Laura Ingalls Wilder wasn’t your typical debut novelist when her first book, “Little House in the Big Woods,” was published in 1932. She was 65 years old, decades removed from the childhood memories that provided the foundation for her colorful story of hardship, adventure and survival on the Wisconsin frontier that struck a chord in Depression-era America.
Children devoured the wholesome tales celebrating family, self-reliance, hard work and neighbor helping neighbor. “There had never been anything like this for children, telling them what the pioneer days—a time in history that was still pretty recent—were like,” says Christine Woodside, author of the new book “Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books.”
Wilder authored seven more books over the next 11 years, including “Little House on the Prairie,” which chronicled the exploits of the itinerant Ingalls family as they endured everything from blizzards of grasshoppers to plagues of snow as they rattled westward in their covered wagon across the wilderness and plains of the upper Midwest in the late 1800s before finally settling in the Dakota Territory.
While only the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder was emblazoned on the book covers of one of the most popular series in American literary history, scholars researching her family papers slowly came to the conclusion in the decades following her 1957 death that the beloved stories of Pa, Ma and sisters Mary, Carrie and Grace were the product of not just one woman—but two.
Unknown to readers at the time, Wilder secretly received considerable assistance from her only adult child, Rose Wilder Lane. While Wilder was an unknown author when “Little House in the Big Woods” was published, Lane was one of the most famous female writers in the United States, having penned novels, biographies of Charlie Chaplin and Herbert Hoover and short stories for magazines such as Harper’s, Cosmopolitan and Ladies’ Home Journal.
Unlike her mother, however, Lane had little affinity for the hardscrabble life of the American heartland and left the family’s Missouri farm as a teenager, eventually moving to San Francisco. Able to speak five languages, she traveled extensively and by the 1920s was living in Albania in a large house staffed by servants. Although she always had a tense relationship with her mother, Lane began to long for home and returned to the family farm in 1928.
Knowing a good story when she heard one, Lane prodded her mother to put her childhood experiences to paper. Wilder, however, had little literary experience outside of pieces that she wrote for rural newspapers. Lane, though, knew how to make a manuscript sing and hold chapters together, and she used her contacts in the publishing industry to sell “Little House in the Big Woods.”
“Laura had lived the life. She had the memory. However, she didn’t have any experience making a novel,” Woodside…