Having owned, and read repeatedly, the entire ‘Little House’ series as a child, I was already aware that Laura Ingalls Wilder had lived the adventurous childhood of a true ‘pioneer girl’ (the original working title of her memoirs). However, unlike many authors of fictionalised accounts, Ingalls actually downplayed, or omitted entirely, some of the events of her childhood. Like the brother who died in infancy (a particular tragedy at a time when it was still considered important for a man to have a son: Laura had no other brothers), or the time a man in the town where her family was living got drunk and accidentally set himself on fire.
Those were different times, the days of wagon trails and ‘wild Indians’, when school was optional, and childhood illnesses not infrequently left children blind or dead. As in the books, Laura was born in the ‘Big Woods’ of Wisconsin, the second daughter of Charles and Caroline Ingalls. However, they moved to Kansas, where her younger sister Carrie was born, just two years later, and spent four years there before returning to Wisconsin after it was confirmed that the land they were attempting to farm would remain in Native American possession. The family moved several more times over the next few years, during which Laura’s brother Freddie, who died in infancy, and her sister Grace were born, before settling in Dakota Territory when Laura was twelve, at which point Laura’s fictional timeline converges once again with reality.
It was in De Smet, Dakota Territory, that Laura was finally able to attend school, having previously been taught at home with her sisters by her mother, a former schoolteacher. She attended for only a few years before becoming a schoolteacher herself, at the age of just sixteen. She didn’t enjoy teaching, but as a woman it was one of the few means of contributing to the family which was open to her. Two years later, at the age of eighteen, she married Almanzo ‘Manly’ Wilder, ten years her senior. Unlike her father, whose wanderlust had not only kept the family on the move but had also contributed to their limited prosperity, Almanzo came from a well-to-do farming family and had settled on what looked set to be a prosperous claim.
Unfortunately, crop failure and illness plagued the early years of their marriage, killing their second child and leaving Almanzo partially debilitated for years. This period of illness – diphtheria – may also have been the reason why they had no further children. The following years were lean, but not unproductive, as they moved to a farm in Mansfield, Missouri, which is now a museum dedicated to Laura Ingalls Wilder. Over time their fortunes improved, and Laura became locally notable as a poultry farmer, writing a regular newspaper column on the subject.
Then in 1929 the Wall Street Crash left the Wilders struggling once again. Encouraged by her daughter, Rose, Laura began adapting her unpublished memoirs into a series of books for children. Between 1932 and 1943 the eight books that comprised the original Little House series were published, and quickly gained tremendous acclaim as they introduced a new generation to an already-bygone era. Perhaps more importantly for a woman who had endured various degrees of financial insecurity throughout her life, success as a writer at last brought a steady, dependable income.
In 1954 she was the inaugural winner of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, a prize created by the American Library Association to honour writers and illustrators who have made a substantial and lasting contribution to children’s literature.
Almanzo died in 1949, and Laura lied alone until just before her own death on February 10th 1957, just a few days after her ninetieth birthday.