Little Detective on the Prairie

Warning. If you are a devoted fan of:

 1.    Michael Landon

2.    The TV series “Little House on the Prairie”

3.    Slavish devotion to the infallibility of the authorial voice even in the face of evidence to the contrary

 DO NOT READ THIS BLOG.

I remember the first time I came across Laura Ingalls Wilder. I was seven years old, a seasoned reader and one of the leaders at Girls’ Brigade offered me a slightly tattered book with a picture of a little girl and her mother standing by a bear on the front. I took it home and devoured it. And so began my love affair with America’s best known pioneering family. 

Everyone knows Laura. She lives with her Ma and Pa and three sisters and their journeys across America in the late nineteenth century in a covered wagon are testament to their grit, determination and strong family values. As a child, I read them and loved them. Ma mistaking a bear for the family cow, Pa playing his fiddle under the stars, the little sod house on Plum Creek, mean old Nellie Olsen, Mary going blind, young Mr Wilder, the happily ever after with the perfectly matched Morgan horses and the prairie roses …… it’s a wonderful slice of Americana.

 At our high school library, we could order books in and I did this, reading my way through the entire series. It ran out at, “These Happy Golden Years”, the title foreshadowing a blissful married life of contentment for the young pair. However, I found that there was another book in the series, “The First Four Years” and I duly bought it. To see Laura and Almanzo’s faces staring solemnly at me from the front cover and to read a different kind of account of their lives gave me quite a shock. Four years of drought, debt, crop failures, hailstorms, the loss of a baby and serious illness wasn’t what I was expecting. In due course I read, “On the Way Home” and thought I’d got it all down.

 Not so.

 For many years, there have been suspicions that Laura and her daughter Rose worked together on the books. Which would make perfect sense as Rose was a professional journalist and writer. Comparing, “The First Four Years” with any of the Little House books reveals the work of a gifted editor. None of this takes away from the author’s style of writing nor her fascinating life. However, her claim that everything in the books is absolutely as it happened is not true.

 But it’s not that that’s prompted me to write this blog. There is a common factor running through three generations of Quiner/Ingalls/Lane women’s lives which hasn’t been addressed in any of the scholarly works I’ve read. “The Ghost in the Little House” by William V Holtz focuses on Rose Wilder Lane’s life and becomes increasingly peevish in tone towards her more famous mother as the book wears on. While Rose left behind a vast number of published works and papers, her mother did not and any examination of the relationship between the two women must necessarily dwell more on Rose’s views than Laura’s. “Pioneer Girl”, Laura’s annotated autobiography goes into fascinating detail about just about every aspect of her life and confirms the theory that she and her daughter worked in tandem on the books. 

I’ve just finished, “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder” by Caroline Fraser. An excellent, well-balanced read, it draws on a wide range of sources and gives a clear, fascinating picture of the family and their times. Like many others, the author concludes that Ingalls painted a deliberately careful portrait of a united, loving, self-sufficient family but left out a number of facts from their lives. Caroline Ingalls was not as meek and long-suffering as she is sometimes made out to be, Charles Ingalls once skipped town owing money and rather than forging ahead from Wisconsin to Dakota Territory, the Ingalls went back and forth cross-country as many pioneering families did.

But it’s the deaths of three baby boys across three generations that I want to know about. Caroline and Charles had a son called Frederick who died at eight months old. Laura’s second child, a boy, died at four weeks. Rose lost her baby boy when she was six months pregnant. Caroline’s family, the Quiners, intermarried with the Ingalls three times and the other couples had large families of both boys and girls. What was going on in this particular family tree? 

I started looking for clues. 

Laura was tiny, under five feet tall. Her adolescence was characterised by stress and malnutrition (seven months living on coarse brown bread, water and turnips when she was fifteen during the Long Winter) and I would have expected her to have relatively small babies. But we’re told Rose was eight pounds and that the unnamed Wilder son was ten pounds. Laura’s sister Mary went blind. Was it scarlet fever? Meningitis? No-one seems to know. Mary never married or had children. Carrie, the third daughter, married but was childless, as was Grace, the youngest. In a time when contraception was not common, why were these young women not getting pregnant or at least giving birth to live babies? 

I found the clues in, “Prairie Fires”. Caroline Ingalls died of complications of diabetes as did her daughter Grace. Loss of sight is one of the side-effects of the untreated condition, which might explain Mary’s blindness. Diabetic women often give birth to very large babies (nowadays, scans and blood tests generally spot this during pregnancy). Pre-eclampsia is a very serious related condition which can also lead to premature birth. Birth defects, both ante- and post-natal are far more common in babies born to undiagnosed diabetic mothers. 

Shortly before her death, Laura was diagnosed with diabetes. It seems to have been a condition which ran through the family, possibly coming from the Quiner line. Could this be the reason that she, her mother and her daughter were never able to see a son live past the age of eight months? 

I can never unread, “Prairie Fires” nor forget that Pa, Almanzo and all the other settlers ploughing up the prairies directly contributed to the catastrophic climate change which brought about the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and led to so much misery and loss. The way that characters in the books speak about Native Americans is also hard to read as an adult. 

I am not a fan of the TV series at all (I think I’ve sat through about two episodes). The amount of saccharine sprinkled on already fairly sanitised books and the fact that Pa takes his shirt off to split logs or do outside work at least twice an episode, has no beard, appears to condition and blow dry his hair and has a healthy son named Albert (huh?) is more than I can take. 

Too much sugar. 

It puts a completely different spin on all that Christmas candy and the sugaring dance at Grandma’s. I read the Little House books very differently now, as an adult, than I did as a child and teenager, but they still contain beautiful, lyrical writing and describe a life long since gone by in a completely unique way. My teenage sons are reading them, charmed by the descriptions and the history. But of course, as we all know, nothing is ever quite as it seems.

Images by Pixabay and author's own

Ruth is married with three children, one husband, assorted poultry and a cat. She is the author of “The Diary of Isabella M Smugge”, “The Trials of Isabella M Smugge” and is currently writing “The Continued Times of Isabella M Smugge”. She writes for a number of small businesses and charities, reviews books for Reading Between the Lines and blogs at ruthleighwrites.co.uk. Ruth has abnormally narrow sinuses and a morbid fear of raw tomatoes, but has decided not to let this get in the way of a meaningful life. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok at @ruthleighwrites and at her website, www.ruthleighwrites.co.uk.

Comments

Peter Leyland said…
Very interesting Ruth. great research. Although a boyhood fan of Susan Coolidge and L.M. Montgomery, I have never read Laura Ingalls Wilder. This is probably some defect after your fascinating account of the author's life in dustbowl America and the problems of becoming pregnant. I read an article yesterday in The Guardian about how women in C19 Wisconsin dealt with this very problem.

Great to hear your teenage sons are reading them. Would they like Katy or Anne do you think?
Ruth Leigh said…
Thanks Peter. I too was a fan of Coolidge and Montgomery - great writers. I've come back to them again and again and the books come up as fresh as paint. I'll have to read that article - sounds right up my alley.

I suggested the books to help the middle son with his GCSE History and he really took to it. I don't know if they would like Katy or Anne so much as that's fiction. They are more factual chaps.
Peter Leyland said…
You know I always thought Little House on the Prairie was fictional and even reading your article didn't let me twig. You know, sometimes how difficult it is to rid ourselves of misconceptions. Should have gone to Specsavers, as they say. Thanks for putting me right Ruth.
Ruth Leigh said…
Not at all. The books I mentioned are well worth a read and I read the Guardian article you mentioned. Fascinating and how interesting to see how times have changed.
Umberto Tosi said…
Kudos for this forthright and well-grounded essay one of America's most influential and misunderstood writers. I found it fascinating even though never been a Little House fan -- in print, much less on TV. Say what we well, Ingalls's works did draw legions of young people into a love of reading.
Ruth Leigh said…
Thank you, Umberto. That means a lot. She is a remarkable writer and as you say, is responsible for many young people loving reading and for that, I salute her. I think she was a strong, brave person who went through the most terrible times, but managed to succeed in publishing in late middle age. Good for her!
Liz Manning said…
Really interesting read, Ruth. I devoured both books and TV series (initially because the lead looked so like my cousin!). I think I always realised the TV series was sanitised. If it's any comfort, Albert in the series was adopted.
Ruth Leigh said…
Now I come to think of it, he was! Thank you Liz. That is a comfort. I seem to remember the actor was actually Michael Landon's son.
Janeybish said…
This is really interesting. I grew up watching the tv series. This has made me want to go and read all the books!
JenRose said…
Another fascinating read! I really enjoyed the Little House on the Prairie’ tv series’ as a youngster, but like Peter assumed it was fictional - everything was way too perfect! I am yet to read these books, but most certainly will now. Thank you Ruth.
Ruth Leigh said…
Honestly Jane, they're so good. Even with the background knowledge. Beautiful lyrical writing.
Ruth Leigh said…
Yes exactly. It was all sunbonnets and good home cookin' as I recall. The real story was rather different. I think you'll love them. I got the boys into them recently (surprisingly) as I thought they would help with GCSE History about the Great Plains etc
Deborah Jenkins said…
Absolutely loved this post. Devoured all the books and the TV series and still read the Long Winter every year. Would love to get hold of Prairie Fires. How fascinating!
Ruth Leigh said…
Thank you Deborah! I find the whole subject engrossing. Prairie Fires came out in 2018, I think, and it won the Pulitzer Prize

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