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The Truth about Laura Ingalls Wilder

Admit it. If you’re a female of any age, at one time or another you’ve probably wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder. Who wouldn’t want to be the famous author of the famous “Little House” book series instead an average, unremarkable little girl or boy?

The Laura Ingalls Wilder most remember seemed both authentic and picturesque with long brown braids and a gingham sunbonnet. As her Pa used to say, she was “as strong as a little French horse.”

To be like Laura is to aspire to be plucky, straightforward, honest, and true: an honest-to-goodness Pioneer Girl making a living off the land with her family in a series of tiny frontier houses in a simpler time and place, or so I believed before reading “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder” (2017) by Caroline Fraser.

I certainly yearned to be Laura and, during years of Brownies and Girl Scouts, so did my two younger sisters, Becky and Corinne. While attending day-camp in suburban Minneapolis, Bec and Rin decided not to give their actual names at roll call. Instead they only answered to the names “Mary” and “Laura,” causing a considerable dust-up among the day-camp counselors which resulted in a cautionary talking-to with our parents.

Bonnetheads Unite

To date, more than 60,000,000 copies of the Little House books have been sold worldwide.

The Ingalls sisters from left to right: Carrie, Mary and Laura Ingalls circa 1880.

So many Laura Ingalls Wilder biographies are currently available in today’s marketplace it’s difficult to make an accurate estimate of their numbers. Scores of supplementary “Laura adjunct handbooks” fill shelves at both digital and bricks-and-mortar bookstores. These include books on how to become Laura, inside and out like Wendy McClure’s “The Wilder Life” (2011). Other books address Laura’s faith, fashion, letters, recipes, and her world, ad infinitum. There is even a book on Laura and Freemasonry entitled “Little Lodges on the Prairie” (2014).

Little House fans known as “Bonnetheads” follow all things Laura and immerse themselves in the Little House world at an annual LauraPalooza conference. The gathering of hundreds of Bonnetheads will be held this year in Onalaska, Wisconsin at the Stoney Creek Hotel and Conference Center from July 7 to 10. The conference theme is “All Roads Lead to Laura” and the keynote speaker will be none other than Caroline Fraser, author of the controversial “Prairie Fires.”

As Bonnethead and journalist Joanne Cleaver wrote in the Chicago Tribune, the Little House Books were about “a gentler, smellier, germier, tireder time.”

“Popular culture might view the Ingalls family’s experiences through a sentimental veil,” Cleaver says, “But Bonnetheads grapple with the harsh truths of pioneer life. Bonnetheads showed me that what I really crave isn’t cornbread baked over an open fire, but to understand a woman who was thoroughly herself before she was a celebrity.”

Search for the Historical Laura

The first Laura biography I discovered and devoured was “Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder” (1976) by Donald Zochert. The author divulged many Laura factoids though no huge revelations or discoveries. Today this book seems dated and uneven but for its time, it was most welcomed and provided further context on Laura’s life in the big woods of Wisconsin and on the new American prairie.

Next to come my way was the award-winning “Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life” (2007) written by Pamela Smith Hill, followed by Hill’s edited version of Laura’s in-her-own-words autobiography.

Laura’s memoir became the exquisitely produced, award-winning “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography” (2014), edited by Pamela Smith Hill and published by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press.

The memoir unleashed a new wealth of “Lauriana,” a treasure trove of hitherto unknown facts about the life and times of the Ingalls and Wilder families.

“Enhanced by scrupulous and wide-ranging new research, (it’s) a real treasure,” announced Ruth Graham of Slate Book Review. “This annotated edition of ‘Pioneer Girl’ will deepen and enrich a great American story.”

Before she edited “Pioneer Girl” in 2014, author Pamela Smith Hill taught creative and professional writing at universities in Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, as well as a course on Laura Ingalls Wilder through Missouri State University. In her own words, Hill related that she “grew up forty miles from Rocky Ridge Farm, launched her writing career not far from De Smet, and now lives and works in Portland, Oregon.”

The annotated “Pioneer Girl” proved Pamela Smith to be an able Western historian. The “notations” attached with the book included so many things not mentioned in the original Little House books, things too depressing, too shady, and too sad to include in an inspiring, uplifting book for children.

I didn’t see how there could be anything else for anyone to uncover, discuss, or include about Laura Ingalls Wilder that was not already revealed in “Pioneer Girl.”

New Treasure Trove of Knowledge

In the recently published “Prairie Fires,” author Caroline Fraser includes heaps of new information about Laura. Fraser’s book is both a revelation and, to date, the most current bible for all things Laura. However, I do recommend readers first devour Hill’s edition of “Pioneer Girl,” as the two books make excellent companion pieces

Formerly on the editorial staff of the New Yorker magazine, Fraser also published work in Atlantic Monthly and The New York Review of Books. She also authored two books before writing “Prairie Fires,” one about the Christian Science Church and the other chronicling the wild land conservation revolution. Fraser is also the editor of two volumes of the “Library of America’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Little House Books” (2012).

Great acclaim as well as surprising trash-talk have followed “Prairie Fires” since its publication. “Prairie Fires” won Fraser the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography and the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography.

Readers either love Fraser’s work or shame her publicly for “trying to bring down an American icon,” or, “being too political in an apolitical work of nonfiction” or even for “heaping too much vitriol upon Rose.” (Who deserves all of it and more, in my humble opinion.)

Little House Truth vs. Fiction

With a wealth of sourced information, Fraser provides solid answers to three of the biggest questions from generations of readers and fans: First, were the Little House books all true, did those events all really happen, and who actually did wrote the famous books?

Were the Little House books true as written? To paraphrase Laura herself, “What I have written is true, but it’s not the whole truth.”

The Little House books leave out huge parts of the Ingalls’ lives: details and realities too sordid, tragic, gray socially or politically, or too sorrowful, including the very existence of little Freddy, Laura’s baby brother who died within his first year.

Did the events of the Little House books really happen? Many of the events did, yes, but others were modified, revised, or created out of whole cloth to shape the story arc to something more accessible to readers, more positive and inspiring.

Regarding many of the adult themes including the near-inevitable poverty of the independent farmer and his family and living hand-to-mouth in a freezing claim shanty, such grim reality was not part of the Little House books.

Laura, Almanzo and Neta Seal on a trip to Yellowstone National Park in Laura's later, more affluent days. Neta’s husband drove on this trip. Almanzo got to know him as he owned a service center in their home of Mansfield, Missouri and serviced their car. Neta became Laura’s closest friend in her later years.

“Prairie Fires” introduces many new factoids never before shared about Wilder. Among them, there is evidence that Laura often exhibited a quick temper. Years after their marriage, her husband Almanzo Wilder admitted as much to an interviewer, saying something to the effect that “I knew going into the marriage that she was ‘that way.’”

According to Fraser, Laura hated wearing sunbonnets and yearned keenly for beautiful, stylish dresses. After the ultimate success of the Little House books, Wilder could and did finally indulge herself with exquisite, although not necessarily expensive, fashions, jewelry, fine china, and the like, even a fancy new Buick.

Fraser exposes the primitive frontier town of DeSmet, South Dakota as home to more than just spelling bees and sleigh-riding parties back in Laura’s day. This fact that there was also a popular roller rink in town was probably not mentioned in the Little House books because it seemed less than pioneerish.

A Rose with a Thorn

The only surviving child of Laura and Almanzo, the travel writer, novelist, and journalist Rose Wilder Lane, long credited with launching her mother’s career, suffered from bi-polar disorder.

Rose Wilder

Rose was a perpetual, depressing whirlwind in her parents’ lives for decades. Although Rose frequently “gifted” her parents with money, just as often Rose pleaded for loans or outright monetary gifts from her parents who were just as strapped as anyone and never flush with cash until the later success of the Little House books.

In “Prairie Fires,” Fraser reveals Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane to be an emotional hurricane who caused her parents no end of anguish, especially with her penchant for compulsively buying and restoring houses she could little afford in places like Albania.

Rose even bullied her parents out of their own farmhouse, a home the pair had lovingly designed and built for themselves. Rose supposedly made them move to a new house she commissioned to be built for them on their own property, a house the couple never wanted and one none of the three could afford.

Rose’s bi-polarity also caused shocking betrayals when she allegedly lifted story ideas from mother Laura and repurposed them as her own without her mother’s knowledge or permission.

Despite Rose being frequently labeled by critics as “immoral, lazy, lying, sneaking, anti-Semitic, fraudulent, a poser, suicidal, financially crazy,” it is likely only due to Rose and her connections and that Wilder became the famous, beloved writer the world knows today.

Without Rose’s chutzpah and haphazard, yet guiding, hand in the editing and shaping of the Little House stories, they may never have seen the light of day.

Fierce controversy remains today over who really wrote the bulk of the Little House books. Was it Rose, guiding her mother 90 percent of the time, rewriting the copy and shaping the dramatic inner framework of each book? Or were the Little House books actually 90 percent Laura with Rose only helping “a bit” with her publishing and agent connections?

There are just as many pro-Rose camps as there are pro-Laura factions and I believe we will never know the real story. The two women’s actions and intentions were so intertwined it may be impossible to say where the one began and the other ended.

Without these two women writing the Little House books together, whether they intended to or not, arguing and editing together, living through an excruciating love-hate relationship that continued until the last of the Little House books was published, there would be no Little House books at all.

When the Little House book series was complete, Fraser indicates that when Laura and Rose stopped working together and their relationship improved immensely, although Rose remained a prisoner of her mental and chemical imbalances.

To Live the Impossible Dream

Caroline Fraser’s award-winning book is an amalgam of current events, social commentary, nineteenth and twentieth century history, along so many little things we never knew before about the Little House stories. The book casts a new, fresh light on all things Laura and it is a masterpiece of research, writing and social commentary, with the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Circumstances were always stacked against would-be homesteaders on “free land” in the Great Plains and folks lived between poverty and hopefulness, gambling on the possibility of actually making a living wage by dryland farming with a misguided notion that “rain always follows the plow.” The rain never does.

Neither Charles and Caroline Ingalls, nor Almanzo and Laura Wilder, could manage to make the promise of free land come true. Never did they ever make a living wage solely from farming. They always had to supplement their nearly-nonexistent farm income by “working in town” or rustling up various side hustles to keep food on the table. Even with supplementary work, their lives remained one of penury and hard work with little tangible to show for them.

Unless a prospective dry land farmer had substantial money to begin with for irrigation, the latest developments in farm machinery and lots of hired hands or sons within the family to help, the small dry land farm was likely doomed before it even got started. Most homesteaders during the free land days had less than two nickels to rub together in the first place.

Although Wilder portrays her father in the Little House books as a plucky, intrepid farmer, Charles Ingalls (or “Pa”) never could, and never did, make a living off his farms. Always in debt, he experienced continued crop failures due to locusts, hail storms, drought and more.

The Great Plains were never meant to be plowed and a testament to this is the Great Dust Bowl of the 1930s, inevitable after stripping the land bare of the native grasses that had evolved over the millennia to protect the soil beneath.

Even Alamanzo and Laura, struggling to make a go of their Rocky Ridge Farm in the more verdant land of the “big red apple” in Missouri struggled to survive. They too had to work side jobs to pay the bills until the miracle of the Little House books and their inspiring stories finally brought tangible income to the Wilders and enriched their “Happy Golden Years.”

—Jane Susann MacCarter

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