Shedding New Light On All Things Wilder

Originally posted March 15, 2015

Before Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life was published in 2007, a children’s book librarian asked me, “What’s your next book?”  When I told her I was working on a Wilder biography, she looked perplexed.  “What can you possibly say about her that hasn’t been said before?”

Her question was discouraging but not unusual.   In some literary and academic circles, Wilder’s life and legacy seem fixed and static, unworthy of continued research and reinterpretation.  Yet since Writer’s Life was published, a wealth of new books, magazine articles, and online research continues to shed more light on All Things Wilder.  Even the New Yorker ran an extensive article on Laura Ingalls Wilder in 2009, something that librarian would have found inconceivable back in 2006.  Laura Ingalls Wilder is as relevant now as she was when Little House in the Big Woods was published during the Great Depression in 1932.   New information about Wilder and her world continues to surface.

Recently I received a message from Suzanne Obuchowski about research she’d conducted on Oscar Rhuel, who appears briefly in Pioneer Girl.  According to Wilder, Oscar Rhuel worked for Almanzo and Royal Wilder as their hired man during the early 1880s in Dakota Territory.

Wilder cast Rhuel as a “romantic figure,” who had fallen desperately in love, but was rejected as a suitor by his sweetheart’s parents.1They objected so vehemently to the match that they moved their family from Sweden to California.  Rhuel then followed the family to the United States, but before reaching California, his money ran out in Dakota Territory.   He saved his earnings as a hired man to go on to California, where, according to Wilder, he eventually married his True Love.

When I began researching Wilder’s account in Pioneer Girl, I hoped to find Rhuelin
Dakota Territory, listed on the 1880 federal census, or perhaps in the state census from 1885.  No such luck.  As for the 1890 federal census, most of those records were destroyed by fire in 1921.  Since I couldn’t confirm Rhuel’s presence in Dakota Territory in the 1880s, I also couldn’t conclusively confirm Wilder’s story.  As I wrote in Pioneer Girl, “…a search of census records proved unsuccessful, even when using the alternate spelling of Ruhl, which appeared in [the] Brandt Revised [version of Pioneer Girl.]”2

This is where Suzanne Obuchowski’s research is relevant.  She picked up the trail in the federal census of 1900.  As she wrote me last month, “there is an Oscar Rohl married to Elizabeth Rohl who is living in California. Both Oscar and Elizabeth were born in Sweden as were their parents….  Oscar was born about 1860 and immigrated about 1880 (dates vary slightly from census to census) which seems to be about the right fit for Laura's character.”3

There’s no census evidence that this Oscar Rohl lived and worked in Dakota Territory in the 1880s, but otherwise, the census profile from 1900seems to fit Wilder’s story.  Suzanne added one other interesting observation, based on her research:  “[This] Oscar would have been just a few years younger than Almanzo Wilder. If indeed he was trying to travel west to meet his sweetheart in CA, he could have immigrated in 1880 or 1881, been in the SD area around 1881-1883, then out in CA by 1883 or 1884 to get married."4

Perhaps only diehard Wilder fans will be interested in this kind of research, but it illuminates Wilder’s world and what appears to be her uncanny ability to remember people, places, and situations from her childhood and adolescence.

Although Oscar Rhuel may be an obscure figure from Wilder’s past, new information continues to appear about more consequential events from her personal story.   While I was teaching Part 1 of the massive open online Wilder course through Missouri State University last year, I learned that another researcher had found new information about Rose Wilder Lane's infant son, born prematurely in Salt Lake City.  The specifics about this child and his birth had eluded researchers for years, including Rose Wilder Lane’s biographer, William Holtz.   I immediately shared this new information with my students.  From my point of view, it was incredibly important.  Caroline Ingalls, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Rose Wilder Lane had all lost sons in infancy; their deaths seemed to cast a long shadow over all three women.

So, my thanks to Suzanne Obuchowski, and all the dedicated, passionate, and tireless researchers engaged in the quest to illuminate Wilder’s life, world, and work.  A writer as important and influential as Wilder always merits more research, more discussion, and more scholarship.


 

Notes

1.  Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, Pamela Smith Hill, editor (Pierre, South Dakota: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2014), pp. 255-256.

2.  Ibid., p. 255.

3.  Suzanne Obuchowski to Pamela Smith Hill, February 9, 2015.

4.  Suzanne Obuchowski to Pamela Smith Hill, March 3, 2014.

Holly Atkinson