Let me take a step back. Laura Ingalls was born in 1867 in Pepin, Wisconsin (the Big Woods). Between the years 1868 and 1879 Laura moved thousands of miles across the western states with her family (Parents Charles and Caroline, and sisters Mary, Carrie, and Grace) before finally settling in De Smet, South Dakota. Her parents and her sister Mary would spend the rest of their lives in there, while Laura would eventually settle in Mansfield, Missouri with husband Almanzo Wilder.
It’s this time that would eventually become the basis for the enduring children’s series, Little House on the Prairie. Laura was in her sixties when she began writing the first entry, Little House in the Big Woods (1932). Originally intended to be a standalone book, its popularity was immediate and Laura was urged by publishers to write more. Big Woods was followed by Farmer Boy (1933, a book about Almanzo’s childhood in New York), Little House on the Prairie (1935), On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937), By the Shores of Silver Lake (1939), The Long Winter (1940), Little Town on the Prairie (1941), and These Happy Golden Years (1943). A final volume, The First Four Years was published posthumously in 1971 following her death in 1957.
Personally, I’ve always been besotted with the pioneer spirit. I find it to be a strange mix of stern practicality and wistful imagination. The physical work and know-how it takes to build a farm from nothing only to pack up and start over – that takes a certain kind of determination. I can’t fathom the mindset it would take to travel through uncharted lands. The Ingalls were some of the earliest settlers in the Dakota Territory and first family to spend winter in De Smet, when all others packed up and went back East for the cold months. Laura captures this adventurousness in her books and pairs it brilliantly with stories of the mean girl at school or a birthday party in town. So while we may never really know what it’s like to travel months in a covered wagon, we all know what it’s like to deal with a bully. It’s why these stories are so lasting – yes, times have changed, but not nearly as much as we think. And kids continue to respond to and engage with these books.
|That's me at Laura's Little House on the Prairie in Kansas|
I found proof of it recently. Not long ago, I returned from a 10 day, 3,000+ mile road trip that followed in Laura’s steps. My goal was not only to see the sites, but also bring to life this pioneer girl I only knew from a book. I wanted to gain greater understanding of her life by participating in the most tactile way possible. And participate I did, from wading in Plum Creek near her dugout home in Minnesota, to walking through tall prairie grasses in Kansas, to pumping water on her South Dakota homestead, and picking up pebbles by Lake Pepin in Wisconsin (and no, I did not rip my pocket). At each stop my family and I made, there were kids. Mostly girls aged about 8 -12 and mostly dressed in some combination of braids, bonnets, and aprons. These are kids who were so drawn into a book, they wanted to physically be a part of it. I don’t really have an explanation as to how these books have managed to fascinate kids continually for over 80 years (they’ve never been out of print since their initial publication in the ’30s), but I’d like to think it has something to do with the level of independence and self-reliance that Laura demonstrates repeatedly throughout the series. She’s a true free spirit and her stories encourage young kids to get out, explore, and have fun. And honestly, I believe there’s no better message than that.
Interested in learning which parts of her books are true and which are altered? Donald Zochert’s biography Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder is absolutely essential.Want to read about someone else’s experience traveling the Laura trail? The Wilder Life chronicles author Wendy McClure’s journey.
Wait, wasn’t that a television show? Yes, yes it was and Alison Arngrim’s Confessions of a Prairie Bitch is a hilarious account of her time as Nellie Oleson.