I knew the Little House on the Prairie series from my mom reading it out loud to me over the span of many many months. As an idealistic Midwestern youngin’, I felt a connection to the Ingalls family, romanticizing the debilitating diseases, crippling crop failures, and other completely unrelateable nineteenth-century pioneer ailments they experienced throughout their homesteading and pioneering. (Did I take a family vacation to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri? Yes.) And as an only child, I was delighted to learn Laura Wilder’s only daughter aided with the completion of the books. But Judith Thurman’s recent New Yorker article “Wilder Women” explores the lives and politics of both Laura Wilder and her daughter, removing both the series and the women behind it from the rosy lens of American lit-lore.
Laura Wilder’s adult life, as Thurman notes, was “bleaker than even the Ingalls’ had been,” including an infant death, illness, bad farm luck, and almost constant threat of complete destitution. Unsurprisingly, Laura’s writing career only came about in her later years. Rose, however, never felt completely at ease with her mother’s values and eventually found her way to California with a husband (who she would later separate from) and a burgeoning writing career. Even though her formal education had ended after high school, Rose showed incredible aptitude for writing and editing, and began working at the San Francisco Bulletin, soon moving on to larger stints as well as writing “hack” pieces for various magazines and ghostwriting celebrity memoirs. Thurman called Wilder’s work “sensational, if not trashy,” a far cry from the much loved (and translated and franchised) books she helped her mother write.
The Little House series, although not totally idyllic, did offer tales of self sufficiency and survival, but became popular partially due to Rose’s ability to sensationalize anything and her knack for knowing what would sell—which finally landed her mother a book deal during the Depression as well as later endorsements by both Sarah Palin (according to her sister) and Ronald Reagan (the TV miniseries was his favorite).
Thurman notes that both Rose and her mother supported populist politics, but “ultimately, both women’s experience of adversity—or their selective recall of it—made them less sympathetic to the homeless and jobless.” Rose, who had supported union organizer Eugene Debs, lived with bohemians, and mixed with Soviet communists, eventually became known as one of the “mothers of Libertarianism” along with Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson. While one could wonder if her socially conservative politics made it way into my bedtime stories, it seems that Rose saved most of her politics for her later works, which didn’t meet with the critical success of her best-selling pioneer novels.
Thurman’s piece draws from several biographies of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Lane, as well as historical background checks of the Little House series, and attempts to tease out the truth from authors who seemingly disagree over whose hand was guiding whose in the writing process. The historical account of Rose Wilder’s prairie politics, economic exploits, and unforgiving editing (not to mention the striking similarities between the seemingly at-odds mother and daughter authors) paints a far more interesting portrait of the women whose writing and collaboration created a cultural phenomenon of a mythic America (for better or for worse) in addition to a more nuanced (and realistic) family portrait than something out of These Happy Golden Years .