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Laura Ingalls Wilder is one of the best-known and beloved American writers of literature for children. Her ”Little House” series, which chronicles her childhood as a pioneer in nineteenth-century America, has earned her popular and critical praise since its publication in the 1930s and 1940s; the books continue to be popular with today’s children. Her historically accurate stories combine storytelling with autobiography, both entertaining children and contributing to their knowledge of American history and the conditions pioneers faced while settling the Midwest and plains.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Indian Country and Dakota Homestead
Wilder was born February 7,1867, in Pepin, Wisconsin, to Charles Philip Ingalls, a carpenter, and Caroline Lake Quiner, a former schoolteacher. Wilder’s father favored living close to the edge of the frontier where he did not have to suffer the influence of his neighbors. When Wilder was one year old, the family journeyed west to Missouri and then to Kansas, settling in ”Indian Country.” The family was stricken with malaria and accosted by Native Americans. In 1871, the Ingalls were informed that they were trespassing on native lands and were forced to move back to Wisconsin. Several years later, after suffering devastating setbacks, the family moved to Burr Oak, Iowa, where they managed a hotel before returning to Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Taking advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862— which granted land to families who built a house and resided on the land for at least six months each year for five years—the Wilder family ventured to De Smet in what became South Dakota. Initially, the Ingalls family dwelled in a small house during the summer and wintered in town.
Teacher at Fifteen
In 1882, at the age of fifteen, Wilder earned her teacher’s certificate and moved to a nearby settlement to teach school. She was forced to reside with a local family, an experience made difficult by her landlady’s constant depression. During the next three years, Wilder taught school and courted Almanzo James Wilder, a local homesteader, ten years her senior. In 1885, the two married and in 1886, their daughter Rose was born. Disaster struck the family repeatedly: a son died in 1889; Almanzo and Laura contracted diphtheria, forcing them to send their daughter to Minnesota to stay with relatives; Almanzo suffered a debilitating stroke as a result of the diphtheria; crops failed; and their house burned. Between 1889 and 1894, the family lived with Wilder’s in-laws in Minnesota, resided in Florida for two years, and returned to De Smet. However, after saving one hundred dollars, the family relocated to Mansfield, Missouri. Here, Wilder and her husband slowly built a more stable and prosperous life.
Published at Sixty-Five
Following her daughter’s departure to pursue a successful career as a writer and journalist, and as economic pressures increased with the loss of the family investments in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Wilder began writing her stories. Her first attempt was Pioneer Girl, a first person account of her life, which was rejected by publishers. With the help of her daughter, Rose, Wilder revised her style, shifting to third person and broadening her focus to encompass her entire family. In 1932, while the United States was in the midst of a severe economic downturn known as the Great Depression, her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, was published. Publishers counted on the book, which chronicled a simple and more self-sufficient time, to appeal to Depression-era readers; they were right. The next year, she published Farmer Boy (1933), an account of her husband’s youth in rural New York, before returning to the developing story of her own childhood.
The best known of the Little House books is probably Little House on the Prairie (1935), after which the television series was named. The series ran from September 1974 to March 1983 and introduced a new generation of young readers to the books. The semi-autobiographical novel is comprised of events that actually occurred in Wilder’s life before those outlined in her first novel; however, exercising creative license, Wilder alters the order of events.
Wilder published five additional books in the series between 1937 and 1943. In 1949 her husband died, leaving Wilder alone on their farm, spending her days answering fan mail. After several heart attacks, Wilder died on her farm in Missouri on February 10, 1957. During her life, she garnered several awards, including the first Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal from the American Library Association in 1954.
Works in Literary Context
In her writing, Wilder tells the story of her youth growing up on the American frontier realistically and without sentimentality. However, the books are not strictly autobiographical. Wilder edits her life story in order to create a coherent storyline and promote her interpretation of American history. Although she does not shy away from difficult subjects such as grave illnesses, her sister’s blindness, drought and plague, she omits both her brother and her son’s deaths as infants.
After raising her family, Wilder became increasingly involved in farm organizations, serving on the Missouri Development Association and writing for the Missouri Ruralist and the St. Louis Star. Then, as the cultural and artistic exuberance of the Roaring Twenties, with its focus on modernity, ebbed with the 1930s economic downturn, the Wilder family suffered loss along with other Americans. However, with the turn in financial fortunes, Wilder found an audience for her stories of pioneering that featured a simple and family-centered rural life. Wilder wrote fondly of her memories as a girl being raised on the American frontier where honesty, hard work and enterprise were hallmarks of success. Wilder’s attempt to faithfully transfer her experience into fictional forms met with success from the masses who were reeling in the midst of a down-spiraling economy. The nature of Wilder’s narratives and characters returned traditional values associated with rural life to the attention of readers. Her stress on the importance of self-reliance, family loyalty, understanding, compassion, and, most importantly, determination, innovation and hard work met with popular interest. Wilder’s best-selling novels described life fraught with danger but nonetheless a simpler life in which gifts were handmade and where family companionship and her father’s fiddle music provided nightly entertainment.
Mother and Daughter Team
Wilder’s works are based on her childhood experiences in the American frontier, though they are fictionalized accounts. It was only after Wilder’s daughter, Rose, grew to adulthood and left home to become a writer that Wilder began writing her narratives. Then, during a trip west to see her daughter, Wilder began to work even more purposefully on improving her writing. After her return to Missouri, she and Rose exchanged letters regarding writing and Wilder’s stories. However, it was not until the mid-1920s when Rose moved back to Missouri that Wilder began preparing her stories for publication. With Rose there to edit the manuscripts, Wilder novelized her memories. Rose and Wilder, sharing similar traditional values, worked together diligently to form narratives that educate young readers about historical conditions that led to the development of the United States as it now exists and to capture a time period that has vanished.
Works in Critical Context
Wilder encountered approval from her readers and critics with the publication of her first novel, approval which increased with the publication of each subsequent book. Scholars note that Wilder’s plot and character development and the sophistication of the stories increase throughout the series. And noted children’s author, E. B. White, states: ”[Wilder] speaks to us directly and brings her affectionate memories alive by the power of overwhelming detail and with a dramatic force that derives from honesty and accuracy.” However, other critics note that despite the appeal of Wilder’s writing, the author is presenting a personal interpretation of the frontier and, given her editorializing of her life events, not a strictly accurate account, even of her own life. The most notable controversy surrounding Wilder’s writing is the source. Scholars debate the extent to which Wilder’s daughter, a famous and respected writer herself, contributed to her mother’s books. While there is little doubt that Wilder’s daughter edited her mother’s writing, scholars concur that Wilder was the chief contributor.
Little House on the Prairie
Little House on the Prairie begins with the Ingalls family leaving their comfortable home and making their way westward. The life of pioneering, though harsh, is an adventure that highlights the family and, comments Claire Fellman, ”its ability to survive all kinds of crises on its own.” This emphasis on the individualist and strong family reflected Wilder’s strong opposition to the New Deal, which she saw as endangering the American farm families. Ann Romines critiques another political aspect of the novel, revealing that the characteristic of Ma as an Indian-hater gives voice to the fear and frustration that was felt on the frontier by the women who were not allowed to directly oppose the men. In contrast to her mother, Laura is sympathetic to the Indians. Janet Spaeth, in her perceptive study of Wilder’s work, suggests in Laura Ingalls Wilder (1987) that Laura’s response to the Indian baby signals that Laura has begun, ”to be aware of the complexity of language, particularly its inadequacy as a means of relaying one’s innermost feelings the baby is, to her, a symbol of a part of herself that she does not know how to acknowledge. She has discovered an aspect of her own being that is inexpressible through language: it cannot be touched by the intellect, only by the heart.”
The Long Winter
Her novel The Long Winter (1940) was originally titled ”The Hard Winter,” but the publishers feared such a negative title might discourage young readers, so they insisted that Wilder change it. But the story of the way the Ingalls family and their fellow citizens of De Smet, Dakota Territory, survived the winter of 1880-1881 is based on historical fact. The Long Winter is considered to be among her finest writing; commentators praise her ability to evoke the mood of the endless snow and wind and the growing desperation of the characters. The main theme that emerges during the blizzard tale, as delineated by Anita Fellman, is that of the ”sense of the family as a solitary unit.” Rounding out that solitude of the family is the theme of its ability to thrive and prosper in the midst of harsh circumstances. Eileen H. Colwell shares this view, commenting that Wilder’s female characters … demonstrate courage and resourcefulness. Virginia Wolf conveys that Wilder’s antagonism toward towns described as ”a sore on the beautiful, wild prairie” is nonetheless contradicted in The Long Winter, wherein she narrates the necessity of living in a town. Colwell and reviewers such as May Hill Arbuthnot and Anne Thaxter Eaton posit that, not only does Wilder paint a realistic and vivid portrait of pioneer life, but she offers important life lessons about the necessity for honesty, hard work and integrity.
- Fellman, Anita Clair.Little House, Long Shadow.Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2008.
- Romines, Ann. Constructing the Little House: Gender, Culture and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.
- Spaeth, Janet. Laura Ingalls Wilder. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
- Wolf, Virgina L. Little House on the Prairie: A Reader’s Companion.. New York: Twayne, 1996.
- Hines, Stephen W. ”Laura Ingalls Wilder: Farm Journalist: Writings From the Ozarks.” Capper’s 130.2 (February 2008): 42-44.
- Laura’s History. Retrieved December 3, 2008, from http://www.lauraingallswilderhome.com/history1.htm.
- Laura Ingalls Wilder. Retrieved December 4, 2008, from www.lauraingallswilder.com. Last updated on September 3, 2002.
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