- Historic Sites
Toward The Little House
A LIFELONG FASCINATION with the stories of a famous pioneering family finally drove the writer to South Dakota in hopes of better understanding the prairie life Laura Ingalls Wilder lived there and later gave to the world.
April 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 2
When she was a little girl in Wisconsin in the 1870s, her father would take her and her sister on his knee after supper in their log house and tell them wonderful stories about bears and panthers and little boys who sneaked out to go sledding on the Sabbath. Then later she would drift off to sleep in her trundle bed hearing her father play his fiddle. Even after they left their comfortable house, and meals became unpredictable, the stories went on, as did the fiddle music. It was too good to be altogether lost.
When she was a little girl in Wisconsin in the 1870s, her father would take her and her sister on his knee after supper in their log house and tell them wonderful stories about bears and panthers and little boys who sneaked out to go sledding on the Sabbath. Then later she would drift off to sleep in her trundle bed hearing her father play his fiddle. Even after they left their comfortable house, and meals became unpredictable, the stories went on, as did the fiddle music. It was too good to be altogether lost. Years later that little girl wanted people to know how it had been.
IT HAS BEEN SAID that more people have learned about the frontier from Wilder than from Frederick Jackson Turner.
So Mrs. A. J. Wilder, a farm woman in her sixties, began to write. In a first-person memoir she detailed her life from the ages of three to eighteen as she and her family moved about on the frontier during the last phase of the westward expansion. She entitled the manuscript “Pioneer Girl” and gave it to her daughter, who wrote for a minor magazine, to edit. Then she submitted it to publishers, combining her girlhood name with her married one, Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Nobody would accept it. Events were described pell-mell with no unifying theme, and although the narrator emerged as determined and gritty, everyone else in the account remained shadowy. “Pioneer Girl” was a historical work, not a literary one.
Mrs. Wilder was undeterred. With the failure of one project, she merely embarked on a more ambitious one. She would create a work, ostensibly for children, that could stand as both history and literature. “I” became “Laura”; a story of a “girl” became a story of a household; and the daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, made the leap from editor to collaborator.
Of the eight Little House books that appeared between 1932 and 1943, five won the Newbery Medal, the highest honor for juvenile fiction. The books recount the Ingalls family’s attempt to wrest prosperity from the land, first in the Wisconsin woods and then on the prairies of Kansas, Minnesota, and Dakota Territory. Laura wrote of blizzards and grasshopper plagues, of the conflicts between European Americans and Native Americans, of town building and the advance of railroads, of washing dishes and braiding hair. Above all, she created an enduring portrait of her parents, Charles and Caroline Ingalls, whom she called Pa and Ma; of her sisters, Mary, Carrie, and Grace; and of herself. It has been said that more people have learned about the frontier from Laura Ingalls Wilder than from Frederick Jackson Turner, its acclaimed historian. (But also, more people have heard about Laura Ingalls Wilder from a slick television series supposedly based on the books than from the books themselves.)
Wilder believed she was doing something unusual by writing a multi-volume saga, in which the viewpoint of a child narrator matures as her character grows up. However, her venture was more uncommon than that. Many people have written novels with autobiographical overtones or historical fiction about famous people or events. Wilder wrote historical novels about her previously unknown family, using actual names, places, and incidents. She streamlined events, created scenes for dramatic effect, and sometimes changed things for the better.
In real life the family’s good dog Jack was left behind early in their Westward trek; in the books Jack looked out for the girls until they left Minnesota. The actual Charles Ingalls may have been, as Laura characterized him, “inclined to be reckless"; she was probably referring to his tendency to make impulsive decisions without thinking through the consequences. For instance, after the grasshoppers destroyed his crops, he put the little money he had into a hotel in Iowa even though he had no experience in running one. But as the fictional Pa he could be merely optimistic. Yet Laura always stayed close to the essential story. When Rose suggested to her that she omit from the books Mary’s becoming blind as a teenager, she flatly refused, since everything the family did after that point was in some way affected by Mary’s blindness.