Laura Ingalls Wilder in the Big Woke Woods
A recent documentary reminds us of her family’s strength and our own weakness.
Late last year, PBS aired Laura Ingalls Wilder: From Prairie to Page, a new documentary in the American Masters series. Plugged as the real story of the author’s life and a critical look at Wilder’s work, it is visually attractive, and occasionally interesting for anyone who isn’t familiar with the Ingalls-Wilder backstory. But there is an unfortunate series of woke progressive talking points awkwardly shoe-horned in, largely due to the American Library Association’s 2018 decision to drop her name from its children’s literature award (of which she was the first recipient in 1954) due to her alleged racism against Native Americans. In this uniquely stupid time, everything must be political.
From Prairie to Page begins with Wilder’s reflection on the extraordinary eras her life had overlapped: first, the frontiersmen; then the pioneers, the farmers, and the towns. “Then I understood that in my own life, I represented a whole period of American history,” she told an audience in Detroit. Wilder was born in 1867 and died in 1957: from the covered wagon to the atom bomb; from settlers to superpower. It all seems very long ago, but in fact, one can still reach out and almost touch it. There are a handful of people left living who knew Laura Ingalls Wilder, although all with lifespans approaching a century. I tracked several of them down last year.
William Turner, the former chairman of the Great Southern Bank in Mansfield, Missouri, told me Wilder was a “prim lady, very proper” who’d once given him a hand-written poem for a pie supper fundraiser. Retired newspaperman Dale Freeman, who frequently saw her at church, recalled that she was a “quite religious Methodist” and a great cook. He remembers his father playing billiards with Almanzo Wilder. Roscoe Jones, who lived next door to Rocky Ridge Farm, ran errands for her as a boy, and she’d invite him in to sit by the stove and tell him stories of the old days. “She would say: Now, this is the way it actually happened,” he told me. Speaking with them, I felt as if I was brushing the edge of history.
It is a history well-known to millions, and so I won’t belabor the details here. However, the documentary does fill in a few interesting bits. The events in Little House on the Prairie, for example, actually take place prior to Wilder’s memories of Pepin, Wisconsin, recorded in Little House in the Big Woods. Readers will be familiar with the Ingalls girls Mary (born in 1865), Laura (1867), Carrie (1870), and Grace (1877). Less known is Charles Frederic Ingalls—Wilder called him Freddy—who was born in Walnut Grove on November 1, 1875. The following year, Freddy got sick, and a doctor was called. “But little brother got worse instead of better,” Wilder wrote, “and one awful day he straightened out his little body and was dead.” Freddy died on August 27, 1876. Wilder left him out of the books.
Despite the hardships Wilder detailed in the Little House books, the reality was often worse. Wilder lived in 15 different homes by the time she was 14 and worked to support the family from the age of nine onwards. Charles Ingalls was a wonderful father, loving husband, and a dedicated family man—From Prairie to Page makes clear that Wilder’s books are, in many ways, an homage to him. But he also lurched from one financial failure to the next, often borne out of his profoundly incompatible desires for both a profitable farm and his longing to live in the unsullied wilderness. Even Wilder herself may not have realized how dire their financial situation was at times.
One example of this is the Ingalls family’s situation after the devastation of the Rocky Mountain locust plague in 1875, which Caroline Fraser describes in chilling detail in her magnificent Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and which Wilder details in On the Banks of Plum Creek. The locust swarm, Fraser writes, was “110 miles wide, 1,800 miles long, and a quarter to half a mile in depth. The wind was blowing at 10 miles an hour, but the locusts were moving even faster, at 15. They covered 198,000 square miles…the cloud consisted of some 3.5 trillion insects.” It was the largest in recorded human history. Charles Ingalls, as Wilder’s readers will know, desperately fought—and failed—to save his crops. In their wake, the locusts left the fields and creeks filled with eggs, ensuring the farm would be a failure. Charles walked 200 miles east for work, and on November 30, was forced to sign a statement in the presence of county officials that he was “wholy [sic] without means” in order to get two half-barrels of flour for his family. Fraser, who features prominently in From Prairie to Page, suspects that he never told them how he acquired the supplies.
One very much gets the sense that the documentarians—as well as nearly everyone they selected to opine on Wilder’s life and legacy—are deeply suspicious of Wilder’s conservatism and her daughter Rose’s well-known libertarianism. Both mother and daughter despised Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Wilder felt that the New Deal was too much government overreach, and that people needed to work more and whine less. Some have interpreted this as callousness or obliviousness to the way government tipped the scales for her own family (the Homestead Act being an obvious example), but Wilder’s life of poverty and backbreaking labor certainly granted her an informed perspective on the matter. Wilder found the “Communists in Washington…exasperating.”
From Prairie to Page does put to rest the persistent theory—a hobbyhorse of some fans of Rose Wilder Lane—that mother and daughter were co-authors rather than collaborators. Even their collaboration was a well-kept secret. Lane, who coached her mother, gave her writing tips, did extensive edits, and worked with her on the narrative structures of her books, had no desire to be associated with children’s books. Some, however, have claimed that her contributions amounted to co-authorship, which Caroline Fraser thoroughly debunks in both Prairie Fires and From Prairie to Page. Lane, in fact, used many stories from her mother’s childhood for her own books, written for adults. (Her best-known book today is the libertarian manifesto The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle Against Authority.)
Of course, Laura Ingalls Wilder can no longer be mentioned without a long, boring, and unconvincing screed on her alleged racism towards Native Americans, which is now taken as fact by the sorts of folks who get asked to appear in documentaries. I always thought the books were positive towards Native Americans, aside from Caroline Ingalls’ fears—well-founded considering the brutal Indian wars that were then underway, and the fact that any woman had reason to fear men who walked into her cabin unwelcomed. From Prairie to Page, however, notes concerns that Wilder’s books are “deeply dehumanizing to children of color,” with awful messages for white children to boot.
Linda Sue Park, a Korean-American author, even claimed to be “deeply hurt by those books” and said that they “took me 50 years to reconcile.” To which one is tempted to say: Grow up. Perhaps Park was culturally appropriating the experience of Native Americans, got carried away, and was thus traumatized—or perhaps she merely missed the stories of resilience, compassion, and familial love throughout the series. But the idea that it took her a half-century to get over the wartime fears of folks on the frontier well over a century ago is, to put it bluntly, pretty pathetic.
It is a shame that these sorts of allegations must now feature prominently in biographies of Laura Ingalls Wilder. She deserves better. But because we insist on projecting the political sensibilities of the current moment on people who were in many cases far more hard-working, patriotic, moral, and family-minded than we are, Wilder’s life story must always be accompanied by several representatives of the woke community, who solemnly remind us that they are better than she was and that her work is, unfortunately, tainted by its times. It is cheering to remember that children reading these books recognize Laura and her family for what they were—and her stories often trigger in them a nostalgia for the sort of life too many of them have been denied in these, our more enlightened times. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories are not a cautionary tale. They are stories of the deep family connections that made America what she was—and can be again.
Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has appeared in National Review, The European Conservative, the National Post, and elsewhere. Jonathon is the author of The Culture War and Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion as well as the co-author with Blaise Alleyne of A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide.