Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page
An unvarnished look at the unlikely “Little House” series author whose autobiographical fiction helped shape American ideas of the frontier and self-reliance.
Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page
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Young woman:"Once upon a time, 60 years ago,
a little girl lived in the big woods of Wisconsin
in a little gray house made of logs.
The great dark trees of the bigwoods stood all around the house
and beyond them were other trees and beyond them more trees.
There were no people."
Narrator: When Laura Ingalls Wilder
told the stories of her childhood,
millions of young readers were spellbound.
For teachers, the "Little House" books were a perfect primer
on the settling of America,
written by someone who was there.
Harper: "I realized that I had seen and lived it all --
all the successive phases of the frontier --
first the frontiersman,
then the pioneer,then the farmers, and the towns.
And then I understood that in my own life
I represented a whole period of American history."
Anderson: Laura Ingalls Wilder
is the quintessential American pioneer.
Thousands of people had very similar experiences
as Wilder and her family.
But her storytelling made that an adventure story.
Young woman: "Pa and Ma were still and silent on the wagon seat,
and Mary and Laura were quiet, too.
But Laura felt all excited inside.
You never know what will happen next,
nor where you'll be tomorrow,
when you are traveling in a covered wagon."
Fraser:She's almost like a folk artist.
The novels as she left them are almost works of folk art
that capture the attitudes of the time.
Narrator: After more than 30 million copies sold,
and a long-running TV show...
Laura: Home is the nicest word there is.
Pa: One of the nicest, that's for sure.
Narrator: ...the "Little House" books
are a part of the American fabric, and so is the woman
who based them on her extraordinary childhood.
Anderson: We have the image
of this wonderful, white-haired, pretty lady
telling America's kids all these great stories.
That became an urban legend.
Narrator: To her readers, Wilder's novels
were a wondrous achievement from a humble farm woman
who seemed to have perfected her craft all on her own.
They had no idea the books emerged
from a hidden collaboration with her daughter, Rose.
Fraser: Rose's role in this is not to be dismissed.
Anderson: Friends of hers ask her,
"What did you have to do with your mother's books?"
And she cut them off very sharply.
It was a deep, dark secret.
Hill: I think all good writers are mysterious in some way.
What was real and what was not real in their lives?
Fraser: They're wonderful family stories.
They show us who we want to think we are.
We want to think that we're self-reliant pioneers.
We want to think that that's the truth about ourselves.
But when you examine that fantasy, you realize
that the reality was much, much, much more complicated.
Sarah: There are two Lauras.
There's Laura of the book,
and there's Mrs. Wilder,
who used to be Laura.
Harper: "All I have told is the truth
but not the whole truth."
Fiery: "Mrs. Laura I. Wilder,
Rocky Ridge, Mansfield, Missouri.
Dear Mrs. Wilder,
I like the material you have used.
It covers a period in American history
about which very little has been written,
and almost nothing for boys and girls."
Narrator: The news from a New York editor was unexpected.
And at 64, Laura Ingalls Wilder
was on her wayto becoming a children's author.
The manuscript, "When Grandma Was a Little Girl,"
was spun out of a memoir Wilder had written
called "Pioneer Girl."
It showed promise, but it needed more work.
Fiery: "Would you be willing to make some editorial changes
on your manuscript?
The more details you can include
about the everyday life of the pioneers,
such as the making of the bullets,
what they eat and wear, et cetera,
the more vivid an appeal
it will make to children's imaginations."
Narrator:"When Grandma Was a Little Girl"
turned into"Little House in the Big Woods,"
and that turned into something else entirely.
Harper: "When to my surprise the book made such a success
and children all over the U.S.
wrote to me begging for more stories,
I began to think what a wonderful childhood I had had."
Narrator: So began the "Little House" series --
Wilder's eight books about growing up and moving West.
Running through them all, she later said,
were her parents' values.
"When possible, they turned the bad into good.
When not possible, they endured."
Harper: "Sister Mary and I loved Pa's stories best.
We never forgot them, and I have always thought
that they were just too good to be altogether lost."
Narrator: And when Wilder preserved her father's stories,
she made him a mythic figure -- always looking West.
Her readers would come to know Charles Ingalls as Pa,
just as she did.
Charles Ingalls was born in Western New York in 1836,
one of nine children.
Fraser: Charles Ingalls came from a family
of not great means and some insecurity himself.
He was born in Cuba, New York.
His father didn't have his own land,
is working as some kind of laborer.
Narrator: Mottos and slogans of the day
said, "Go West, young man, and grow up with the country,"
and the Ingalls family did just that, heading out to Illinois.
Fraser: This is for sure Charles Ingalls' first exposure
to the prairies.
This may be the time in his life
when he is exposed to music.
Maybe gets his fiddle in this town or crossroads in Illinois.
Narrator: But for all the opportunity advertised,
the family never found it.
They eventually moved on to Wisconsin.
Fraser: There's not a lot of stability in -- in this family.
They're working. They're trying to make a living.
They're not really succeeding for any length of time.
They can't really put together enough of a stake to last,
and so that's Charles' youth.
And he will basically hew to that pattern
for most of the rest of his life.
Narrator: In Wisconsin, Charles Ingalls' family
befriends the Quiners who live across the Oconomowoc River.
Charles courts Caroline Quiner, and they marry in 1860.
Harper: "Mother was descended from an old Scotch family
and inherited the Scotch thriftiness
which helped with the livelihood.
Although born and raised on the frontier,
she was an educated and cultured woman.
She was very quiet and gentle, but proud and particular
in all manners of good breeding."
Hill: Their personalities were very, very different.
Caroline was more quiet and reserved.
Charles Ingalls was more outgoing,
a poet, a hunter, a musician.
That's how Laura Ingalls Wilder came to think of her father.
Wilder: Pa holds his fiddle,
and he nearly always sat in his chair when he played
and kept time to the music by patting his foot on the floor.
Hill: He was the more romantic of the two, I think.
But they had a very solid, very happy marriage.
Harper: "The spirit of the frontier
was one of humor and cheerfulness
no matter what happened,
whether the joke was on oneself or on the other fellow.
Strangers coming West possessed or acquired that spirit
if they survived as Westerners.
My parents possessed this frontier spirit
to a marked degree."
Narrator: Charles and Caroline's early years together
were marked by the Civil War.
But another war hit closer to their Wisconsin home.
Fraser: The incident that is mentioned
in "Little House on the Prairie,"
the U.S. Dakota war of 1862,
happened five years before Laura was born.
Beane: The Dakota War took place
because of a number of broken treaties,
broken promises between this government and Dakota people.
The people who did fight in the war
were fighting to protect the rights of our families
to remain in our homeland and to remain Dakota.
And they were very, very violent battles that took place.
And the media coverage that happened during that era
was media coverage that wastrying to incite fear in people.
Fraser: The Ingalls would've known all about that because
they were living just across the Mississippi in Wisconsin.
[ Chuckling ] Wisconsin as a state was --
was scared spitless,
because the refugees came flooding back
across the river into Wisconsin.
So all the Wisconsinites thought that they were next,
you know, that they were going to be attacked.
White women at that time did feel great fear
And, you know, Wilder, years later,
I think she was rem-- remembering the fear
that her mother must have expressed
and the racism that her mother clearly felt.
Narrator: 1862 also brought the Homestead Act.
In exchange for a small filing fee, men and women,
freed slaves and immigrants,
were given the chance to own and farm 160-acre plots.
American Indians continue to be forced off tribal lands
in the rush to settle the Great Plains.
McDowell: That was really the push of the day.
It was push out, you know, Westward expansion.
Let's get the churches built and the schools built
and the railroad built
and connect the whole country from coast to coast.
Narrator: Charles and Caroline settle into a log cabin
near Pepin, Wisconsin,
where they are surrounded by family and neighbors.
Their first daughter, Mary, is born
just as the Civil war is coming to an end.
Laura arrives two years later, in 1867.
Young woman:"Once upon a time, 60 years ago,
a little girl lived in the big woods of Wisconsin
in a little gray house made of logs.
The great dark trees of the bigwoods stood all around the house
and beyond them were other trees and beyond them more trees.
There were no people. There were only trees
and the wild animalswho had their homes among them."
McDowell: When I compare Laura Ingalls Wilder's writing,
I think of Thoreau talking about Walden Pond.
It's that same sort of connection
to "how I built my cabin, how I lived, and what I saw."
Narrator: When Laura is 2,
the Ingalls leave the log cabin bound for Kansas.
Harper: "Pa stopped the horses and the wagon
they were hauling away out onthe prairie in Indian territory.
'Well, Caroline,' he said,
'Here's the place I've been looking for.'"
Narrator: Charles and his family
settle near Independence, Kansas,
where their third daughter, Carrie, is born.
Fraser: They settle on land that it's pretty clear he knew
was not available
for white settlement at that time.
It belonged to the Osage Indians.
The logs that Charles Ingalls used
to build the little house on the prairie
did not belong to him.
They belonged to the Osage.
It was an act of theft.
Certainly wasn't seen so at the time
by people like Charles Ingalls.
But now it's quite clear that it was.
Erdrich: The idea that this was empty space --
It was shocking to me that I hadn't noticed that,
but I was a child.So this is how children read it.
They read these books
with a complete sense of storytelling
and faith in these books.
Narrator: "Little House on the Prairie," Wilder's third novel,
would describe her family's time
in what she called "Indian country."
Fraser: She also portrays the child, Laura,
as having a fear
but also a deep fascination with
what she describes as these, you know,
wild people who were completely different.
That kind of encapsulates
the very strange attitude that whites had at that time
towards these people as if they were,
first of all, not people,
that they were something that could be
had for the taking.
That is one of the things that makes that novel,
I think, one of the most important documents
about the history of that time.
Narrator: Laura is barely 4 when the Ingalls leave Kansas.
The family returns to Wisconsin,
and the next three years of Laura's life
are spent in the cabin near Pepin.
Harper: "When the work was done,
Ma would cut out paper dolls for us
and let us cook on the stove for our play house dinners.
She taught Mary how to knit.
She said I was too little,
but sitting by and watching,
I caught the trick first."
Fraser: Wisconsin seems to have been
probably the most stability
that they might have ever experienced
if they had just stayed.
They seemed to have been able
to kind of eke out an existence there.
So they might have saved themselves
quite a lot of toil and trouble if they had stayed.
But they didn't. [ Laughs ]
Narrator: The Ingalls' second stay in Pepin
became the basis for"Little House in the Big Woods."
The time frame was shifted a bit for the novel.
When she wrote for children,
Wilder eliminated and embellished,
shaping and stretching her own history.
Fraser: And I think, ultimately,
writing the "Little House" books
was her was her way of trying to process
all that had happened to her
both in positive and negative ways.
She was both revisiting the closeness
and the love she had for her family.
But she was also reliving the terror
of their experience, because on many occasions,
they did face ruin or starvation
Narrator: Disaster was looming when the Ingalls
moved West to Minnesotato start a new life in a dugout.
Fraser: The Ingalls family comes to
this area near Walnut Grove in 1874.
And they settle in this place called Plum Creek
which is a beautiful spot.
And they begin all over again. He builds a house.
She calls it the beautiful house.
I think it was one of the nicest places
that they'd ever lived. [ Chuckles ]
And then, of course, he plants this beautiful crop.
And it's growing very nicely.
Harper: "The weather was just right,
and the crops grew and grew.
He said the grain was all soft and milky yet,
but it was so well grown,
he felt sure we would have a wonderful crop."
Fraser: The wheat is coming up.
And it's gonna pay all their debts.
[ Laughing ] And, you know, they --
they've built castles in the sky on this crop.
And then they hear their neighbor screaming.
Harper: "'The grasshoppers are coming!
The grasshoppers are coming!' she shrieked.
'Come and look!'
And then we saw that the cloud was grasshoppers,
their wings a shiny white
making a screen between us and the sun."
Narrator: It's 1875,
and the Ingalls have just experienced
the Rocky Mountain Locust Invasion --
trillions of grasshoppers
in a cloud that covered nearly 200,000 square miles.
Grasshoppers would again ruin a second Ingalls' harvest
the following season.
Fraser:The grasshoppers eat everything.
And how, you know, heartbreaking that must have been
because it just destroyed all of their hopes
in a matter of hours.
Narrator: The locust plague appears true-to-life
in Wilder's fourth novel, "On the Banks of Plum Creek."
Hill: What I think is really striking
is that her account in "Pioneer Girl,"
which is essentially nonfiction,
traces fairly closely to what she did
in the fictional version in "On the Banks of Plum Creek."
It's -- It's relatively close.
Young woman: "It was a cloud of something like snowflakes,
but they were larger than snowflakes,
and thin and glittering.
Light shone through each flickering particle.
Plunk! Something hit Laura's head and fell to the ground.
She looked down and saw
the largest grasshopper she had ever seen.
Then huge brown grasshoppers were hitting the ground
all around her, hitting her head and her face and her arms.
They came thudding down like hail.
The cloud was hailing grasshoppers.
The cloud was grasshoppers."
Anderson: The devastating grasshopper plagues
ruined their chances of successful farming.
Narrator: In Walnut Grove, Caroline gives birth again.
This time, it's a boy they call Freddy.
Charles, now deeply in debt, signs a pauper's oath --
a public acknowledgement that he is destitute.
It allows him to receive food for his family --
in this case, 2 1/2 barrels of flour.
Sarah: It is not well-known that he signed a pauper's oath
during the grasshopper plague, and that was --
I mean, that would've been a huge blow.
To swear anything, to swear any kind of oath was --
We don't appreciate what that means today.
He was writing down on paper, "I am a pauper.
I cannot support my family.
I need help."
And that's so counter tothe Pa that we're familiar with.
Anderson: And they were essentially so in need of funds
that Charles Ingalls concocted a scheme
that they would move to Burr Oak, Iowa.
Narrator: And the downward spiral continues.
Caroline is sick, and there are more doctor's bills.
On the way to Burr Oak, baby Freddy dies.
Harper: "Little brother was not well, and the Dr. came.
I thought that would cure him as it had Ma
when the Dr. came to see her.
But little brother got worse instead of better,
and one awful day, hestraightened out his little body
and was dead."
Hill: Probably the biggest omission
that Wilder made in the "Little House" books,
the biggest deviation from her real life,
was the family's experiences in Iowa
and the loss of baby brother Freddy.
Freddy died very suddenly.
He was only 9 months old.
And Laura Ingalls Wilder chose not to write about him
or the family's experiences in Iowa.
Fraser: Charles Ingalls,
he's again heavily in debt to doctors.
In fact, at one point, you know, the doctor's wife in Burr Oak
approaches Caroline Ingalls about possibly adopting Laura
as a kind of surrogate daughter/household worker.
Narrator: After the birth of the last Ingalls daughter, Grace,
the doctor's bills and debt become insurmountable.
Fraser: If you got in debt to somebody,
there were legal ramifications for that.
And so they end up leaving Burr Oak
in the middle of the night.
Charles Ingalls loads the whole family
and all their belongings in the wagon.
And they just flee the town, flee their debts.
I mean, she just would not have dreamed
of saying that, I think, in a book for children.
Harper: "Sometime in the night, we children were waked
to find the wagon with a cover on standing by the door
and everything but our bed and the stove loaded in.
Then we climbed inand drove away in the darkness."
Fraser: You see her again and again trying to grapple
with her -- her father's failures as a provider.
[ Chuckling ] You know, and there's this sort of tragic
sentence in one of her manuscripts
where she writes, "Pa was a good farmer.
He always paid his debts" --
you know, complete fantasy.
Narrator: In her fiction,
Pa moved the family West in a straight line.
The truth was a different story.
It was a meandering journey.
By time she was 14,
Laura lived in at least 15 different homes.
Sarah: The trajectory in real life is very zig-zaggy.
In the books the -- the movement is attributed
to Pa's wandering foot
and to this Westward pull that he experiences.
But the reality looks more like
he's just -- he's bouncing a bit.
He tries something, and it doesn't work,
so he has to go backwards and try something new,
and that works for a bit.
And then he gets a better idea, or it doesn't work.
It's a lot of trial and error.
Narrator: By the late summer of 1877,
the Ingalls family is zig-zagging once again,
back to Walnut Grove.
Fraser: Laura begins working in a hotel
for a family called the Masters family.
She's exposed to all kinds of shenanigans in that hotel.
It's sort of a, you know, slightly squalid,
dangerous atmosphere for a kid.
In fact, one of the Masters' wastrel sons
almost seems to have tried to abuse her or attack her
in the middle of the night one night.
And she fights him off
by telling him that she'll scream
if he does anything to her.
Harper: "One night, I waked from a sound sleep
to find Will leaning over me.
I could smell the whiskey on his breath.
I sat up quickly.
'Is Nannie sick?' I asked.
'No,' he answered, 'Lie down and be still!'
'Go away quick,' I said, 'or I will scream for Nannie.'
He went, and the next day, Ma said I could come home."
Fraser: It shows you just how kind of out of control
the whole situation had become.
Narrator: Then Mary, who had been sick for several months,
became gravely ill.
Harper: "She was delirious with an awful fever,
and one morning when I looked at her,
I saw one side of her face drawn out of shape.
Ma said Mary had had a stroke.
After the stroke, Mary began to get better,
but she could not see well.
As Mary grew stronger, her eyes grew weaker
until when she could sit up inthe big chair among the pillows,
she could hardly see at all."
Narrator: Mary likely had viral meningioencephalitis,
and her blindness deeply affected Laura.
Hill: When Mary went blind,
Pa charged Laura with being Mary's eyes.
And that role of describing the world,
describing what was happening in the outside world
for her sister
made Laura more aware of the outside world,
more aware of the importance of vocabulary and description.
And I believe it went on to make Laura
the writer that she actually became later on.
Narrator: Mary's blindness is attributed to scarlet fever
in the novel "By the Shores of Silver Lake,"
which follows the family
to what would become De Smet, South Dakota.
Charles Ingalls has a job as a bookkeeper
with the Chicago and Northwestern Railway.
He takes full advantage of the Homestead Act
and files a claim.
McDowell: So, imagine De Smet when the Ingalls first arrived.
We start to lay out a town.
So we go from the railroad, and we start to lay out roads.
They're coming on straight lines.
And from those roads,
we have all of these sections being laid out.
We divide them up, and we have schools.
And we have claim shanties being built.
And we have churches being built.
And we have grocery stores coming.
And Charles Ingalls is building some of those buildings,
so it starts to become a town.
Narrator: And Charles is one of its founding residents.
Hill: He was on the school board.
He was a city leader.
He was a prominent citizen of De Smet
when they finally settled down.
So, he had this kind of romantic life,
but he was also very civic-minded.
Narrator: De Smet is where Charles and Caroline Ingalls
stay for the rest of their lives,
and it is the setting
for the remainder of the "Little House" books.
Anderson: I think the book that gives us
the clearest picture of hardship is "The Long Winter,"
when they suffered from near malnutrition and were cold
and without supplies and truly isolated
in the community of De Smet, South Dakota.
That's a survival story.
Fraser: The actual event,you know, which was really known
as the hard winter was even more horrific
for the family than she let on in the novel.
They were trapped in this very small house with no insulation
with another family,
George Masters and his wife and their baby.
Sarah: During the Long Winter, there was another couple.
A married couple and their infant son
were with them in the house in town for the entire winter.
They were boarders, and they just seem
to have taken the perspective that,
"We're not part of this family, so we're just going to sit."
They didn't contribute.
Fraser:They did nothing to really help.
And she hated them for the rest of her life.
[ Laughs ] And -- And the wayshe dealt with that in the novel
was to leave them out entirely.
Sarah: She refused to touch that in "The Long Winter."
She wanted that family to be a complete unit,
everybody pitching in equally to see them through.
And she said it would -- It would ruin the picture
that she was trying to make
if she let the Masters family intrude on that.
Harper: "Storms followed storms so quickly
that the railroad track could not be kept open.
The company kept men shoveling snow
and snow plows working all they could,
but the snow plows stuck in the snow
and the snow blew back
faster than the men could shovel it out."
Narrator: At the end of January, there was too much snow
for trains to get through, and food and supplies ran low.
The people of De Smet began to starve.
Fraser: Eventually, they got to the point
where it was clear
that somebody was gonna have to try to go out
during one of these windows of opportunity between storms
to try to find a farmer who had seed wheat.
Narrator: Enter Almanzo Wilder, a homesteader in his 20s,
who volunteered for what seemed like a suicide mission.
Hill: Laura Ingalls Wilder sets up the scene
in "The Long Winter."
We have a great deal of suspense as readers
as to whether Almanzo and Cap Garland
are gonna find that settler,
and if so, can they persuade him to sell the seed wheat.
Ultimately, they do.
And then on the drive back,
there's another blizzard on the horizon.
And Cap and Almanzo make it back into town
just in the nick of time.
It's a really suspenseful, dramatic, kind of scary scene.
This was something that they actually did in real life,
and they saved the town.
Young woman: "And the fear andthe suffering of the long winter
seemed to rise like a dark cloud and float away on the music.
Spring had come.
The sun was shining warm, the winds were soft,
and the green grass growing."
Narrator: By the next November, Mary has gone off to Iowa
to attend a college for the blind.
Wilder: Mary graduated from the Iowa College for the Blind
at Vinton, Iowa.
After graduating, she lived at home with Pa and Ma.
She was always busy helping Ma with the housework
and with her books and music.
She never regained her sight.
Narrator: Laura takes her first teaching position at a school
about 8 miles south of De Smet.
She is 16. And around this time,
Almanzo Wilder begins to drive her
to and from De Smet every weekend.
Skurnick: What I remember most about the romance
is that even when it's not clear that they're dating
but that Manzo still shows up
and takes her home every weekend --
She has not asked.
He has not even said he's going to do it.
He just understands, and he does it,
and he commits and shows his commitment that way.
You know, he's not -- not even doing it so he can see her.
He's doing it so she can see her family.
That is the part of their courtship
that made me understand actual courtship.
Narrator: The courtship continues when Laura returns
to De Smet and to being a student.
During that year, she writes an essay
which reads, in part...
Young woman: "Without an ambition to excel others
and to surpass one's self,
there would be no superior merit.
To win anything, we must have the ambition to do so."
Hill: There's that remarkable scene with Mr. Owen
which occurs in both "Pioneer Girl"
and later in the "Little House" books themselves,
where Mr. Owen compliments the young Laura
on her first exposition, her first writing assignment.
Young woman: "He looked at her sharply and said,
'You have written compositions before?'
'No, sir,' Laura said.
'This is my first.'
'Well, you should write more of them.
I would not have believed
that anyone could do so well the first time.'"
Hill: What I think is remarkable about that
is not only that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote
about the scene both in "Pioneer Girl"
and later in the "Little House" books,
but that she kept the original writing assignment
from Mr. Owen for all of those years.
She still has that, and she has --
And she kept all of her scraps of poetry.
For me, that indicates that Laura Ingalls Wilder
probably had the ambition to write very early on.
Narrator: Laura's school days end
when she takes another teaching job,
this one closer to home and to Almanzo.
By now, they have affectionate names for one another --
Manly and Bessie.
Harper: "'I was wondering if you wanted an engagement ring,'
And I gave a startled gasp.
'That would depend,' I said, 'on who offered it to me.'
'Would you take it from me?' he asked,
and I said 'Yes!'
Then he kissed me good night,
and I went into the house,
not quite sure if I was engaged to Manly
or to the starlight and the prairie."
Narrator: Laura refused to say the word "obey"
in the wedding vows.
It would set the tone for their lifelong partnership.
Young woman: "She summoned all her courage and said,
'Almanzo, I must ask you something.
Do you want me to promise to obey you?'
Soberly he answered, 'Of course not.
I know it is in the wedding ceremony,
but it is only something that women say.
I never knew one that did it,
nor any decent man that wanted her to.'
'Well, I am not going to say I will obey you,' said Laura.
'I cannot make a promise that I will not keep,
and, Almanzo, even if I tried, I do not think
I could obey anybody against my better judgement.'
'I'd never expect you to,' he told her."
Sarah: She had the -- the -- the presence of mind,
the c-- the confidence to say to her future husband,
"I can't promise this."
Speaks to her strength of character.
It speaks to her knowledge of herself.
She knows that she can't do that.
And she feels comfortable enough with him
to -- to put that forward.
And that he accepts it says a good deal about him, as well.
Anderson: Almanzo was perfectly competent
and a strong, hard worker.
But he was willing to defer to his wife.
And they had a unique partnership in their marriage
before most marriages were organized in that fashion.
Before Almanzo made any purchases or changes
on the farm, they consulted together.
And if he would do something rash without asking her,
she made it known thatshe really didn't care for that.
Narrator: They are married in August 1885.
Hill: Laura Ingalls Wilder's first four years of marriage
with Almanzo were extraordinarily difficult,
one financial disaster after another.
Their barn burned down. Their house burned down.
They lost an infant son.
Almanzo suffered a stroke,
and it left him crippled for the rest of his life.
Narrator: Laura would later relive that terrible time
in "The First Four Years,"
a novel she drafted but never published.
Hill: Very few young couples, I think, could have faced
as many crises in the first four years of marriage
as those two did.
The one bright spot in those first four years
was the birth of Rose, their daughter.
Narrator: After surviving so much tragedy in De Smet,
the young family heads south,
eventually landing in the Ozarks,
lured by the promise of "the land of big red apples."
Like her parents before her,
Wilder crosses the plains in a horse-drawn wagon.
She records the trip in a tiny notebook,
leaving a rare glimpse of her emotional self.
Harper: "We crossed the James River, and in 20 minutes,
we reached the top of the bluffs on the other side.
We all stopped and looked back at the scene,
and I wished for an artist's eye or a poet's brain
or even to be able to tell in good, plain prose
how beautiful it was.
If I had been the Indians,
I would have scalped more white folks
before I ever would have left it."
Fraser: She sees the -- you know, the banks
of this -- this river
and is, you know, kind of overcome
with I think everything she's leaving behind.
You know, she feels incredibly melancholy.
I think she felt quite keenly the fact that --
that she and Almanzo
had, essentially, been failures as farmers
and -- and were being driven out of this place
they could no longer stay in
and -- and that there was just nothing to be done about it.
Narrator: Laura is 27 years old.
The part of her life that would become her books
is now behind her.
Narrator: In 1894, the Wilders get their fresh start.
They buy 40 acres with a one-room cabin
and call it Rocky Ridge Farm.
Laura had a clear vision of what it could become.
Harper: "Everything we needed to build it was on the land --
good oak beams and boards,
stones for the foundations and the fireplace.
The house would have large windows
looking West across a brook over the gentle valleys
and wooded hills that hid the town.
The kitchen would be big enough
to hold a wood stove for winter.
And in the parlor...
big book cases filled with books
and a hanging lamp to read them by
on winter evenings by the fireplace."
Narrator: Laura Ingalls Wilder
would live in Mansfield, Missouri,
for the next 62 years,
but until she became a best-selling author,
life was a constant struggle to make ends meet.
The couple always had second and third jobs.
Laura raised chickens and took in boarders.
Almanzo tended to the apple orchard
and delivered kerosene.
Their young daughter, Rose, picked huckleberries to sell
and remembered her childhood none too fondly.
Brenneman: "No one knew what went on in my mind.
Because I loved my parents,
I would not let them suspect that I was suffering.
I concealed from them how much I felt their poverty,
their struggles and disappointments.
These filled my life, magnified like horrors in a dream."
Narrator: In the spring of 1902,
Laura receives word that her father is dying.
[ Bell ringing ]
She travels back to De Smet to see him one last time.
Fraser: It must have been
a really heartbreaking loss for her,
because she always identified strongly with her father.
They loved each other.
She always referred to her earliest memories of him
carrying her, you know, and singing to her,
and, you know, gazing at her.
And I think she felt a security and a closeness with him
that she never felt with anybody else.
Narrator: After Charles dies,Wilder writes an essay about him
filled with the memories and music of her childhood.
Harper: "All Father needed to make him happy was his family,
a new, wild country to live in or travel over,
good hunting and fishing, some traps, his gun,
two good horses hitched to a rain-proof covered wagon,
and his violin."
Narrator: The next year, Rose leaves home
to finish school in Louisiana.
She is 16.
Woodside: She thought that shehad had the worst childhood ever
and she couldn't wait to get away from the farm.
For a long time, she felt that way.
Sarah: She doesn't fit in the world that she's born into.
It's too small. It doesn't suit her.
She was stubborn.
She was very, very forceful, I think, in her opinions.
She taught herself to read.
When she discovered, like, how to write
she just loved the act of writing so much
that she was harming her arm and her hand.
They had to make her stop,
and she was not but 4 or 5 years old.
She just had this fascination right from the get-go
with language, with words, with writing.
Narrator: Fittingly, Rose went on to a career as a writer
and then urges her mother to do the same.
Sarah: Rose had always had this preoccupation
with her parents' financial stability
and for quite some time is urging her mother
to do something in addition to supplement the farm income.
So Rose encourages her to write.
Narrator: And Laura begins writing articles
for the Missouri Ruralist in 1911.
Anderson: Laura Ingalls Wilder earned money
as a country journalist and the secretary treasurer
of the Mansfield Farm Loan Association.
John: The articles that she wrote,
about 1,000 words twice a month,
were stories that helped people under--
mainly women, because it's a women's page --
understand who they were and what they were doing,
how they could be better farmers,
how they could be better community citizens.
It's all about improving people,
making them happier,
and she's a -- she's an ethicist.
Hill: She already had an arsenalof writing skills under her belt
when she started writing the "Little House" books.
Anderson: And I think
Laura Ingalls Wilder's early poverty
challenged her to work hard, use her talents,
and give 120% effort
to edge them into middle-class somewhat security.
[ Train whistle blows ]
Narrator: In 1915, Wilder takes a train to San Francisco
to visit Rose.
Sarah: When the World's Fair is happening in San Francisco,
Laura goes out there with an eye toward learning more from Rose,
observing the Fair, you know, having -- having this broader
sort of pool of experiences to pull from,
and also to be tutored by Rose
so that her writing can be more commercial
or reach a broader audience.
Narrator: Rose is making $30 a week
writing fictionalized, first-person accounts
of criminals, hero cops, and stool pigeons
for the San Francisco Bulletin.
And her stories are advertised as having
"the authority of truth, the power of reality."
Hill: Rose became her mother's editor
and urged Laura Ingalls Wilder to think big,
to think beyond just writing for the Missouri Ruralist.
Narrator: Wilder returns home,
newly determined to find a larger audience.
At Rose's suggestion,she eventually writes an article
about her kitchen.
It sells to Country Gentleman Magazine
Laura appears to have bristled during the editing process.
Brenneman: "I'm sorry that, as you say,
knowing it was my work that soldtakes some of the joy out of it.
Dearest Mama Bess, in some ways, you're like a frolicsome dog
that won't stand still to listen.
Please, please, listen.
All I did on your story was an ordinary re-write job.
You must understand that what sold was your article, edited.
You must study how it was edited, and why,
and just what was done,
so that next time, you can do the editing yourself."
Narrator: When Caroline Ingalls dies that same year,
Wilder publishes an emotional column
in the Missouri Ruralist about her mother.
Harper: "The world seemed a lonesome place
when Mother has passed away and only memories are left us.
Sometimes I wonder if they are our treasures in heaven
or the consuming fires of torment."
Fraser: And it was really remarkable as a statement,
because she's really reacting to her mother's death.
And it shows you how very few
spontaneous remarks we have from her.
Most of what she wrote
was very considered and restrained and controlled.
But that one passage about her mother's death
clearly just came in the moment.
Narrator: Laura turns again to her family memories,
writing to an elderly aunt in 1925
asking for details about her mother's childhood.
Harper: "Dear Aunt Martha, could you, I wonder,
tell the story of those days and any special stories
that you remember about the things that happened then?
Just tell it in your own words
as you would tell about those times
if only you could talk to me."
Narrator: In 1928, Rose --
now Rose Wilder Lane after a failed marriage --
returns home to live at Rocky Ridge.
By now, she has travelled the world
and is a highly paid writer.
With her earnings, Rose builds her parents a modern house
on a corner of the farm, and she spends lavishly.
Then the Financial Crash of 1929 and the resulting Depression
leaves the whole family in terrible straits.
In her diary, Rose recalled just how bad things had become.
Brenneman: "Our accounts are gone. This is the end.
Price levels have fallen below costs."
Narrator: By 1931, Laura hadwritten the story of her life --
Fraser: Writing the memoir is both her lifelong dream --
you know, she has talked about this for a long time.
But it's also very economically motivated,
because I think Laura looks at her daughter
and sees a woman who
has been very successful in a lot of ways,
has made a lot of money.
Woodside: Rose took the manuscript,
and she typed it all up, and she edited it as she went
smoothed it over and gave it a little bit of structure,
but she didn't do much to it at all.
And the next time she went to New York
to try to get work and see her agent,
she tried to sell it.
Narrator: With the Depression on,
a memoir about the harsh realities of frontier life
held no interest for publishers.
"Pioneer Girl" is turned down everywhere.
Without consulting her mother, Rose takes some passages
from "Pioneer Girl,"
turns them into "When Grandma Was a Little Girl,"
and helps launch her mother as a children's author.
Woodside: When you look at"Little House in the Big Woods,"
we see a lot of proof
that Rose had a great deal of involvement in --
in major revisions to that once they were expanding on it.
Narrator:"Little House in the Big Woods,"
with illustrations by Helen Sewell,
was published in April 1932.
The New York Times book review praised
its "refreshingly genuine and lifelike quality,"
noting that "the portrait of Laura's father
is drawn with loving care and reality."
Fraser: I think her relationship to her father
is kind of unique in children's literature in a lot of ways.
There are a lot of bad fathers
[Laughing] in children's literature,
a lot of scary,
punitive, even abusive fathers.
But her relationship to Charles Ingalls
was really special in -- in its closeness.
John: Pa getting down on his hands and knees
and playing mad dog with the girls
and playing his fiddle
and telling all the stories and everything,
I think Pa was an unusual father for the time.
He seems very modern
in the way in which he connected with his girls.
He didn't have any boys.
Maybe that had something to do with it.
Newsreel narrator: "Almost immediately upon taking office,
the new President closed all banks by proclamation."
Sarah: Politically, she's writing at a time
when FDR is in the White Houseand is apparently never leaving,
and she doesn't like him very much at all.
And she feels that people
are just -- can't find their bootstraps.
And I think that informs the way
that she tells the story of her life
to -- to make the Ingalls family so independent
and so self-reliant
when that was not, in fact, always the case.
Newsreel narrator: "Aimed at benefiting the farmer
by reducing wheat, corn, and cotton crops,
the AAA was enacted."
Woodside: They both were sort of physically ill over FDR
and the New Deal.
They felt that it was just
a really inappropriate response to hard times.
They had seen hard times.
Why did the government want to help people?
And Laura thought that everybody was starting to whine
in response to the New Deal.
She just couldn't stand it. It made her sick.
Harper: "Lord, give me patience!
How exasperating a bunch ofCommunists in Washington can be!
[ Sighs ] I suppose all we can do
is await their pleasure.
Give them time enough, and they will put us all
on the Federal payroll or on the relief."
Narrator: Ironically, the Wilders themselves
had already benefited from a federal program --
a farm loan taken when Laura was working
at the Mansfield Farm Loan Association.
Debuting in the early days of the Depression,
"Little House in the Big Woods"
seemed tailor-made for the times.
Fraser: And so I think she had
a bit of a message there for children about poverty,
that it's nothing to be ashamed of.
If there's love in the family, if there's pleasures
in life from a simple meal or from music,
that that's enough in life.
Anderson:Without being overly moralistic,
the "Little House" books stressed
self-responsibility, community cooperation,
taking care of one's needs oneself,
and with these goals, a person could be free and independent.
Narrator: After such a good reception
for "Little House in the Big Woods,"
the question was what to do next.
Woodside: Laura's idea evidently was, "Well, let --
Well, okay, we've done my -- my life story,
so now let's do my husband's life story."
Wilder: "Farmer Boy" was written
from facts and stories Almanzo told me.
They are all true.
The old house just as described in the book
still stands on the old farm where Almanzo worked and played
and went fishing on rainy days.
Woodside: Laura sat down with Almanzo
probably in the eveningsand mined his memory for things,
and she wrote a manuscript of "Farmer Boy,"
and then Rose edited it fairly quickly, and they sent it in,
and they had to rewrite that one completely.
Narrator: As part of improving the manuscript,
Rose took a research trip
to Malone, New York, her father's birthplace.
After substantial revisions with Rose,
Laura resubmits "Farmer Boy."
Raymond: "My Dear Mrs. Wilder,
I have finished reading the new version of 'Farmer Boy.'
And I feel it is a much more cohesive
piece of work than before."
Hill: Somewhere as she was writing that second book,
she began to think in broader terms.
So when we get to "Little House on the Prairie,"
that's a totally different kind of book,
and here, for the first time,
we kind of see Laura Ingalls Wilder's vision
for the series about the West
and about how the West was settled.
Harper: "I am satisfied with the title
'Little House on the Prairie.'
I suggested it thinking it had a selling value
because of the other 'Little House' stories."
Narrator: "Little House On The Prairie"
is followed by "On the Banks of Plum Creek,"
and the books will soon be marketed as a series.
"Plum Creek" is the first of Wilder's books
to receive a runner-up honor from the Newbery Awards,
the coveted stamp from librarians
that signals distinguished children's literature.
Fraser: I think the books had great word of mouth
among librarians and -- and school teachers,
who began reading them to their classes.
Teacher: Describe Laura.
What is her personality like?
Anderson: They simply became part
of many, many teachers' curriculums.
And I think the teachers loved reading the books
and introducing them to the children.
And the children responded well.
Narrator: When "Plum Creek" is about to go on sale,
Wilder appears at the Detroit Book Fair,
her first and only time on a national stage.
There, her description of how the "Little House" books
came to be becomes a bigger and better story.
Harper: "I wanted the children now to understand more
about the beginning of things --
to know what is behind the things they see,
what it is that made America as they know it."
Narrator: With these remarks to booksellers,
Wilder is mythologizing --
about the perpetual promise of moving West...
and about herself.
Sarah: Laura Ingalls Wilder had a lot of responsibility
in -- in forming the myth.
Just always insisted that everything in the books
was true, true, true.
And Rose also, you know, went on with that legacy,
that insistence that this was biographical
more than fiction.
And it's -- it's just not so.
Narrator: And yet at the close of her speech,
Wilder pointedly says,
"All I have told is true but not the whole truth."
Fraser: [ Chuckling ] It's veryclear that she wanted to believe
her own fiction.
You know, she began trying to sell it as the truth.
And so that's, you know, what we keep coming back to it for
is -- is to f-- try to figure that out.
And yet, part of the joy
of reading the books is -- is their emotionalism.
And that's what keeps people coming back to it.
It's not because they're political texts.
It's not because they have something to say about,
you know, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,
although they do.
But that's not why people read them.
Narrator: The letters between Rose and Laura
during writing of the fifth novel,
"By the Shores of Silver Lake,"
reveal how mother and daughter worked together.
Woodside: Rose had the gift of structuring the novel.
She understood if you're narrating a novel,
it must be through whatever narrative voice you choose.
Laura did not know anything about that,
so she would say --
There's a famous letter where she writes her about --
you know, "This is Laura's story.
You must stay inside Laura."
Brenneman: "Try always to make sight, scent,
'So Laura took the lines in her hands,' is better than,
'so Laura drove the black ponies.'
Get it all directly, as sight, emotion,
Don't say, 'It reminded Laura of other times.'
Say, 'This was like other times.'
Stay inside Laura."
Narrator: There were many arguments
over how "By the Shores of Silver Lake" should start.
Brenneman: "Dear Mama Bess,I still think the place to begin
is on the house on Plum Creek.
There are four years to skip if Laura is 12.
She was 8 in Plum Creek when she started to school.
Therefore, the more nearly
you can tie the two books together, the better,
and the house on Plum Creek will do that.
It seems to me that this book is about
railroad and town-building.
Let's get the theme of this one clear right away."
Harper: "Rose dearest,
to make the changesyou want to make in Silver Lake,
it will have to be practically rewritten.
The theme of Silver Lake ishomesteading.
I am sure this is all plain in the story.
I have given you a true picture of the time
and the place and the people.
Please don't blur it.
But I know you won't."
Brenneman: "Dear Mama Bess, you are one of the very few writers
in the country who would turn down a collaboration
with Rose Wilder Lane, but go ahead.
You certainly are handling the material
much better all the time,
and if you don't want this book touched,
you're absolutely right not to have it touched."
Narrator: And if Rose had prevailed,
Mary would never have been blind.
Brenneman: "I am still doubtful about Mary's being blind.
Why? If she must be blind, her blindness
should be brought in as the end of an illness.
I can handle this, if you agree to it.
Only write me a letter
telling me all about what actually happened."
Narrator: But Laura insisted.
Harper: "I can't take Mary along in the story
as she should be if she were not blind.
She would not fit in.
A touch of tragedy makes the story truer to life
and showing the way we all took it
illustrates the spirit of the times and the frontier."
Narrator: Wilder's description of Mary's blindness
is arguably one of the most affecting scenes
in all of her books.
Young woman: "Her blue eyes were still beautiful,
but they did not know what was before them,
and Mary herself could never look through them again
to tell Laura what she wasthinking without saying a word."
Narrator: While they are working on "Silver Lake,"
Rose writes to her mother about their partnership
and gives her very specific advice.
Brenneman: "As to similarity in our writing, of course.
You often write lines and whole paragraphs
that I feel are what I would have written
or, anyway, wish I had.
What you haven't developed is structure,
a kind of under-rhythm in the whole body of the writing,
and a 'pointing up' here and there.
English is an impressionistic language,
an onomatopoeic language.
It has the quality of a sunrise or a landscape,
a meaning in feeling.
Essentially, it is poetry."
Woodside: I would call it a full-blown collaboration.
They were partners in the project.
They conceived it together, they wrote it together,
and they edited it together.
Hill: She was a fine editor.
And I think we're all indebted to her editorial skills
on the "Little House" books.
Fraser: She's not easy to like always,
and yet it's very doubtful
that we -- we would have the "Little House" books
if it weren't for Rose with her encouragement,
her urging her mother on,
her bullying her mother sometimes,
her professional connections
to agents and publishers in New York.
She was crucial in this whole thing.
Anderson: Rose was at the apex of her career,
writing short stories, magazine serials,
novels, and works of nonfiction.
She wanted no taint of being involved with children's books.
The children's book publishing field in the 1930s
and '40s was miniscule
in comparison with what it is today.
And it was simply not Rose's wish to get recognized
as the co-author or editor of her mother's books.
And Rose denied any connection with those books
to her dying day.
Narrator: In fact, Rose had appropriated
her mother's childhood for her own material.
Her novel "Let the Hurricane Roar"
is based on the Ingalls family.
But Rose would become best known for her political theories.
Her non-fiction book "The Discovery of Freedom"
was published in 1943
and became fuel for the founding of the Libertarian Party.
Around the same time, Laura's editor, Ursula Nordstrom,
decides it's time for a new edition and new illustrations.
She taps Garth Williams,
the illustrator of children's book "Stuart Little"
and later "Charlotte's Web."
Williams meets Wilder at her farmhouse in 1947.
Williams: She was very lively.
And she was fixing her garden, and I sat in the car.
She didn't know I was there.
And I watched her, and she was picking flowers.
And she bent right down, and she picked up flowers
without any trouble at all.
And I said, "Well, my goodness,
she looks about 20 or 30 years younger than she really is."
Narrator: Wilder shared her family photos, artifacts,
and the details of her life.
Williams wrote down his impressions.
Man: "An architect would have described the sod house
on the bank of Plum Creek
as extremely primitive, unhealthy, and undesirable.
But to Laura's fresh young eyes, it was a pleasant house,
surrounded by flowers and with the music of a running stream
and rustling leaves.
She understood the meaning of hardship and struggle.
She never glamorized anything,
yet she saw the loveliness in everything.
This was the waythe illustrator had to follow --
No glamorizing for him, either."
Narrator: Shortly before the new editions were released,
editor Nordstrom attended
to some troubling aspects of the text.
A letter from the aunt of an 8-year-old girl
took issue with a passage from "Little House on the Prairie"
that read, "There were no people.
Only Indians lived there."
Responding to the complaint, Nordstrom said...
Woman: "I must admit to you that no one here realized
that those words read as they did.
Reading them now, it seems unbelievable to me
that you are the only person who has picked this up
in the 20 years since the book was published."
Narrator: "A stupid blunder of mine," Wilder wrote.
"Of course Indians are people,
and I did not mean to imply that they were not."
The sentence was changed to "There were no settlers."
Beane: So, there was the line,
"There were no people, only Indians,"
when they're coming into the territory.
And in the 1950s,
they struck out the word "people"
and put in "settlers."
And it still said, "There were no settlers, only Indians."
And why are we "only"? What does that mean for us?
And what message does this give our children?
John: They had been therefor centuries, if not millennia.
So Laura was typical of her times
and not really having an understanding of
or appreciating the Native American history.
Park: Even as a young child, there were parts of the books
that made me really uncomfortable or unhappy,
that I just didn't like reading.
And how this manifested to me personally was
there's a passage in which Laura is fascinated
by an Indian baby's very dark eyes.
Young woman: "Then came a mother riding,
with a baby in a basket on each side of her pony.
Laura looked straight into the bright eyes
of the little baby nearer her.
Only its small head showed above the basket's rim.
Its hair was as black as a crow,
and its eyes were black as night when no stars shine.
Those black eyes looked deep into Laura's eyes,
and she looked deep down
into the blackness of that little baby's eyes,
and she wanted that one little baby."
Park: I had very dark eyes.
So in my childhood mind,
when Ma said horrible things about Native Americans,
it felt like she was saying horrible things about me.
Gay: I think I first started reading the books in 1981.
So we had very different sensibilities then.
It didn't even occur to anyone to think anything
of the depictions of Indians in those books.
And I think that's deeply unfortunate,
and it shows just how much work we had to do
with regards to recognizing the racism of those books.
Narrator: Nordstrom also asked Wilder to consider
cutting a scene from "Little Town on the Prairie"
in which Pa appears in blackface and sings a racist song.
Wilder agreed, and some of the offending lyrics were trimmed,
but the word "darkies" and the illustration
can still be found in the book today.
Hill:I know some colleagues have said
that they wish those scenes would be cut
from new versions of the book.
I don't agree with that.
It's very disturbing, but it is part of our history,
and if we don't talk about these issues honestly
with our children,
we are jeopardizing their future
and the future of our country.
Gay: The books just have to be taught in context,
and the proper context, not revisionist context.
Teacher: Brainstorm in your groups some new names
that may be more respectful to the Native American culture.
Erdrich: What I see these books as, basically,
I would say they're like "Gone with the Wind" for kids.
Kids are certainly gonna love "Little House."
Grown-ups like "Gone with the Wind."
But what is it, really?
It's a way of valorizing
the things that destroyed entire peoples
in this country.
Narrator: The racist scenes
moved the American Library Association to rename
its Laura Ingalls Wilder Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2018, it was changed
to the Children's Literature Legacy Award.
Goldberg: They took the name off of the award
because they didn't feel they could hold up
Laura Ingalls Wilder as a contemporary role model
for young readers.
The books are dehumanizing to children of color.
And they have a lot of really damaging messages
for -- for white children.
Park: I was hurt by those books.
And that took me 50 years to reconcile.
Because the books that we love as children,
oh, they're part of us. Right?
They're -- They're -- They're so much a part of our identity.
Narrator: While her books were growing in popularity,
Laura and Almanzo spent their time downsizing.
They sold most of their land
and moved back into their original farmhouse.
Rose had settled in Connecticut.
And in the fall of 1949,
Wilder's beloved Manly suffers a heart attack and dies.
Her farmer boy,
her steadfast partner of 64 years, was gone.
Hill: Almanzo Wilder, I think, was a very tolerant man.
He had a headstrong wife,
and he had a headstrong daughter.
But I've always viewed Almanzo as being a kind of feminist.
And he certainly emerges that way
toward the end of "These Happy Golden Years"
when he woos Laura.
So I think he gave her the freedom
to be the woman she needed to be.
And for the time, that was very unusual and very rare.
Anderson: After Almanzo Wilder died in 1949, Laura was bereft.
They had had such a companionable,
Fraser: I think she was quite lonely after that.
She mentions being lonely in letters.
Rose came intermittently after Almanzo died.
Laura's health was -- was not great.
You know, she was pretty frail.
There were some kids who lived nearby
who kind of, you know, worked for her.
[ Laughing ] You know, she would pay them a quarter,
and they would go fetch the mail for her.
Anderson: I think she was very gratified
by the success of the "Little House" books.
It was probably the culmination
of her long, hardworking life.
She loved the fact that she had memorialized her own family,
preserved her father's stories,
achieves a degree of financial success.
She loved the letters that children sent to her.
And friends that would drop in would remark,
"I seldom came here to visit Mrs. Wilder
and didn't find her working on her fan mail."
Narrator: A few days after her 90th birthday,
with Rose by her side, Laura dies at home.
Rose, Wilder's only child, would be her only beneficiary.
Rose dies in 1968.
Her New York Times obituary does not mention
her famous mother or the "Little House" books.
Mother and daughter both kept their silence.
It would not be long before researchers found
the evidence of the collaboration between them.
Woodside: It was a shock. It was a total shock.
Well, that was because the two women were heavily invested
in keeping that secret.
Narrator: And though Laura and Rose were gone,
the "Little House" books were about to take on a new life.
After more than 40 years on bookshelves,
Laura Ingalls Wilder's characters
came to life on the small screen.
Gilbert: I remember my mom telling me
that they were going to make it into a television series
and that I was gonna audition for the role of Laura.
And I remember being incredibly excited about that.
Laura: "Look at the country girls."
Made me so mad I wanted to smack her good.
Narrator: Melissa Gilbert played Laura on the NBC TV series
"Little House on the Prairie" for nine seasons.
Gilbert: Loved that book. I loved her character.
I loved the adventures.
I think like all young girls who read those books,
she had me hook, line, and sinker.
And I wanted to be like her.
Little did I know, you know, it was not long later
that I was going to get to play her.
Laura: I beg you to forgive me for what I did.
Narrator: Alison Arngrim played mean-girl Nellie Oleson.
Nellie: You are forgiven.
Narrator: Dean Butler played Almanzo Wilder.
Butler: I had no previous knowledge of these books
or these people before doing the series.
And now I can say with a -- with a great confidence
and happiness that they are a part of my life forever.
TV show narrator: The timeless series you grew up with
comes to life like never before.
Narrator: The show, watched by millions,
has never gone off the air.
It is still in syndication and streaming.
Friendly: And I think one of the reasons why the television show
is so popular is they got to live with this family,
this idealized version of a family,
for nine seasons.
Narrator: Trip Friendly's father, producer Ed Friendly,
turned the books into the TV show,
and it remains a family business.
Friendly: So he had an enormous, abiding love for the West
and for the history of our country
and the settlers and the pioneers.
And I think he felt it was great,
classic American literature
that should be adapted for television.
Skurnick: So the TV show, of course,
as any "Little House" reader will say, it looked wrong.
You know, that's not their house.
That's not the sunlight. That's not the coziness.
That's definitely not Pa!
Goldberg: The drama in the books comes from the hardships
of how they were living,
where they were living, and when they were living.
TV has to always add a layer of sentimentality,
and, you know, there's more humor
in the television show, I think.
They made it more for TV.
They made it more for an audience
that wanted to see the tropes of family television
that they were used to seeing but set in the 19th century.
Gilbert: We also took a lot of dramatic license,
clearly, with our show.
We never left Walnut Grove.
That is not exactly how it went for Laura.
I think our show was an interpretation
of what the "Little House" stories were
applied to that time in America in the 1970s.
Narrator: The TV show brought legions of new readers
to the books.
Butler: I have signed books for the little girl
who got the book from her mother,
who got the book from her grandmother.
Families are sharing these books
and the "Little House" experience together.
I think that's one of the beauties of the show.
Narrator: The renewed interest in all things "Little House"
included the actual houses.
Schodorf: And when the pilot TV show came on,
and it was two hours about Kansas,
and "Little House on the Prairie," out here
in the middle of the prairie near Independence, Kansas,
we started getting streams of cars driving by.
We've lasted for 45 years.
Every year, people come from all 50 states
and 35, 40 countries.
Stan: After the TV show aired,
we had thousands of people coming here.
Because of the crush of people,
my parents couldn't handle them in the kitchen anymore.
Narrator: Today, all of the places
associated with Laura Ingalls Wilder
are museums --
out-of-the-way destinations throughout the Midwest --
for fans looking to connect with the pioneering family
they feel they know.
Redman: I love seeing
how personal some of these items are,
the connection that people have with them,
and just how much they care.
A lot of people really like her library.
They're very interested in what she read,
what her literary influences were.
Pa's fiddle, as well.
Scrivener: I'm David Scrivener, and I have here Pa's fiddle.
[ Cheers and applause ]
[ Fiddle playing ]
Arngrim: Yeah, if you had told me that 45 years later,
40 years later, we'd have these events and TV shows
and go to these sites,
never in a million, trillion years
if you told me that I would be talking to people
from every country on earth
who would be crying at meeting me
and the rest of the cast... impossible.
Narrator: The yearning to know more about the beloved author continued.
In 1971, "The First Four Years," Wilder's book
about the early, difficult days of her marriage, was released.
Its different style and tone raised new questions.
By that time, Rose's role was already being examined.
Woodside: The amazing thingabout this is that scholars knew
and were writing about Rose's involvement from the 1970s,
but people just didn't accept it.
Narrator: Later in her life,
Rose became known for her politics.
Woodside: Rose was sort of a rock star, in today's slang,
to the Libertarians.
Narrator: And some passages,
particularly in the last two "Little House" books,
suggest her political hand at work.
Young woman: "She thought --
Americans won't obey any king on earth.
Americans are free.
That means they have to obey their own consciences.
No king bosses Pa. He has to boss himself."
Woodside: Many of us, myself included,
did not realize the political undertones
to much of the series and did not understand the ways
in which political messages were put into dramatic scenes.
I think that, for Laura, it wasabsolutely not conscious at all.
I think, for Rose, it was her idea of what is truth.
So, in that sense, it wasn't conscious, either.
It was Rose being Rose.
NARRATOR: "Pioneer Girl,"
Wilder's early attempt to tell her story,
appeared in 2014,
84 years after it had been written.
It quickly became a publishing sensation,
as Wilder's 19th-century stories climbed
to the top of 21st-century best-seller lists.
They resonate to this day.
Sarah: The popularity
is a really interesting phenomenon to me,
because this is a story of tremendous hardship.
And yet it makes so many people feel so secure.
It's emotional comfort food.
Gay: They were so engaging,
and they were so beautifully written,
and they were so charming.
Like, that I can remember details from those books,
literally, f-- almost 40 years later,
and I still remember the book
the first time I read it as clear as day.
And I can't say that for books I read last week.
Fraser: She's born just shortly after the end of the Civil War
and lives until 1957.
The covered wagon to the atomic bomb is a real stretch.
And, you know, it's -- it's an amazing life,
not only in -- in that sense,
in the sort of larger senseof what has happened to society,
but just what she has been able to achieve.
You know, was born in -- in a log cabin
in the woods in Wisconsin
and barely is able to, you know, put two cents together
and dies with an obituary in the New York Times
celebrating her career as a writer.
So, it was unimaginable, really,what she was able to accomplish.
Narrator: Nearly a century after her first book was published,
Laura Ingalls Wilder's voice is still heard.
Harper: "Dear Children of Chicago,
I was born in the little house in the big woods of Wisconsin
just 80 years ago the 7th of this month,
and I am calling this my birthday party.
The 'Little House' books are stories of long ago.
The way we live and your schools are much different now."
Teacher: Three or four days the blizzard lasted.
That's a long time to sit in a cold shanty, isn't it?
Harper: "But the real things haven't changed.
It is still best to be honest and truthful,
to make the most of what we have,
to be happy with simple pleasures,
and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
With love to you all and best wishes for your happiness,
I am sincerely your friend, Laura Ingalls Wilder."
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