Early writings from the 'Little House' author

Letters and diaries of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

It's hard to imagine the author of the Little House series - among the most beloved of children's books - saying she didn't consider herself a writer. And yet, in A Little House Traveler, a collection of diary entries and letters penned during three trips taken as an adult, that's exactly what Laura Ingalls Wilder does.

In one breath, she confesses her (perceived) inadequacies, even as in the next, she offers the vivid descriptions that would later endear her to millions of readers.

For some, the Laura of Parts 1 and 3 of this book - "On the way home" and "The road back" - may well be familiar. Readers of Roger Lea MacBride's collection of stories about Laura's daughter, Rose, will instantly recognize the Laura of "On the way home" as the spirited mistress of Rocky Ridge Farm, who endured searing heat and run-ins with unsavory characters to make her way from South Dakota to Missouri in 1894.

"The road back," a set of diary entries chronicling Laura and husband Almanzo's return to the place they fell in love, superimposes the 40-years-removed Laura on the setting of her young adulthood.

With plenty of names and references that allude to her Little House years, Part 3 of this book is almost like getting Laura Ingalls, protagonist, back. This concluding section is a literal and figurative return home for both author and reader.

It's "West from home," though, where Laura-the-author really emerges. While her diary entries in Parts 1 and 3 certainly showcase her keen eye for detail - and her ability to turn the everyday into the interesting - it's her letters home to Almanzo during a 1915 visit to San Francisco that explain why writing the Little House series wasn't a stretch.

Laura was no passive observer. Her Missouri-bound missives reveal the delight with which she approached new experiences.

Most notably, though, Laura cared to put down the details. Far from offering a merely cursory description of her West Coast adventures, Laura's letters bring the reader into the sights, smells, and sounds that made her trip (and that particular place at that particular time) so memorable.

Being a writer means being observant, so it's not surprising that Laura's letters demonstrate such active engagement with the world.

In fact, reading "A Little House Traveler" took me back to the fifth of Laura's novels, "By the Shores of Silver Lake," and the exchange that, at least in my mind, branded her as a writer almost half a century before her books took shape: "On that dreadful morning when Mary could not see even sunshine full in her eyes, Pa had said that Laura must see for her. He had said, 'Your two eyes are quick enough, and your tongue, if you will use them for Mary.' And Laura had promised."

In "West from home," Laura puts what she learned during her childhood into practice. This time, though, she becomes Almanzo's eyes, describing everything from the Pacific Ocean and the 1915 World's Fair to trolley car rides and the new foods she'd tried.

And yet, Laura was never completely satisfied with the way she'd captured things - nor did she intend to pursue writing as a profession. "The more I see of how Rose works the better satisfied I am to raise chickens" she wrote on October 4, 1915. "I intend to try to do some writing that will count, but I would not be driven by the work as she is for anything.... "

Fortunately for the rest of us, Laura did not remain content with raising chickens. Twenty years later, she was already well into the series that would prove even her worst critic - herself - wrong.

Jenny Sawyer reviews children's and young adult books for the Monitor.

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