Interview with Robynne Elizabeth Miller: author of “From the Mouth of Ma”

FromMouthofMaWe welcome the opportunity to speak with Robynne Elizabeth Miller, who recently wrote a book entitled, From the Mouth of Ma that focuses on Caroline Quiner Ingalls who was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mother.

TCT: Thanks for joining us, Robynne.  Your book is an interesting take on the Little House matriarch.  Why did you decide to write it?

REM:  First, thank you for having me here.  I appreciate the opportunity!

To answer your question, though, I think simply because there is so little written about Ma in the canon of Little House books.  With the exception of the fictionalized stories about her growing up, there’s a pretty big hole where information about Ma should be.

TCT:  The book specifies an intent to explore the real ‘voice’ of Caroline Ingalls.  Why did you choose to focus on Wilder’s fiction, which was heavily edited by Rose Wilder Lane, rather than drawing on her autobiography (Pioneer Girl), draft manuscripts and letters between the two women?  Some suggest this would have painted a more accurate picture of Caroline Ingalls.

REM:  Well, this is a bit of a complicated question.  And I’d need to start with the assumption that Wilder’s final works of fiction were heavily edited by her daughter.  Though that was a long held belief by a number of Little House experts, I believe there is now enough evidence (in the form of Laura’s hand written tablets that had huge sections that were largely untouched as well as letters to and from Laura and Rose that showed Laura’s protection over her characters, stories, and voice, etc.) that could credibly challenge that assumption.  I do think that Rose heavily influenced Laura on the business and discipline of writing, and did have some input into the structure of the stories, but the more I read Laura’s own words, the more I am leaning away from the phrase “heavily edited.”

And all of the excerpts I examined were taken equally from each of the Little House books, partially because they were naturally spread out in that way, and partially to see if there was any correlation to those sayings and the evolution of Ma throughout the series.

Also, I did lean heavily on what biographical information was available and included several such references, as well as excerpts that Ma, herself, had written in letters to family members.

That said, the reason I decided to write this book from the angle I did came out of an interesting conversation a professor in my master’s degree program and I had. In an assignment, I’d basically transcribed a real conversation which he then said didn’t ring true.  I was a bit flustered because I couldn’t understand how something that WAS true wouldn’t register AS true if merely transferred from the spoken word to the written.  His take was that different mediums have an inherent number of filters that twist and skew the truth, even when every accurate detail is present.

Transpose all that onto a writer’s desire to depict, in a semi-autobiographical way, the fullness of a character who was very real to them. How did Laura choose to write Ma honestly and accurately? What details did she include? What did she leave out?  The concept fascinated me because assigning dozens of platitudes to someone isn’t a traditional method of portrayal.  So I hoped to understand as much about Laura and her relationship to Ma as Ma herself as I unraveled part of this mystery from the perspective I did.

TCT:  What differences did you find between Wilder’s characterizations of Caroline in the First Four Years, compared to other books in the series?

REM:  As the First Four Years was, arguably, never meant to be published, I think there’s a very different portrayal of all the characters, including Ma. Though I think that Ma clearly went through the most obvious character transformation from first depiction to last.  In Little House in the Big Woods, Ma was largely a background figure. . .it was chapters in before we even got a real glimpse at her, whereas Pa had already had lots of lively dialog and description.

Laura developed Ma, though, through each successive book, into more and more of a real and clear figure, despite often still being assigned proverbs and platitudes as dialog. By the time we got to The First Four Years, I think Ma’s portrayal was finally fleshed out enough to stand equally with the rest of the family.

TCT:  What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching the origins of Caroline’s prosaic phrases?

That’s a good question.  I think that what surprised me most was how early she adopted a very “old and wise” demeanor. It’s not a stretch to see how the life she lived as an adult would develop strong character traits, but I was a little surprised to read, in letters she wrote to family, how deeply ingrained her own faith, sense of honor, belief about duty, etc., was at such an early age.  That made me want to look more into how the loss of her father, subsequent struggles to survive, and ultimate marriage to Charles formed this very strong, but complicated, woman.

TCT:  The language used in interpretive literary analysis is inherently academic, yet you’ve used surprisingly accessible prose.  Has this broadened your audience?

REM:  I sure hope so.  I wanted From the Mouth of Ma to be a conversation, not a critical analysis. I am all too aware that Ma is already a very polarizing figure in the Little House realm.  Some almost despise her for her possible racism and less-than-warm reactions to serious events. Some seem to have morphed her and Karen Grassle, who portrayed Ma in the tv series, into one picture-perfect mother figure and it’s like kicking a puppy to suggest she had any (human!) flaws.  So I chose my tone and language pretty carefully in the hopes that the conversation would be opened and explored with respect and accessibility.

TCT:  Have you been to any of the Ingalls-Wilder homesites?

REM:  Interestingly, I have two trips planned this year.  I head to Malone this summer to visit the home of Almanzo, then, as a 20th anniversary trip, my wonderful husband is going to be taking me through the remaining sites this fall. It will be as wonderful to get to meet the historians and curators I’ve been working with for years on various projects as it will be to see the sites themselves. I am very excited!

TCT:  Have you read any of the scholarly biographies about Laura Ingalls Wilder?  Which would you recommend to fans who are just starting to explore her real life?

REM:  My Little House Library is pretty jam-packed. There’s not a lot written about Laura, her books, or the characters she wrote about that I don’t have. But I think I lean toward things that she’s written if the goal is to get to know her personally.

That said, if I had to suggest five books to a Laura fan that would give the best overall portrayal of who she really was, they’d have to be: Pioneer Girl, The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill; The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by William Anderson; On the Way Home, by Laura Ingalls Wilder (her diary of the journey from DeSmet to Mansfield); and I Remember Laura, by Stephen W. Hines.  And, as a pure, traditional autobiography, I think that Donald Zochert’s Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder still sits pretty much on the top of the heap.

TCT:  Are you working on any other Wilder related projects?

REM:  Yes, I am.  This is a busy, busy year. I’m taking a bit of a step back from blogging (but not stopping entirely!) at Mylittleprairiehome.com and ThePracticalPioneer.com to focus on three upcoming projects. One, a fascinating look at Nellie Oleson, is slated to be done by the end of summer. After that, we have one very large project that my publisher wants to keep under wraps at the moment, and then, if we’re all still sane, the next book will be a look at Pa.  All of them will have a very different feel from Mouth of Ma, and will, hopefully, add some really solidly researched and well written pieces to the cannon of Little House related books.

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4 thoughts on “Interview with Robynne Elizabeth Miller: author of “From the Mouth of Ma”

  1. sultanabun says:

    I’m reading Little House In The Big Woods with my almost-five year old daughter. We are both completely enthralled. Grace identifies with Laura in a way that is pure magic. I, meanwhile, am in awe of Caroline. She has a fine dress folded in a box, a remnant from her previous life. She embroiders pillowcases and dusts her china figurine. She puts rags in the girls’ hair at night to make ringlets. In her situation I would probably let my children live like wild things but Caroline instills in them the rules of etiquette. Her Husband ups sticks and moves her from pillar to post and still she adores him. The love between them shines. I think that Caroline Ingalls may be my ultimate rolemodel.

  2. Karen Martin says:

    You cannot judge a 19th century person by 21th century standards.

    Laura tells us her Ma didn’t like Indians. Well, why should she? With the exception of the story of the First Thanksgiving it is unlikely she ever heard or read a favorable story about the natives-who-were-here-first.

    Those who don’t like Caroline Ingalls should experience living on the frontier with only a cap-and-ball rifle for protection, and we’ll see if the “judger’s” have complete trust in people who were trying to protect their homeland from “foreign invaders.” Ma had good reason to fear the Indians. She was trying to make her home a little island of civilization out in the wilderness, and didn’t want to think kind thoughts towards known dangers.

    I will never experience what she lived through, and won’t pass judgement on her thoughts and actions.

  3. Robynne Miller says:

    Hi Karen,

    I absolutely agree that you cannot “judge” a 19th century person by 21st century standards. The world has changed a whole, whole, lot. And, as I wrote the book, I tried to straddle that line very delicately as there are folks who feel strongly on both sides of this issue. Ma’s contemporaries, including her own husband, didn’t feel the same way she did, for example. So racism wasn’t a pervasive 19th century belief. However, I don’t know how, in that time and place, you wouldn’t feel some uneasiness toward any people group given the widespread tales of various massacres. It’s an emotive and complicated subject.

    I respectfully disagree with your assertion that Ma wouldn’t have heard a natives “who were here first” story, though. The narratives of how non-natives arrived in America weren’t just in dry, remote history books, they were the recent narratives of their own families. Caroline would have been acutely, and personally, aware of the discord between arriving immigrants and Native Americans. But she and Pa clearly subscribed to the belief that “the land belonged to those that would farm it.” And this wasn’t a personal bias, it was a widespread cultural response to open land. And I believe that had there not been aggression on either side in the earlier years of America’s influx of immigrants, Ma would never have developed her bias. I don’t think she was inherently predisposed to such a view.

    All that said, I agree it isn’t ours to pass judgment on anyone, let alone Ma. But it’s an interesting conversation to open up. . .how events and environment shape a person’s view of the world. Ma was complicated, as we all are. She had a plethora of incredibly admirable qualities, however. . .though she wasn’t perfect, as none of us are. Still, in the circumstances she found herself in, and the era, she was a pretty remarkable woman in my opinion.

    Robynne

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