This is the full version of my Guardian article published in November 2010, about why I chose her as my specialist subject on Celebrity Mastermind.
What Laura Ingalls Wilder still teaches us about independence, and living through an age of austerity.
‘Before noon Pa said, “Whoa!” The wagon stopped. “Here we are Caroline. Right here we’ll build our house.” Laura and Mary scrambled over the feedbox and dropped to the ground in a hurry. All around there was nothing but grassy prairie spreading to the edge of the sky.”’ (Little House on the Prairie. Chapter 5)
A long time ago, when this journalist was a little girl in 70s London suburbia, the fairy tale prose of Little House on the Prairie with a heroine with identical dark plaits, captured my imagination and fuelled a life long fascination with the American Wild West. Me and my friend Reena played it for hours in the tall trees at the end of her garden; each of us taking multiple parts. To be honest it was the longrunning TV series that I knew, with its blonde “prairie bitch” Nellie Oleson, the rich storekeeper’s daughter, bullying the good hearted Laura Ingalls and her country family episode after episode. A kind of Louisa May Alcott with cat fights. “Desperate Little Women”; really.
And then 2 years ago the Credit Crunch and a milestone birthday made me seek out the 9 out of print Puffins with their famous Garth Williams illustrations on Ebay and I finally read them.
At first I found what I’d expected; happy tales of simple childhood pleasures based on family bonds and the seasons: A corncob for a doll. Sugaring parties after the maple syrup had been gathered in. A house and life made entirely by their own hands – Pa even made his own bullets. Only the nails were “boughten”. Cowboys singing under the stars. There was a Credit Crunch vogue across the Atlantic for Manhattanites to rediscover the Little House books with their own apartment dwelling daughters. Appropriately, enough the first, “Little House in the Big Woods” had been a great success in 1932, and was marketed as ‘the book the Depression couldn’t stop’. But for me there was more than a modish fascination with pre-tech poverty.
“In the seventh year a mysterious catastrophe was worldwide. All banks failed. From coast to coast the factories shut down, and business ceased. This was a Panic.” (Epilogue to The First Four Years)
Here was a woman who recognised “that in my own life I represented a whole period of American history.” Born in 1867 just 2 years after the end of the Civil War, Laura Ingalls was a pioneer girl, whose family moved west to farm the “unpopulated“ Western Prairies. She lived through the coming of the Railroad, the mass eviction of the Osage Indian tribe (documented in “Little House on the Prairie”) to the rise of Elvis Presley. She died at 90 just 7 months before the launch of Sputnik in the Missouri farmhouse she’d bought with her husband in 1894. Having slowly built up prosperity after the great 1893 Panic and banking collapse, the couple saw their life savings wiped out in the 1929 Wall Street Crash.
In her 9 novels—progressively darker and more ambivalent in I found a woman with a robust hatred of debt and credit, and a deep suspicion that only the government and the rich financiers back East made any money out of the great Land Rush dream. Laura married in her black cashmere dress to save the trouble and expense of an elaborate wedding. She refused to say “I obey” in her marriage vows, one can only assume, having seen the disaster brought on her own family by her father’s disastrous decisions to raise 4 daughters in a landscape that demanded such hard labour of its sons. The same reason, she told Almanzo that she wanted to give up farming. But she agreed to see if they could make a go of it in 4 years. Published posthumously in 1971, The First Four Years documents heartrending hardship. Burdened from the start by a massive mortgage, drought, hailstorms and fires destroy their very farmhouse. Almanzo is crippled at 31 by diphtheria. And the book tells of the secret sorrows of women. In one incident Laura recounts her horror as their desperate childless neighbours the Boasts offer her their best horse in return for her baby daughter, Rose. Laura herself lost her only son in infancy.
While she often writes of her desire to be free like the Indians, riding bareback, her “Little House on the Prairie” is built illegally on occupied Osage Indian land and the family live in fear of a massacre. Her father’s bad judgement forces him to abandon it before they are evicted by Federal troops. He buys a Minnesota farm , apparently oblivious to the regular plagues of grasshoppers that, combined with prairie fires and duststorms drive the Ingalls into crushing debt. Her fiancé Almanzo comes back from a trip with tales of Iowa farmers burning their corn, unable to sell it for even 25 cents a bushel. Wilder’s grandfather had once abandoned a property unable to keep up his mortgage payments. In her own life, though never mentioned in the novels, Pa Ingalls fled unpaid debts, after an illfated venture into the hotel trade in Iowa.
“It’s a queer country out here. Strange things happen.” Pa in These Happy Golden Years
Wilder, who was by her 50s an experienced farming journalist, brought an artist’s eye to the remarkable events she’d witnessed. In 1939 when the cyclone-fuelled fantasy of “The Wizard of Oz” appeared in cinemas – Laura had written 5 novels set in the same sinister landscape; but entirely real. In These Happy Golden Years (1943) Wilder recounts how a cyclone whisks away an entire farmhouse, but the front door comes gently back down from a cloudless sky to the exact spot, with every hinge intact. Two boys on a wagon are caught up in the same storm. One survives to describe his remarkable experience inside the twister — his 7 year old brother is found the next day later with every bone in his body broken. An Indian comes to town one day to warn of The Long Winter(1940). I have rarely read as unsettling a book as her account of the family enduring 7 months of near starvation in the blizzards of 1880 to 81. No Hollywood studio ever bought the rights to the books in her lifetime; mainly, it seemed because of the impossibility of staging some of the incredible events of her life – notably the “glittering cloud” of grasshoppers that descends on their Minnesota wheat crop in “On the Banks of Plum Creek” and devours a year’s labour in hours.
And Wilder pioneered new literary terrain, including the very first Young Adult fiction in the later novels – including Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years – which document Laura’s teenage anxieties and romance with touchingly modern woes. Memorably she describes her self-loathing for the “short round girl”, she sees in the mirror, when she longs to be like slender, willowy blonde Nellie Oleson (who really does try to steal her boyfriend). She had to push her publishers hard for the books to be branded and marketed as a series; when they were, they proved a great model for future book marketing. Brought up to be a sentimental Victorian on Walter Scott novels and Tennyson’s poetry, Wilder turned out to be as sharp and no-nonsense a businesswoman in her own way, as the feisty Hollywood characters being played on screen in the 30s by the likes of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
30 years after the last “Little House” novel appeared, she has a special status in American culture. The various sites where her family lived in Wisconsin, Kansas, Dakota and Missouri are now much visited museums. There is an industry of books and merchandise churned out by her daughter’s heirs. The trio of child stars have recently published their own Gen X memoirs of growing up on the “Little House” TV series – notably Alison “Nasty Nellie” Arngrim’s delightfully titled Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. There is a musical. I’m sure Wilder, who once ran for political office and ran a local bureau administering farm loans, would have loved the fact that the TV “Laura” Melissa Gilbert, grew up to head the powerful Screen Actors’ Guild. Walnut Grove near her Plum Creek home, in Minnesota even hosts a biannual “Laurapalooza” celebration.
But the Osage nation, according to biographer Pamela Smith Hill, still condemns her works. In her own life time Wilder apologised for her thoughtlessness and amended a line in “Little House on the Prairie” that said Kansas had “no people, only Indians.” It now reads “no settlers, only Indians”. Another book features her father blacking up for a minstrel turn at a town social. I suspect the accompanying Garth Williams illustration at least may have been discreetly dropped.
But it seems to me impossible to read the books, without appreciating the integrity of what they tried to convey. One woman’s view of a remarkable and sometimes cruel century. One day I know I will take my own family on a pilgrimage to Rocky Ridge Farm, built entirely out of local materials, with its teeny kitchen hand-made to suit her 4’11” frame. Her books, like the Thanksgiving holiday, are a celebration of endurance and survival in the face of disaster – natural and manmade. As Wilder wrote of her family in their Little House in the Big Woods: “They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”
Link to original Guardian article First published November 26th 2010