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laura ingalls wilder, little house on the prairie

Happy Birthday, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Author of the “Little House on the Prairie” Series

February 07, 2011
by Rachel Balik
American pioneer Laura Ingalls Wilder did not begin writing her first book until she was 64. Only with her daughter’s coaxing did she ultimately decide to share her story, and a beloved children’s classic, the “Little House on the Prairie” series, was born.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Early Days

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Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born on Feb. 7, 1867, in Pepin, Wis., to Charles Ingalls and Caroline Quiner Ingalls. Charles Ingalls had a pioneer's wanderlust, and the family moved often.

Although she began school at age 4, Wilder was not always educated in a classroom. Her family often settled in areas where there was no school, and occasionally she was required to work as seamstress to contribute to the family’s income. She earned a teaching certificate and her first job led to a courtship from Almanzo Wilder, who would bring her from the school to her family home each weekend.

The two married and tried their hand at farming, which proved unsuccessful. They had one daughter, Rose, but lost an infant son. In her grief, Wilder accidentally burned down their home. After that, the Wilders moved quite frequently before settling in Missouri, where in 1919, she became secretary-treasurer of the Mansfield Farm Loan Association. The job provided her with good experiences as well as the time to write.

Wilder’s Books

Wilder published the first of the “Little House on the Prairie” series, “Little House in the Big Woods,” in 1932. The autobiographical series began with the five-year-old Wilder’s life in Wisconsin, and went on to chronicle the family’s travels out West in a covered wagon and their experiences as homesteaders in the late 19th century.

All the books in the Little House series are listed on the Web site of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. The final book officially penned by Wilder is “Farmer Boy,” the story of her husband’s childhood in New York State.

Her books are considered valuable tools in teaching children about American history. While Wilder’s stories depict home life with a loving family, they also recount the hardships of pioneering: the Ingalls family experienced blizzards, plagues of insects, near starvation and death. What is remarkable about Wilder’s series is that she was able to write about these rather difficult subjects in a manner that is suitable for children.

The Wisconsin Historic Society offers this collection of correspondence from the Laura Ingalls Wilder family from 1861 to 1919.

The Rest of the Story

The final book in the series, “The First Four Years,” covers the first few years of Laura and Almanzo Wilder’s married life, and their attempt to farm in the Dakota Territory. Never published by Wilder herself, it was found among the possessions of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, by Lane’s heir.

Laura Ingalls Wilder died on Feb. 10, 1957. Her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, followed in her mother’s footsteps and was known as an author in her own right. Lane wrote essays, magazine pieces, short stories and novels.

There is also a strong indication that it was actually Lane who urged her mother to begin writing. Descriptions of their collaboration usually place Lane in an editorial role, but some speculate that she may have had more involvement with the writing of Wilder’s novels than is generally acknowledged.

Regardless, much of the fame has gone to her mother, who always maintained that her primary intent was to show children a bit of American history that might otherwise have been forgotten. A few years before her death, Wilder was the first recipient of an award that was named after her, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) Wilder Medal. The award is given to an author or illustrator who has made “a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children” over his or her career.

To commemorate that history, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum was established. In a letter Wilder wrote to children, available on the Web site, she explains that although many things about the day to life of Americans had changed since she grew up, the important things had remained the same.  

In the 1970s, “Little House on the Prairie” was adapted into a television show starring Melissa Gilbert as Laura and Michael Landon as Laura’s father. The show received Emmy and People’s Choice awards, as well as several Golden Globe nominations.

In a 2007 column in Jonathan Yardley's “Second Reading” feature in the Washington Post, he reflected on his love for Wilder's books as a young boy: “What surprises me a bit in thinking back to my own reaction to these books as a boy is that it seems to have made no difference at all that girls, not boys, were at the center of these stories … Wilder's books are open and accessible to readers of both sexes. The girls whom she portrays are thoroughly feminine, but they also know how to load guns and do chores in and out of the house. Indeed, the chief trouble with the Laura Ingalls Wilder industry as it now exists is that it idealizes the girls of the frontier far more than Wilder did.”
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