My twelve-year-old daughter wants to be a writer. On lazy Sunday afternoons she pens stories that sound a lot like the last book she read. In her tales girls have hidden powers, secret friends resist the Nazis, and ghosts live in attics. When she recently bumped up, rather painfully, against the limits of her imagination, I suggested she try her hand at nonfiction.
“Nonfiction?” she gasped. “That’s so boring!”
“I write nonfiction,” I reminded her.
* * *
In my daughter’s world, nonfiction is the term for those impossibly dull books her younger brother prefers. Books stuffed with facts about the sinking of the Titanic or Egyptian pharaohs or the Civil War. I search in vain for some read-aloud capable of drawing both children to my side, but there is only one book on which my daughter and son agree: Farmer Boy.
In our family if we encounter an 800-pound pumpkin at the local pick-your-own, one of us will say, “Do you remember Almanzo’s milk-fed pumpkin?” If someone grumbles when asked to feed the cats, someone else (okay, it is usually me) will say, “Do you remember how Almanzo milked the cows every single day? Without complaining?”
Farmer Boy was the second book published by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It appeared in 1933, one year after her autobiographical children’s novel Little House in the Big Woods. While all the other books that would eventually make up the Little House series follow the lives of the Ingalls family, Farmer Boy gives us just over a year in the childhood of Almanzo Wilder, the nine-year-old boy who would become Laura’s husband.
As a boy in the 1860s, Almanzo lived with his parents and five siblings, only three of whom appear in Farmer Boy, on a farm in far upstate New York, just a few miles from the border with Quebec. Farmer Boy is rooted in those northern seasons; its narrative is shaped by the harvest cycle. It is a book about farm chores and sibling rivalry. About harvesting ice and weeding the carrot patch. There is popcorn by the fire in winter, watermelon and homemade ice cream in summer.
Like each of Laura’s books, it describes in vivid detail the tools, food, dress, celebrations, and ordinary life of a time lost to us, not only by the passing years but by rapidly changing industries and technologies. By the time Laura sat down to write, buggies had been eclipsed by automobiles and covered wagons no longer roamed the prairies.
Laura’s books are properly called fiction, but they are so rooted in real lives lived in real places that today you can visit small museums and memorial log cabins in just about every location mentioned in the nine books that make up the series. Even so, there is only one original house from Laura’s books still standing on its original land. It is the snug, red-painted farmhouse where Almanzo famously hurled the stove-blacking brush at his sister.
Farmer Boy may be a work of fiction, but when the Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder Association began rebuilding the barns once lost to fire on the Wilder’s New York homestead, they found that the descriptions in Laura’s book matched the archeological remains exactly.
In August, I walked through those rebuilt barns with my children.
* * *
Laura never visited the post-and-beam farmhouse that still sits just a few feet from a country road, not far from Malone, New York. She wrote her book according to the anecdotes and pencil sketches Almanzo shared with her. The result of their collaboration is the preservation of a way of life, not in practice but in language.
Preservation was central to the lives of nineteenth-century farmers, and it is central to the story told in Farmer Boy. Ice is harvested from the river in winter and packed in sawdust for summer use. Summer cucumbers become winter pickles. Autumn apples and carrots are carefully stored in the root cellar to last the family, and their animals, till spring.
Through cultivation the land gives its gifts, but preservation allows those gifts to endure. Laura’s book has given a new but lasting life to the farm that was her husband’s first home. When Farmer Boy was first read by residents of Malone, NY, a few of those readers recognized the Wilder family and the house and land the book described. Eventually one of those readers, a descendent of Almanzo’s mother’s family, would form a nonprofit association for the purpose of preserving the house along with 84 acres of the original farm.
The house has since been fully restored to its 1860s condition. In August, I stood in the same pantry where Almanzo once snuck bits of crumbled pie pastry. I dipped my fingers in the cold water of the same Trout River where Almanzo and his father and brother once washed sheep. The clouds were low and gray. The trees along the horizon were still green, but a chilly, autumn wind carried the scent of rain and woodsmoke. I wondered at the mysterious relationship between the stories we tell and the ground beneath our feet.
Climbing the same narrow stairs Almanzo and his siblings once climbed to their attic bedrooms, I felt my tidy distinctions between fiction and nonfiction begin to dissolve. The air, both inside and out, felt thick. Crowded. Every apple swinging from the trees in the front-yard orchard, every punched-tin lantern hanging in the barn was saturated with meaning and memory.
Who says only fiction concerns itself with the ghosts in the attic?
* * *
For a long time, I saw my penchant for writing nonfiction, rather than fiction, as a weakness. I was a writer, but a writer with a great lack. I was sure I could never master the precise and compressed rhythms of poetry. I did not have the creative imagination for fiction. In our home, my non-writing husband is the only one who can serve up an impromptu bedtime tale. When I sit with my children around a campfire, they ask for a scary story, but I can give them only a blank look.
No one today would qualify Laura Ingalls Wilder’s achievements as a writer because her stories were not wholly invented. True, some have asked whether the series was polished to a shine by Laura’s daughter, the writer Rose Wilder, but the scholarly consensus seems to be a portrait of inspired collaboration, one to which even Almanzo contributed.
I wandered amongst the barns and apple trees of that farm in Malone, brushing stories aside like spider webs as I walked, and I recognized something of Laura’s achievement. Laura crafted works of fiction, but she understood what every writer of nonfiction intuitively knows: ordinary life and ordinary places are saturated with hidden stories.
The art begins in this knowledge. It begins with seeing. Even through the distance of Almanzo’s shared memories, Laura saw the stories that had waited seventy years to be shared. These stories had been planted in the ground and swept into the cracks between the floorboards. They had been buried beneath layers of new wallpaper in the parlor. But stories are persistent, like seeds. They were not destroyed when lightning struck the barns James Wilder had built more than a century before.
Because the roots of Laura’s novels reach deeply into the soil of real, not imagined, land, her books have helped me to better understand the nature of my own creative efforts. To write nonfiction is to reap a harvest of memory. When we shape and share that harvest, we practice a kind of literary husbandry.
My own husbandry, like Laura’s before me, begins in the belief that meaning is created wherever lives meet landscapes. My aim as a writer is to make that meaning visible. Accessible. And enduring.
* * *
I think fiction writers do have something I lack. They must have the capacity to close their eyes, at least a little bit, to the world outside their window. With eyes half open they are free to imagine. Free to conjure whole worlds and lives. They are magicians as much as artists, and I am the grateful recipient of their magic.
But I cannot close my eyes. Not even a little bit. I write nonfiction because so many memories are tapping at my window, there is no room left in my mind for any invention. I am wholly preoccupied observing and studying that which is already there.
Nonfiction is a particular art not an inferior one. It is the care, cultivation, and preservation of the truth.
And I am a farmer, too.
Christie Purifoy earned a PhD in English Literature at the University of Chicago before trading the classroom for a farmhouse, a garden, and a blog. Her book, Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons, will be released by Revell in February 2016.