Beyond the Book: The Life and Lies of Laura Ingalls Wilder

My family’s love affair with Laura Ingalls Wilder runs deep.  Not only did my mother read the series as a school girl in the 1950s, she also read them to me in the mid 1970s.  The production of the Little House on the Prairie television series sent us into a frizzy.  Shoot, I was even named after Michael Landon’s son, Joshua.  We watched the show on Wednesday nights each week.  When the show went into syndication, we continued to watched it.  Now in 2017, we own the entire series on iTunes and watch an episode when the mood hits.

Even in the 1970s we recognized that the television series took great liberty with the original books.  Characters in the show were fleshed out in ways that they weren’t in the books, primarily because the Ingalls family lived in Walnut Grove, Minnesota only for a short period of time.  Yet the television show had the family living well into Laura’s adulthood in that same community.  The television show was entertainment; the book series was history.  Or so we thought.

Over 60 million copies of the Little House series have been sold around the world.  The books told the quintessential American story:  A hard-working and loving family overcoming all obstacles to create a new country that cherished freedom and the individual spirit.  Charles Ingalls was the ideal father with Caroline the ideal mother, each portrayed according to the traditional stereotypes of the nuclear family.  American school children learned of the great sacrifices homesteaders made so that the United States could grow and prosper.  In the end, the Ingalls family found their happiness and Laura found the love of her life, Almonzo Wilder.  Laura wrote of her life with Almonzo in the final book in the series, These Happy Golden Years.  The entire series reads as the Great American Fairy Tale.  It’s veracity was not questioned, school children reading the books as first hand accounts of America’s westward expansion.

This romantic characterization of the books is false.  The events in the books are combinations of factual events, fictionalized accounts, and recreations of events through a distinct political lens.  The words in the Little House series are not distinctly Laura’s.  Rose Wilder Lane, Laura and Almonzo’s daughter, wrote much of the series collaboratively with her mother.  The result was not so much a memoir as historical fiction inspired by true events.

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To understand how this literary bait-and-switch occurred, one must briefly examine how the stories developed.  In the 1920s, spurred by the death of her mother Caroline, Laura began writing her memoir entitled Pioneer Girl.  Laura had earned a living earlier in her life as a school teacher and later as a writer for magazines.  Yet the money she earned was not enough to keep the Wilders’ farm at Rocky Ridge in working order.  Rose provided a steady source of income through her own writing as well as occasional loans she received from business contacts.  After traveling throughout Europe in the 1920s, Rose settled in at Rocky Ridge in 1928 just before the start of the Great Depression.  When the stock market crashed in 1929, the Wilders and Lane lost nearly their entire net worth.  In order to bring in a new source of income, Rose suggested that Laura rewrite her memoir as a book for children.  Laura agreed and began work on the book that would eventually be called Little House in the Big Woods.

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The entire series became a collaborative effort between Rose and Laura.  Correspondence between Rose and Laura during this period reveal tension between the two writers as the books began to sell rapidly.  Two recent books, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Bibliography and Libertarians on the Prairie:  Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books provide extensive scholarly detail to explain the relationship between Wilder, Lane, and the books.  In essence, Rose returned from Europe with an extreme distaste for socialism and communism.  Along with writers such as Ayn Rand and Isabel Patterson, Rose was instrumental in the early days of the Libertarian movement, a direct pushback on what the writers felt was encroaching socialism in the policies of F.D.R.’s New Deal.  Not only did Rose craft writing in her own name that espoused the values of libertarianism, she also encouraged Laura to use her own works to promote the tenants of libertarianism:  personal freedom, self-reliance, limited government, and unrestricted free markets.  Laura disagreed with this notion in part because Rose suggested changes to the stories to promote her political view point.  Rather than a juvenile version of Laura’s memoir, the Little House books became historical fiction with overtly libertarian themes.

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One example of a major change in Laura’s story was the account of the family’s settling in Kansas.  According to Little House on the Prairie, the Ingalls family settled in Kansas with the blessing of the U.S. government.  The government, however, changed its mind and returned the land to the Osage Indian tribe.  In Laura’s narrative, the government is seen as the villain forcing the Ingalls to give up their land.  Historical fact, however, differs in the literary events.  The land the Ingalls settled was never in question:  it belonged to the Osage tribe and the Ingalls family knew this before they settled.  The government did not force the Ingalls to move.  When the Osage requested that the U.S. government look into settlers coming into Osage territory, the government did not ask the settlers to leave.  The settlers were told that no military protection would be provided should conflicts with the Osage arise.  When it became clear that the Osage posed a threat to the Ingalls, the family chose to return to Wisconsin.  Laura and Rose’s narrative paints a negative picture of the U.S. government and its relationship with homesteaders.  The actual events reveal and more neutral picture.

Final Thoughts

I will always enjoy the Little House books as well as the television show.  Despite the knowledge that the books aren’t historical fact, I still plan to re-read the books and share them with my children.  The only change I will make is in how I present the books for others to read.  The books are works of fiction that portray a family’s struggle to survive in the early American West.  I will never deny the inspiration for the books came from Laura’s life, but I will also be keenly aware to see the books in their proper context.

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