely beat out By the Shores of Silver Lake (1939), The Long Winter (1940), Little Town on the Prairie (1941), and These Happy Golden Years (1943)--I wonder which treatment the reading public preferred. In any case, if you're rabid about the Ingalls' or the dashing Almanzo, give Free-Land a try. I'd love to compare notes with you. It might even call for a road trip!


  1. Thanks, Christina -- I've stalked Almanzo on the internet myself, since Farmer Boy may be my favorite of the LIW series. I wish there were books covering his life between FB and when he shows up in Laura's life.

  2. That's what I was getting at, Sirina! FREE-LAND does have some of those details: why the Wilders left NY, how A's parents felt about him leaving the family farm, getting his claim, etc. Good stuff, just not enough of it.

  3. I'd like to post about Mansfield Park. Glad to know I'm not the only reader to find Fanny and Edmund irritating. I have since watched a film of the book on utube, which was much more satisfying because Fanny, if not Edmund, had more spirit.
    I think Persuasion is my current favorite!

  4. Mmmmmmm . . . Dean Butler.

  5. Okay, "Anonymous" fan of hideous LHOP TV show, there's free speech in this country, but the real Almanzo has it all over Dean Butler, whom I had to Google, for crying out loud.

    On a calmer note--Diana, you must have watched the movie version I groused about.

  6. Where did you find your copy of Free-Land? I am a huge LIW fan, so this is a must-read!

  7. Since I spent the ages of 5 to 10 wearing my sunbonnet, and looking like an idiot in southern Ohio, I too love the LIW books. Back in the haze of small children, I found the book Little House in the Ozarks (The Rediscovered Writings), edited by Stephen Hines, which republishes Laura's newspaper columns from 1911 to 1925. I also read West from Home, Laura's letters to Almanzo when she came to San Francisco for the World's Fair and stayed with Rose in a flat on Vallejo street on Russian Hill. Comparing Laura's writing from these books and the LHOP books, I assumed that Rose had actually written the LH books. The quality of the writing is vastly different. Course I have read Free Land, so maybe there is yet another ghost writer out there for us to discover.

  8. Oh my goodness! I am the hugest of LIW fans! Mys little sister and I played "Laura and Mary" while we were growing up and I have probably read each of the books at least five times. I boycotted the TV show and have tried to read everything I could find that LIW or RW wrote. I will have to look for Free-Land...I can't believe I have never heard of it! Thanks so much, Christina!

  9. Hi, Marie. I got my copy from the library!

    As for you, M-E, I would say in LIW's defense that newspaper columns and letters to the hub you've been married to for umpteen years would have a very different style than books for kids and teens. But maybe I'll have to read RWL's YOUNG PIONEERS next to help me make up my mind. I think, since you've covered all the books, you'd better take on the Almanzo 100 bike race next. Just get a big bike helmet, so your sunbonnet can fit underneath.