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The Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Readers reflect on the lessons — and context — of the "Little House" books she wrote

By Kevyn Burger

In this year of pandemic, Deb Thompson repeatedly found her thoughts turning to Laura Ingalls Wilder. Not the acclaimed American writer who chronicled her pioneer childhood in a series children's books, but the girl herself.

Laura Ingalls Wilder books, Next Avenue
Credit: PBS

"This year, we had to do without. We have food and electricity, but when we ran out of things, we had to make do," said Thompson, 51, a travel writer from Cadillac, Mich.

"In random times, Laura came to mind. Being without didn't tear her down, it built her up. I was home for two months with just my husband. When we finally went shopping, I thought of Laura's joy in going to town and I thought, girl, I'm feelin' ya."

Thompson remembers checking out the "Little House" books from her small-town library. She read them again as an adult before taking road trips to towns where Laura Ingalls lived with her sisters and parents.

And she found that the pull that had drawn her to the stories and the settings still held.

For thousands of fans of the books, the lessons and themes woven into them have proven influential, as "sticky" (as the modern parlance would say) as the syrup the homesteaders tapped from sugar maples.

A New Look at Little House

"Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page," a new PBS American Masters documentary streaming for free until Jan. 27, 2021, will provide fresh insight into the author's life and the real drama and hardships that shaped her autobiographical fiction.

Rebecca Friendly agrees that the way the coronavirus shifted daily contemporary life has spurred more interest in Wilder and her work. The founder and manager of editorial content of the Little House on the Prairie website, Friendly spotted a steep uptick in recent online searches that bring visitors to the site.

"There are more touchpoints for visitors now. In these times, it's a comfort to look at Laura's resilience and the obstacles and adversity that she overcame," said Friendly, the granddaughter of Ed Friendly, the television producer credit with creating the "Little House on the Prairie" television show. The episodic program appeared on network TV from 1974 to 1983 and has remained on the air in syndication and on cable ever since.

"In these times, it's a comfort to look at Laura's resilience and the obstacles and adversity that she overcame."

"My family is sharing the stories with new generations in different formats," said Friendly.

"As a girl, I was attracted to Laura as a strong female character who didn't always follow the rules or do what was expected of her," she continued. "She had curiosity and courage; she tells the story from her point of view and that's empowering to young readers."

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Wilder's Second Acts

Wilder's literary career was launched later in her life. She was 65 when the first of her books was published in 1932. Her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, a journalist who had her own literary career, is thought to have collaborated with Wilder, polishing the manuscript to strengthen its appeal. 

"I was at a crappy time in my life when I re-read the boxed set my mother gave me when I was six. I had wanted to be a writer and it was inspirational to me that she wrote these enduring books after living this big long life," said Kelly Ferguson.

Revisiting those books inspired Ferguson, a Gen X'er who was then in her thirties, "stuck in bad relationships" and working in an Alabama coffee shop, to reinvent herself. She bought an old-fashioned prairie dress at a consignment store and wore it as she moved west to enroll in a college writing program in Montana.

"My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself" is her 2011 memoir about channeling her girlhood heroine as she retraced Wilder's early moves with her family while she followed her own quest.

"It sounds silly, but I said, 'What would Laura do?' As me, I was whiny. As Laura, I was brave. Spoiler alert: I learned that you can pick up and start over," said Ferguson, 52, who moved several times in pursuit of her doctorate and is now a journalism professor at Ohio University. "And I found my own determination."

Is Laura's Story Still Relevant?

Wilder's eight books detail her life as the daughter of white settlers, a perspective that has come to be regarded as dated, incomplete and inaccurate. More troublesome is her depiction and perspective of the culture of Indigenous people, with racist statements and viewpoints sprinkled through the books.

Because of the insensitive portrayals, in 2018, the American Library Association stripped Wilder's name from its annual literary award that lauds an author or illustrator who has made an outstanding contribution to children's books.

"Removing her name is a good start, like the Confederate monuments that are coming down and the ball team names that have been changed," said Debbie Reese, a Nambe Pueblo Indian woman, former professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois and founder and editor of the American Indians in Children's Literature website.

"The books are not factual. They feed the myth of an empty land that was there for the taking, of Native people who were aggressors and invaders on their own land or so primitive that good white families had to show them how to use the land," she said.

Reese believes Wilder's work should only be used in critical media courses in high school or college, where the goal is to study "bias and propaganda."

Reese believes Wilder's work should only be used in critical media courses in high school or college, where the goal is to study "bias and propaganda." She is infuriated when she hears the "Little House" books are still read aloud in elementary classrooms.

Said Reese: "Native kids are in many schools but people might not know it. I can't put words to the impact when Native kids hear a trusted teacher say aloud, 'The only good Indian is a dead Indian.' (A line from "The Little House on the Prairie.") It shouldn't happen. It's an assault on the well-being of a Native child and it's miseducation for non-Native children who learn that white people decide what is a good and a bad Indian."

Many adults who heard the stories many years ago may not recall the problematic passages.

Mollie Irazuzta, a retired social worker in Jacksonville, Fla., was introduced to the Ingalls saga in nightly bedtime stories.

"I remember waiting for my mother to read out loud and just loving those girls and that story," she said. "How they played with their corncob dolls, made snow angels, got a peppermint stick for Christmas. How the kids had to help; I was a little girl, too, but their life was so much more difficult and dangerous than mine. I have a warm place in my heart when I think of how I felt listening to my mom's voice."

However, while Irazuzta read the series to her children, she has not been able to get her grandkids interested in the books.

"They're bored with it," she said. "The books don't have enough action for them in the Harry Potter era. They just don't have the same nostalgia that I felt."

Photograph of Kevyn Burger
Kevyn Burger is a freelance feature writer and broadcast producer.  She was named a 2018 Journalist in Aging Fellow and a 2020 Continuing Fellow by the Gerontological Society of America. Based in Minneapolis, Kevyn is the mother of three young adults and one rescue terrier. Read More
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