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‘Little House on the Prairie’ and the Truth About the American West

By Patricia Nelson Limerick

  • Nov. 20, 2017
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The Ingalls family in 1894. Left to right: Caroline, Carrie, Laura, Charles, Grace and Mary.

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PRAIRIE FIRES The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder By Caroline Fraser Illustrated. 625 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt. $35.

Stretched past its capacity by the tumultuous migrations and movements of the 19th century, that orderly term “westward expansion” is ready for a break. Rather than proceeding in a systematic march across a continent, a wild cast of characters — miners, farmers, ranchers, loggers — raced into the West, locating natural resources, extracting them and refining them into commodities to place on the market. “Westward explosion” might be the better phrase.

As these resource rushes multiplied, thousands of Americans plunged into a parallel — and, by many measures, more rewarding and more consequential — form of extractive industry. Harvesting from the West an inestimable treasure of experiences and observations, these adventurers then refined this raw material into reminiscences, novels, diaries, letters, reports and tales of adventure, both actual and imagined. Since westward expansion coincided with the expansion of the print media, and since readers in the eastern United States had good reason to seek escape from the disturbing changes wrought by industrialization and urbanization, these exported cultural commodities found a receptive marketplace. Endowed with an improbable durability, this infrastructure of printed words retains much of its power to define the region.

Caroline Fraser’s absorbing new biography of the author of “Little House on the Prairie” and other books about her childhood, “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” deserves recognition as an essential text for getting a grip on the dynamics and consequences of this vast literary enterprise. Charged by what Fraser calls a “unique ability to transform the raw material of the past into a work of art,” Wilder won for herself the status of a pre-eminent figure in the shaping of the myth of the West — that seductive collection of icons, images and articles of faith installed in millions of minds and souls worldwide.

Western historians, even those who aspire to register as high achievers in the defiance of myth, have found their plans rearranged by the enduring Wilder legacy. In 2002, I gave a keynote speech at the White House, addressing Wilder’s work in a program on Western women writers hosted by the first lady, Laura Bush. Wilder’s books, I know from my visit to the East Room, have not been exiled to the periphery of the configurations of 21st-century United States power.

Rendering this biography as effective at racking nerves as it is at provoking thought, the story of Wilder’s emergence as a major sculptor of American identity pushes far past the usual boundaries of probability and plausibility. For anyone who has drifted into thinking of Wilder’s “Little House” books as relics of a distant and irrelevant past, reading “Prairie Fires” will provide a lasting cure. Just as effectively, for readers with a pre-existing condition of enthusiasm for western American history and literature, this book will refresh and revitalize interpretations that may be ready for some rattling. Meanwhile, “Little House” devotees will appreciate the extraordinary care and energy Fraser brings to uncovering the details of a life that has been expertly veiled by myth. Perhaps most valuable, “Prairie Fires” demonstrates a style of exploration and deliberation that offers a welcome point of orientation for all Americans dismayed by the embattled state of truth in these days of polarization.

“Several farmers,” a Missouri newspaper noted around 1910, “and particularly those interested in poultry, have inquired who Mrs. A. J. Wilder is.” Though not a well-traveled path to literary success, writing columns for farm journals gave Wilder a source of income that would, in an arrangement still followed by many rural families, supplement the finances of the struggling farm where she lived with her husband, Almanzo, while also providing repeated opportunities to practice the craft of writing. Those little-known columns, drawn from the experience of raising chickens in Missouri, were the unlikely prelude to her books, mining the memories of a childhood of restless homesteading in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas and South Dakota.

But it wasn’t until 1929 — when she was 62 years old, and the stock market crash had decimated her family’s small investments — that Wilder settled in to write “that ‘story of my life’ thing,” as her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, called it. And then, in an arrangement both she and her daughter seemed to understand and embrace, Wilder would pass these drafts on to Lane, who would tear into them, editing, adding and deleting.

Tracking this process, Fraser puts an end to the persistent assumption that Lane was the ghostwriter of her mother’s books. Supported by the evidence she presents, Fraser declares, “Wilder’s writing was both uniquely her own and a product of collaboration with her daughter.” Wilder provided a base of plainspoken language and deeply felt storytelling; Lane embellished, shaped and “heightened the drama.”

The first book in the “Little House” series began as a memoir that Wilder called “Pioneer Girl.” With revisions, subtractions and additions, Wilder and Lane worked through an obstacle course of reversed decisions by prospective publishers, as well as a shift in the target audience, from adults to children. “Little House in the Big Woods” crossed the finish line of publication in 1932, as “juvenile” literature. Receiving a “warm critical reception,” Fraser reports, “the book sold strongly.”

As more books in the series appeared, the name Laura Ingalls Wilder came to acquire extraordinary cultural power. By the 1950s thousands of American children were “homesteading in their basements,” and the books had been translated into many languages. And then, in the 1970s, the actor Michael Landon and the medium of television took the name “Little House” to yet another level, commandeering Wilder’s legacy and reconfiguring her story lines and plots.

Over the four decades after “Little House in the Big Woods” appeared, Rose Wilder Lane traveled back and forth from crippling depression to grandiosity, rage to aggressive helpfulness in a way that can’t help but suggest a hindsight diagnosis of bipolar disorder. While Wilder had anxieties of her own, they seemed tame in comparison. Fraser captures the extraordinary cycles of “blame and recrimination” from which neither “appeared willing or able to free herself.”

Having immersed herself in the documents that reveal their wild process of literary production performed at the farthest reaches of the mental health frontier, Fraser, the author of “Rewilding the World” and “God’s Perfect Child,” would have been within her rights to reread the “Little House” books with skepticism, at a safe distance from their emotional power.

But she does nothing of the sort. Rather than driving “Little House” fans to distraction by diminishing or disparaging the literature they treasure, Fraser declares her respect and affection for it. As the “most unnerving, original, and profound of all of her books,” Fraser declares, “‘Little House on the Prairie’ endures as a classic work.” “The Long Winter,” in Fraser’s judgment, was “Wilder’s hard-won, mature masterpiece, in which expertise accumulated over a long apprenticeship was paying off.”

For all their conflicts, mother and daughter were of one mind about the imperative of making as much money as possible — Wilder to use it with care, Lane to spend it improvidently. Writing under her own name, Lane was a vigorous entrepreneur, authoring controversial, largely fraudulent biographies of noted figures (Charlie Chaplin, Henry Ford, Herbert Hoover) and embracing a style of journalism untroubled by concern for truth or accuracy. In midlife, she became a master practitioner of a genre undergoing a renaissance in our own time: the bitter political screed. Rose achieved fame with fevered attacks on the intrusion of federal power into the lives of citizens. “I could kill Roosevelt,” she wrote of the president to a friend in 1935, “with pleasure and satisfaction. If living got too much for me so that I really wanted to die, I would go to Washington first and kill that traitor.”

Although there is no evidence that Wilder knew of her daughter’s dreams of life (followed by instant death!) as an assassin, Fraser tells us that she was “neither perturbed nor alarmed” by her daughter’s political expressions and “in fact supported her beliefs wholeheartedly.”

Both Wilder and Lane lived their lives deeply preoccupied by the effort to make sense of their heritage: the story of a pioneer family who worked very hard, sacrificed a great deal, and still remained trapped in failure. Like many homesteaders on the plains in the late 19th century, Charles Ingalls tried repeatedly to acquire land and create a profitable farm that would provide a home for his family. Each effort led straight to the loss of the land. His daughter and granddaughter confronted a question that occupies center stage in our times: When people embrace, trust, and act on the proposition that the United States is a land of opportunity, how are they to make sense of failure?

What destroyed Charles Ingalls’s dream? Did the market steal rewards from farmers with falling crop prices? Was it simply that rainfall would rarely suffice for their farming methods, with seasons of adequate rain giving rise to hopes that droughts then knocked for a loop? Did the federal government make false promises? Were American cultural ideals — particularly the sanctification of self-sufficient yeoman farmers — at fault? Or did individuals simply make ill-considered choices and cause their own troubles?

“There was blame to go around,” Fraser writes of the troubled relationship between Wilder and Lane. The same assessment surely applies to the conundrum of pioneer failure. In some of the book’s most thought-provoking reflections, Fraser lays out the choice the two women faced. Could the descendants of fiddle-playing, spirit-lifting, steady and kind Charles Ingalls write a forthright appraisal of his poor judgment in betting his family’s fortunes on risky prospects? Letting Pa off the hook and blaming the government was unmistakably the preferable option.

Placing the Ingalls family’s homesteading mishaps in a bigger picture of national enterprise is one of many demonstrations of Fraser’s admirable commitment to presenting her research in a broader historical context. But sometimes this causes the literary gears to grind. The book has a 16-page prelude, for example, which recounts the defeat and displacement of the tribal people who lived in the area of Minnesota where the Ingalls family arrived in 1863. The prelude arises from a principled choice, making it very clear that Native Americans had long been a significant presence in the locales that homesteaders would describe as uninhabited. Still, some readers will wonder why Wilder is taking so long to appear in a book that has her name on its cover. On several other occasions, the main characters vanish, yielding their place to long expository passages of American history.

And yet there is far more to admire than to criticize in Fraser’s determination to provide everything needed for a responsible and thorough history of Wilder’s life and legacy. Indeed, several stories recounted in “Prairie Fires” reveal an often-overlooked reason it can be so difficult to prevail in disputes over fact: Truth is often shifty, and even stories unmistakably supported by extensive research in primary sources can sometimes be easily mistaken for the work of a novelist.

Consider Rose Wilder Lane’s distinctive manner of helping her parents financially. In 1920, without any request on their part, “Lane made a commitment to her parents to furnish them with five hundred dollars a year.” Given that she was a calamity in financial management, that proved difficult. And so she fell into a “bewildering pattern” of borrowing from her parents “even as she helped to support them.”

Then there’s the fate of Wilder’s literary estate. Her will was simple, leaving all her “copyrighted literary property and the income from same” to her daughter, who was childless. After Lane’s death, the intellectual property was to move to the library in Wilder’s hometown of Mansfield, Mo. But on several occasions, Lane had gone all-in for the practice of creating fictive kin, recruiting young men as surrogate sons without legally adopting them. The last was Roger MacBride , an ardent young conservative who would run in 1976 as the Libertarian Party’s candidate for president. Having found common cause with her protégé in “promoting a conservative antigovernment agenda” Lane designated MacBride, when he was 27, as her sole beneficiary. After Lane’s death in 1968, MacBride ignored the terms of Wilder’s will and transferred her copyrights to himself — locking in place a tie between the “Little House” books and an immoderate conservative ideology.

When Laura sat down with her Big Chief writing tablets and picked up her pencil, she was performing, in Fraser’s well-chosen words, “an extraordinary exercise in memory, nostalgia and yearning for the past.” In the enterprise of extracting and exporting experience from the 19th-century West, nostalgia more than any other emotion served as the mechanism for turning experience into literature, endowing the romanticizing of that history with the qualities of a prolonged memorial service.

Wilder began writing her books after the deaths of her parents and beloved older sister, Mary. Four years after the series was completed, her last surviving sister, Carrie, died, and as Fraser observes, her relatives were now “reunited in the town they had helped found, in the wooded cemetery on a rise, with a view of the fields and prairie beyond. She was the only one left.” When a writer thinks of a locale where she was a child, and her mind comes to rest on a graveyard, nostalgia is the sensation most easily in reach, and truth comes to mean something far more mystifying and confounding than just the facts. The truth of the books she and her daughter created was the truth of their mortality, and ours.

Patricia Nelson Limerick, the director of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, is the author of books including “The Legacy of Conquest” and “Something in the Soil.”

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Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder Hardcover – November 21, 2017

best biography laura ingalls wilder

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WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD ONE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW 'S 10 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR The first comprehensive historical biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the beloved author of the Little House on the Prairie books Millions of readers of Little House on the Prairie believe they know Laura Ingalls―the pioneer girl who survived blizzards and near-starvation on the Great Plains, and the woman who wrote the famous autobiographical books. But the true saga of her life has never been fully told. Now, drawing on unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and land and financial records, Caroline Fraser―the editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House series―masterfully fills in the gaps in Wilder’s biography. Revealing the grown-up story behind the most influential childhood epic of pioneer life, she also chronicles Wilder's tumultuous relationship with her journalist daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, setting the record straight regarding charges of ghostwriting that have swirled around the books. The Little House books, for all the hardships they describe, are paeans to the pioneer spirit, portraying it as triumphant against all odds. But Wilder’s real life was harder and grittier than that, a story of relentless struggle, rootlessness, and poverty. It was only in her sixties, after losing nearly everything in the Great Depression, that she turned to children’s books, recasting her hardscrabble childhood as a celebratory vision of homesteading―and achieving fame and fortune in the process, in one of the most astonishing rags-to-riches episodes in American letters. Spanning nearly a century of epochal change, from the Indian Wars to the Dust Bowl, Wilder’s dramatic life provides a unique perspective on American history and our national mythology of self-reliance. With fresh insights and new discoveries, Prairie Fires reveals the complex woman whose classic stories grip us to this day.

  • Print length 640 pages
  • Language English
  • Publisher Metropolitan Books
  • Publication date November 21, 2017
  • Dimensions 6.41 x 1.57 x 9.61 inches
  • ISBN-10 1627792767
  • ISBN-13 978-1627792769
  • See all details

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“An absorbing new biography [that] deserves recognition as an essential text.... For anyone who has drifted into thinking of Wilder’s ‘Little House’ books as relics of a distant and irrelevant past, reading Prairie Fires will provide a lasting cure.... Meanwhile, ‘Little House’ devotees will appreciate the extraordinary care and energy Fraser brings to uncovering the details of a life that has been expertly veiled by myth.” ― The New York Times Book Review (front page) “Fraser's meticulous biography has particular urgency today, as she unknots the threads of fact and fiction, of reality and myth, of mother and daughter.... Prairie Fires is not only a work of rigorous scholarship, but it also portrays Wilder, and her daughter Rose, in ways that illuminate our society’s current crises and rifts.” ―The New York Review of Books “Important and meticulous biography... Complex and astonishing... A subtle, intelligent and quietly explosive study.” ―Financial Times “The definitive biography... Magisterial and eloquent... A rich, provocative portrait.” ―Minneapolis Star Tribune “Magnificent... A remarkable, noteworthy biography of an American literary icon. It will captivate Little House fans as well as anyone looking to understand ‘the perpetual hard winter’ of life in frontier times.” ―USA Today “Impressive... Prairie Fires could not have been published at a more propitious time in our national life.” ― The New Republic “Unforgettable... A magisterial biography, which surely must be called definitive. Richly documented (it contains 85 pages of notes), it is a compelling, beautifully written story.... One of the more interesting aspects of this wonderfully insightful book is its delineation of the fraught relationship between Wilder and her deeply disturbed, often suicidal daughter.” ―Booklist (starred review) “A fantastic book. We’ve long understood the Little House series to be a great American story, but Caroline Fraser brings it unprecedented new context, as she masterfully chronicles the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family alongside the complicated history of our nation. Prairie Fires represents a significant milestone in our understanding of Wilder’s life, work, and legacy.” ―Wendy McClure, author of The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie “Meticulously researched, feelingly told, Prairie Fires is the definitive biography of a major writer who did so much to mold public perceptions of the Western frontier. Once again, Caroline Fraser has shown that she is a master of the careful art of sifting a life, finding meaning in the large and small events that shaped an iconic American figure. Prairie Fires is a magnificent contribution to the literature of the West.” ―Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West “At last, an unsentimental examination of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s real life on the frontier. Caroline Fraser rescues Wilder from frontier myth and gives us the gritty, passionate woman who endured the harshest experiences of homesteading, loved the Great Plains, and was devastated by their ultimate ruin and loss. Elegantly written and impeccably researched, Prairie Fires is a major contribution to environmental history and literary biography.” ―Linda Lear, author of Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature and Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature “In the twenty-first century, the tense and secret authorial partnership between Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane has emerged as the most complex and fascinating psychological saga of mother-daughter collaboration in American literary history. Caroline Fraser’s deeply researched and stimulating biography analyzes their controversial relationship and places Wilder’s influential fiction in the contexts of other myths of pioneer women and the frontier.” ―Elaine Showalter, author of A Jury of Her Peers and The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe “Engrossing… Exhilarating… Lovers of the series will delight in learning about real-life counterparts to classic fictional episodes, but, as Fraser emphasizes, the true story was often much harsher. Meticulously tracing the Ingalls and Wilder families’ experiences through public records and private documents, Fraser discovers failed farm ventures and constant money problems, as well as natural disasters even more terrifying and devastating in real life than in Wilder’s writing. She also helpfully puts Wilder’s narrow world into larger historical context.” ― Publishers Weekly

About the Author

Excerpt. © reprinted by permission. all rights reserved., prairie fires, the american dreams of laura ingalls wilder, henry holt and company.

Maiden Rock

"I was born in a log house within ... miles of legend-haunted Lake Pepin," Laura Ingalls Wilder would write.

The lake was legendary before she was born. Where the Mississippi swallows the Chippewa, a wide tributary flowing sluggishly out of great Wisconsin pine forests to the north, the river swells at the delta, like a snake that has just devoured something. That swollen spot, widest on the Mississippi, is Lake Pepin.

Its dark waters are presided over by Maiden Rock, an immense four-hundred-foot limestone bluff so visually arresting that everyone had a story to tell about it. Like everything else, the story belonged to the Indians: Maiden Rock was a lover's leap, they said, where a Dakota girl in love with a young man leapt impetuously to her death rather than marry another. Those who passed at dusk were said to hear her sorrowful song.

Whites would tell and retell the story until it had been rubbed smooth, playing up its romanticism, painting the scene in gloomy olives and mauves. George Catlin camped for days along Lake Pepin, hauling his canoe out of the water and gathering colorful pebbles by the handful, "precious gems ... rich agates." Catlin told the story, and so did Mark Twain and the poet William Cullen Bryant, who specialized in brooding Indians.

Maiden Rock captured the imagination of Charles Ingalls, who told his daughters stories about the rock, the lake, and the Indians. On one memorable occasion, he brought them to the beach bordering the town of Pepin, just across the water from Minnesota, where they discovered the same pebbles, "pretty pebbles that had been rolled back and forth by the waves until they were polished smooth."

Like Catlin, Wilder as a tiny girl gathered them by the handful, stuffing so many in her pocket that they tore her dress. Her mother gently reproved her for being so greedy. But as Wilder chose to remember it, her father just laughed, delighted.

She loved both her parents, but her primary, overwhelming identification was with her father. Charles had brown hair and blue eyes, just as she did. Whenever she did something naughty, even as he punished her he had a glint in his eye that told her it would be all right, that he was moments away from holding her on his knee and telling her how bad he himself had been as a boy. He was charming, cheerful, and musical, playing by ear songs that would lift his family's spirits — and he was an incomparable storyteller.

All of her stories begin with him, all of her memories. Her first, she would say later, was "of my Father always," carrying her in his arms, rocking her to sleep. "The feeling, the voice and the dim light over the log wall make a picture that will never fade," she wrote.

Discovering how Charles Ingalls and his family came to find themselves a few miles from the shores of Lake Pepin, just a few years after Pepin County was first marked on a map, is a detective story tracking generations into the past. Pieces of the family portrait survive, but the whole remains elusive, obscured under the soot of time. It may never be complete.

That is always a problem, in writing about poor people. The powerful, the rich and influential, tend to have a healthy sense of their self-importance. They keep things: letters, portraits, and key documents, such as the farm record of Thomas Jefferson, which preserved the number and identity of his slaves. No matter how far they may travel, people of high status and position are likely to be rooted by their very wealth, protecting fragile ephemera in a manse or great home. They have a Mount Vernon, a Monticello, a Montpelier.

But the Ingallses were not people of power or wealth. Generation after generation, they traveled light, leaving things behind. Looking for their ancestry is like looking through a glass darkly, images flickering in obscurity. As far as we can tell, from the moment they arrived on this continent they were poor, restless, struggling, constantly moving from one place to another in an attempt to find greater security from hunger and want. And as they moved, the traces of their existence were scattered and lost. Sometimes their lives vanish from view, as if in a puff of smoke.

So as we look back across the ages, trying to find what made Laura's parents who they were, imagine that we're on a prairie in a storm. The wind is whipping past and everything is obscured. But there are the occasional bright, blinding moments that illuminate a face here and there. Sometimes we hear a voice, a song snatched out of the air.

That Poverty Beat

Charles Ingalls was born at a crossroads. As if to fulfill the prophecy in that, he would always be a wanderer, propelled by hopes of a better future farther on.

But his rootlessness was not simply the sign of a "wandering foot," as his daughter would suggest. It reflected generations of struggle, trying to break through, hoping to latch on to land. He would be among the first to make his way west, but he was not the first to know poverty. From the family's earliest beginnings in Puritan New England, that was all they would ever know. And the life of the previous generations had been even harder than Charles's own.

When Charles's father was a young boy, Charles told his daughters, he and his brothers labored for six days a week, Monday through Saturday. During the winter, they got up in the dark, did their chores by lamplight, and worked until the sun went down, going to bed directly after supper. For play, they had a few hours off on Saturday afternoons. At sundown on Saturday, the "Puritan Sabbath" would begin.

On the Sabbath, all recreational pursuits, indeed all activities other than going to church or praying or studying a catechism, were strictly forbidden. There was no visiting, no sweeping, no gardening, no hunting, no haying, no fishing, no frivolous talk, no writing of notes or cutting of hair or kissing of children. Hot meals could not be prepared and horses could not be hitched to the wagon. To obey the Sabbath, the Ingalls family walked, reverently, to church. To break the Sabbath was a grave, even criminal offense, punishable by fines, public censure, or imprisonment.

A flash of lightning in history's darkness gives us a glimpse of one such Sunday, more than two centuries before Laura's birth. Family lore has long maintained that the very first member of the Ingalls clan on this continent, Edmund Ingalls, arrived in Salem Harbor in 1628 with the expedition of John Endecott, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. We know little about the man; there isn't even a portrait of him. But we know that on April 20, 1646, he was fined for "bringing home sticks in both his arms on the Sabbath day," presumably for firewood. Even worse, the sticks were stolen from somebody else's fence.

Another moment in bright relief: Edmund's last will and testament, sworn out two years after his theft. He bestowed upon his wife a house in Lynn and the lot it sat on, as well as "ye Stock of Cattle and Corne." One daughter was left a "heifer Calf," another "two Ewes." A third, Mary, received "the heifer Calfe that formerly she enjoyed." Whatever Edmund possessed was in that livestock and small plots of land, perhaps poor plots, as in the "three acres of marsh ground" bequeathed to his son Henry. What his livestock may have been worth is hard to say. A large number of cattle were imported to the northern colonies from Virginia in the 1640s, depressing their price.

There is one final discordant glimpse of the Ingalls family in the seventeenth century. One of Edmund's granddaughters would become notorious, victim of New England's most lurid hour. Martha Ingalls Allen Carrier, born to Edmund's daughter Faith, was dubbed the "Queen of Hell" during the Salem witchcraft trials by shrieking teenage accusers. She was said to have been seen riding a broomstick, to have caused neighbors' cows to sicken and die, to have started a smallpox epidemic. Cotton Mather called her "a rampant hag." In 1692, at the age of thirty-eight, the mother of several children, she was taken to Gallows Hill and hanged, having never wavered in proclaiming her innocence. Did her fate have anything to do with the family edging away from the country's Puritan heartland? We cannot know, but the intense impoverishment of a time when farmers "fought over ever-diminishing slivers of soil," as a historian put it, spurred neighbors to attack each other.

Skip forward eighty years or so, and our most sustained flash of illumination catches Laura's great-grandfather, Samuel Ingalls, born in New Hampshire in 1770. A self-lacerating individual, Samuel became a writer, in a family that would produce many of them. Devout and patriotic, he captured the suffering of yeoman farmers in a way that undermines Thomas Jefferson's golden vision of "those who labor in the earth" as "the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people."

As a young man, Samuel spent years living in Canada, perhaps exporting crops or other goods to America. There, in 1793, he married Margaret Delano, descendant of one of the passengers on the Mayflower. Generations later, the illustrious Delanos would produce an American president.

Like Edmund Ingalls, Samuel was a Puritan and may have been a Congregationalist. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was strongly associated with the Congregationalist church, a Protestant denomination devoted to the precept that every parish should be self-governing. In a land in which independence and autonomy would become bywords, Congregationalists applied those principles with a will.

Unlike his stick-pilfering forebear, though, Samuel was unwavering in his rigid religiosity. On one occasion, his young sons, after a grueling week of chopping trees in midwinter, dared to sneak away for a forbidden sled ride on Sunday afternoon. As they shot past their house, their father's stern visage appeared in the doorway. On their return, they were greeted with silence. But the minute the sun went down, they were taken to the woodshed, one by one, and whipped.

Religion suffused Samuel's politics. A vehement broadside that he published in 1809 against Thomas Jefferson's Embargo Act, denouncing the president's party as a "wicked club," summoned a vision of a carriage of angels, crowned in gold and armed with burnished scepters "about six or seven feet in length."

Descending on the town of Hartford, Connecticut, the angels shake the ground as if with an earthquake, arriving to deliver a partisan message against the president who had made trade with Canadian territories a crime. Hampering free trade was not simply an inconvenience or a bad decision. To Samuel, it was a sin.

In 1825, he published his Rhymes of "The Unlearned Poet, " the title humbly acknowledging his amateur status. None of the original copies are known to survive, but from transcribed verses in the family papers his voice emerges impassioned and vital. He was an uncertain prosodist, his rhymes awkward and lines galloping. But what he lacked in finesse he made up for in sheer verve.

American exceptionalism was his great theme. Visions of the country's past rose before him in celestial glory, its heroes vanquishing the British "like lions," its pioneers withstanding the "savage whoops" and "scalping knives" of Indians. The very land under their plows, he told his readers, had been purchased in blood. Other verses in the book showed Samuel transfixed by natural disasters, as later generations of the family would be. His "Lines ... On The Great Hail and Wind Storm That Passed Through the Counties of Cattarraugus and Allegany in the Spring of 1834" exclaimed over eight-inch hail stones, and depicted a tornado — a column of air "filled / With the ruins of that day" — carrying away entire houses.

To Puritans, every affliction — storms, pestilence, earthquakes — signaled God's judgment, and grappling with such calamities was the responsibility of the individual. The Ingallses' fixation on strict Sabbath observations would lapse as successive generations journeyed away from New England; one can even see the strictures relax over the course of Laura's memoir, as the family moves west. But one thing would never fade away: the belief in self-reliance as an absolute sacrament.

The most plaintive of Samuel's poems, "A Ditty on Poverty," acknowledged an invincible foe: hunger. "I've fought him for years in battle so strong, / But never could drive him an inch from the ground. / But many a time I had to retreat, / But scorn'd for to own that poverty beat." The poem echoed the Biblical warning against penury as a creeping evildoer waiting to strike the slothful. Americans would later slough off the personification, but need still retains a whiff of shame.

Another piece in the book speaks of the melancholy of missing lost friends and family, of lying awake at night listening to "the midnight owl," hungry wolves, and screaming panthers. Samuel, in the seventh generation of Ingallses in America, translated that sorrow into song. Unto the ninth and tenth generations, his descendants would sing it too.

By the time that Rhymes of "The Unlearned Poet" was published, Samuel and his family had returned from Canada to the United States, moving to Cuba Township in the far west of New York State. His youngest son, Lansford, born in 1812, would marry a woman named Laura. They raised a family of ten, their first, Peter, born near Cuba in 1833. A second died in infancy. The third, born January 10, 1836, was Charles Phillip Ingalls.

Cuba was a dark, dirty, and gloomy place, resting uneasily on swampy ground. Dotted with "unsightly stumps," the village hosted a tannery, an ashery producing lye, and lumber and stone mills. A railroad and canal were being constructed when Charles was a boy. As a child, he may have heard tales of the wolves and wildcats that had made life "pandemonium" for early settlers in the region. Bounties had thinned out the animals; the last wolf howl was heard around 1840, when Charles was four.

The town was a popular jumping-off point for the West, with families camping there in the winter to await spring passage. Cuba's Main Street served so many migrants wallowing across the town's primitive roads toward Lake Erie that an early history called it "one continuous mudhole ... a mirehole in the center of a swamp." Charles would have watched countless wagons heading westward. Safe to say, he yearned to join them.

Charles's childhood coincided with America's first great depression, the Panic of 1837, which lasted a Biblical seven years. A newspaper out of Albany, the Knickerbocker, reported in 1837 that "there never was a time like this," with "rumor after rumor of riot, insurrection, and tumult." Banks collapsed, and unemployment climbed to 25 percent. Factories along the eastern seaboard were shuttered, and soup kitchens opened in major cities. Two out of three New Yorkers were said to be without means of support. Eight states defaulted on loans. In his literary magazine, Horace Greeley made the first of his famous entreaties to pull up stakes: "Fly, scatter through the country, go to the Great West, anything rather than remain here."

Two of Charles's uncles quickly heeded that appeal, embarking for the West around 1838. And when Charles was eight or nine, his family loaded up their own wagon and headed in the same direction, shaking off Cuba's mud forever.

The first railway connecting New York to Chicago lay several years in the future, so the family likely skirted below Lake Erie, picking up the Chicago Road. Formerly known to the Indians as the Great Sauk Trail, the road from Detroit and Fort Dearborn to Chicago — then a burgeoning town of a few thousand people — was traversed by thousands of pioneers during the 1830s and '40s. From there, the Ingallses headed forty miles west to Elgin, Illinois, a frontier outpost on the Fox River.

This was Charles Ingalls's first sight of the open plains. After the closed-in gloom of upstate New York, rolling western grasslands must have been a revelation. According to another settler, the Illinois prairies were still a thrilling "wolf-howling wilderness," packed with game and hopping with prairie chickens. Writing to a friend back in Kentucky, Daniel Pingree, who bought 160 acres of Kane County farmland not far from where the Ingallses settled, waxed lyrical over the rich productive soil, perfect for corn or wheat, and groves of oaks offering up raw material for cabins or fence rails: "In my opinion you could not find a better County in all the world for farming."

Product details

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Metropolitan Books; First Edition (November 21, 2017)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 640 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1627792767
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1627792769
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 1.95 pounds
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 6.41 x 1.57 x 9.61 inches
  • #14 in Children's Literary Criticism (Books)
  • #196 in Author Biographies
  • #510 in United States Biographies

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About the author

Caroline fraser.

Caroline Fraser is the author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning biography, "Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder", which also won a National Book Critics Circle award for biography, a Heartland Prize from the Chicago Tribune, and BIO's Plutarch Award. Her first book, "God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church," is now available in a 20th-Anniversary Edition with a new afterword. God's Perfect Child was selected as a New York Times Book Review Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Book Review Best Book. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Review of Books, and Outside magazine, among others. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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American tale … Melissa Gilbert, bottom, as the author in the TV series Little House on the Prairie.

Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder review – gritty memoir dispels Little House myths

L aura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods was first published in 1932, when its author was 65; it offers a sanitised tale of her childhood near Pepin, Wisconsin, just after the end of the US civil war. Within a few years of her birth, the Ingalls family piled their few possessions into a covered wagon and started the trip into “Indian Territory”, to join the settlers pushing west in order to make manifest the destiny that America was determined to invent. Six more books followed, detailing the family’s experiences on the frontier, creating an idealised, nostalgic account of Laura’s peripatetic early years, along with one book describing her husband Almanzo Wilder’s childhood on a farm in New York. Wilder died in 1957; her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane , published Wilder’s unfinished final novel, The First Four Years , in 1971, and three years later the immensely popular Little House on the Prairie series debuted on US TV.

But before all that was Pioneer Girl , a memoir that Wilder wrote for her daughter in 1930, and which has just been published for the first time. The 1929 crash had left her family in financial straits, and Wilder had been publishing a small domestic column in local magazines for some time. With a dawning sense that her own experiences exemplified the US story of westward expansion, she set down her memories, from the age of three through to her marriage to Almanzo Wilder at 18, in hopes that her tale might find a publisher. When this proved impossible, she and Lane, a successful writer and experienced editor, began discussing the possibilities for adapting the story into children’s books that would follow the progress of young Laura from childhood to adulthood. Gradually, Wilder’s artistic instincts and skill improved, and she took over more of the writing and editing, but Lane remained an important interlocutor for her mother’s developing sense of plot and character. Eventually, Wilder would explain that her fictionalised chronicles were not “a history, but a true story founded on historical fact”.

Pioneer Girl offers more history and less fiction: it is presented as Wilder first wrote it, complete with asides to her daughter, no section breaks, and spelling mistakes (an ironic aspect for readers who remember the novels’ emphasis on Laura’s spelling bee triumphs). Carefully, not to say exhaustively, annotated with research into the places they settled and the people they encountered, Pioneer Girl provides a fascinating counterpoint to Wilder’s sterilised chronicle of sunny life on the open prairie. The reality, unsurprisingly, was rather more vicious.

One of the most memorable incidents in the novels comes in the final instalment, These Happy Golden Years , when 15-year-old Laura, boarding with an unhappy, squabbling family named the Brewsters, awakes one night to the sight of Mrs Brewster in a trailing nightgown, hair streaming behind her, wielding a butcher knife over her husband and demanding that he take her back east. Laura is terrified, but who wouldn’t hate homesteading? They were squeezed together in a one-room shanty on the howling prairie with a squalling baby, braving blizzards and temperatures that routinely froze the thermometer at -40C, surviving on salt pork and fried bread. You can understand the impulse to wield a knife.

What seems remarkable is not Mrs Brewster’s rage, in other words, but the cheerful acquiescence of the Ingalls women to such conditions, and their ability to create a series of safe, “cosy” homes that enable them to survive the hostile environment. Viewed from one perspective, Charles Ingalls’s wanderlust seems almost pathological, and certainly selfish. Pioneer Girl reveals that the incident with Mrs Brewster was just one in a succession of encounters with serious domestic violence. For most of Laura’s childhood, she lived in close proximity to drunks, rapists, horse thieves, adulterers and more than one murderer, including perhaps a brush with a notorious family of serial killers.

Nor was the Ingalls family’s progress a simple westward expansion, as the novels more or less report it: Wilder deliberately simplified their back-and-forth journeys across the midwest in order to create the impression of westward progress, an image in keeping with her theme of nation-building. In fact, the Ingallses retreated east more than once, while the self-styled “pioneers” were land-grabbing as fast as they could: manifest destiny was a giant get-rich-quick scheme. The family emerges as far more opportunistic, even on occasion unscrupulous, than the whitewashed novels would have us believe. Charles Ingalls knew that he was in Indian Territory illegally, while his wife’s brother Tom went to the Badlands on an ill-fated and illegal search for gold. The family snuck away from debts on at least one occasion, making their escape in the middle of the night. The fundamental drama in the novels comes not from conflicts within the family, but with the external forces of government, Indians and nature. Of the three, the last is the one we are most apt to sympathise with today; the attitude of the settlers to the Indians makes for uncomfortable reading (“Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to folks that’ll farm it. That’s only common sense and justice,” one neighbour declares). It is an attitude that the Ingallses and their relatives clearly shared; many of their actions were in flagrant violation of treaties.

The most extensive difference between the two accounts is Wilder’s decision to excise an entire interlude in Iowa from the novels. The family’s retreat to the east undermined her triumphalist tale of westward progress, but their time in Iowa also featured some of the family’s grimmest experiences. They lived in a hotel adjacent to a saloon, which is hard to imagine the fictional Ma Ingalls permitting; the decision was a mark of their “financial desperation”, as the editor of Pioneer Girl notes. There were bullet holes in a wall, made by a drunken man shooting at his wife; another dragged his wife around by her long hair, carrying a lamp that was pouring kerosene; Charles Ingalls intervened to keep them all from being burned to death. A man named Hairpin, “who had been lying there drunk for several days, came to and took another drink to sober up”. With the whiskey still in his mouth, he lit a cigar and inhaled the flames, which killed him “almost at once”. In Iowa “Christmas was disappointing”, for “Ma was always tired; Pa was always busy”. This seems much more realistic than the always inspiring Christmas tales in the books, in which kind neighbours consistently come to their rescue, or the family pulls together and makes merry for each other. (Beloved Mr Edwards, the kindly neighbour who memorably saves one Christmas, is nowhere to be seen.) A man who’s been drinking gives a temperance lecture with a bottle of whiskey in his pocket.

There is much more illness than in the books: more than one bout of scarlet fever, whooping cough, measles, mites and the meningitis that blinds Mary, which Wilder transformed to scarlet fever in the novels (perhaps, the editor speculates, to link her tale to Little Women ). Lane wanted her mother to excise Mary’s blindness altogether, but Wilder was adamant, insisting “a touch of tragedy makes the story truer to life”. She did, however, erase the entire existence of her little brother, Freddy, who died as an infant while they lived in Iowa. Children are lost in blizzards, freeze to death or lose limbs. Unsurprisingly, the girls are far naughtier than in the novels: even saintly Mary is spanked for yelling as a child, while Laura bites her cousin till his thumb bleeds for washing her face in snow. In the novels, Laura doesn’t leave home for work until she is an adolescent, but in reality she was sent as a child to stay with strangers as a babysitter and paid companion. Once a drunk man came into her bedroom in the middle of the night and told her to lie still. She threatened to scream, and the next day was taken home. While such incidents may be more realistic than the sentimentalised novels, Wilder’s writing in Pioneer Girl is flat and amateurish: she had not yet learned to slow down and tell her story, creating sufficient time and space for readers to get to know characters, to identify with their travails, to build drama and sympathy for them.

Pioneer Girl ’s annotations and footnotes make it unwieldy in more senses than one. The notes far outweigh the narrative, running along both sides of an awkwardly wide page and on many pages displacing the primary narrative altogether. They are packed with information, sometimes excessively so (we probably don’t need to be told what braille is, or what “idiot” meant in the 19th century). All of the fascinating historical research into what happened to the people Wilder encountered, such as Cap Garland (killed at 26 when a threshing machine exploded) or Nellie Oleson (an amalgamation of at least two girls Ingalls knew) is buried in the notes, which makes for an extremely disjointed reading experience.

In the end, the changes that Wilder made to improve her story remained consistent with the truth of her own experience. “Even though these books must be made fit for children to read,” she told her daughter, “they must also be true to history … I have given you a true picture of the times and the place and people. Please don’t blur it.” The publication of Pioneer Girl has done more to keep the historical picture distinct, dispelling some of the mists and myths of legend and showing us the dark realities of US pioneer life.

Sarah Churchwell is the author of Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby .

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Caroline Fraser’s new biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder takes a close look at fact vs. fiction in the ‘Little House’ books

Though we tend to read the “Little House” books as autobiography, they are “heavily fictionalized in many ways,” said Caroline Fraser, author of “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” a fascinating new biography.

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I grew up in the city, but I dreamed of covered wagons. Like countless kids, I read and reread the “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder while growing up, savoring the details of homemade candy (made on snow!), hand-hewn furniture, floral-print dresses, cozy Christmases and the plaintive music of a fiddle, echoing over the emptiness of a vast prairie.

Born in 1867 Wisconsin to a father struck with wanderlust and a mother content to follow him, Wilder lived a pioneer childhood, moving from place to place with her growing family (she was the second of four sisters) across the American Midwest. The first book, “Little House on the Big Woods,” begins when she is 4 years old; the last in the series, “These Happy Golden Years,” ends with her marriage, at 18, to the young farmer Almanzo Wilder. (“The First Four Years,” documenting the early years of their marriage, was published posthumously.) Throughout the books, there’s a palpable sense that home — be it a dirt-floor dugout, a snug log cabin or a threadbare claim shanty — is made not by doors and windows and possessions, but the secure presence of those you love.

Wilder, who lived to see her 90th birthday and remarkable changes in the world, began writing the books in her 60s, urged by her daughter, Rose. (Initially Wilder wrote a memoir intended for adults, called “Pioneer Girl,” but she and Rose had better luck marketing a young reader’s version. An annotated version of the original manuscript was published in 2014 .) They read like fiction — Wilder’s narrative voice is steady and almost childlike, but often beautifully artful — but they depict a real life; at least, a writer’s version of one. I didn’t think, when reading them as a child, of how Wilder might have sculpted the facts of her life, or of what it might mean to depict your beloved parents in anything but a softly shining light.

A fascinating new biography of Wilder, Caroline Fraser’s “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder ” (Metropolitan Books, $35), takes a close look at the author’s life — where it does, and doesn’t, match the legend she created. Though we tend to read the “Little House” books as autobiography, they are “heavily fictionalized in many ways,” said Fraser, in a telephone interview last week.

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“When it came to the ‘Little House’ books, she burnished her parents’ reputation by leaving out a lot of what happened,” Fraser elaborated. In “Pioneer Girl,” she notes, Wilder wrote of the family “experiencing periods of homelessness and aimlessness, her father Charles not being able to pull it together financially. You see his failures as a farmer. This was not due to laziness on his part — he was coming up against what every small-scale farmer in that region was facing, especially in the Dakotas, because that area was just too arid for dry land farming … Virtually all the farmers were more or less facing ruin before they even started, because they were undercapitalized. None of this really makes it into the ‘Little House’ books.”

Fraser, whose own ancestors were also Midwestern farmers, grew up on Mercer Island; she now lives in New Mexico. She loved the “Little House” books as a child, but became fascinated by Wilder’s own story about 20 years ago, when a biography of Rose Wilder Lane was published. “It essentially claimed that Rose had ghostwritten all the ‘Little House’ books,” she said. Intrigued, Fraser launched her own investigation into the manuscripts, resulting in a long piece in the New York Review of Books.

“It’s certainly true that Rose contributed greatly to the production and creation of the books, that she edited and helped review them and certainly was responsible for getting them published,” Fraser said. “But I believed then and believe now that Wilder was the author of the books published under her name.”

More recently, Fraser edited the Library of America editions of the “Little House” books, and realized that there was much rich history behind Wilder’s story, particularly what Wilder called the Minnesota Massacre. “It’s more properly referred to as the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 ,” Fraser said, calling that bloody event “quite central to her experience in Kansas. Knowing what that was and what happened, even though it happened before Laura was born, is, I think, incredibly revealing of her experience and the experience of other white settlers and their attitudes toward Native Americans.”

Fraser’s book begins with that history, and then traces the ancestry of Wilder’s parents, Charles Ingalls and Caroline Quiner Ingalls, taking us to that little house where their second daughter was born. A map shows us the family’s wanderings; a few photographs let us gaze at ghosts from the past. One photo, of a preteen Laura posing with sisters Mary and Carrie, is startling: Eyes warily looking away from the camera and jaw set, young Laura is already showing the determination of a pioneer woman, resolved to survive and prosper on an inhospitable land.

And its later pages tell the story of a remarkable mother/daughter relationship. Rose, Wilder’s only child, was a former yellow journalist, war correspondent and fledgling Libertarian; her high-pitched life seems right out of a movie. “She is an incredible voice and presence,” said Fraser, who spent countless hours deciphering Rose’s voluminous letters to her mother, now housed in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. (Lane, at one point, wrote a biography of Hoover.) “She was, in some ways, quite a tortured person … always fairly melodramatic in her self-presentation.”

Rose, said Fraser, had a “pretty tumultuous” relationship with her mother. “The story of their relationship is kind of at the heart of the book, because it’s at the heart of the creation of the ‘Little House’ books.”

After reading Fraser’s book, I picked up a copy of “Little House on the Prairie” — a book I haven’t read since probably my teens. And while its attitudes toward Native Americans feel cringe-worthy today, much of the writing remains haunting. Laura, falling asleep, “began to drift over endless waves of prairie grasses”; Pa’s voice, singing, “was like a part of the night and the moonlight and the stillness of the prairie.” Before quite realizing it, I had reread the entire book.

Fraser hopes that grown-up “Little House” fans will find “a richer experience of the books if you know more about where they came from.” She still finds herself often “totally absorbed” by the world Wilder created in her novels. “They still affect me quite strongly; they’re so moving. And that is the real mark of a classic, something that you can go back and read again and again and you’re still finding new things in it.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder


Who Was Laura Ingalls Wilder?

Laura Ingalls Wilder published Little House in the Big Woods , the first of her well-known Little House series that eventually spawned the hit TV program Little House on the Prairie, in 1932. Wilder finished the last book in 1943. On February 10, 1957, she died at age 90, on her farm in Mansfield, Missouri.

Wilder was born on February 7, 1867, to Charles and Caroline Ingalls in their log cabin just outside of Pepin, Wisconsin. In her books, Wilder would later come to call the cabin "The Little House in the Big Woods." Two years after her birth, in 1869, her family moved to Kansas, which would become the setting for her book Little House on the Prairie . She was one of five children. She had an older sister named Mary; two younger sisters, Carrie and Grace; and a younger brother named Charles, who died at nine months old.

Wilder described her early years as "full of sunshine and shadow." When she was growing up, she and her pioneer family repeatedly moved from one Midwestern town to the next. In 1874, they moved from Wisconsin to Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Although the Ingalls family initially stayed in Walnut Grove for only two years before a failed crop forced them to move to Burr Oak, Iowa, Walnut Grove became the setting of Little House on the Prairie (1974–1982), a television show based on Laura Wilder's life.

In the autumn of 1878, the Ingalls family returned to Walnut Grove. In 1879, they moved yet again, becoming homesteaders in the Dakota Territory, and eventually settling in De Smet, South Dakota.

Teaching Career

Because they had moved so often, Wilder and her siblings mainly taught themselves and each other. They attended local schools whenever they could. Her decision to become a teacher herself was largely an economic one. Her family needed additional income, especially with Wilder's older sister, Mary, away at a school for the blind. In 1882, Wilder passed the test to obtain her teaching certificate.

Just 15 years old, she signed on to teach at a one-room country schoolhouse 12 miles from her parents' home, the first of several teaching jobs. During her time teaching at Bouchie School, her parents often sent a family friend named Almanzo Wilder to pick her up and bring her home for weekend visits.

Marriage and Children

Over the course of their wagon rides home, Laura and Almanzo fell in love. On August 25, 1885, the two were married at a congregational church in South Dakota. Afterward, Laura quit teaching to raise children and help Almanzo work the farm. In the winter of 1886, Laura gave birth to a daughter, Rose. In August 1889, she had a son who tragically died within a month of his birth. Not long after, Almanzo contracted diphtheria and was partially paralyzed. To make matters worse, in 1890, the Wilders' home burned to the ground.

After four years of drifting from place to place, in 1894 the Wilders bought a 200-acre farm in the Ozarks of Mansfield, Missouri. On Rocky Ridge Farm, as they came to call it, the Wilders built a farmhouse, raised livestock and did all their own farm work.

The 'Little House' Series

In the 1910s Wilder's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, by then grown up and a reporter for the San Francisco Bulletin , encouraged her mother to write about her childhood. In the 1920s, Wilder's first attempt at writing an autobiography, called Pioneer Girl , was uniformly rejected by publishers. Determined to succeed, Wilder spent the next several years reworking her writing, including switching the title and changing the story to be told from the third-person perspective.

In 1932, Laura Wilder published Little House in the Big Woods , the first book in what would become an autobiographical series of children's books, collectively called the Little House books. Just as Little House in the Big Woods recounts her life in Pepin, Wisconsin, each of her books focuses on one of the more memorable places she lived. With Wilder and daughter Rose working together on the manuscripts, other books in the Little House series include Little House on the Prairie , Farmer Boy , 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 . Wilder completed the last book in the series in 1943, when she was 76 years old.

Later Life and Death

In 1949, when Almanzo died, Wilder stayed at Rocky Ridge, reading and responding to her readers' fan mail. On February 10, 1957, she died on the farm in Mansfield, Missouri. Following Wilder's death, Rose edited and published several posthumous works based on her mother's diary and incomplete manuscripts.

Award Controversy

Beginning in 1954, when the Association for Library Service to Children presented Wilder with a medal, the ALSC honored an author for his or her contributions to children's literature with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. However, in June 2018 the organization announced it was changing the name to the Children's Literature Legacy Award due to the author's portrayals of Native Americans in her books.

"This decision was made in consideration of the fact that Wilder's legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC's core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness," the organization said in a statement.

"Changing the name of the award, or ending the award and establishing a new award, does not prohibit access to Wilder's works or suppress discussion about them," the statement continued. "Neither option asks or demands that anyone stop reading Wilder's books, talking about them, or making them available to children. These recommendations do not amount to censorship, nor do they undermine intellectual freedom."


  • Name: Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Birth Year: 1867
  • Birth date: February 7, 1867
  • Birth State: Wisconsin
  • Birth City: Pepin
  • Birth Country: United States
  • Gender: Female
  • Best Known For: Pioneer author Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the autobiographical 'Little House' kids' book series, the basis of the popular television show 'Little House on the Prairie.'
  • Fiction and Poetry
  • Journalism and Nonfiction
  • Astrological Sign: Aquarius
  • Death Year: 1957
  • Death date: February 10, 1957
  • Death State: Missouri
  • Death City: Mansfield
  • Death Country: United States

We strive for accuracy and fairness.If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us !


  • Article Title: Laura Ingalls Wilder Biography
  • Author: Editors
  • Website Name: The website
  • Url:
  • Access Date:
  • Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
  • Last Updated: June 18, 2020
  • Original Published Date: April 2, 2014
  • I wanted children now to understand more about the beginnings of things, to know what is behind the things they see—what it is that made America as they know it.
  • The 'Little House' books are stories of long ago. Today our way of living and our schools are much different; so many things have made living and learning easier. But the real things haven't changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with the simple pleasures; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.

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Christopher Marlowe


  1. Laura Ingalls Wilder: Pioneer Woman by Dona Herweck Rice · OverDrive

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  2. Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography by William Anderson (English

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  3. 26 Laura Ingalls Wilder Facts

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  4. Laura Ingalls Wilder Biography

    best biography laura ingalls wilder

  5. Laura Ingalls Wilder Biography

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  6. The Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl

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  1. Laura Ingalls Wilder Stone House

  2. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Grave

  3. TODAY! 3 P.M Everyone Said A Tearful Goodbye To The Actress Melissa Gilbert, At 59 Years Old


  1. 7 Biographies of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Author of the Little House Books

    Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser is considered the first comprehensive historical biography of the

  2. Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography (Little House Nonfiction)

    William Anderson is a historian, educator, and author of twenty-five books of biography, travel, and history. His groundbreaking research on Laura Ingalls

  3. 'Little House on the Prairie' and the Truth About the American West

    For anyone who has drifted into thinking of Wilder's “Little House” books as relics of a distant and irrelevant past, reading “Prairie Fires”

  4. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

    Caroline Fraser is the author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning biography, "Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder", which also won a National

  5. Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography by William Anderson

    Even though I remember all the episodes and have basically a good memory of her books, I felt this book went further into Laura's life. I didn't realize just

  6. 6 Must-reads for Laura Ingalls Wilder Fans

    6 Must-reads for Laura Ingalls Wilder Fans · The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie · The Wilder Life: My

  7. Prairie Fires

    ☞ Prairie Fires is named one of the Best Biographies of 2017 by Amazon Books, and Amazon editorial director Sarah Harrison Smith discusses the biography's new

  8. Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder review

    Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder review – gritty memoir dispels Little House myths · Autobiography and memoir · Biography books · Classics

  9. Pioneer Girl: The Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder

    This is a great biography of the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Since we know so much about her life, having read her books, it's easy to fault the author

  10. Caroline Fraser's new biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder takes a

    Though we tend to read the “Little House” books as autobiography, they are “heavily fictionalized in many ways,” said Caroline Fraser

  11. Laura Ingalls Wilder

    In 1932, Laura Wilder published Little House in the Big Woods, the first book in what would become an autobiographical series of children's books, collectively