Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder

With apologies to the probable majority of people reading this, for the people who haven’t heard of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House Series: it’s a series of eight books written in the late 1930s and early 1940s about a girl growing up in the United States Midwest between 1867 and 1885, following approximately the European expansion west into what had hitherto been Native American land. The series begins with the main character’s early childhood in “the Big Woods” in Wisconsin, and follow her family’s moves West ending up in De Smet, South Dakota where Laura, in her late teens by the end of the series, meets and marries one Almanzo Wilder. Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, by John E. Miller, covers her childhood years briefly, but picks up in greater detail with her marriage and later life.

The Little House books are ostensibly Laura’s1 own biography. Hopefully it does not (really) come as a surprise to any adults familiar with the series that while the author stuck reasonably closely to her own life, the books themselves are fictionalized to a great extent. They’re not in libraries’ fiction collections by mistake. Many of the changes serve only to streamline the story line. Some are minor–the children’s ages were advanced by a couple of years, the cause of Mary’s blindness is uncertain though not scarlet fever as described in the books, a couple of moves were conflated—but Laura changed or eliminated a number of what I could consider major items. Some were for dramatic effect, such as altering Jack’s fate to serve as a demarcation between childhood and adolescence leading up to maturity and adulthood; in the books, Jack dies of old age in the beginning of On Silver Lake while in reality he had, several years earlier, gone on with another family out to homestead while the Ingalls remained on Plum Creek. She was also a bit fuzzy in the novels about Almanzo’s age—the real Almanzo was ten years older than his wife, but in the novels he is merely “older” than she. I suspect this wide an age gap may have been more common or acceptable in the nineteenth century, when the man might feel the need to prove himself able to support a family before marrying. Laura, when writing for children, clearly felt it better to make the husband and wife closer in age to suit modern couples.
According to this biography and others2, Laura left out a number of items that didn’t suit her agenda of promoting and promulgating the All-American Ethos of Hard Work, based on a nation of self-sufficient independent farmers working for themselves. The fact that the family was fairly poor should come as no surprise to anyone who has read the books, but they weren’t always farmers, much less independent. Laura did mention Pa’s carpentry work to augment the family income, but Ma and Pa also ran a hotel in Burr Oak between farming stints during what would have been the Plum Creek years, and operated a butcher shop during this same time. Laura also did not mention her little brother, Freddie who was born while the family was on Plum Creek, as he died so shortly thereafter that he played no part in the family’s later fortunes.

Overall it’s a nice modern addition to the literature about Laura Ingalls Wilder3—a bestselling children’s author even seventy years after her books’ publication. . Her novels may serve as a gentle introduction to a period and place in American history with no wars or other significant events, and so therefore not much written about, but aren’t wholly factual about Laura’s own life. For all their flaws, not least racism, the Little House series is deservedly still part of any self-respecting public or school library’s collection of historical fiction. Consider this a folksy biography about a footnote author who lives on through her fictionalized memoirs, worth adding to collections which don’t have any of the earlier biographies, or where demand would indicate a need for something more up to date.

1I hope she will forgive the familiarity, as that’s how nigh onto the third generation of readers regards her; I’m sure Laura herself would by far prefer Mrs. A.J. Wilder…
2I’d want to double check for confirmation.
3there were several biographies written in the mid-1970s when the television show was airing


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