One of our favorite authors of historical fiction, Christina Baker Kline, sat down with fellow author Sarah Miller to talk about Miller’s new novel, Caroline: Little House Revisited. Many of our readers know Christina’s most recent novels -- Orphan Train and A Piece of the World -- and the inspiration for Miller’s book -- Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Caroline retells Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie from Ma Ingalls’s point of view. Can you imagine traveling via Conestoga wagon from the Big Woods to Kansas’s Indian Territory and helping your husband build a house, all while pregnant? There’s no need to imagine it because Miller’s prose vividly recreates the experience for her readers. Without further ado, I give you the highlights of the fascinating conversation between these two talented women.
CHRISTINA BAKER KLINE: Like me, many adults first became avid readers by getting swept up in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” novels. What was it about these stories that inspired you to revisit her world, and reframe it through the mother’s — Caroline’s — eyes?
SARAH MILLER: I like to blame all this on Cherry Jones — she performed the Little House audiobooks, which hit the market while I was working at a children’s bookstore. The owner of the shop tried one out and came back raving about how great it was, so I tried one. And the next…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 Laura Ingalls Wilder had left unsaid, especially where her mother was concerned.
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 understood 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, it turns out the real Mrs. Ingalls was pregnant with her third child 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.
CBK: A tremendous amount of research is involved in making a novel like yours feel authentic. What was that process like for you? How difficult was it to achieve the right balance of detail and story?
SM: I thrive on research. I read all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s handwritten manuscripts, including her then-unpublished memoir, Pioneer Girl, and compared them with biographers’ research, learning where fact and fiction melded and diverged. I collected heaps of literary and social criticism of the Little House books, which made me aware of the many ways (both positive and negative) Wilder’s stories have embedded themselves in our collective consciousness and culture. I read histories of the Osage Nation by John Joseph Mathews, Louis Burns, Willard Rollings, and Garrick Bailey, as well the 1870 and 1871 annual reports of the Board of Indian Commissioners. I pored over the diaries of women who had traveled west by wagon in the 1800s.
And then, because I’m what friends have called a “method writer," I drove to Missouri, Kansas, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa, to see the sites of the Ingalls family’s lives, where they were born and where they were buried. I learned to crochet so I could replicate a piece of Mrs. Ingalls’s own lacework that I’d seen on display in Missouri, as well as a shawl I saw in South Dakota — both of which appear in Caroline. I made myself a calico dress. (I thought I could sew the whole thing by hand. I was wrong.) I bought — and wore! — a corset. I lent a hand in butchering livestock and wild game, rendered lard, fried salt pork, roasted a rabbit, and tasted head cheese. I haven’t yet made maple sugar, but I intend to.
I think the trick to balancing detail and story lies in never forcing the reader to take special notice of more than the characters themselves would naturally observe. For instance, if I were to describe the process of composing these answers to your questions, I wouldn’t mention hitting the individual keys on my laptop. Unless I need the reader to imagine the physical sensation of fingers striking the keyboard, there’s no reason to draw attention to it. In other words, don’t stare at anything your characters would only glance at. Their world is as familiar to them as our world is to us.
CBK: What inspired you to focus on Caroline, as opposed to one of Laura’s sisters (or even Pa)? What intrigued you about her?
SM: Once I got an inkling of the potential depth and richness of her inner life, the idea of exploring Caroline’s emotions became irresistible. There are just tiny glimpses of her private interior in the Little House series. One of my favorite scenes is the sugaring off dance in Little House in the Big Woods, in part because for just a moment you get to see Ma abandon herself to the pleasure of dancing. For that instant even five-year-old Laura seems to grasp that there’s more to her mother than she’s seen before. Another indelible moment for me comes in The Long Winter. Pa’s musing about braving the blizzards to go after the rumored seed wheat that might save the town from starving, and Ma puts her foot down. The force of her anger stuns the whole family: “She was quiet, but she was terrible.”
The closer I looked, and the more I learned about the realities of the Ingalls family’s history, the more I begin to understand that Caroline Ingalls was the glue that held her family together. Laura Ingalls Wilder herself admitted that her father was “no businessman,” as well as “inclined to be reckless.” When Charles’s schemes for a better life further on failed, Caroline Ingalls took up the slack. Her ability to make do with almost nothing dazzles her husband and children again and again — never more so than in the depths of The Long Winter. It’s only a small exaggeration to call her a prairie-era MacGyver. “You’re a wonder, Caroline,” Pa says when she fashions a lamp out of axle grease and a button. What did she have within her that allowed her to shoulder that burden so capably? And what kind of fears and doubts were inevitably simmering beneath her ever-placid exterior?
CBK: Did you have any insights about Caroline’s character that you didn’t anticipate?
SM: The realization that despite her own submissiveness and strict sense of propriety, Mrs. Ingalls was in fact poised on the border between traditional and progressive. Education plays a prominent role in the Little House series, and that’s Ma’s doing — she makes Pa promise that their daughters will have formal schooling. Further, it’s obvious from the Ingalls girls’ real-life biographies that gaining an education and pursuing an occupation was prioritized over finding a mate and settling into the stereotypical Victorian-era role of wife and mother. Laura and Grace were both teachers. Carrie proved up on her own homestead claim and worked for the local newspaper. Most telling of all, the whole family dedicated themselves to sending Mary to college. It speaks volumes to me that Mr. and Mrs. Ingalls were willing to spend what must have been a significant proportion of their meagre income to procure an education for Mary, knowing full well that even a college diploma could not guarantee independence or self-sufficiency for a blind woman in the 1880s.
That may have been when it dawned on me that although she’s remembered largely for assenting, “Whatever you think is best, Charles,” Caroline Ingalls was in fact quietly taking steps to make sure her daughters were as educated and as self-supporting as their individual circumstances allowed. Take teaching them to sew, for instance. Today we’re inclined to view traditional domestic training as limiting — even Laura and Ma are both portrayed as detesting sewing in the novels. Yet in real life, the skills Laura Ingalls Wilder learned from her mother proved to be a vital economic lifeline. After the Wilders’ crops failed and their home burned, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s sewing earned a dollar a day toward starting a new life in Missouri. When you learn that Caroline Ingalls was herself the daughter of a widowed dressmaker, that chain of events takes on new significance. Watching her own mother struggle to support six children under the age of ten likely had a profound influence on Mrs. Ingalls’s views of a woman’s place in the world. The concept of “strong girls” is probably too recent to graft directly onto Mrs. Ingalls's outlook; I think a desire to raise capable girls is more apt.
CBK: That Little House Heritage Trust endorsed this novel is quite a stamp of approval. What does their support mean to you?
SM: Oh, goodness. Without their approval we wouldn’t even be having this conversation, because this book literally couldn’t exist. That approval was a necessity, but their support has been nothing less than a gift. I honestly didn’t know what to expect from them. These books and characters are beloved the world over, and Little House Heritage Trust is the steward of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s legacy. As such LHHT had every right to say, Oh no you don’t! at any point. And they didn’t. Not once. They never shied or balked at anything I chose to explore, and gave me all the time I needed to explore it.