'Little House,' Big Demand: Never Underestimate Laura Ingalls Wilder Wilder's memoir reveals that she witnessed more violence than you'd ever know from her children's books. The South Dakota State Historical Society can barely keep up with demand for the autobiography.
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'Little House,' Big Demand: Never Underestimate Laura Ingalls Wilder

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'Little House,' Big Demand: Never Underestimate Laura Ingalls Wilder

'Little House,' Big Demand: Never Underestimate Laura Ingalls Wilder

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Some childhood mysteries, we try to hold onto with all our might, but others, well, offered a peak behind the curtain, we snatch it. Case in point - last year the South Dakota Historical Society published the annotated autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the "Little House" books. Her memoir, titled "Pioneer Girl," sold like hot johnny cakes fried up in bacon drippings. The initial print run of 15,000 was snapped up in just a few weeks. Last week, another 15,000 copies were sent to hungry readers, and now the Historical Society is waiting on a third run of 45,000 copies. Nancy Koupal joins me now. She's director of the South Dakota Historical Society Press. Welcome to the program.

NANCY KOUPAL: Thank you.

BLOCK: What do you think accounts for the demand? You underestimated the demand that was out there.

KOUPAL: Yes, we did. Everybody who has ever read a "Little House" book really has been fascinated by Laura Ingalls Wilder and her life, and this book offers an opportunity to get behind the scenes and see what that life was really like.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about that a bit because the "Little House" series was the fictionalized version of Laura Ingalls Wilder's life. This memoir is the real deal, and I gather there's some key differences that emerge very quickly. One, that life - her real life was surrounded by a lot more violence - drinking, domestic abuse. These things were around her.

KOUPAL: Yes, and most of that sort of thing that occurs in her autobiography actually happened in one-year timeframe. And that was the year that the family was in Iowa, and that year is not a part of her fiction at all.

BLOCK: What are some examples? What do we learn in the memoir about what happened in that year in Iowa?

KOUPAL: Well, we find out that Laura was in a compromised position with a young man. She was caring for his wife, and the young man was drunk and came into her bedroom, and she challenged him and he left. So it was, I suppose you would say, a near miss.

There was a story of a drunk who took a huge slug of whiskey and then lighted a cigar and managed to light his lungs on fire - some tragic episodes. I think that time in Iowa was a time when the family was at a very low ebb financially, and it just was not a happy time. They didn't have a home of their own for the most part, they were living above stores, and it just was not a good time in their lives.

BLOCK: You know, I'm really hoping, Nancy, that the scene where Laura and Mary inflate the pig bladder and toss it as a ball - I'm really hoping that happened in real life. Is that in the memoir?

KOUPAL: You know, I don't recall that it is. I don't believe it is. Sorry to burst your pig bladder.

(LAUGHTER)

KOUPAL: No, I don't think that's there. But I'm sure it's a detail that Laura would have remembered and may have filled in on the path to fiction.

BLOCK: Well, you now have - what? - 45,000 more copies of the memoir on the way. Do you figure that's enough to fill the demand? I mean, especially now - we've given you a big, national platform here. (Laughter) Probably a lot of Laura Ingalls Wilder fans are listening right now.

KOUPAL: Exactly. It is enough to fill the current demand and some left over, so that's all I can say because every time we guess we - the number just gets bigger for us. It's been pretty exciting.

BLOCK: Well, Nancy Koupal, thanks so much for talking with us.

KOUPAL: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Nancy Koupal is director of the South Dakota Historical Society Press, publisher of the Laura Ingalls Wilder annotated autobiography, "Pioneer Girl."

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