Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved Little House series has been a gateway drug to butter churning, sunbonnet wearing, and rag-doll sewing for generations of American children. Her warm, inviting, and simple yet emotionally profound prose style is easier to imitate than you might think. But capturing the nuances of her books’ settings, themes, and narrative style can be unexpectedly challenging … and controversial.
Who is Laura Ingalls Wilder?
Laura Ingalls Wilder was born on February 7, 1867, in the Big Woods region of Wisconsin, a few miles from a small settlement called Pepin. Her childhood was marked by frequent relocations that followed the American pioneer movement of the mid-19th century. At age two, she and her family journeyed from Wisconsin to Missouri, then to Kansas, which was a Native American territorial possession at the time. Upon hearing that illegal settlers were about to be forcibly removed from the area, the Ingalls family returned to Wisconsin. They remained in their home state until Laura was seven years old.
The Ingalls clan next moved to Minnesota, then to Iowa, back to Minnesota, and finally to the Dakota Territory in 1879 when Laura was 12 years old. This homestead location — De Smet, South Dakota — was the last stop for her parents and older sister, Mary.
As a young adult, Wilder continued the itinerancy of her childhood. After marrying in 1885 at age 18, she and her new husband, Almanzo Wilder, spent four years in an unsuccessful attempt at farming in De Smet, where she gave birth to her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, in 1886. The young family then set out for Minnesota, followed by Florida, then made a return to South Dakota, before finally settling for good in Mansfield, Missouri, on a farm they called Rocky Ridge in 1894. Wilder was in her late 20s when she ended the pioneer lifestyle that she had been raised to pursue.
Wilder first began supplementing her earnings as a farmer in 1911 when she started writing articles for the Missouri Ruralist. At age 62, she attempted to write what would later become her Little House series. The book she produced, Pioneer Girl, required heavy revision. With help from her daughter, who was a successful journalist and editor, the book was reworked and eventually appeared in 1932 as a children’s book, Little House in the Big Woods. Seven more volumes in the series followed, charting her experiences growing up in the American frontier. The final book in the series was published in 1943.
Wilder died at the age of 90 on February 10, 1957, at her home in Mansfield, Missouri.
Who really wrote the Little House series?
The answer to this question would seem to be straightforward. But it’s surprisingly complicated. Rose Wilder Lane’s biographer, William Holtz, alleged that she was Wilder’s ghostwriter. Others, such as Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder author Caroline Fraser, indicate Lane’s role in shaping her mother’s series was more complex. Though their respective outlooks as writers were vastly different (Wilder was a folksy frontier memoirist, while Lane was a bootstrap-promoting anti-governmentalist in the vein of Ayn Rand), it’s undeniable that their individual writing styles can be very difficult to distinguish. A comparison of passages from Henry Ford’s Own Story (a biography written by Lane in 1917) and the Little House books reveals that it can be nearly impossible to tell the difference between Lane’s work and Wilder’s. You can read juxtaposing passages by Lane and Wilder side-by-side in the blog post, “Who really wrote Little House on the Prairie?”, and judge for yourself.
Was Lane her mother’s literary confident, collaborator, editor, or ghostwriter? A definitive answer may never be known. It’s possible that she was all four at different moments.
How to write like Laura Ingalls Wilder
1. Become a character in your own story
One of the singular oddities of the Little House series is Wilder’s use of third-person subjective narration. Though she’s writing about her own life, Wilder refers to herself as “Laura” and “she” throughout the books — never “I” or “me.” The narrative is semi-omniscient, meaning it’s limited to Wilder’s experiences, feelings, and thoughts. She doesn’t dip into the minds of other characters; take the reader across the country to Washington, D.C., where the Homestead Act and its impact on pioneers and Native American populations is being debated; or jump forward in time in the series-concluding book, These Happy Golden Years, to allow for bitter irony as newlywed Laura admires her new home, which would burn to the ground three years later.
2. Look up the word “Bildungsroman”
Yes, the Germans really do have a word for everything. In this case, it’s a word for “coming-of-age novel.”
Bildungsromans focus on the protagonist’s emotional, spiritual, and physical growth from childhood right up to the point they officially become an adult. This adulthood can be literal (turning 18), cultural (marriage, graduation, and so forth), or simply the attainment of greater maturity (coming to terms with their parents’ mortality or their own place in society, for example).
The Little House series is a seven-part coming-of-age story (plus a bonus book about Wilder’s future husband, Almanzo, as a 9-year-old living a non-pioneer agrarian life on the other side of the country). Each book is a stepping stone on Laura’s path to adulthood. The supporting characters in the Little House books are, nearly exclusively, parents, siblings, teachers, friends and rivals, and romantic interests; and the settings are primarily the family home, school, the great outdoors, and an abbreviated portion of a small town — all consistent with a classic coming-of-age story.
3. Remember that you are living in a material world
And you are a material girl. This is the aspect of the Little House books that readers tend to remember most fondly: starched calico dresses, butter churns, sunbonnets, tin cups, endless blue skies stretching overhead, a pig bladder tied into a balloon, the open expanse of the untamed prairie, maple syrup poured into snow to make candy, creaking covered wagons, Pa’s sonorous violin.
The Little House series is set in a highly materialistic world, with an over-arching theme that highlights the dichotomy between the domains of domesticity and wilderness. The books are seasonal in structure, each plot heavily influenced by the cycle of the natural world and the day-to-day tasks of planting, harvesting, food preservation, studying, and preparation for periods of deprivation, as well as the material objects that the Ingalls family uses for survival and comfort. Laura’s is an agrarian world tied to the land, and her maturation is ultimately both dictated and mirrored by the cycle of the seasons.
4. Explore 19th-century frontier America — but watch your step
Wilder’s Little House books aren’t just coming-of-age stories for her avatar, Laura. They’re also coming-of-age tales for the United States of America as a country. Set during the period of westward migration and settlement, the books explicitly endorse and even celebrate the 19th-century concept of manifest destiny and the “civilization” of the “wilderness” of the American frontier.
However, there’s a dark side to this era of American history, and it makes its presence felt in Wilder’s text. Racism and casual bigotry rear their ugly heads at unexpected moments throughout the series, and are presented without comment or critique.
“‘Why don’t you like Indians, Ma?’ Laura asked, and she caught a drip of molasses with her tongue.
“‘I just don’t like them; and don’t lick your fingers, Laura,’ said Ma.
“‘This is Indian country, isn’t it?’ Laura said. ‘What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them?’”
– Little House on the Prairie
“[Ma] did not like to see women working in the fields. Only foreigners did that. Ma and her girls were Americans, above doing men’s work.”
– The Long Winter
“‘Heap big snow come,’ this Indian said. … “‘You white men,’ he said. ‘I tell-um you. … Heap big snow, many moons.’”
– The Long Winter
“Then up the center aisle came marching five black-faced men in raggedy-taggedy uniforms. White circles were around their eyes and their mouths were wide and red. Up onto the platform they marched, then facing forward in a row suddenly they all advanced, singing, ‘Oh, talk about your Mulligan Guards! These darkies can’t be beat!’ … The man in the middle was clog dancing. Back against the wall stood the four raggedy black-faced men. One played a jew’s-harp. …
“‘Pa must have been one of the darkies,’ Carrie said, ‘because he did not come with us.”
“‘Yes, I know he was practicing to be in the minstrel show,’ said Ma.”
– Little Town on the Prairie
In June 2018, the Association for Library Service to Children announced it was changing the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award due to Wilder’s portrayals of Native Americans in her books.
Tread very carefully. A nuanced approach to the realities of the American frontier will help you avoid endorsing the racism and inequalities of the pioneer era without denying their existence.
5. Nostalgia doesn’t have to be honest
The most important thing to understand about Wilder’s Little House books is they’re novels, not memoirs. Wilder’s biography doesn’t match the chronology of her stories. Some of the unforgettable characters, such as Nellie Oleson, are composites of real people Wilder knew. Others, like her little brother who died as an infant, are written out altogether.
If you want to write like Wilder, lean into your nostalgia for childhood, but don’t be afraid to bend the truth. The Little House world is an idealized world where hardship may come, but everything will be alright in the end if you work hard, follow the rules, and try to be the best person you can be. It’s not a complex world, nor ultimately a realistic world. And that’s okay.
Ready to try it yourself? For a little inspiration, check out this blog post about Japanese candy, written in the style of Laura Ingalls Wilder: “Laura Ingalls Wilder reviews a candy bar.”
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.