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The reality behind the “Little House on the Prairie”

Larissa Harris

For many years, the “Little House” books and television series were a family favorite, leaving us with fond childhood memories of the adventures of the Ingalls family.

These American children’s novels were written by Laura Ingalls Wilder who told the story of her youth, living in the American Midwest at the end of the 19th century.

The very popular screen adaptation of the books, “Little House on the Prairie” ran from 1974 to 1983 and starred Michael Landon as Pa and Melissa Gilbert as the plucky Laura, aka Half-Pint.

Little House in the Big Woods, original cover.

Little House in the Big Woods, original cover.

The series ran for nine seasons and became so popular that they created a new generation of readers. As an author, Wilder tried to present a rather idealistic and romanticized picture of her life, based mostly on the writings in her 1930s autobiography Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography.

However, a recent edition of Wilder’s first draft, published by South Dakota Historical Society Press, showed a more realistic and harsh portrait of the Ingalls’ family life.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, c.1885.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, c.1885.

The first book in the series, Little House in the Big Woods, was published in 1932 when Wilder was 65 years old and brought her instant success. It sold 60 million copies worldwide and was translated into 33 languages.

Laura Ingalls was born in Wisconsin in 1867 and grew up with her Ma and Pa and her sisters Mary, Carrie, and baby Grace. The frontier family lived in improvised log cabins and frame houses and grew their own food.

Carrie, Mary, and Laura Ingalls.

Carrie, Mary, and Laura Ingalls.

Living in such remote parts of the country they had to be completely self-sufficient, making their own clothes as well as furniture. Contrary to the novel, the realistic events in Wilder’s family story included a dead baby brother and a bankruptcy that led the family into starvation. Laura married Almanzo Wilder at the age of 18 and had a baby girl the following year.

Caroline and Charles Ingalls.

Caroline and Charles Ingalls.

Her life was far from easy. The new family struggled to make ends meet on their homestead, their second child died young, and even their house burned down. Almanzo was struck by several boughts of diphtheria and later suffered from a stroke that left him crippled.

‘Little House On The Prairie’ Author’s Name Removed From Book Award

The new version of her autobiography describes 16 years of travels through the Midwestern states that were accompanied by famine and poverty. It makes clear that being constantly on the move was not down to Pa’s romantic wanderlust, but due to natural disasters or poor growing seasons, and other times from not being able to prove their right to land they had set up home on — one time they had to leave a homestead in “Indian Territory” because they were illegally squatting. The family were also guilty of sneaking out from Burr Oak, Iowa, in the night, to escape from debts.

Little House replica at the Little House Wayside.

Little House replica at the Little House Wayside.

Nancy Tystad Koupal, director of the autobiography’s publishing house, stated for the Associated Foreign Press: “At the time, life was hard. Violence was typical. It was part of the pioneers’ life. We also wanted to explore her relationship with her daughter Rose, who was her editor and the one who convinced her to write her memoirs. Then, we wanted to show the difference between fiction and reality.”

For Wilder, hard life didn’t mean just facing the consequences of the family’s impoverished condition but also an alleged attempted sexual assault by the father of the family for whom she was working as a live-in help, aged 11 or 12.

Little House on The Prairie, c. 1970. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Little House on The Prairie, c. 1970. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Despite life’s hardships, Rose Wilder prospered and became an assistant at a newspaper in 1915. Her career included writing for various magazines and newspapers as well as traveling extensively in Europe.

Her friends considered her to be a highly educated person with a wide range of knowledge. For a while, she worked as a ghost-writer for celebrity biographies but was also a successful journalist.

Rose Wilder Lane, journalist and writer, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on the Prairie.

Rose Wilder Lane, journalist and writer, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on the Prairie.

The fruits of Rose’s career bought a house and a Buick for her parents, although they were very enthusiastic about it. In time, Rose became intensively engaged in politics as a libertarian and was one of the founders of the American libertarian movement.

Read another story from us: Stripping the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder from a children’s literature award causing anger

Laura, on the other hand, never left the family nest and kept on writing under the name Mrs. A. J. Wilder. She wrote a weekly column about housekeeping and cooking for the Missouri Ruralist. She died in 1957 at the age of 90 while her husband passed away several years earlier, at 92 years old. Their daughter Rose died in 1967, aged 81.