What made America great? On the trail of Laura Ingalls Wilder

It was the 2008 crash that somehow inspired me to finally read the Little House on the Prairie books. I was clearly craving comfort, safety, a kind of nostalgia for a vaguely remembered 70s girlhood in which I half watched the Melissa Gilbert TV series and read the first few chapters of the Little House on The Prairie (the third book).

I bought them all in the old Puffins of my youth and, like thousands of other women it turned out, rediscovered their unique power in the aftermath of economic crisis. These were the books The Great Depression couldn’t stop, as the marketing went in the 1930s when Wilder’s fairytale like evocation of a disappearing living memory resonated powerfully in an America struggling through dark times.

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My husband told me the way I kept talking about them with such passion meant I should choose them as my topic for Celebrity Mastermind. And I won! And felt like Laura in that Spelling Bee in which Pa triumphs. You can watch it on YouTube in the side bar widget. to the right here.

Anyway one day I said, I’d go to Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield Missouri to see where she wrote them. And seven years later I did.  Laura Ingalls’ America is on Radio 3 on Sunday December 10th and iplayer after.

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Here I’m posting some of the photos and videos of my trip to Wilder Day there. It was a really moving experience. The warmth, kindness and generous hospitality of the friends and  visitors at the Laura Ingalls Wilder House and Museum will always stay with me. So I take this chance to thank them all and my producer at Whistledown, Anishka Sharma, who somehow managed to weave and squeeze the spirit and complexity of Wilder’s dreamlike, beautiful and often disturbing stories into just 45 minutes.

Three generations of Laura fans

Special mention to Elizabeth Tyre from Texas and her mother, sister and nieces from Oklahoma who reunite for Wilder trips and have visited 10 out of the 11 Wilder family sites across America (just Almanzo’s childhood family New York farm to go) and really captured for me the way Wilder’s books celebrate American women, kindness and joy,  family and rebellious girls.  In the photo above: Back row l-r Jennifer Dohlman, Jonelle Jensen, Elizabeth Tyre. Front row l-r Carmen Dohlman (age 7), Katelyn Dohlman (age 10).

The Fountainhead film 1949 (written by Ayn Rand)

We do explore in the programme the complexity of Wilder’s political legacy. I believe you can love the books but still be troubled by how their version of American manifest destiny reads now. Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane – one of the so-called godmothers of the Libertarian movement, along with Ayn Rand – has undoubtedly tainted Wilder’s legacy. And once you know the connection, it’s certainly interesting to see the link between Pa’s rants about standing on your own two feet in the stories, and the big city fury of Lane and Rand in a film like The Fountainhead.

Laura Ingalls’ America is on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday December 10th 2017

Further listening/reading

There’s more about my trip to Rocky Ridge Farm on the BBC News website.

World Service Business Matters (Dec 9th 2017) – I discuss the business of the Little House books and tourism industry from 14 min 30 sec

Little House on the Prairie and its contested political legacy – New Statesman (Dec 2017)

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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