Laura Ingalls Wilder: Happy Birthday, Half-Pint!
Today marks the birthday of one of America’s most beloved children’s book authors: Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was born on this day, February 7, 1867.
Laura was in her sixties when she decided to write her memoirs. She already had many years’ experience writing farm-related articles for the Missouri Journalist newspaper. (These are available in a compilation book, Laura Ingalls Wilder: Farm Journalist.) Her original manuscript, Pioneer Girl, which she wrote by hand in lined notebooks, was rejected by several publishers. This is when her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, already an established author herself, had the idea to edit the long manuscript into separate books, specifically for juvenile readers. Finally, success! The first installment was Little House in the Big Woods, which was published in 1932. The story covered the time period when Ma, Pa, Mary and Laura lived in a tiny cabin, deep in the woods of Wisconsin.
The other books in the “Little House” series are: Farmer Boy (this is a book about the childhood of Wilder’s husband, Almanzo), Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years. The last book is the only one not edited by Rose, and reflects Laura’s own style, which was decidedly less polished, but still very good. These Happy Golden Years was published in 1943 and Laura died in 1957, so perhaps she never intended The First Four Years to be published as the last book in the series. Rose died in 1968. It was Roger MacBride, the executor of Lane’s estate, who made the decision to publish the manuscript in its original form.
The Little House books are mostly true, which some modifications. Laura’s original manuscript contained many incidents that were not suitable for children. These dark tales came to life in November 2014, with the publication of The Annotated Autobiography of Pioneer Girl, edited by Pamela Smith Hill. (Hill is an author of historical fiction, and had previously written a book about Laura called A Writer’s Life.)
The enthusiasm and demand was unexpected. Pre-orders for the book exceeded the original planned print run of 15,000 copies. The South Dakota Historical Society Press scrambled to print more for the holiday season. The first three print runs sold out immediately. Customers who ordered it through Amazon had frustratingly long waits until they got the book in their hands. To date, the heavily annotated and meticulously indexed book has sold over 145,000 copies.
So, what of those “dark tales” I mentioned? There were several memorable incidents in Wilder’s life that were purposely left out of her books, because they were just too scary for kids to read. Like the time Laura was boarding with a couple by the name of Bouchie. Laura awoke one night to the terrifying sight of Mrs. Bouchie, apparently driven mad by the hardships of prairie life, wielding a butcher knife and threatening to kill her husband.
Perhaps even more disturbing, was the incident where young Laura, hired as a live-in babysitter, opened her eyes one night to find the man of the house standing over her bed. He told her to lie still and be quiet. Brave Laura threatened to scream if he touched her. Half-Pint, nearly raped? Imagine that!
At one time, the Ingalls family lived in a hotel (in Burr Oak, Iowa) that was adjacent to a seedy saloon. How bad was it? Well, the door had bullet holes, courtesy of a drunken man shooting at his wife! Also in Burr Oak, Pa witnessed a man accidentally set himself on fire and burn to death. The unfortunate fellow been drinking whiskey, and when he lit a cigar, the alcohol fumes on his breath ignited, and well… you can picture the rest. This time period was also a tragic one for the Ingalls family on a personal level, as this was when Laura’s infant brother, Freddie, died. It’s no wonder she never wrote about the Iowa years in her Little House books!
The annotated Pioneer Girl is also interesting as a study of the mother-daughter relationship between Laura and Rose. They didn’t always agree on what to put in and what to leave out of the books, as the reader learns in the book’s introduction. In Hill’s words, “they quarreled frequently.” It was Rose’s idea to write the books from the point of view of a child, and in the third person, telling her mother that “‘I’ books do not sell well.” Laura conceded, but warned Rose not to “blur” the truth too much.
On that note, stay tuned for Part Two of my Laura Ingalls Wilder blog tomorrow, when I will compare Laura’s real life to its blatantly unfaithful reinvention for the famed TV series, Little House on the Prairie!
Happy birthday, Laura!