Alright, this is clearly something my friends keep mocking me about. There was this one time, a few years ago, when we were all playing a questionnaire game. I was asked the famous question: “If you could meet anyone dead or alive, who would it be?”. And what did I answer? “Laura Ingalls Wilder”. I was a bit drunk at the moment and, in retrospect, I would probably have changed my answer if only had I known that my friends would still make fun of me today. But when you’re a 20 year old student, the point of the questionnaire game is: when you’re drunk, you tell the truth. That’s the fun of it. [Although this is clearly not an encouragement for you to get drunk!]
I think the source of their hilarity first came from the fact that none of them actually knew that Laura Ingalls did exist in real life. They just had this stereotyped picture of Melissa Gilbert from the TV show “Little House on the Prairie” and the melodramatic/idealistic/over-religious image of the Ingalls family.
The TV Show
But yes, I confess: I also love the show and that’s probably what encouraged me to know more about the real Laura Ingalls. Her own story is slightly different from what Michael Landon showed on TV, though. For instance, Albert never existed in real life, Mary never got married and the Ingalls stayed in Walnut Grove for a very brief period of time. But as the creator/director of the show, Landon always tried to be as close as possible to the historical and social background. The show ran on TV from 1974 to 1983 and was adapted from Laura Ingalls’ Little House series of books.
The first episode starts with the Ingalls family settling in Walnut Grove and the last one – probably the most memorable series finale in the history of television! – features the residents destroying the village after they had been evicted from their houses by a railroad tycoon. The show is still under syndication today – which means that there’s still an audience to watch it – and it’s not lying to say that it impacted at least 2 generations of viewers throughout the world. Surprisingly, I often hear very harsh comments about the show from people around me. Maybe these remarks are just related to the fact that today’s young adults do not want to admit they know the show as well as I do. Or maybe they think that the drama is overexagerated. I don’t know, really… But there’s one thing for sure: the main events the Ingalls family went through are not pure fiction. The death of a newborn child, the strong religious ties, Mary going blind, Almonzo being stricken by diphtheria and partial paralysis, bad weather, lost crops, illness, moving from place to place all the time, etc.: not only all of this happened in real life, but that was also what ordinary people had to face at that time of the US history.
The Real Laura Ingalls
As I wrote in the introduction page of this blog, I’m fond of American history. What I didn’t say though, is that I’m particularly interested in anything related to the pioneers and the conquest of the West. Laura Ingalls is the perfect example of what living in the 19th century West was. She grew up in a pioneer household, moved out many times through wild Midwest territories (Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, Dakota) as her father believed he could make a living as a farmer while the relationships between the settlers and the Natives were still hostile. The family was composed of Mary, Carrie, Freddie (a boy who died soon after being born) and Grace. At 17, Laura married Almonzo Wilder and they got two kids, Rose and an unnamed boy who died shortly after his birth.
But beyond biographical anecdotes, what really is extraordinary with Laura’s life is that this woman lived for 90 years, from 1867 to 1957. Needless to say that she witnessed some massive social, technological and political changes until she died. Let me picture it this way: when Laura was born, the US were still a young nation. Some states were barely inhabited, there were still confrontations with Native Americans who got literally despoiled of their land, and the transportation and communication systems were pretty much inexistent. In less than a century, Laura Ingalls experienced the completion of the Transcontinental railroad that connected the Atlantic and the Pacific coasts, the introduction of the telegraph (and then the telephone), scientific and medical progress, the transition from local to industrial farming and – above all – the US became the most powerful political and military nation in the world. Laura even saw her country engaged in WW1 and WW2, can you believe that considering where she came from?
Rose Wilder started a literary career before her mother. That’s Rose who encouraged Laura to write, and her first productions were initially published in a rural newspaper. With the help of her sister Carrie, Laura started writing the Little House books from 1930, once she got retired and reached a relatively stable financial situation. This period also coincides with the death of her mother Caroline and sister Mary.
After Laura’s death, Rose turned her mother’s house into a museum so as to maintain the literary and cultural legacy of her parents. The Little House books are now internationally renowned and the memory of the author has been, in my opinion, very well served by the TV show.
The Laura Ingalls Wilder Home & Museum is located in Mansfield, Missouri.