“Little House on the Prairie” Part 3: Making Fiction From Fact

Why You Should Read an Autobiography when you’ve already Read the Autobiographical Novels

History has always been my second favorite field of study after literature…a situation that isn’t unusual…but for that reason I find nothing more fascinating than learning about the process of taking real experiences and shaping them into a marketable, and engaging, narrative.

Next to the research that has been done on the background of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, I’m guessing that the Little House on the Prairie books have been the most well researched, and certainly there are many more papers to document the writing of these books as Laura Ingalls Wilder discussed almost every facet of the writing process with her daughter, author Rose Wilder Lane, by mail.

And because Wilder had only one heir, and Lane, who was childless, designated one heir, both estates have been kept very much intact.

If you haven’t read anything about Wilder’s real life, you should. The thing that you most quickly discover is that Wilder’s life wasn’t nearly as sheltered as you might have thought…young Laura worked outside of her home from the age of nine, and doing a much wider range of jobs than you might have suggested.

The scene in which Laura and her family take their first train ride in By the Shores of Silver Lake might have led you to believe that Laura had barely ever been inside a hotel before…much less eaten in one…but the fact is that the Ingalls family had lived and worked in a hotel for more than a year.

I remember being extremely annoyed when, in Season 5 of Little House on the Prairie on TV, the Ingalls family moved away from Walnut Grove to work in a hotel, but in fact, the real Ingalls family DID do that. Have you ever wondered why there is more of a gap between On the Banks of Plum Creek (the story told by the first few seasons of the TV show) and By the Shores of Silver Lake than any other book? (not counting Farmer Boy, which isn’t about the Ingalls).

We leave Laura still a little girl on Plum Creek and return to a slightly jaded young teenager on Silver Lake because Laura and her family had been through a lot…another failed move, more difficult time in Walnut Grove where they sort of came down in the world…the serious illness of the entire family and another sibling who lived and dies without a mention in the series.

All of Wilder’s biographers have covered this period in her life along with the other changes she made to her actual life to create more compelling fiction, but for all of these years, one compelling piece has been missing from the story.

While the biographers have all read Wilder’s autobiography of her childhood that was her initial attempt at writing a full-length work about her life, but that book, astoundingly, had never been published! If you wanted to read it, you could order a copy (at no small cost) of it from the library when it has been held, but you couldn’t buy it in book form.

If you read the original text just as it was written, that’s partly for a good reason. Wilder was just trying her hand at getting her story down, and the book doesn’t really have a narrative arch. It’s meant for adults, too, which means there are things that happened that you wouldn’t want children to read about, even now.

To be honest, Wilder’s autobiography also undermines some of the themes of the Little House books. When you read the books, you might likely come to believe that the Ingalls family received little, if any help from anyone outside of their nuclear family and that they always made it on self sufficiency, with no help from friends and family and certainly no help from the government. Well, my friends, that isn’t true.

Knowing that doesn’t make me love the Little House books any less, but they were published as fiction for a reason.

Knowing the real story, in fact, makes be love the novels more and respect Laura Wilder and her her family even more. Their life was much harsher than she depicted, they spent time in places that you would think have surely driven all of the Ingalls girls to be rough and wild, just as Ma Ingalls feared, yet somehow the whole family maintained a sense of morality and decorum despite real economic deprivation and seriously harsh, at times, circumstances.

Pa Ingalls made some seriously bad financial decisions and at least once actually skipped town without paying his bills…in addition to his lust for adventure, I think it was, meant that he was also scammed more than once into making some bad moves. Ma must have been a strong woman to endure all that she did…even more than is shown in the book…and with such class and good grace. You will be even more impressed if you read about the real life of the real Caroline Quiner Ingalls, who barely survive childhood herself.

Taken by Vyn Raskopf, 5 August 2017 in Kingsbury, South Dakota. The last home Wilder lived in with her family was in this county, near the county seat of DeSmet. This building shows a typical claim shanty, similar to the one the Ingalls lived in when they first moved to their claim.

Taken by Vyn Raskopf, 5 August 2017 in Kingsbury, South Dakota. The last home Wilder lived in with her family was in this county, near the county seat of DeSmet. This building shows a typical claim shanty, similar to the one the Ingalls lived in when they first moved to their claim.

Laura had a reason to dislike town life that went far deeper than her love of nature…19th century frontier town life often does not seem all that different from what I saw on reruns of Gunsmoke as a child…and Bonanza, where Michael Landon starred before heading to the Prairie.

In fact, some of melodramatic plots of the television show did come from Pioneer Girl, believe it or not!

What I believe carried the Ingalls family through, besides their love for each other, is the literary bent that ran through the entire family. All four daughters grew up to work in writing or publishing in some manner…even Mary wrote poetry…and artifacts showing both Ma and Pa’s writing show them both to have been articulate people on paper.

In fact at time, as you see in both the Little House books and even more so in Pioneer Girl, Pa’s very literacy helped the family to survive because he could get work in business, sales, and even the local government that would not be open to other people just because he was literate.

The Little House books tell a story that Wilder and Lane wanted to tell, but they rightly characterized the story as fiction. They used some real life events to build a wonderful series of children’s books that while true in ideas they convey, which are certainly things that all of us want to believe about the United States, are not entirely true and never were.

I love them. I read them with my daughter and hope to read them with my grandchildren. My own father-in-law, who grew up in Missouri, told me that he loved them because they were about a family just like his…which is funny, because my childhood in Virginia was nothing like his, and I thought the Ingalls family was a lot like mine!

Little House shows us who we as a nation, wish we were and how we want to be seen.

But the the confusing and grittier real life story, like real life, is also compelling because it shows us as who we really are.

And as I tell my foreign friends, we (Americans) are all crazy. We know it, and we don’t care. What makes us great, I think, is that we always want to do better, and we always try.


Pioneer Girl as a Published Text

There is no question that Pioneer Girl is a draft, not a finished work. In fact, it is a series of drafts. That’s why for so many years, it has only been available to scholars.

The popularity of the entire Little House franchise means that this book, when it was finally published, in 2014, is in a compelling and amazingly detailed format.

The book itself is quite large: it is the size of a coffee table book and one you really need to sit at a table or desk to handle.

I put my glasses in the photo to give you a sense of perspective.

I put my glasses in the photo to give you a sense of perspective.

And while none of the text is hard to read in and of itself, it’s difficult to handle making your way through it because of the numerous and long footnotes, that include photos, maps, and other artwork…sometimes of actual people and places, sometimes of historically relevant artifacts, and often, more often than I strictly liked, to be honest, original illustrations from the books…I much prefer the Garth Williams drawings that replaced Helen Sewell’s in the 1950’s.

The footnotes start in the very wide margins of this large format book, but they are so long and occur so often that they frequently drift off to pages of their own. So if you’re trying to read just the original, and good luck with having the self control to do so, you will literally have difficulty finding your place…you will start reading what you think it the next page of the main narrative, only to discover that it is the next page of “footnotes”.

To give you an idea of the layout.

To give you an idea of the layout.

In short, my guess is that you will love it or hate it.

I can tell you haven’t been sure about it, which is why I’m just reading this book now…I’m finally in a place where the public library has a copy, and I had refused to buy it.

I wasn’t sure I would like it at all, and I definitely find the cover, which is beautiful but to my mind, insipid, off putting.

First, if you know anything about Laura Wilder at all, you know that she didn’t start writing at all until she was middle aged. While she did work hard in school as a teen, mostly it was to get work as a teacher to be able to help educate her sister Mary, who was supposed to be the studious one. Laura liked to read and showed a little school promise as a writer, but she certainly never sat out as a girl and wrote about the prairie…she spend the free time she had running in it, or when she had the rare opportunity, riding a horse as shown on the cover of Silver Lake.

But guess what?

I got halfway though my library copy, and I ordered a copy from Amazon. I’m going to want it to go through over an over again, to pull different things out.

I’m also pretty sure I want to write in it. I have things to say. My normal reaction notebook isn’t going to be enough.