'Little House On The Prairie's' Wilder Women

Little House on the Prairie and the Ingalls family are seen as a common depiction of 19th century rural America. In a New Yorker article, Judith Thurman explores the little known lives and politics of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, the women behind the series.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Now, for generations of girls, the expression pioneer girl conjures up a half-pint, pigtailed child, crossing the country in a covered wagon. Young Laura Ingalls of "Little House" fame.

We've followed the struggles of the Ingalls family in the books and on the television show as they fought to hold onto their farm, struggled against monster blizzards, suffered through the occasional grasshopper plague and, of course, climbed in the covered wagon, set off for somewhere else to start over.

But if you think the Ingalls family is interesting, you should meet the Wilder women. Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane were ambitious, politically savvy women and they're profiled by New Yorker contributor Judith Thurman. She'll join us in a moment.

"Little House" fans, we want to hear what keeps you going back to this classic series. Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site, go to our npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Judith Thurman is in our New York bureau. Welcome.

Ms. JUDITH THURMAN (Staff Writer, The New Yorker): Hello. Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Well, thank you very much for coming. I think that while many of us are familiar with her name, Laura Ingalls Wilder, not very much - not many of us know very much about her that she didn't tell us in those books. I guess that means that we know quite a bit about her from her - in her childhood years, but not what she was like as a grown-up.

Ms. THURMAN: Well, the series really ends with the book that was not published in her lifetime that she kept in a drawer, and I think she was right about it. And it tells the story of the early years of her marriage to Almanzo Wilder, which were, if anything, more - much more harrowing than her parents' experience as pioneers on the frontier right after the Civil War.

Pretty much every disaster that could happen to them did. They lost their second child - it was a boy - their house burned down, they pretty much went bankrupt. And they wandered around for years until they settled in the Ozarks, on a farm called Rocky Ridge, where they really eked out a living, and where Rose grew up as really the child of refugees - laughed at by the girls in school for her bare feet and her shabby clothes.

But as they establish their prosperity in the town of Mansfield, Missouri, Laura began to contribute to a farm journal, and she began to write columns about her experience as a farmer and a farmer's wife. And she really made a little writing career for herself long before the "Little House" books.

WERTHEIMER: Now, her daughter who was - whose name was Rose, Rose Wilder Lane, they appeared to - I mean, Rose Wilder Lane is believed by some students of the "Little House" books to have had quite a bit to do with writing, or at least, heavily editing the "Little House" books, editing the style of writing and so forth. What was the relationship like between these two?

Ms. THURMAN: Well, Rose was an only child and she was the only child of a mother who was so deprived and overworked herself that even if she had not been a rather puritanical, repressed woman, she would probably not have had much time or energy to lavish on Rose. Rose always felt bitterly that she had been -that she had a very unhappy childhood and that she had had no understanding at all from her mother and…

WERTHEIMER: And now the question is just - you know, it strikes those of us who are fans of the books as amazing because the family unit and the way they all felt about one another and they - the way they pull together and whatnot, that is just essential "Little House."

Ms. THURMAN: Absolutely. Not only that, I think one of the great attractions of the "Little House" books for children is the incredible attunement of this family to each other. It's not just - their harmony, this - the harmony against the elements, their harmony, their unity. And that was not the case of Rose and her mother or of the Wilders at all. She had an extremely different experience growing up. And, of course, Laura had sisters and companionship of other children in her childhood and Rose did not. It was very isolated on the farm when she was growing up.

WERTHEIMER: Well, it could hardly have been more isolated than the Ingalls family was in the "Little House" books and log cabins and claim shantys and soddys and little bitty houses and moving all the time. I mean, they hardly had time to form any relationships outside the family, but it was that sort of traveling tribe that I think fascinated us all.

Ms. THURMAN: Yes. I think it was the image of happiness. I think many people who are unhappy for various reasons hope that happiness like that exists. And…

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: (Unintelligible)

Ms. THURMAN: …they're very happy to read book after book about it.

WERTHEIMER: Are you - where do you stand on the question of Wilder scholarship? Do you think that Rose Wilder Lane, who is herself a kind of a journalist and a, sort of a - she was a sort of early form of the journalist who makes everything up. But…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THURMAN: She was. She - she's an admirable woman. There's a wonderful book about her by William Holtz called "The Ghost in the House," and he use it…

ROBERT: You mean ghostwriter?

Ms. THURMAN: Ghost, yes. He uses it in that sense. It was a real collaboration that was never really acknowledged. And I think Laura could write - she wrote her columns for the Ruralist and she wrote a first draft of what became the first "Little House" book, called "Pioneer Girl," which was a memoir.

But when you compare the only book in the series on which Rose had no input or did no editing at all, the poverty of the writing - the sort of the lack of radiance, the absence of the qualities that draw one to the "Little House" books, it's pretty stark. And this was a book that would have been written long after she had collaborated with Rose on the other books. So she had - by that time she had a sense of the vocation, but alone she couldn't do it.

On the other hand, alone, Rose, who did publish bestsellers, and several, and had a long career…

WERTHEIMER: Which you suggest in your essay in The New Yorker are trashy.

Ms. THURMAN: Yeah. They're pretty trashy. None of them ever was as enduring as the books that she did with her mother. So there was a kind of synergy that they had together that neither woman had alone. And I'm not sure that either of them was really quite aware to what degree these books were a mutual creation. I think each of them secretly felt that she was the true author.

WERTHEIMER: Well, let's listen to what some of our listeners have to say about the "Little House" books. I'm going to - let's see. Let's call on Noel, who is in Orinda, California.

Noel, welcome.

NOEL (Caller): Hi there. I was just so shocked when I read the article in The New Yorker. And I think there's a variety of things that you've touched on that I found shocking. But most of all was the notion that Rose manipulated the text or the stories to make the work more commercially viable. And maybe that's what we fell in love with, this notion of this perfect happiness out on the prairie. And to find out that that was kind of made up to make the books sell, it was so depressing. And…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THURMAN: Well, I think…

WERTHEIMER: Oh, dear.

Ms. THURMAN: No, I think one thing that sort of maybe could change that a bit, you know, all writers, even great writers, submit to the work of editors. And sometimes editors do tremendous rewriting job even on the prose of major figures in literature. So it's not unusual and it doesn't mean that the editor becomes the writer. And I think Rose reshaped these books. She typed them up. Laura always wrote by - in longhand with a pencil. She retyped them. She gave them in dramatic structure that they may have lacked. And she did improve the language, as she puts it, she added things for color and she added things for vividness to the prose. Laura supplied the memories. Laura supplied this knowledge of life on the frontier and the period that she was writing about, and of her own feelings.

Much - I understand the disillusionment because it's not just the disillusionment with the text in front of you, it's the disillusionment with the picture that you have been given, supposedly, of an autobiography. But these books are fiction, and I think it helps to remember that.

WERTHEIMER: We're going to talk now to Kristen, who is in Tallahassee.

Kristen, hello.

KRISTEN (Caller): Hello. I'm calling because as a child I read all of these books with great excitement. I've always been a history lover. And this particular period of history, it seems like girls are so often left out of the story. You know, we hear about the Pony Express and, you know, the men going out to find gold and all those things. But we never really hear about the girls, you know, unless they are the unfortunate ladies, you know, upstairs in the saloon or something like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRISTEN: As a child, I always really connected with that and allowed my imagination to let me kind of go along with the Wilders. And now I actually am teaching. I teach literature and I teach history. And I'm actually driving back from school right now. We are planning this week, and I was thumbing through them today to decide which of the books would be most appropriate for my U.S. history class to read because we always teach our history classes with the literature classes to go along with them. And so when I turned on the radio and you were all were talking about…

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRISTEN: No matter if they're autobiographical or if they're all, you know, fabrications, I don't mind either way. They were a huge part of my childhood and I am eager to get through the pilgrim so that my students can read these books with me.

WERTHEIMER: I've got to tell you that one of the things that I remember from the "Little House" books - and probably it's because I heard a lot about this from my grandmother, who lived in a soddy in Kansas when they were on their way to Oklahoma territory - was all the how-tos.

Ms. THURMAN: Mm-hmm. Me too.

WERTHEIMER: How to make soap. How to, you know, how to create things out of nothing when you're poor as a church mouse. And that was - I thought that was just about the most fascinating thing. And it did have a ring of reality, I think.

Ms. THURMAN: I believe that was Laura's contribution, among others. I think that Laura had learned these survival skills, this incredible competence and practiced it in her own life. And I think that the deliciousness of all those how-to chapters was really and absolutely undeniable pure Laura contribution.

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I think that we have a caller who's interested in talking about just exactly that kind of - no, that caller went away. So forget that caller.

I'm very - I'm really fascinated to think, though, that should we continue to be very much in love with Laura Ingalls Wilder and read her books to our children or - Judith, do you think you have discovered something about them that should put us off?

Ms. THURMAN: Absolutely not. I think that this has been known to Laura Ingalls Wilder scholars for a while. Many people, including John Miller, who is Laura's - one of her best biographers, has known about it and written about it as well as William Holtz and various other people, whom I quote in the piece. I think it's actually - I think it actually adds a fascinating dimension of reality and of struggle to the saga, that it's also the mother and the daughter together. It's a notion of interdependence as opposed to complete autonomy, which is one of, in a way, one of the political slants of the books, that these pioneers needed nothing from anybody, that they were completely self-sufficient. I think it's one of those teachable aspects of this series that there really is no such thing as perfect self-sufficiency, that we're all beholding to each other and to strangers in many ways.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, all of this poverty and all of this struggle created a couple of very conservative, politically conservative people in Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter.

Ms. THURMAN: Deeply, especially Rose. Rose has been called the - one of the mothers of the libertarian movement. She - they had both been Democrats. Rose had actually flirted with communism. They were followers of Eugene Debs at the turn of the last century. But their experience of hardship somehow made them less rather than more sympathetic to people struggling to survive. They felt that you were on your own and you better take care of yourself and not ask for anything from others.

WERTHEIMER: And they did it, and so therefore…

Ms. THURMAN: Well, they did it, sort of, and therefore - there you have it. But Rose's views really hardened. They took a very, very, very sharp turn to the right during the Depression. And she at one point expressed murderous hatred for Roosevelt. She says she, at one point, wrote to a friend that she had been - would have been willing to kill him herself if she had thought there was another leader who would save the country from what she saw as a path to ruin. And she got all - she became quite cranky and quite slightly mad in her virulent opposition to anything emanating from the federal government.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Judith Thurman is a contributor to The New Yorker. She joined us from our bureau in New York City. You can find a link to her article, "Wilder Women," on our Web site at npr.org.

Coming up, we remember Robert Novak.

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