Author Feature: Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs…” began our third grade teacher, Mrs. Schrepfer on a cold, gray Monday in January. As she continued to read aloud to our class, I was transported from a 20th Century classroom, to the pioneer era of the Big Woods in Wisconsin. Wolves, wild cats, muskrats, mink, otter, bears, panthers and foxes roamed the vast, wooded landscape. A log cabin inhabited by Pa, Ma, Mary, Laura and Carrie was located at the perimeter of the enormous, dark trees. Near the cabin was a wagon track which ran before the house, twisting and turning until it reached the town of Pepin, Wisconsin. Life in the Big Woods was simple. Pa hunted, trapped and farmed, while Ma cooked, kept house and took care of the children. Mary and Laura would help Pa and Ma with their work. They carried wood chips to the smoke house, dried the dishes, made up their trundle bed each day, and with a little help from Ma made candy from maple syrup and snow. Christmas was a time for fashioning homemade gifts, baking bread, crackers, pies and cookies. It was also a time for spending with loved ones who came to spend the holiday. Sundays were solemn, with the minutes ticking slowly by. Spring heralded the start of the maple syrup season which concluded with a dance a grandpa’s home. Summertime was for playing out of doors, while fall brought the wheat harvest employing the wonderful machine. Jack Frost announced the arrival of winter, while Pa’s fingers danced over the fiddle making music in the firelight. “She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.” As Mrs. Schrepfer closed the book, she added that the book, Little House in the Big Woods was a historical fiction selection, based on the real life adventures of the author, Laura Ingalls Wilder.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder was born on February 7, 1867, in the log cabin she would immortalize in her first novel, Little House in the Big Woods. Charles Ingalls, her father, was an outgoing individual who loved reading and music. He was an accomplished farmer, musician, hunter and carpenter. Her mother, Caroline Ingalls, was a teacher before her marriage to Charles Ingalls. Caroline was a devoted wife, mother, friend and neighbor. Laura was one of four children. In her Little House books, Laura wrote extensively about her siblings Mary, Carrie and Grace. However, she did have a younger brother named Charles, who died at the age of nine months. During Laura’s childhood, her pioneer family moved through the states of Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota. Later in life, these moves would provide the backbone for her pioneer stories. It is interesting to note that during Laura’s childhood that her education was eclectic.She was educated at home by her mother, attended a local school whenever possible, and practiced the discipline of self-education. In 1882, a fifteen year old Laura received her teaching certificate. Her first teaching assignment was at a one room schoolhouse located twelve miles from home. It was during this time that her parents sent a family friend named, Alamanzo Wilder to bring her home for the weekends. During their weekly wagon ride Laura and Almanzo developed a friendship which blossomed into a courtship. On August 25, 1885, Laura and Almanzo were married. Laura gave birth to a daughter named Rose in the winter of 1886. 1889-1890 was a year which brought one disaster after another for the Wilder family. The death of an infant son, diphtheria which partially paralyzed Almanzo and the destruction of their home by fire were trials this pioneer family faced. The next four years would find the Wilder’s drifting through life. However, in 1894, Laura and Almanzo purchased a 200 acre farm in the Ozarks which they named Rocky Ridge.  Life at Rocky Ridge Farm consisted of building the farmhouse, raising livestock and establishing Rocky Ridge as a working farm.

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It was during the Wilder’s journey to the Ozarks in which Laura began her career as a writer. She kept track of an account of their travels through South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas in a journal. The journal entries were then submitted to the De Smet News for publication. Later, Laura’s journal entries would be published as the book On the Way Home: The Diary of a Trip from South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri, in 1894. In the 1920’s through the encouragement of her daughter Rose, Laura began to write the story of her childhood which was entitled Pioneer Girl. Although the manuscript was submitted to various publishers, it was not accepted for publication. Rose Wilder Lane saw the potential her mother’s book possessed. As a journalist and novelist, she provided her mother with constructive criticism on how to improve and expound on the manuscript of Pioneer Girl. This mother-daughter collaboration resulted in the 1932 publication of Laura’s first book, Little House in the Big Woods which tells the story of the author’s childhood in Wisconsin. The next book in the series, Farmer Boy, tells the account of Almanzo’s childhood in New York State. Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years were published subsequently. Originally, the Little House series was illustrated by Caldecott nominee, Helen Sewell. In 1953, Garth Williams was commissioned to create new illustrations for the Little House books to coincide with the series reissue by Harper Collins publishing. Laura was seventy-six years old when she finished writing the last book in the Little Houseseries. In her later years, Laura remained at her beloved Rocky Ridge Farm with Almanzo. It was here that both of them lived out their “happy golden years” together, and where they both passed on from this world into the next one.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series has been enjoyed by children of all ages for eighty-four years. Her legacy is a first-hand, narrative account of the westward movement as seen through the eyes of a little girl named Laura. I know of no other series which gives a detailed account of this particular historical time period. As a third grader, I was captivated not only by the storyline, but also by the author’s style of writing. After our teacher would finish a book in the series, I would check it out from the school library. As I re-read the story, I would study the author’s  characterization, plot, theme, setting, atmosphere, mechanics, and writing quality. I would copy portions of the story to get a feel for how Laura wrote. I would author my English writing assignments emulating Laura’s narrative literary tone. My teacher even remarked on one of my papers that “Your writing style is reflective of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s. Keep up the good work!”

Since the first publication of Little House in the Big Woods in 1932, the Little House series has been on the best seller lists for children’s literature. The books are available today in hardcover, paperback and e-book formats. Many families, like ours, choose to visit the historical sites and museums while reading through the series. http://littlehouseontheprairie.com/historic-locations-and-museum-sites/

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After eight decades, you may wonder what special ingredient makes this series still appealing to children and adults alike. I believe it is Laura’s comment which provides us with the answer: “It is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.”

Kathy Alphs

(This article first appeared on the Beautiful Feet Blogspot, April 28, 2016)

 

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