Laura Ingalls Wilder: The ‘Little House’ books are the truth – but not the whole truth | Columnists
A dear friend of mine, LouAnne Pillers from Kendallville, recently gave a presentation on Laura Ingalls Wilder; it was very well received and I asked him to summarize it for these pages.
She retired in 2020 after teaching United States history, social studies, and English for eight years at St. John Lutheran School in Kendallville.
An avid reader, she enjoys sharing her love of books with people of all ages, especially her grandchildren. Thank you, LouAnne, for sharing your research. —Grace Householder
The “Little House” books are the
the truth – but not the whole truth
By LouAnne Pillers
February 7, 2022 marked the 155th birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder “the quintessential pioneer who knew the boxcar and the atomic bomb and all that history in between,” according to the December 2020 PBS documentary “Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page.”
Laura’s “Little House” books have been children’s favorites since the first, Little House in the Big Woods, was published in 1932. Her stories of a feisty tomboy frolicking with his sister under the watchful eyes of a loving, patient mother and a hard- Pa working, storytelling, fiddling, painting a picture of comfortable security that belies the harsh existence of the American farmer moving west. Laura herself would say, “This story is the truth, but not the whole truth.
The Quiner and Ingalls families met in Jefferson County, Wisconsin. There were several marriages between these two families, including that of Charles Ingalls and Caroline Quiner in 1860. They settled near Pepin, Wisconsin.
In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act which would open up land for settlement, displacing the Dakota tribe from their centuries-old homeland and leading to the slaughter of some 600 to 800 white settlers in Minnesota. Wisconsin settlers were terrified of being next. Laura wasn’t even born yet, but she knew the stories of the massacre and the fear it caused and it was reflected in her later writings.
Mary Ingalls was born in 1865, Laura in 1867, and Carrie was born in 1870 in a small house on a prairie that belonged to the Osage tribe.
The Ingalls family moved from their comfortable home in Pepin, Wisconsin, to Kansas, to Pepin, to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, to Burr Oak, Iowa, to Walnut Grove, and then to Dakota Territory, where Pa found employment with the path of iron. They contracted malaria, lost an infant son and had their crops destroyed by locusts twice.
His daughter, Mary, fell ill with meningoencephalitis and lost her sight. Laura would become her eyes, describing things in detail for her sister and honing the skills that would make her a good writer down the road.
The family has always struggled to get enough food and money. Deeply in debt in Iowa, Charles Ingalls loaded his family into the wagon one night and left town. Laura never wrote about Burr Oak, Iowa.
The railroad wanted settlers in the Dakota Territory and encouraged agriculture. The Ingalls family owned a shantytown in the territory and a store in the town of DeSmet. It was in this building that they would cross and barely survive the harsh winter of 1880, burning twisted sticks of hay in the stove to stay warm and alive on bread made from grains of wheat crushed in a mill. Coffee. The train did not arrive in DeSmet until April. They almost starved to death.
In DeSmet, Laura met Almanzo Wilder, the son of a prosperous New York farming family who had also migrated west. She would write about her debut in Farmer Boy, vividly portraying the bounty of farm-prepared food. Laura wrote a lot about food in her books, perhaps because she spent a good part of her life being hungry.
Laura and Almanzo were married in 1885. They had a wonderful new home, but they were also heavily in debt and the bills kept mounting. Contrary to what railroad proponents touted, the Dakota Territory was nearly impossible to farm because the area didn’t get enough rain and plowing the plains grasslands destroyed organic matter, ultimately causing the dust bowls of years 1930. It was around the same time that a photographer named Frank Baum was traveling across the plains. His sister lived there. She called it an awful, awful country. Baum wrote a story. He set him up in Kansas. The tornado picking up the house is a way to escape. In his book, the Scarecrow says it’s a wonderful thing to be made of straw because you can never go hungry.
In December 1886 Laura gave birth to a baby girl whom she named Rose. The following summer their haystacks and barn burned down, then there was a drought, and in 1888 Laura and Almanzo contracted diphtheria. They recovered, but Almanzo suffered a stroke that would affect him for the rest of his life. In 1889 Laura gave birth to a baby boy who lived only a month, and two weeks after the baby’s death Laura lit a fire in the stove and managed to burn down the house. And so went the first four years of their marriage.
Laura, Almanzo, and Rose loaded up the covered wagon and headed southeast, to Mansfield, Missouri, and there they would stay, building Rocky Ridge Farm. They planted apple trees and raised chickens. Laura served at the tables and received boarders. Almanzo delivered fuel and cargo. Money, or lack thereof, has always been a problem.
Rose left Rocky Ridge when she was a teenager. There was no money to send her to college, so she went to San Francisco, where she learned the art of “yellow journalism” from a friend of William Randolph Hearst. She became something of a famous biographer, a person who didn’t care at all about accuracy or truth.
Charles Ingalls died in 1902. Laura returned to DeSmet to see him before he died. Caroline and Mary would stay at DeSmet. Caroline did laundry and took in boarders, and Mary made bed nets for the horses to try to make ends meet. And even if Caroline would live another 20 years, Laura would never see either of them again.
At Mansfield Laura began writing, first a column, “As a Farm Wife Thinks” for a newspaper called The Ruralist, then later, at the request of her daughter Rose, memoirs of her youth. And so, in the midst of the Great Depression, caused in part by American farmers, Laura began to write, in pencil on lined Big Chief tablets, sometimes staying up all night reliving crop failures, misfortunes and losses. from his family.
Rose was a good writer, but she was an even better copywriter, and she worked closely with her mother for years developing the “Little House” books, sending manuscripts back and forth when Rose was away from home. Rocky Ridge.
Rose needed the money and she hoped her mother’s book would ease their financial burden. She earned a lot of money, but she spent a lot of it, traveling the world and building houses abroad. She had lost a considerable sum when the stock market crashed. She gave money to her parents, but also borrowed money from them. And, she had a penchant for (unofficially) adopting young boys and funding their education.
When Little House in the Big Woods was released, it was very well received. It was followed by Farmer Boy, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years. Neither Rose nor Laura ever admitted that the “Little House” books were a collaborative effort, and it remains a mystery as to why they would both deny it. It has been speculated that Rose did not want to “sully her own reputation with ‘juvenile’ work”, according to “Prairie Fires – The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder”, by Caroline Fraser.
In any case, the letters between them clearly show that Rose was very involved in writing the books. She taught her mother and made her realize that fiction was more interesting than reality.
Laura lived most of her life in poverty, but by the end of her life she was a wealthy woman. She died in 1957, a few days after her 90th birthday. Rose Wilder Lane became increasingly politically active. She, along with fellow writers Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson, became known as the “women who inspired the libertarian movement”.
Lane’s adopted grandson, Roger MacBride, ran for president as the Libertarian candidate against Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976. When Rose Wilder Lane died, she left his estate, including the entire literary property of Laura, to MacBride who would go on to create and produce the famous television show Little House on the Prairie. Today, the “Little House” estate is worth more than $100 million and is owned by MacBride’s daughter, Abigail.
When the Ingalls family arrived in Kansas in the fall of 1869, Laura was not even 3 years old, so what she actually remembered of their time on the prairie is debatable. But, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. With her writing, Laura was able to “reimagine her childhood as epic and uplifting, adding touches of cozy security to harsh reality”, according to “Prairie Fires – The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder”, by Caroline Fraser, and her books do the happiness of children for generations.
HISTORICAL SITES AND MUSEUMS
Laura Ingalls Wilder fans can visit several museums and historic sites across the country, including: The Little House near Pepin, Wisconsin; the mud house north of Walnut Grove, Minnesota; a recreated log cabin near Independence, Kansas; the Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa; the historic buildings and city museum of DeSmet, South Dakota, and Rocky Ridge Farm near Mansfield, Missouri.