If you are in a book club, chances are you already love your local library. We know many of our readers rely on their local branch for books for reading group, for their childrens' school work, and for gathering information to make their lives richer, healthier, and bigger. Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House books for children, did not grow up with a library, or even a school that had access to a great many books. Only later in life did she come to fully understand the marvel of a library.
Sarah Miller was inspired by Laura's books to write her new novel, CAROLINE: LITTLE HOUSE REVISTED. Caroline retells the story of Little House on the Prairie from the point of view of Ma Ingalls. Miller did extensive research, leaning heavily upon talented and gracious librarians so that she could accurately portray the historical details intrinsic to the Ingalls family's journey by Conestoga wagon from the Big Woods of Wisconsin to the great Plains of Kansas. On sale September 19th, Caroline is a novel no grown-up Little House fan should miss. What follows is Sarah's guest blog post, detailing her appreciation for librarians, and including photos of her appearance at this year's American Library Association Conference, last month in Chicago.
“Unless you have lived as I did, where books were scarce and so prized greatly, you can not realize how wonderful it really is to have a whole library so convenient for your use.” ~Laura Ingalls Wilder
How envious would Laura have been to grow up where I did, with a library I could see from my own front porch? It could not have been more convenient. When I was 14, it provided my first job, shelving books. (Two decades later, I’m working there once again.) When I saw The Miracle Worker on stage one Sunday afternoon and was struck with a mighty bolt of fascination, I didn’t have to wait until Monday morning to stoke my curiosity about Helen Keller. I marched down the street, unlocked the library door, and raided the shelves of every book and film about her. Eventually that fascination snowballed and evolved into a novel called Miss Spitfire.
The library’s shelf full of Little House audiobooks is also the unlikely culprit behind my fascination with Caroline Ingalls. I picked one up on a recommendation by a friend, and then returned to that shelf again and again for the next book, and the next. As I listened, I began to hear more than what I’d read on the pages as a child. The way Cherry Jones voiced Ma’s words, her tone and inflection — as well as my own adult perspective — made me realize how much more there is to Ma’s character than a child can recognize. There’s a moment in Little House on Prairie, when Pa is a day late returning from a trip to town, 40 miles away. Laura wakes in the night to find Ma sitting in her rocking chair with Pa’s pistol in her lap, keeping vigil for his return. I can still tell you the intersection where I was sitting when I heard that scene and realized for the first time that for all her outward calm, Ma is barely holding it together. That woman was my age, I realized, and not only that, the real Caroline Ingalls was pregnant with her third daughter the year her husband decided to pull up stakes and settle the family in Kansas. Can you imagine? From then on, I couldn’t stop wondering what her life had really been like.
Reading stacks of Wilder biographies, correspondence, and manuscripts and then traveling to Missouri, Kansas, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa to see the sites of the Ingalls family’s lives was only the half of it. Laura Ingalls Wilder has a reputation for telling you how to do things the old-fashioned way, but it turns out there’s a lot she neglects to mention. If I really wanted to know what everyday life was like for Caroline Ingalls, I had oodles to learn about nineteenth-century manners, cooking, and housekeeping. How much does a yard of canvas cost, and how many yards do you need to sew together to cover a wagon? How do you prepare for a birth and tend to an infant in 1870? When — if ever — can you address someone outside of your family by their first name? How did the actual culture and history of the Osage people contrast with the behavior of Wilder’s stereotypical Indians?
Librarians in California, Minnesota, Wyoming, and Michigan helped fill in those kinds of gaps, giving me a handle on details ranging from the cost of drygoods to when the ice on Lake Pepin thawed. Census databases revealed names of the Ingalls family’s neighbors, how old they were, and where they came from. The Library of Congress’s digital collection of United States maps allowed me to navigate the journey from Wisconsin to Kansas as Charles Ingalls would have done. (This one is my favorite — look how empty Montgomery County, Kansas is!) Through the magic of interlibrary loan, I received out-of-print histories of the Osage nation, and incisive cultural criticisms of Wilder’s version of Indian Territory.
The thing was, I was so private about this project that I never told any of these folks why I needed all this obscure information. The individual fragments probably didn’t seem particularly compelling without any context, but the librarians who provided it made the pages of Caroline’s world that much more vivid, no questions asked. For that and much more, as Ma Ingalls herself might say, I am thankful.