Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in 1867 and throughout most of her childhood she travelled around in a covered-wagon with her parents and sisters. She lived in log cabins, shanties, houses with no roofs, even a dugout under a river bank. Until her mother, an ex-teacher, decided that enough was enough and that her four daughters should go to school. The family then settled in De Smet, South Dakota. Laura became the brightest pupil in the school and eventually taught her own school while still a pupil, aged 16, to earn money for her sister Mary to be sent to a special school for the blind. In 1885 Laura married Almanzo Wilder, a local young farmer. The couple were farmers for the rest of their lives until Almanzo died in 1949, aged 92 and Laura died in 1957, aged 90. Along the way they suffered the complete destruction of their first crop and had to move on to Mansfield, Missouri (where their farm, Rocky Ridge, is now a museum). They had one daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, and a son who died very soon after his birth.
Rose Wilder became an author first, writing books about countries she had travelled to. She was a war-correspondent in Vietnam when she was 78 years old and when she died in 1968 aged 81, she had been about to embark on a world tour. It was during the early years of Rose’s success as an author that her mother decided to write too.
At first, Laura wrote short stories for magazines and then she began on her first novel, “Little House in the Big Woods.” This told of her life as a very small girl in Wisconsin. The book was a great success and she wrote the next books to tell of how her father, feeling uncomfortable and cramped as the new settlers came to the area, decided to move his family on, always looking for a place to be free from crowds. “The First Four Years” was published after Laura’s death. As with all the others, she wrote it in pencil in three orange school jotters, bought for a nickel each. Rose also wrote a novel based on her mother’s life, titled “Let The Hurricane Roar”; the story of two young pioneers, who begin their married life struggling to make a success of their farm, much like Laura and Almanzo.
What is most attractive about the books is the sense of endurance in the face of extreme adversity. Men and women were partners in the fight to make a living from the harsh land and unpredictable weather conditions. A family might have a good crop, worth enough to keep them from starving for another year, only to see it destroyed in a matter of minutes by a plague of locusts or a typhoon. In an age when women were only just beginning to question old precepts, they were called upon to cope with events that seemed insurmountable for a so-called “weaker sex”. Laura’s own mother, Caroline, thought nothing of butchering a pig, feeding a hundred threshers, or fighting blizzards to make twists of straw to keep her children warm. At a time when women were not considered fit to vote, they had to be both intelligent and strong to survive.
Stylistically, Rose and Laura are very similar writers. Rose helped her mother through the books but was not entirely responsible for the wonderfully clear technique that emerged. Perhaps Laura had told Rose stories of her childhood which in turn influenced Rose’s writing style, and then went on to influence Laura’s later writing.
The books are full of details which bring them to life, particularly of the type of clothes that were worn then. Laura’s wedding dress was a black cashmere which she made in the afternoons, using the new-fangled sewing machine. In “These Happy Golden Years”, she wrote of the social life of young people at the time. They would all go to the evening singing school during the winter and the boys took the girls for sleigh-rides. By summer they had paired-off, going on buggy rides and singing the new songs they had learned. Laura and Almanzo’s courtship was staid by today’s standards. Almanzo, after seeking permission from Pa Ingalls, took Laura out for rides in his buggy every sunday and they would plan for their future together. “The First Four Years” is not so detailed and reads like a chronicle of their life than a novel. Apparently Laura wrote the first draft of it, but then lost interest in it when Almanzo died.
I read the ‘Laura’ books when I was quite young and was deeply impressed by them. It is a pity that the only televised version of them was little more than a sentimental adaptation that shows little of Caroline’s quiet strength or Laura’s constant struggle to keep her wild nature in line with her sister Mary’s tranquillity.
The Little House Books
Little House in the Big Woods
Little House on the Prairie
On the Banks of Plum Creek
By the Shores of Silver Lake
The Long Winter
Little Town on the Prairie
These Happy Golden Years
On the Way Home
The First Four Years
West From Home
Rose Wilder Lane’s Books
The Story of Art Smith
Henry Ford’s Own Story
White Shadows on the South Seas (with Frederick O’Brien)
The Making of Herbert Hoover
The Peaks of Shala
He Was A Man
Let the Hurricane Roar (now known as Young Pioneers)
Old Home Town
Give Me Liberty AKA Credo
The Discovery of Freedom (adapted in 1947 as The Mainspring of Human Progress)
“What Is This: The Gestapo?” (pamphlet)
“On the Way Home”
The Woman’s Day Book of American Needlework
Travels With Zenobia: Paris to Albania by Model T Ford