Today’s Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 148th birthday, and Google’s Doodle took note. Americans are thinking about the pioneer author, and I know the time is ripening for my next book, Libertarians on the Prairie: The Creation of a Pioneer Myth, which I hope will be out within the next year.
The Little House books, about life on the American frontier, have inspired millions who love their optimistic simplicity and pluck. What few realize is that this beloved series wandered far from the family’s actual history and from what Laura herself understood to be the central moral axiom of frontier life—that pioneers must endure backbreaking hardship without pity or fanfare.
How and why did autobiographical books depart from what happened? In secret collaboration, Laura and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, both desperate for money during the Great Depression, invented and revised Laura’s handwritten memories into heroic tales. The Little House narrative, in which the Ingalls family searched the upper Midwest for the ideal farm, recast their pioneer wanderings as an anti-government fable of stalwart self-reliance and independence. This myth lifted the reputation of the old pioneers from indigents escaping worn-out land and financial ruin back East to uncomplaining heroes who handled wild beasts, tornadoes, and unbroken sod, all on their own. The stories skipped over the years of physical suffering, penury and despair that accompanied Laura’s survival on the frontier. The tales especially downplayed the family’s dependence on the Homestead Act and missionary aid societies.
In my book, I decode Rose Wilder Lane’s politically conservative mindset. Today we’d call it libertarianism, and Rose, reacting to Roosevelt’s New Deal, which she despised, helped that anti-government message germinate during the 1930s and early 1940s.
Laura’s birthdays usually were quiet days. When she was a little girl, the presents, if any, were very small. When Laura was an older woman, her daughter and secret writing collaborator, Rose Wilder Lane, noted some of the ho-hum observations in her diaries.
Rose and Laura worked on the books together on Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri and, after 1935, by mail when Rose lived in New York and Connecticut.
From Rose’s diary:
February 7 1932: “Sun. Worked on Wilkins. Corinne came at 4 to play chess. Parents tookme to dinner uptown at Hartleys. This is my mother’s birthday.”
February 7, 1933: “Tues. Nothing done. Wrote letters. Books arrive. Sent candy to my mother for her birthday.”