Author Features / Features

Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Girl

by Alison Gazarek

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Most kids had an imaginary friend during childhood. Someone they could boss around, confide in, or just spend time with when they felt lonely. I had Laura Ingalls Wilder. I don’t mean that figuratively, either. Yes, books kept me company and allowed me to enter into new and different worlds when my own was too much for me; but Laura was my imaginary friend. She went everywhere with me.

Like many women my age, I loved the Little House books. But as much as Laura’s life in the cabin (and on the prairie, and in the snow) fascinated me, I was also obsessed with how she would cope in my more modern world. I imagined her everywhere. What would she think of my hair dryer? Wouldn’t it scare her? Remember when she went to the dance, and her mother dressed up in the delaine dress? What would she think of my school dances, where boys stood behind you and groped your butt while “Pump Up the Jam” blasted through the speakers? I brought her with me while I did the laundry. Remember how you would wash your clothes in the river with Mary and they froze on the line? I would “say” to Laura. Now we put them in this machine. Then I’d stop, overwhelmed. I wouldn’t even know where to start. How do you explain what has happened in the past 100 years, between a time when a candy stick was an acceptable Christmas present, and now, when you were expecting a Nintendo? You were just starting to tell Laura about leather seats and what happened to all the Indians, after all.

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The fact is that Laura Ingalls Wilder did experience some of the things I tried to “explain” to her, long before writing the Little House books. She spent her young adult years crossing the American Frontier in a wagon, but she certainly rode in a car as an adult. She carried a revolver during a tense, humid year spent in Florida. She worked 14-hour days in a hotel in Iowa, where she was exposed to sex, violence, and alcoholism. After becoming a successful author, she hired a driver and even rode in an airplane.

It was after exposure to all these very modern experiences, at the age of 67, that Laura Ingalls Wilder decided to write books about her childhood—for children, like me. I read the books for pure pleasure, with no awareness of the adult author. But now, I can’t come back to the books with the same innocence. I’m different: I’m now also a reader of Sherman Alexie and Derek Walcott, Toni Morrison and Junot Díaz. I wonder about the other side of the story, and what it means for an adult woman to return to the innocence of her childhood, while living in a fast-moving, New Deal America. I’m struck now by the fact that Laura the narrator is a different person from Laura the author.

Re-reading any book as an adult is a lesson in growing up. Reading The Long Winter, I wonder about the Dakota Wars brewing on the prairie, about the injustices and broken treaties and desperation of families forced off their own land. I’m aware that, as compelling and true as Laura’s experience on the prairie is, there are countless untold (and unsavory) stories that are just as much fact as her adventurous childhood moving West—stories that are not told in history books, or novels, or in popular American mythology. What story would they tell about us as Americans, after all?

ingalles_wilder_insert1I now know that, a few miles from Laura’s childhood home in Minnesota, the largest government-ordered mass execution in American history took place in Mankato. After a series of conflicts during the Dakota Wars, 38 men were hanged in one day by the order of President Lincoln. In a recent episode of This American Life, a local schoolteacher was asked how Mankato children are taught about this tragedy:

We just talked about, like a conflict is a disagreement. And we talked how the Dakota Indians didn’t know how to solve their conflicts. And the only way they knew how to solve their disagreements was to fight, which we know we don’t fight when we solve conflicts, we use our words.

But that was their only way that they knew how to solve a conflict, they fought. And so then the white settlers needed to fight back to protect themselves. And we talked about people were killed. And then we talked about how the Dakota Indians were– [FADE OUT]

I wonder if Laura was taught to understand the incident in such one-sided terms. Isn’t that how we make history palatable for children, after all? We turn complex injustices into morality lessons with a winner and a loser. Coming back to Laura’s books as an adult, I wonder if she did something similar.

Laura alludes to the “Minnesota Massacres” in Little House on the Prairie (she spent much of her childhood right outside Mankato, Minnesota), but they are peripheral to her story. Interactions with Indians in the books are tense but fleeting: in The Long Winter, a barely intelligible, intense Indian warns the men in town of a coming seven months of blizzards. The men lean forward and cease talking. They are no friend to the Dakotas, who aren’t particularly welcome in town, but the men also heed the wisdom of an old Noble Savage. The Indians do know the land, after all. They also brought with them the reminder that violence and unpredictable conflict over land was always on the horizon, even if not a daily reality within the solid wood walls of the little house on the prairie.

As an adult reader, I have to question: did the adult author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, not find this history relevant to her story? Did she find it unsuitable for children? She did in fact go back with her daughter to research the history of Native Americans in the areas in which she lived in order to provide context to her books. But why is so much of that context left out? Depending on which historical narrative you consult, the events that led up to the mass execution differ, but the ending is the same: the day after Christmas, in 1862, thirty-eight Dakota men were hung by executive order of President Lincoln. And it happened right down the street from Laura’s log cabin.

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Always fiercely independent, and in her later years influenced by her daughter, Laura became a Libertarian. She was put off by New Deal politics and spoke out against government interference in “making it.”  No surprise, coming from a woman who worked constantly, in grinding poverty, rarely catching a break. As a child, the author Laura’s family came up against drought, blinding blizzards, plague-like grasshoppers and failed crops. Like the characters, they moved from Indian Territory in Kansas (in Little House on the Prairie), to Minnesota, to working in a hotel in Iowa, and back to Minnesota. They eventually started a homestead in South Dakota, where the family experienced the events of The Long Winter. After beginning her happy life with her soulmate Almanzo, she lost her newborn boy, and while she was recovering, her two-year old daughter Rose accidentally burned their house to the ground. Almanzo suffered a life-threatening illness that left him unable to run a farm. Years of drought and illness forced them to give up farming and work in more traditional jobs. During a year in Florida, she felt so out of place that she carried a pistol. Later, after convincing Almanzo to buy another forested, bouldered farm in Missouri, they spent seven years barely making a living. Life was never easy for Laura Ingalls Wilder, so the principles of hard work, perseverance, and no excuses were inherent in her life, and in her politics.

These values are forefront in Laura’s stories of life on the prairie, which tell of a close-knit family dedicated to values of independence, morality, and adventure—not for adventure’s sake, but in order to live out American ideals. When reading the books, you get a sense of pride in the American farmer and homesteader, and not in the politicians who get in the way of (and corrupt) the purity of frontier life. The Ingalls family and way of life are the protagonists and heroes, and nature (and sometimes Uncle Sam) are the antagonists. Even when the family has to make questionable moral decisions, Laura, as narrator, explains why they are right in the end. In The Long Winter, she describes how Almanzo had to lie about his age when making a claim, because men claiming land were supposed to be 21; really there was no way around it, because the policymakers in Washington couldn’t understand what kind of a man it takes to fight for a life out West, and that Almanzo and his brother were raised to be those kinds of men:

Almanzo looked at it this way: the Government wanted this land settled; Uncle Sam would give a farm to any man who had the nerve and muscle to come out here and break the sod and stick to the job till it was done. But the politicians far away in Washington could not know the settlers so they must make rules to regulate them and one rule was that a homesteader must be twenty-one years old. (The Long Winter)

Pa, too, is mistrustful of policy-making Easterners, and for good reason: when he moved his family out to “Indian Territory” in Kansas, they had to leave before being forced out by the Army (the land wasn’t technically open to settlement yet). And in The Long Winter, when the train is stuck and the Ingalls’s small town is left without supplies, Pa and Ma lament: “Just because he couldn’t get through with shovels or snowplows, he figured he couldn’t get through at all and he quit trying. Well, he’s an easterner. It takes patience and perseverance to contend with things out here in the west.”

As the character Laura begins to grow up and to question her place in a community and a growing country, her parents constantly remind her that the only person she can depend on is herself (and perhaps her family). In The Long Winter, when Laura expresses frustration that she can’t see anyone in town because of the blizzard, Ma is indignant. “‘I hope you don’t expect to depend on anybody else, Laura,’ Ma was shocked. ‘A body can’t do that.’” Pa, too, warns against the dangers of depending on modern community or technology. “These times are too progressive . . . Railroads and telegraph and kerosene and coal stoves–they’re good things to have but the trouble is, folks get to depend on ’em.”  Reading this as a child, I saw these moments as simply the Ingalls family being themselves—clean-living, independent, and a little feisty. Now, knowing that Laura (the author) was a Libertarian, I can’t help but feel a little cheated. Did these moments really happen? Or are they propaganda for the reader, a little push towards politics? I want to stay a child, to experience Ma’s shocked response to Laura’s desire for community as a typical moment between a mother and daughter. The author’s politics don’t matter to me. What does matter is that her books might be less innocent than I thought.

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The Little House in the Big Woods, the first in the series, is written by an adult, but the story is decidedly written for children. The book is filled with lessons. Pa constantly tells moralistic stories from his own childhood or his grandfather’s childhood—his father being chased by a panther after staying out too late to play in the woods (moral: listen to your parents, they know more than you do about the terrifying wilderness) or of himself attempting to beat down a bear in the woods with a stick, which turned out to be only a stump (moral: the only thing to fear is fear itself). But in The Long Winter, where the Ingalls house is unprotected from prairie winds and fierce blizzards, the stories are no longer morality tales for children. Rather, Laura the older character is creating her own stories, or referring back to things that happened earlier in her life—like when Pa was caught in a four-day blizzard, or when Mr Edwards risked his life to bring them Christmas gifts—as stories for little Carrie and Grace. No longer is she protected by the comforting, dark enclosure of the endless woods and her own ignorance. She is now growing up, exposed to the endless prairie and to the reality of adulthood. Laura the author seems to “grow up” in these books as well. Her stories seem less like morality tales and more like purposeful conversations with herself, and with modern America. Laura the character expresses curiosity about the Indians, but is told that she doesn’t need to worry about them. She expresses her desire for community, but is warned that she must depend on herself. Laura the character is working out her politics, but Laura the author already knows what she believes, and she wants to share it with an audience of American children.

Whether stories, or propaganda, or history lessons, in the Little House books, life is simple, wholesome, and vivid. In reality, life was probably much less so. In her unpublished memoir written for adults, Pioneer Girl, the Ingalls’ family journey West (and their retreat back East) includes much unglamorous detail. Their experience was that of grinding poverty, where Laura “and Mary washed dishes and helped wait on table at the Burr Oak hotel. . . . In Walnut Grove, she earned fifty cents a week at the Masters’ hotel, where she ‘washed dishes and swept and dusted and made beds,’ cared for a baby, set the table and waited table” (from Elizabeth Jameson, Laura Ingalls Wilder and the American Frontier). The stories in Pioneer Girl are stark biography rather than wistful memoir. Pioneer Girl was in fact Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first manuscript, which her daughter tried to sell as a magazine serial. After being rejected numerous times, Wilder and her daughter expanded the “Big Woods” section of it into a story titled, “When Grandma Was a Little Girl.” A publisher accepted it, but on the condition that it be adapted for children—presumably requiring that those stark and unglamorous truths be deleted, or softened.

v.

The famous line about why Laura Ingalls decided to begin writing her childhood was that she wanted to write down “the pictures that hang in my memory.” And pictures they are. Everyone who read the Little House books as a child has a vivid memory of something specific from the book—maybe Almanzo’s horses; maybe the cows’ heads frozen to the ground by their own breath during the long winter; maybe Ma making a “spicy apple” pie out of unripe pumpkins from the ruined garden. Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author, wrote in vivid pictures, confirmed by her sister Mary who, after she went blind, said, “Why Laura, you make pictures when you talk.” The question now is what those pictures mean.

When we write history for children (or for anyone), we pick and choose what to include, from whose perspective it will be told, and what angle to take on the telling. And often the “big lessons” prevail over the facts. Who, in elementary school, learned that Christopher Columbus invaded an island in the Caribbean and sold the natives into brutal slavery? Instead, most of us learned the concept of Columbus as a fearless explorer willing to take a risk. Children aren’t taught the complexities or politics of Jefferson’s beliefs on slavery, or Lincoln’s shifting policies on human rights; just that they were American heroes who fought for the concepts of freedom and liberty. History is often turned into “lessons” for children, at the expense of nuance. In the Little House books, the stories are true, but they are written for children. Ma and Pa have small conflicts, but they are safe and surrounded by fiddle music and love. There are moments that reflect historical tensions, but they are peripheral to the lessons of independence, hard work, and individuality—and, perhaps, to the agenda of Libertarian politics, whether intentionally or not.

The child in me thought Laura was my friend, and I gained perspective on my own life because of her friendship. The adult reader in me feels a little betrayed at what Laura added into her story, or left out. Maybe she had an agenda in our friendship, after all. But in the end, it doesn’t make her voice less important. Understanding Laura’s voice (the voice of a child on the prairie, and of a Libertarian, and of a white settler) is important to my understanding of Louise Erdich’s voice, or the voice of an oral history of the Dakota Wars, or the voice of the Postcolonial Americas. If Laura isn’t going to tell the story of the Dakota Indians (and certainly she isn’t the most qualified to tell that story), someone else needs to—and my reading will be richer for it. It is the dialogue between all of those voices that helps me understand the whole story. It’s not just a friendship between Laura and me anymore, trying to make sense of life as a middle-schooler. I’m an adult now, and in order to make meaning, I have to invite more voices into that conversation.

Every writer has a context that is reflected in her writing, whether conscious or unconscious. For me, then, growing up as a reader means awareness of that context. The responsibility for “telling the whole story” doesn’t lie solely with Laura, a girl who didn’t just tell the myth of the American frontier; she lived it. It lies also with me, the reader, with me, the history teacher, with me, the author. Awareness of this responsibility creates a dissonance in me that I’m trying to resolve, because her books served a very real purpose in my childhood: not only were they beloved, but they tell a valuable, and compelling, story. They are just not the only story.
Bloom Post End

Alison Gazarek is a graduate of Teachers College, Columbia University. She is currently a high school English teacher and teacher-coach at a small, portfolio-based public high school in the South Bronx. She has recently led workshops on creating authentic assessments for students and “real world learning” for the Coalition of Essential Schools, the iZone initiative, the NYC Common Core Literacy Pilot, and the Children First Network 106. Alison has never seen the TV version of Little House.

Homepage photo courtesy of Laura Ingalls Wilder Home Association

2 thoughts on “Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Girl

  1. Alison, Thank you for pointing out that the stories have a missing truth and are omitting the real history of how America was built, a less sweet history than projected to children in school and in children’s books. It would be so helpful to even the current politics and organization of public life, if the real history, cruel as it may be, was known in all its facets by the public.
    Johanna van Zanten

  2. This is so well written. Looking at the Little House series is such an interesting angle with which to tackle voice and truth not only in history, but the version of history many kids get. In a time when “Lies my Teacher Told Me” is well known and celebrated, more uncovering of popular myths from history need to be discussed. Not that Laura’s stories are myth, but the struggle of the “lone pioneer” is (because, of course, they were not alone, nor were they pioneers in the sense that they weren’t venturing somewhere untravelled and/or uninhabited). I think it’s really important work you’ve done here to become aware of where these ideas we have come from. This is especially true for you (and me!) since teachers in general and history teachers in particular are charged with the responsibility of re-evaluating belief systems constantly so we can help others to do so too. One of the things that makes you awesome is that you’re not saying “I know stuff”, you’re saying “how do I know the stuff I know?”. If Howard Zinn was raised as a little girl in the time we were with a similar relationship to this series, I’m thinking he would have written a similar article. This is, of course, the highest praise I can think of.

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