The Laura Ingalls Wilder Butter Sculpture & Margaret Millar’s Domestic Suspense

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Summer is vacation time.  Now if you can just agree on where to spend it…

Some hike the Appalachian Trail.  Others travel to Yosemite or Yellowstone, wanting to see the parks before they are fried by global warming.  Others go to cultural events, Shakespeare in the park (in whatever city), or a music festival. And still others go to Dollywood or Graceland.

I hope your vacation was better than ours.

We spent our (one-day) vacation in Clear Lake, where I was stricken by a piercing headache/migraine in a hot car en route to a Shakespeare Festival in Winona.  We never got to Winona, because we were too busy sightseeing in Clear Lake:  the convenience store where we bought Advil, the park where I lay on a picnic table, and the coffee shop, Coffee Cabin, where I attempted a caffeine cure.  Once home, I remembered that my parents met at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake.  Oh, my!  That marriage ended in divorce. But my mother and her best friend told me years later that they enjoyed the train trip.

Oh, well.  Missed the Surf Ballroom, but in August there is much, much more fun ahead.  The Iowa State Fair.

Why should the bookish go to the fair?   The fair is not just rides and fried food.   This year there will be a butter sculpture of Laura Ingalls Wilder beside the traditional sculpted butter cow.

And why is Laura sculpted in butter? you may ask.

It is her 150th birthday, and, since the Ingalls family moved frequently and lived all over the Midwest,  almost every Midwestern state claims her as its own.  She and her family  lived in Burr Oak, Iowa, for a few years, after a grasshopper plague drove them out of Minnesota.  And so she’s a butter sculpture.

Am I a great fan of Wilder? Well, no.   By the time I discovered her books I was nine or ten, and they  seemed too stylistically simple.  The only one I enjoyed was These Happy Golden Years, the story of Laura’s struggles to teach in a one-room school. I was interested because both of my grandmothers were one-room school teachers.  And they never talked about it.  Oral narrative isn’t big in Iowa.

All right, we will never go to the State Fair.  But we will watch the 1945 movie, State Fair, with Jeanne Crain and Dana Andrews.

And that’s the news in Iowa.


Syndicate Books is reissuing the classic crime fiction of the award-winning American-Canadian writer, Margaret Millar, who won the Edgar for her novel Beast in View in 1956. She was the wife of Kenneth Millar, who wrote the Lew Archer mysteries under the name Ross MacDonald.   I found this big pink volume in the mystery section, Collected Millar:  Dawn of Domestic Suspense, and couldn’t resist.

The first novel in the volume, Fire Will Freeze (1944), is a fast-paced locked-room mystery.  A group of people on a bus headed for a ski resort end up spending the night in a big, isolated house when the bus breaks down.  Bizarrely, people keep disappearing and dying. Could the killer be the mad woman whose keeper locks her in her bedroom?  And Miss Isabel Seton, a smart spinster in her thirties, is more observant than the others, but she is hardly a detective.  The plot thickens, and her intelligence works overtime.

A locked-room mystery is always fun.  But I really loved Experiment in Springtime (1947), one of the eeriest  psychological novels I’ve ever read.  It is not exactly a mystery, but as we get to know the personalities of the characters, their strengths and weaknesses, their instability and hysteria, we can tell that something is going to happen.  And the woman, Martha,  is at the center of a triangle.

Millar begins,

In April, Charles almost died.  His wife, Martha, nursed him assiduously and with a certain grim efficiency that Charles, in his moments of clarity, found amusing. Even on the point of death, he knew he bored her.

Charles is a rich 36-year-old businessman, and Martha  a beautiful, voluptuous young woman who married him for money.  Martha has accidentally poisoned him with aspirin, and Charles wonders if she did it on purpose.  He had a headache, and she didn’t know he was allergic to aspirin.  But Charles is so weak and sick that he  broods and becomes increasingly paranoid.  Even the doctor has some doubts, though he believes Charles has psychological problems. It is tough to feel sympathetic to Charles, who is quite misogynistic.   Finally, the doctor lends Charles a cottage by the lake. And Charles  won’t give Martha the address.

Margaret Millar

Martha is relieved that he’s gone.  She cannot bear sex with Charles.  Is she frigid?  That’s what we think at first.  She dresses in black tailored suits to mask her sexuality, and buys pretty things only for her mother and sister, who live with them in their big new house.  Martha loves to shop: it is her only solace for having married Charles.  The chauffeur drives her downtown, and we follow her through a giddy shopping trip, and see her delight as she accumulates bags of presents.  (Don’t all us shopaholics feel that way?)  Then on her way back to the car, she meets her handsome ex-boyfriend, Steve, just back from the war. It is awkward.  They used to be engaged, and Steve broke it off.   And we see a different side of Martha, an uncertain side.  And when Steve, a former reporter who is suffering from PTSD, moves from a sleazy hotel into the apartment above Martha’s garage, it’s only a matter of time before Martha undergoes a complete personality change and begins to wear colorful clothes.

So what will happen?

Not what you think, because I thought it too.  The ending is a complete surprise.

I can’t get enough of Margaret Millar.  When I finish this volume, with six novels, I may have to read the others.