Judith Thurman and Her Wild Women
August 4, 2009 10:20 PM   Subscribe

In April of 1932, an unlikely literary débutante published her first book. This is how The New Yorker's Judith Thurman begins the tale of one Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the enduring Little House series. Those who have read the series may enjoy this glimpse into the story behind these stories, shedding some light on the lives of Laura and her daughter beyond the place where Wilder's books ended.
posted by sarabeth (33 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
(Apologies for the accidentally-omitted quotation marks around that first bit.)
posted by sarabeth at 10:30 PM on August 4, 2009


I have to say that I'm completely disgusted with the Murdoch comapany for dumbing down the originals with picture and "4-7 age" chapter books (I had just turned six and chicken pox had delayed my birthday party when a babysitter gave me the first few to cheer me up in 1974 )and for removing the Garth Williams pictures from the editions kids would be most likely to buy with their allowance.


I had enjoyed the Melissa Wiley books about Laura's Great-grand and Grandmothers and was very disappointed that the company policy compelled her to renege on the rest of the series.
posted by brujita at 11:03 PM on August 4, 2009


"sarabeth" is a very Little House on the Big MetaFilters name.
posted by pracowity at 12:26 AM on August 5, 2009


Thanks for the post. The wikipedia bio of Laura was particularly interesting for me. I had several of her early books read to me when I was a kid and remember loving them (and being deeply disappointed by the TV show). I like the fact that Laura and Almanzo ended up in Florida at one point. That seems all wrong in my mind's eye.
posted by rongorongo at 4:00 AM on August 5, 2009


Thanks for posting this. Those books were a big part of my childhood. I read them when I was very young - maybe eight years old. I'll never forget how heartbroken I was when Laura's sister went blind - I ran to tell my mother what had happened.

As I got a little older, though, I wondered about the moral certainty the books had - people were good or bad, actions were right or wrong. There was something very dogmatic in "Laura"'s attitude to the world. Things were black or white. And things in the books were simple, and not complicated like real life. So I'm fascinated by this grown-up take on these lives, and on the history of the books themselves.
posted by tiny crocodile at 4:14 AM on August 5, 2009


I loved these as a kid too and tried reading them to my kids...total fail. I don't know if my mom was editing them or if the books just seemed good compared to looking out the window on a boring car ride, but damn, those books are sloooooooooow and packed with filler.
posted by DU at 5:09 AM on August 5, 2009


I haven't read them, but I knew girls who loved them. That was in the days before MTV and cable and home computers and videotape players, though. Maybe your kids (and now you) have been trained to need a more continuous barrage of things that go flash and boom.
posted by pracowity at 5:53 AM on August 5, 2009


I have two boys who aren't interested in the books, but I refer to the stories when they're asking for yet another toy. "Laura Ingalls played with a corncob and a pig's bladder, and she was grateful, dammit." This is my "walking to school in the snow uphill both ways" speech times one hundred.
posted by bibliowench at 6:08 AM on August 5, 2009 [7 favorites]


Thanks for this! My mom read these to us as kids, using different voices for the different people. LIW made being a pioneer seem so glamorous. My favorite is about the long winter, where she meets Almanzo.

I attended college in upstate NY; the dorm where I lived for 2 years was called Wilder. I always wondered whether it was named after Almanzo's people.
posted by orrnyereg at 6:29 AM on August 5, 2009


No mention of Nelly "Prairie Bitch" Olson? I am sorely disappointed.
posted by Ber at 6:42 AM on August 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


I read the books as a child, and watched the TV show; a few years ago, I was volunteering as a visitor in a local seniors' home and my schedule conflicted with reruns of Little House on the Canadian country music channel, so I basically watched Little House with old people every week and sometimes held hands.

Despite having read the books and watched the entire show run probably three times now, it never occurred to me until I read that article -- chalk this up to the incredible charisma of Michael Landon -- that Charles Ingalls may well have been batshit insane.
posted by Shepherd at 6:50 AM on August 5, 2009 [5 favorites]


I came to the Little House books a little later than most kids, mostly because I was too busy reading lurid blockbusters like The Exorcist, Valley of the Dolls, Sybil and Scruples. (What HORRIBLE taste I have!)

I remember reading them and thinking that Charles Ingalls was a wackadoo and a bit of a failure. I also remember these books as being racist and sexist. (It was the seventies.)

Many kids think of the books as being romantic and charming tales of a time in the past. I think of the books as a catalog of the hardship and brutality of western expansion.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:14 AM on August 5, 2009


This was great! I loved the books when I was younger, read the first three over again every year (all three were consolidated in one of those omnibus editions) when I was very young and then probably graduated to the next books in the series when I was in second grade.

It strikes me only now that the books got more complex and more sobering as you moved through the series. Their life was never easy, but what I remember from the first few books is the general store and Nellie Oleson's antics, and what I remember from the last few is the bitterly cold winter and the hunger and the drought and the degree to which the women were always expected to sacrifice.

Same thing with Anne of Green Gables and Louisa May Alcott's books now that I think about it--everyone knows the first few books, and the first few books are far more joyful, but the farther along you get the less anyone remembers. And these women described the road to adulthood in ways that seemed appalling when I was 9 or 10.

I wonder if going through the books too quickly contributed to my remarkably withdrawn and depressed pre-teen existence? I might just hold The Long Winter back an extra year when my kids read the books, if my kids even read the books.
posted by besonders at 7:49 AM on August 5, 2009


I just reread the whole series last winter. They gave me much needed perspective on our winters here in Iowa. At least I don't have to tether myself to the house to go feed my dog.
posted by bayliss at 7:49 AM on August 5, 2009 [4 favorites]


Just finished reading LHotP to the 7 year old. When the Ingalls kids got a piece of candy and a penny for Christmas, my daughter was flabbergasted.
posted by unixrat at 8:04 AM on August 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


damn, those books are sloooooooooow and packed with filler.

Do you mean the several paragraphs/pages devoted to making a door latch, planing a floor, turning a wagon into a temporary house ? Those are the best parts.
posted by pernoctalian at 8:12 AM on August 5, 2009 [4 favorites]


Seconding pernoctalian, furiously! I loved these books as a child, thought the TV show was crap even then, and still reread the books today (usually when I don't feel good). The wealth of historical detail fascinated the young Scratch and astounds me still. Imagine, after a long day's ride, having to make your bed. MAKE your bed. Out of trees. Imagine.

Tiny Crocodile wrote: As I got a little older, though, I wondered about the moral certainty the books had - people were good or bad, actions were right or wrong. There was something very dogmatic in "Laura"'s attitude to the world. Things were black or white. And things in the books were simple, and not complicated like real life.

Let's keep in mind that they are children's books, and furthermore they're children's books written by a product of the Victorian era. Moral certitude was the name of the game. Much of children's literature is not intended to provide a complex worldview. I'm certainly not defending white racism (as portrayed), but I don't think it's fair to judge the books as something they're not.
posted by scratch at 8:33 AM on August 5, 2009


Same thing with Anne of Green Gables and Louisa May Alcott's books now that I think about it--everyone knows the first few books, and the first few books are far more joyful, but the farther along you get the less anyone remembers. And these women described the road to adulthood in ways that seemed appalling when I was 9 or 10.

This also happens in the Harry Potter series.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:43 AM on August 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Growing up in the 70s/early 80s, I loved both the books and the TV show. It occurred to me years later that my favorites in the series (On the Banks of Plum Creek, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years) were the ones in which the family were more connected to "civilization" and prosperity. The real hardship ones, like Little House on the Prairie and The Long Winter, were never as appealing.

I also identified with Mary much more than Laura (which felt vaguely ironic since my first name is Laura), since she was always more intellectual, low-key and "ladylike," even before she went blind. Wanted to wear a sunbonnet to keep my skin white, managed to get a hold of one (at Disney World of all places) and embarrassed my mother no end by insisting on wearing it at day camp, where one of the counselors informed her that it was OK these days for little girls to get a suntan. Poor dear, she had nothing to do with it. (Of course, in those days sunblock wasn't the big thing for kids that it is now, and I have to wonder if a kid who didn't want to get a tan nowadays would be more welcome in a day camp!)

My now-11-year-old stepdaughter read all of the LIW books in fourth grade after reading an excerpt from By the Shores of Silver Lake in school. At that point, it was a HUGE breakthrough because she'd pretty much refused to read books about humans, rather than animals (I think Beverly Cleary's books were the one exception). The Little House books (and their contemporary follow-ups about Martha and Caroline and Rose) changed all that, and she'll pretty much read anything now. I'm hoping that something similar will happen to her younger sister, who's going into fourth grade this year and has little to no interest in literary humans to date.
posted by dlugoczaj at 9:10 AM on August 5, 2009


Thanks for this fascinating post, sarabeth.

Having grown up my first almost nine years in the lush and joyful tropics, when I arrived in NYC in the early 1960's, reading Little House On The Prairie seemed so alien. The life described felt overbearingly austere and morally heavy. Yet there was something alluring in the simple hardiness of their lives that I was drawn to and which felt familiar when I got to know the Tibetan people a bit over a decade later.

I admit to loving the TV series and have happily cried a hundred times watching them, grateful to watch shows about a non-dysfunctional family, parents who loved each other, loved their children and were loved; shows about kindness, self-sacrifice, redemption of character, difficult lessons well learned.

What is so surprising reading the article linked is learning about the real life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. She sounds very narcissistic, if not a pathological narcissist, not at all a loving mother. Her daughter, Rose, seems to have suffered from a lifetime being criticized, devalued, unsupported, unappreciated, nitpicked and, sadly for her, remained enmeshed with her mother as an adult, getting her own back in her editing of her mother's books.

Interestingly, Rose, was the writer by profession and encouraged her mother, Laura, to write the books, coaxed her, helped her with the character developments, rewriting and editing portions in an almost punitive way. How strange it seems that Rose, who was initially much more of a Dorothy Parker bon vivant type, would have had such a major hand in helping her mother write these books about austere life on the pioneer time prairie. Something about an unspoken shadow in the book's writing, that left me feeling a bit disturbed in ways I couldn't articulate before, makes more sense to me now.

I can't help wondering if Rose, whose life seems to have been a typically that of an adult child of a narcissist parent, didn't encourage her mother to write the books as what she would have wanted to have experienced as a child, parents with integrity and loving kindness. Mind boggling that she went from bon vivant to survivalist radical, living austerely in her old age.

What I concluded reading the wonderfully written New Yorker article is that the truth of life is never Hallmark card cute or simple, although people seem to want it to be or appear that way, all too often for political reasons, to lord it over others. Authenticity and reality are unceasingly entertaining in their complexity and unexpectedness.
posted by nickyskye at 9:12 AM on August 5, 2009 [5 favorites]


If you never read any of the Little House books, you couldn't have possibly enjoyed Oregon Trail with the same imaginative fever I brought to the game. When you were naming your children "Fartface," and "Buttmunch," I was naming mine "Laura" and "Grace."

I adored these books, starting in third grade. I found Little House in the Big Woods on the shelf in my third grade class and was hooked; I've read them all at least 10 times, with the exception of Farmer Boy* and The Long Hard Winter**.

I loved the "how to" chapters to the point that I convinced my mom to buy me the full set of Foxfire books at a garage sale in the misguided hope that, as a Latina 8 year old in the suburbs, I would somehow become a prairie girl in hand-sewn calico frocks who could make poultices from garden herbs and churn butter like a champion.

I used to wander the dry Southern California flats of dead grass in my elementary school and make up stories about fighting off bears and living in a hollow hill and sleeping wrapped in hand-pieced quilts in the rollicking back of a covered wagon.



*I've read it but WHATEVER BOYS ARE GROSS

**I've read it but man, long and hard is right. Most bleak children's book ever. However, this is where I learned the term "soda crackers" for "saltines."
posted by Juliet Banana at 9:40 AM on August 5, 2009 [9 favorites]


I loved the Little House books as a kid, and didn't get the (significant, as I reread them now) problems with Ingalls Wilder's portrayal of Native American Indians.

Fortunately, Louise Erdrich has written an equally great series, set in the same era, from the perspective of an Ojibwa girl the same age as Laura. The "Birchbark Books" are beautifully written and fascinating.

I gave both sets to my goddaughter (8) and she thinks the Birchbark Books are more interesting, but she devoured the Little House books with delight as well. I recommend the combo!
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:15 AM on August 5, 2009


What is so surprising reading the article linked is learning about the real life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. She sounds very narcissistic, if not a pathological narcissist, not at all a loving mother. Her daughter, Rose, seems to have suffered from a lifetime being criticized, devalued, unsupported, unappreciated, nitpicked and, sadly for her, remained enmeshed with her mother as an adult

I think the jury's going to remain out on the true nature of Laura's and Rose's relationship. It's hard to know what went on. Not many of Laura's letters to Rose have survived. Rose claimed to feel unloved, but she was very likely bipolar and not the most reliable narrator. Their relationship does seem to have been fraught with unresolved childhood issues much longer than it should have been. But then Rose spent so much of her life single, and was childless. Perhaps she just had to find some relationship intensity somewhere. She did have a pattern of becoming over involved with her friends's problems and too generous with the protegés she would repeatedly take on, and it led to the breakdown of many a relationship.

I have always been given pause by two facts concerning Laura's treatment of Rose, however. Laura never read any of Rose's books, which is astounding to say the least. And once, when Rose left her dog with her parents and it didn't get along with Laura's dog, Laura ordered the hired man to shoot Rose's dog. Rose's reaction to this was not recorded, but given her obsessive love of her dogs (total child substituted) I can only think that incident led to a hair-pulling match.
posted by orange swan at 11:51 AM on August 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


From Wikipedia link:

Laura, The Prairie Girl (animated series, 1975)
Japanese cartoon series of 26 episodes (about 24 minutes each), originally entitled Sôgen no shôjô Laura.


In which the Ingalls family must defend themselves from many-tentacled spirit beings from another dimension that threaten to commit unspeakable acts against the womenfolk. The fortuitous discovery of giant mechanized robots allows Pa and Laura to save the day.
posted by MasonDixon at 12:14 PM on August 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also of interest is a thirty year old book by Donald Zochert "Laura - The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder" that I believe was one of the first efforts to research documentation outside of Wilder's narratives to prove or disprove things found in the book series. It's been ages since I read it, but I think there is at least one chapter devoted to finding their homestead in Kansas, and it is also the first time I'd ever read anything about the Ingalls family's disastrous period of time in Burr Oak, Iowa (this is where Laura's brother Charles was born and died a short time later). It also pokes big holes in the very first book, Little House in the Big Woods, by realistically calculating Laura's age and concluding she would have been too young to remember anything in such vivid detail.
posted by kuppajava at 12:42 PM on August 5, 2009


Thanks for that link, kuppajava. That may be something I read several year ago - does it mention the things in the original manuscripts that Laura evenutally nixed - some mob violence against criminals and other adult material?

As far as the relationship between Laura and Rose, what it comes down to for me is that many people got along with Laura as long as they knew her while Rose didn't have many stable relationships - certainly not long-term.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 1:16 PM on August 5, 2009


I love love love the LH series and re-read it every couple years. I was in second grade and started with Plum Creek not realizing it was a series. I quickly went back to the beginning and read them all. I give LIW full credit for my love of books.

Over the years I've collected a bunch of non-fiction as well, including the Zochert book. I also recall it being the first real adult biography of LIW. It includes the period they lived in Burr Oak, Iowa and the short life and death of a brother born between Carrie and Grace.

I think it's about time to read through my collection again.
posted by deborah at 8:37 PM on August 5, 2009


What wonderfully interesting comments in this thread. I'm so interested in those who know details of Laura's and Rose's lives.
posted by nickyskye at 10:38 PM on August 5, 2009


It also pokes big holes in the very first book, Little House in the Big Woods, by realistically calculating Laura's age and concluding she would have been too young to remember anything in such vivid detail.

LIW may not have remembered the details from her early childhood, but I'll bet she heard the stories about it throughout her life around various fires, in the evening, after the chores were done.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:52 AM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, and the books are fiction. We could look at LIW (with the editorial help of Rose) as the first "true enough" memoirist.
posted by scratch at 6:30 AM on August 6, 2009


It also pokes big holes in the very first book, Little House in the Big Woods, by realistically calculating Laura's age and concluding she would have been too young to remember anything in such vivid detail.

The Ingalls actually lived in Wisconsin twice. Laura was born in Winconsin, and then when she was still very young (about two) her family moved to Indian Territory in Kansas. After her family was forced to leave Indian Territory, they moved back to Wisconsin rather than proceeding directly to Minnesota as in the books. Laura and Rose wrote Little House in the Big Woods about this second sojourn in Wisconsin, and when the book was successful had to fudge the timeline in order to be able to write a sequel about the Ingalls' experiences in Indian Territory. Carrie, for instance, was actually born in Indian Territory, but Laura had already included her in Little House in the Big Woods. When you read the series, it does seem as though Carrie takes an unconscionable length of time to grow up. It is not until On the Banks of Plum Creek that Laura's character is the age she actually was and that the books were written primarily from Laura's own memories, rather than from her research or from her parents and Mary's accounts of events.

That may be something I read several year ago - does it mention the things in the original manuscripts that Laura evenutally nixed - some mob violence against criminals and other adult material?

There's an account here of a family named the Benders who kept an inn in Kansas, and how travellers who had been seen going down their road were never seen again, and that the Bender garden was always freshly plowed but never planted. It was discovered that the Benders had been murdering the guests who stopped at their inn and burying them in the garden. There was a vigilante manhunt for the Benders, and Laura claimed her father had taken part. This wasn't true, however. The facts don't check out. I'm looking for the debunking.
posted by orange swan at 6:51 AM on August 6, 2009


Ah, there is a debunking in the reader comments further down on the page I linked to in my last comment. The Ingalls left Indian Territory in 1870, and the Benders weren't active in their inn/muder business until 1873, so there was no way Laura could remember stopping at the Benders' place as she claimed, or that Charles Ingalls could have been a member of the posse that hunted for them.
posted by orange swan at 7:06 AM on August 6, 2009


An afterthought. I really love Judith Thurman's writing and just discovered that her excellent Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, which I adored reading in the late 80's and one of my favorite biographies ever, is now online.
posted by nickyskye at 6:41 PM on August 6, 2009


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