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Empty Shelf Challenge: the wrong (good) biography

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laura ingalls wilder

Title: Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman behind the Legend (I don’t know why behind isn’t capitalized. It irks me.)

Author: John E. Mills

Why I read it: We just finished listening to Cherry Jones delightful audio books of the Little House series, and I was curious to learn more about Laura — particularly how the Laura of the books measured up to the Laura of real life.
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What I thought: I didn’t put much forethought into choosing a biography on Wilder; I just went to the shelf and picked the only book available at my local library. This book isn’t what I was looking for: a traditional “who is this person, anyway” biography. That being said, it is interesting for what it is and purports to be: an examination of how Bessy Wilder became Laura Ingalls Wilder, celebrated author.  It is primarily the story of the making of a writer and her editor/daughter.  Although it includes many details of her life, these are mainly meant to include her development as a writer and the process by which the Little House books came to be. In fact, it is almost as much a biography of the relationship between Laura and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, as it is an examination of Wilder herself. Miller looks at the charge that Laura’s books weren’t really hers at all, but mostly the work of Rose, and successfully refutes it.

A couple of quibbles: it could have used a more exacting editor. Several times, the almost exact descriptive phrases or details are only a few pages apart. For example, Rose was a bright, but bothersome child. That little tidbit is mentioned three or four times. We’re told at least twice that the Wilders liked to listen to the radio, but never owned a television. There are other instances, as well.

The other, larger critique is that it the book has a bit of a personality crisis. It purports to tell the story of how Laura became a writer, but it covers more than that. In particular, Miller devotes as much time to Rose — although again without the sort of basic information the uninformed needs — as to Laura herself. I felt like I learned more about Rose than about Laura as a personality. Part of this is due to the fact that Laura left few personal records while Rose left a plethora. What happened to the letters she must have written to her parents and her sisters? She kept a journal of their journey from South Dakota to Missouri, did she keep others? The book is not the book to read if you want to a good biography of Laura’s life, but it’s still an interesting look at how this a remarkable woman became on of America’s most famous authors.

Where you can buy it: Here!

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