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What We Can Learn from Laura Ingalls Wilder and John Steinbeck

A couple months back, when my kids and I were visiting my mom, Gigi began reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, the first in the “Little House” series, to Mariel. I had started reading Ingalls Wilder’s books by the time I was in first grade, after my grandmother began giving the hardcovers to me for my birthday and at Christmas.

I was thrilled that my mom was picking up the tradition and introducing the “Little House” books to my daughter. I was (and remain) a voracious reader, but I have never had the best memory for what I’ve read. Ingalls Wilder’s books were an exception. I remember entire chapters and scenes that, read nearly 30 years ago, retain vivid detail for me: Christmas in the Big Woods and making maple syrup candy; bolts of calico fabric and barrels of dry goods at the general store in town; dolls made out of corncobs; the description of Sundays, trundle beds, and Jack the brindled bulldog.

When it was time for us to fly home, I brought Little House in the Big Woods with us so I could pick up reading where my mom left off. And each night, as I read to Mariel, I feel the same wonder and excitement I felt reading these books as a child. I feel, in short, as if I am in the Big Woods, living alongside Laura and Mary and baby Carrie in their log cabin.

Why do these books stay with me decades later?

There’s the nostalgia factor, inarguably; my grandmother gave me these books and so they had a particular significance. They were my books. With each gift, I grew closer to having my first collection of books, and I treasured them. But as I reread Little House in the Big Woods now, reading, as I do everything, as both a reader and a writer, I think there’s something more than that, too. Ingalls Wilder’s prose isn’t astonishing, but it’s straightforward, even simple, and above all, extremely descriptive. The green buttons on Ma’s delaine dress, the way Pa cleaned his gun… Ingalls Wilder’s eye for details and her ability to convey those were so sharp. There’s no artifice in her writing, no clever conceits or sophisticated techniques; there’s just good, unhurried storytelling.

We could stand for more of that today, if you ask me.
A few months ago, a man who recently emigrated from China asked me, upon learning that I am a writer, how he could write better essays. He told me that he’d been told about the inverted pyramid style of writing, but he seemed unsatisfied with its basic principles. “I know a piece of writing should have a beginning, middle, and an end,” he said, “but…” he trailed off in frustration, not having full command of the English vocabulary to express what he wanted to say.

I told him that there are many ways to write. I wanted to elaborate, to explain some of those ways, but I wasn’t sure how. What kind of writing did he want to be doing? Writing for work, say, can be considerably different than writing a personal essay. I ended up telling him that reading was the best way of learning how to write, that by reading widely, he’d pick up on different styles and techniques, adopting and adapting the ones that felt most comfortable to him. He liked that answer and asked if I could recommend some American writers.

“Steinbeck,” I said, without thinking it over too much. I happened to be reading Cannery Row, which I’d plucked off our bookshelf for no other reason than the fact it wouldn’t weigh down my backpack. But reading it, I was reminded why I like Steinbeck so much, and it’s for the same reasons I like Laura Ingalls Wilder. Steinbeck isn’t overreaching; he’s not trying too hard, as so many writers are, to be a good writer. In fact, I’d read shortly before I picked up Cannery Row some criticism (can’t remember who wrote it) that Steinbeck’s problem was that he was too simple, too straightforward among his contemporaries, not sophisticated enough.

Maybe, but who cares? The guy had the ability to visualize a scene and make it real, to make it seem as if the setting was a place you recognized… or at least you could if your life circumstances or place in time were different. His observations, his sense of human emotion, were astute. And, like Ingalls Wilder, there’s zero artifice in a Steinbeck novel. He wasn’t sitting around trying to gussy up his writing by deploying a literary device that wasn’t really necessary. He used simpler techniques, like lists, to establish a sense of place and personality. And that was enough.

I love the complexity and near impenetrability of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, which I don’t think I would have understood or enjoyed in the least had I not lived in Mexico City. I love the metaphors of rage in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and the allegories and pages-long sentences of Jose Saramago’s All the Names. These are books that, each in its own way, have stayed with me. Each of these authors was deft in literary maneuvering, each mastering his own style, a style that is truly inimitable. But too many writers, I think, try too hard to achieve this kind of adeptness, and it shows. Simplicity, direct observations, a keen eye for small, rich details… these need not be confused with superficiality. Sometimes, a writer needs to know when to work a text less, to let it carry its own weight and not force upon it a device or meaning that it’s not intended to have.

How about you? What books have stayed with you over the years, and why? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.


One response »

  1. All the “Little House” books have certainly stayed with me, too! I bought the series for my daughter when she was in grade school, and read them to my son and daughter when they were little. As far as other books that have stayed the course, I got hooked on the “Trixie Belden” and “Nancy Drew” series as a kid – that cliffhanger at the end of each chapter! – and remember reading Steinbeck’s “Tortilla Flats” under the covers with a flashlight when I was supposed to be sleeping. That, along with “East of Eden,” and “Of Mice and Men” are favorites, along with Paton’s “Cry, the Beloved Country.” I could go on and on – so many well-written stories that pulled me in with descriptive narrative and characters I can identify with.


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