Laura Ingalls Wilder And Self-Sufficiency

March 15, 2016

61+nU4R9iuL__AA160_If I had to choose the author whose works entranced me most as a child, it would be Laura Ingalls Wilder. My fascination with Laura began in the fourth grade, when I was introduced to Little House In The Big Woods. This book was clearly intended to teach us kids who were living cushy suburban lives what it was like to grow up in a pioneer family. The books, and the seven that followed it, were all about survival and self-sufficiency in places where civilization as we know it had not yet penetrated.

The Ingalls family saga began in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, where they had to eke out a living from hunting and raising crops on small patches of cleared land among the trees, all the while fighting off bears and panthers who roamed the woods freely. When Laura was about four, the family moved on to Indian territory in what is now Kansas, in search of more fertile land. Non-Indian settlement there wasn’t strickly legal yet, according to the Federal government, and both the Feds and the natives took steps to get rid of the interlopers. Then on to Minnesota, where marauding grasshoppers destroyed the family’s crops. Tragedy struck when Laura’s older sister Mary was struck blind as the result of an illness that could not be pinpointed at the time. Although expensive doctors were called in and the bills piled up, nothing could be done for her.

When the Ingalls family moved to Dakota Territory, their final stop, they lived and worked for a while in a railroad camp, where Laura’s father Charles was the paymaster. He was threatened with beatings or worse when the pay was late. Even once the family settled on its own homestead, they dealt with one crisis after another. The weather alone could be a backbreaker. The legendary winter of 1880-81 merited a book of its own (The Long Winter). Summer tornadoes often proved just as destructive.

I didn’t realize as a child that these books were fiction. It was easy to assume that they were literal truth because their level of detail is so vivid. That is why the recent publication of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill, is so intriguing. It features the original memoir that Laura wrote prior to beginning work on her series, including all her misspellings and grammatical errors, and sometimes lapses of memory. Numerous footnotes are included that explain the actual history that inspired the series, and help to separate truth from fiction.

Laura was assisted by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, in shaping the fictional works. Lane was an established author who had written several biographies that crossed the line between fact and fiction, angering some of her subjects. She advised her mother to use similar techniques, but without the pretense that they were straight autobiography. To make the novels more dramatic, yet suitable for children, they altered certain events, created some new and composite characters, and glossed over or excluded some of the family’s grimmest experiences. For example, the family’s sojourn in Burr Oak, Iowa, where they helped to run a hotel, was not included in the series. Presumably their proximity to a saloon, where Laura observed drunkeness and other questionable behavior when not yet a teenager, made it unsuitable for young readers. The death of Laura’s baby brother around this time was also deemed too dark an episode to deal with.

Reading the “true story” has made me aware of a more important omission that, in my opinion, prevents the books from telling the entire truth. Although the themes of self-sufficiency and resilience were genuine enough, they sidestep the fact that there were times when the family needed help from the various governments under which they lived. During their Minnesota sojourn, after the grasshoppers wiped them out, Charles Ingalls was forced to apply for assistance to feed his family. Later in Dakota Territory, after blackbirds had destroyed their corn crop, it appeared that the family’s long-cherished plan to send Mary to a college for the blind in Iowa might be finished. The fictional version of the story dramatizes Charles Ingalls’s decision to sell his heifer calf to raise the necessary funds. This would be a considerable sacrifice, setting him back at least a year in establishing his farm as a fully functioning entity. The true story, however, is that Mary participated in a program established by the Dakota territorial government to educate blind students for five years at the nearest suitable institution.

In our current polarized political climate, there seems to be scant middle ground between those who believe government is an evil force that makes people too dependent, and those who believe government can solve every problem. The moderate voices that ought to be heard are being shouted down by the loudest, rudest voices. I still love Laura and her adventures as much as I ever did. The Ingalls family indeed persevered through many trials and demonstrated great strength of character. But it would have been no shame to admit that from time to time, they and other pioneers needed the sort of helping hand that government programs could provide.

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8 Responses to “Laura Ingalls Wilder And Self-Sufficiency”

  1. Daal Says:

    Great insights about how today’s polarized politics do no good to anyone.

    • lgould171784 Says:

      I agree! I miss the old days when rational discussion between political opponents was possible. I’m old enough to remember the Kennedy-Nixon debates. They presented quite different views, especially about the proper role of government, but refrained from attacking each other. That is how it should be done.

  2. shobasadler Says:

    I love the Laura Ingalls Wilder story too. So much that my husband bought me the whole 10 seasons on DVD for my 50th birthday. Must be so good to read her books and separate fact from fiction. However as you pointed out, the writing may have been influenced by her worldly-wise daughter to be more marketable and thus not entirely factual. So yes, this recent publication of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill sounds fascinating. For fans of Laura Ingalls it would be great to discover which are the facts and which fiction.

    • lgould171784 Says:

      I agree! I was a big fan of the TV series, although being television, it took further liberties with the true story. I highly recommend the Annotated Autobiography as an excellent tool for fleshing out Laura’s story and getting to the (often harsher) truth behind the novels.


  3. No government program is easy to use, but it saddens me to find out that the Little House books’ author changed the existence of a safety network they actually used, however flawed, to hold up the illusion of self-sufficiency.

    I’ve never actually read the books or watched the series, so I can’t comment. Really – we shouldn’t do that! My excuse/defense: I grew up in Mexico, and these were not among the shows dubbed and shown there. Possibly they were too foreign.

    The US government (NOT a monolithic entity) has had programs which removed Native American children from their families – to ‘educate’ them. Some may say to brainwash them. Social services removes children from homes – again, no way a perfect system.

    But at least there is an attempt to help, and the perception that some things are best left to a government which is supposed to be fair. The particular instances when this goes badly wrong should be investigated and the agencies shut down if they do more evil than good, but if we had to rely on communities exclusively to handle problems in their midst it wouldn’t work, which is what those of more libertarian bent seem to want.

    I don’t know the answer, just the questions. I personally have benefited from disability income which, supplemented by private disability through my employer, kept this family middle-class when I got sick.

    I like your calls for moderation and civility; they are sorely lacking and easily shouted down.

    • lgould171784 Says:

      I don’t mean to be overly critical of the Little House books, which I loved as a child and continue to admire. In fact, after reading about the process by which Laura Ingalls Wilder, with her daughter’s editorial help, fictionalized true life experiences while managing to retain the ring of truth, I admire her as an artist all the more. The overriding theme of the books was the resilience of a pioneer family in surviving often harsh conditions, and sometimes what was strictly true was sacrificed to that theme of survival.


      • I understand – and it would have made things more complicated to mention.

        We all have to choose what to put in and what to leave out, as writers, and I wouldn’t make those choices for someone else.

        Without their work, we wouldn’t have these stories – that would be a tremendous loss.

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