Where the Wilder things are

More than 50 years after Laura Ingalls Wilder’s death, fans still clamor for more ‘Little House’ 

CHARLES TOWN – There are memoirs and cookbooks, an annual “Laurapalooza” event and even a “Little House” musical: Nearly 60 years after the death of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the beloved author is more popular than ever.

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Born in Wisconsin on Feb. 7, 1867, Laura Ingalls Wilder was 65 and
living in Missouri when her beloved “Little House” series debuted during
the Great Depression.

Wilder first opened her life to the public in 1932. Then a 65-year-old farm wife living quietly in rural Missouri, she published “Little House in the Big Woods,” the first of what would become an eight-volume set of novels for young readers.

Born in a log cabin on Feb. 7, 1867, Wilder saw in her life story the opportunity to spotlight an important bit of history – the opening of the American frontier.

“I realized that I had seen and lived it all – all the successive phases of the frontier, a whole period of American history,” she told an interviewer, remembering how her parents Charles and Caroline Ingalls left settled country in Wisconsin for a meandering, mostly westward path with stops in Kansas, Iowa and Minnesota before finally settling in the newly opened Dakota Territory in 1879.

Though Wilder always defended her books as absolute truth, they in fact blend fiction and autobiography to recount the Ingalls family’s survival against locusts, drought, blizzards, wildfire, tornadoes, near-starvation and other woes.

Many love the books for their showcase of the subtle charms of everyday life, with family members working together to churn butter and bake bread before gathering around the fire at night to sing along with Pa’s fiddle.

This summer, a new book by Wilder will become available to the public. It’s actually her very first work – a manuscript for adult readers called “Pioneer Girl” that several New York agents and publishers passed over as lacking in drama.

Wilder later mined the draft to create her “Little House” books, with her daughter – the successful, self-educated journalist and novelist Rose Wilder Lane – acting as her editor (or perhaps as her co-writer).

In June, the South Dakota State Historical Society Press will publish “Pioneer Girl” just as Wilder penned it. The $35 book will include historical context and photos. The book joins a long line of spinoffs for readers who, after devouring the books published during Wilder’s lifetime, remain hungry for more.

The first such offshoot, “The First Four Years,” made its debut three years after Lane’s 1968 death when her mother’s manuscript was discovered among her belongings.

Roger MacBride, Lane’s protege and heir, elected to publish the book exactly as it had appeared in Wilder’s dime-store notebook.

Dry and unpolished, the book about the disaster-filled early years of Wilder’s married life typically leaves even her most diehard fans dissatisfied, but many now consider the slim volume central to the “Little House” collection. Until “Pioneer Girl,” it was the sole Wilder volume not to pass through Lane’s hands.

Other “Little House” derivatives have come from authors who blended what little is known from the historical record with their own imaginations to create a blizzard of “might-have-been” accounts – about Lane as a young girl; about Caroline Ingalls, born in 1839 in Brookfield, Wisc.; Wilder’s maternal grandmother, Charlotte Tucker, born in Massachusetts in 1809; and her maternal great-grandmother, Martha Morse, born in 1782 in Scotland.

In 2002, Cynthia Rylant, the award-winning author who grew up in Raleigh County in southern West Virginia, wrote “Old Town in the Green Groves.” Marketed under the label, “Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Lost Little House Years,” the book is a fictionalized account filling in what happened between “On the Banks of Plum Creek” and “By the Shores of Silver Lake.”

Wilder herself skipped over these difficult two years, which included a move to Burr Oak, Iowa, where the Ingallses all ran a hotel to get the family back on its feet financially. It’s also when the family’s only son, Frederick, died at 9 months.

Much more light-hearted than Rylant’s offering are “Little House” picture books for toddlers and beginning readers, a book of Ingalls family paper dolls, a handbook of craft ideas inspired by projects described in Wilder’s series and even “The Laura Ingalls Wilder songbook.”

Cooking Ingalls-style also is in vogue. “My Little House Cookbook,” written for young children, features Laura’s Little Maple Cakes and 10 other easy recipes while “The Little House Cookbook” offers adults directions on whipping up cornmeal mush, bean porridge, creamed carrots, green tomato pickles, “vanity cakes,” “corn dodgers” and even oxtail pot roast.

“Little House on the Prairie,” the TV series that debuted on NBC in 1974 and ran for nine seasons, continues to air in syndication on Hallmark Channel andINSP. Melissa Gilbert (far right) starred as Laura "Half Pint" Ingalls. She most recently portrayed her original character's mother, Caroline, in a traveling musical based on Wilder's series.

“Little House on the Prairie,” the TV series that debuted on NBC in 1974 and ran for nine seasons, continues to air in syndication on Hallmark Channel and INSP. Melissa Gilbert (far right) starred as Laura “Half Pint” Ingalls. She most recently portrayed her original character’s mother, Caroline, in a traveling musical based on Wilder’s series.

And then there are the memoirs inspired by women’s devotion (some would say obsession) with the 1970s-era television hit starring Michael Landon.

Adherance to factual accuracy wasn’t a concern for Landon, who also directed, produced and wrote most “Little House” episodes. The show, which aired for nine seasons starting in 1974, takes place entirely in Walnut Grove, Minn. – in this TV world, the Ingalls family never did venture west.

Landon invented Albert, an adopted son for the Ingallses, and Adam Kendall, a blind husband for Wilder’s older sister Mary (who’d lost her sight after an illness at 14), and many other characters. He also tasked his cast to battle challenges never mentioned in Wilder’s books, from menopause and drug addiction to rape, sexism, child abuse, leukemia, racial prejudice and other ills.

The TV version of “Little House” also frequently offered up historical inaccuracies that no doubt drove faithful readers of Wilder’s books bananas (to use a modern term). Multiple episodes show the Ingallses munching on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, for instance, and Pa even calls them a favorite from his own youth when peanut butter didn’t begin to become an American staple until the late 1920s.

Another startling anachronism, also food-related, had an unnamed elderly restaurant proprietor, ostensibly Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Harland Sanders, show up in Walnut Grove to try to persuade Harriet Oleson to transform her restaurant into a chicken-only eatery. (The actual Kentucky colonel wasn’t alive in this period; he lived from 1890 to 1980.)

But despite all the creative license taken by the series, it attracted legions of devotees and deserves credit for turning millions onto Wilder’s books.

Several of these fans have written books in which they share how Wilder’s works altered the course of their lives. Among the newest and most fun: Wendy McClure’s “The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of ‘Little House on the Prairie.’”

In it, the Chicago-based children’s book editor recounts pilgramages to Independence, Kan., the sod dugout from Plum Creek, Minn., and the Ingalls’ homes in De Smet, S.D., and how she combed the Internet to find a 19th century churn to make her own butter and baked up the same humble brown bread the Ingallses subsisted on in De Smet during “The Long Winter.”

These days, the South Dakota town has a population of about 1,089, but thanks to Wilder’s ties here, tourism is one of the town’s chief industries. Some 20,000 Wilder fans make the trek each year to see the real-life “Little Town on the Prairie.”

Costumed guides lead tours of the railroad shanty where the Ingallses spent their first Dakota winter, the frame home on Third Street that Charles Ingalls built in 1887 and more than a dozen other sites mentioned in the “Little House” series.

Visitors also can tour the cemetery that serves as the final resting place of Wilder’s sisters and parents as well as her unnamed son, who died as an infant in 1889. (At the time, Lane was 3. She remained the Ingalls’ only grandchild and is buried in Mansfield, Mo., near her parents.)

Crowds also flock to museums and one-time family homes in upstate New York, where Almanzo Wilder grew up, as well as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri. The Wilders’ farmhouse at Rocky Ridge in Missouri gets some 40,000 visitors a year.

That this hard-working pioneer girl has inspired so many others to visit Ingalls landmarks, devour the “Little House” books and their various spinoffs, learn to churn butter and even pen books of their own shouldn’t come as a surprise.

They may be taking to heart Wilder’s own words: “You should never be ashamed of work you have done, only work that you haven’t.”


Like daughter, like motherHow much credit does Wilder’s offspring deserve?CHRISTINE MILLER FORD Spirit Staff
CHARLES TOWN – Everything we love about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series can be traced to what the author once downplayed as her daughter’s “fine touch,” extensive editing and rewriting that completely overhauled her work.

Rose Wilder Lane, who died in 1968, may be better known today notfor her own novels but as the uncredited ghost writer for her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Rose Wilder Lane, who died in 1968, may be better known today not for her own novels but as the uncredited ghost writer for her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder.

So contends University of Missouri professor William Holtz, author of the 1993 book, “Ghost in the Little House.”

Holtz uses the finished “Little House” books, Wilder’s original manuscripts and letters exchanged between Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane to build a convincing case that it was Lane’s ghostwriting – work she’d performed for clients for years – that elevated her mother’s pedestrian prose into the distinctive works so embraced by generations of readers.

Lane – born in Dakota Territory in 1886, a year into her mother’s marriage to Almanzo Wilder – pursued a life far different from her parents’.

Her early years were marked by troubles even more pronounced than the dramatic struggles encountered by the Ingalls family. Drought and other bad weather destroyed crops and left her parents in debt. Both Laura and Almanzo came down with diphtheria and when Almanzo tried working before he’d fully recovered, a stroke left him with a permanent limp. Their house burned down and their second child died shortly after his birth in 1889.

The family’s fortunes slowly improved starting in 1894 when the Wilders migrated to Missouri, where they took over a struggling apple orchard.

Though her education ended at high school, Lane taught herself several languages and became a highly regarded newspaper writer in San Francisco and then a novelist. She also wrote biographies of Jack London, Herbert Hoover, Henry Ford, Charlie Chaplin and other well-known figures.

After the death of her only child, she divorced at 30. She took lovers but refused at least two marriage proposals, saying she did not want again to be tied down.

Through the Jazz Age, she traveled to exotic lands including Greenwich Village, Paris, Greece, Italy, Baghdad and Albania, where she counted among her friends the future King Zog.

Left all but broke after the stock market crashed in 1929, Lane returned to live with her parents in Missouri at her childhood home, Rocky Ridge farm, where she spent the bulk of her time not on her own projects, but reworking her mother’s “Little House” drafts – books that ultimately enjoyed far bigger success than any of her own works.

She also kept a close eye on politics. After Franklin Roosevelt’s election, she wrote in her diary that “America has a dictator.” Later, she would admit she wished for his assassination.

With Ayn Rand, she helped to found the Libertarian movement and increasingly became known as a political crank. Until her death in 1968, she took every opportunity to denounce government programs that she felt enfeebled its citizens.

Social Security, the safety net for the elderly, the disabled and others in need that FDR signed into law in 1935, was a particular bugaboo. She denounced it at every turn and refused to even accept a SSN – returning her card to Washington in an envelope marked “Social Security Swindle.”

Many say Lane allowed her anti-government beliefs to influence her “Little House” work.

Though Wilder’s original draft explains how her blind sister Mary’s education would be paid for by the state, Lane altered the story to eliminate the government’s largesse. Instead, “Little House” readers learn how young Laura took on teaching assignments and sewing work to help her family save up for Mary’s college.

But with half of her mother’s “Little House” books taking place in Dakota Territory, Wilder couldn’t sidestep mention of the 1862 Homestead Act.

One of the biggest federal handouts in the nation’s history, the program transferred ownership of millions of acres of land. Anyone over 21 who would live on the homestead could have the land free and clear after five years.

In “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” Charles Ingalls sings, “For Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm.”

But the series’ main message remains the importance of hard work and self-reliance, writes Anita Clair Fellman in “Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Impact on American Culture.”

In her book, the professor of women’s studies at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., argues that the “covert message” of the Little House books – instilled by classroom teachers as well as bedtime-reading parents – has made a generation of American voters fully at home with conservative tenants such as individualism, self-reliance and limited government.

It’s one of the reasons the “Little House” books lately have become such a favorite for conservatives, particularly many in the Tea Party set, where Wilder’s books about her frontier childhood often is described as “lived liberty.”


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