Written by Judith Thurman and Originally Published in The New Yorker on August 10, 2009
In April of 1932, an unlikely literary débutante published her first book. Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder was a matron of sixty-five, neat and tiny—about four feet eleven—who was known as Bessie to her husband, Almanzo, and as Mama Bess to her daughter, Rose. The family lived at Rocky Ridge, a farm in the Ozarks, near Mansfield, Missouri, where Wilder raised chickens and tended an apple orchard. She also enjoyed meetings of her embroidery circle, and of the Justamere Club, a study group that she helped found. Readers of The Missouri Ruralist knew her as Mrs. A. J. Wilder, the author of a biweekly column. Her sensible opinions on housekeeping, marriage, husbandry, country life, and, more rarely, on politics and patriotism were expressed in a plain style, with an occasional ecstatic flourish inspired by her love for “the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.” A work ethic inherited from her Puritan forebears, which exalted labor and self-improvement not merely for their material rewards but as moral values, was, she believed, the key to happiness. Mrs. Wilder, however, wasn’t entirely happy with her part-time career, or with her obscurity. In 1930, she sat down with a supply of sharpened pencils—she didn’t type—to write something more ambitious: an autobiography.
Laura Ingalls was born in the sylvan wilds near Pepin, Wisconsin, in 1867, and she grew up on the frontier, in the various log cabins, claim shanties, sod dugouts, and little frame houses that her inveterately restless father, Charles, built for his wife and daughters each time he bundled them into a covered wagon and moved on, mostly westward, in search of an elusive prosperity. While the Ingallses were living outside the town of De Smet, in what is now South Dakota, Laura met her future husband, a laconic homesteader ten years her senior. Almanzo Wilder, whom she called Manly, had raised horses as a farm boy in Malone, New York, and he owned the finest team in town—two beautiful brown Morgans. When De Smet was cut off from supplies by a winter of record cold and relentless blizzards that buried the railroad tracks, he and a friend had risked their lives to buy grain from an outlying farmer who was rumored to have a reserve. They barely made it back, in a whiteout, but they saved their neighbors from starvation.
Almanzo and Laura started courting when she was fifteen. By that time, she was helping to support her family by teaching school (she was younger than some of her students) and working as a part-time seamstress. Her elder sister, Mary, had gone blind after an illness diagnosed as “brain fever,” which may have been caused by measles or meningitis. Carrie, the third-born, was thin and sickly. Grace was the baby. Laura had always been the sturdy one, pleasant-looking but no beauty, her father’s favorite, and something of a tomboy who occasionally showed flashes of defiance. Almanzo was the town hero, and Laura had a rival for his affections, yet she treated him coolly. After her death, in 1957, Laura’s qualms about a life like her mother’s surfaced in an unpublished manuscript. Caroline Ingalls was a woman of some education and gentility who had also taught school before marrying a pioneer. (The only relics of her former life were a treasured figurine—a china shepherdess—and her love of fashion and poetry.) “Sweet are the uses of adversity” was, perhaps by default, her working motto. She rose before dawn to stoke the fire and boil the bathwater. She fed her family with whatever she had. She made all their clothes and linens, recycling the scraps for her patchwork quilts. She baked the bread, churned the butter, blacked the stove, and restuffed the pallets that they slept on with fresh hay. Even when it was twenty below, she did the washing for six people, pressing with heavy flatirons laundry that had frozen stiff. When her husband was away on some urgent survival mission (Laura recounted how he once walked three hundred miles to find work as a field hand), she fetched the wood and pitched feed to the horses, then waited up for his uncertain return, knitting in her rocker. Informed summarily that she would be packing up, yet again, to start over in a new wilderness, she protested feebly but acquiesced.
The book business, hard hit by the Depression, was cutting back drastically, and a first draft of Wilder’s memoir, “Pioneer Girl,” was passed over by several agents and publishers, who felt that it lacked drama. But she persisted—less interested, she later said, in the money than in the prestige of authorship—and when Virginia Kirkus, an editor of children’s books at Harper & Brothers, received a new version of the material, now recast as a novel aimed at readers between the ages of eight and twelve, she bought it. That “juvenile” (as such chapter books were quaintly called), “Little House in the Big Woods,” was the first volume of an American family saga that has since sold about sixty million copies in thirty-three languages. During last year’s Presidential campaign, when a journalist from the Times asked Heather Bruce, Sarah Palin’s sister, about the candidate’s reading habits as a child in Wasilla, she mentioned only one book, “Little House on the Prairie,” the third and best known of the eight novels that Wilder published in her lifetime. It describes the Ingallses’ migration from Wisconsin to Kansas, where they build an illegal homestead on land reserved for the Osage tribe, and suffer a series of Job-like tribulations: predation by wolves and panthers, a prairie fire, malaria, blizzards, menacing encounters with the Indians, and a near-fatal well-gas accident. None of it crushed their spirits or shook their belief in self-reliance, although the story ends on a bitter note—one that Governor Palin might have recalled. Charles learns from a neighbor that federal troops are coming to evict the settlers. The “blasted politicians in Washington” have betrayed them, and, without waiting to be run off “like an outlaw,” he abandons the little house in a rage. In the last scene, with his family camped by its wagon in the high grass, he gets out his fiddle. “And we’ll rally round the flag boys,” he sings. “We’ll rally once again / Shouting the battle-cry of Freedom!” Ma shushes him—it’s too martial a song for the girls, who are half-asleep, but “Laura felt that she must shout, too.”Laura waited until she was eighteen, in 1885, before she agreed to marry Almanzo. Their daughter arrived a year later. She was named for the wild roses on the prairie where she was born.