Laura Ingalls Wilder At 150: Why Her Books Didn’t Tell Her Whole Story

Laura Ingalls Wilder, the famous writer who penned the Little House on the Prairie book series, who was born 150 years ago today, on Feb. 7, 1867. In honor of the 150th anniversary of Wilder’s birth, fan events and celebrations are taking place at museums and other sites along the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway, which runs from Wisconsin to South Dakota, according to the Washington Post.


Also, fans are reminiscing about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s eight novels, which started with Little House in the Big Woods in 1932 and ended with These Happy Golden Years in 1943. A ninth book, The First Four Years, was published posthumously in 1971, a few years after Wilder’s death.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was always adamant that the books about her pioneer childhood were autobiographical, once telling a reader they were all “literally true, names, dates, places, every anecdote and much of the conversation are historically and actually true.”

Indeed, readers met Laura’s Ma and her Minnesota farmer Pa, her sisters Mary and Carrie, as well as her future husband Almanzo Wilder, whom she married at age 18. However, within a decade after the final book in the series was published, avid readers noted some inaccurate details in the stories, and it was later found out that Laura and her daughter, writer and editor Rose Wilder Lane, collaborated to make a fictionalized account of her life for the series.


While some of the stories may be based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s embellished memories, there’s no doubt that the Little House collection is one of the most beloved childhood book series of all time. More than 60 million copies of Wilder’s books have been sold all over the world, and in 1974 the classic books spawned the long-running TV series, Little House on the Prairie. The NBC family drama ended its nine-season run in 1984.

In addition to a star-studded cast that included Michael Landon and child star Melissa Gilbert, who played young Laura Ingalls, the show featured an impressive array of guest stars, including Johnny Cash, Lou Gossett Jr. and future Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Kim Richards.

[Image by NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images]

Of course, translating Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories to the small screen wasn’t always easy. In an interview with Access Atlanta, former Little House star Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary Ingalls on the show) said the show’s 1870s setting made it difficult to keep her character interesting, especially after she went blind.

“It wasn’t just the blind issue but also the period of the show,” Anderson said. “It was very limiting what you could or couldn’t do. I used to say I was blind and boring. Either I was just there not doing much or going through some tragedy. I couldn’t take it anymore.”

As for Melissa Gilbert, she loved playing Laura Ingalls Wilder. In a Q &A on her website, Gilbert said her favorite episode of the series was the two-part season 1 episode, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” because it “really showed just what my relationship with Michael Landon was all about.” The two-parter told the story of the death of Ingalls’ baby brother, Charles Jr., a family tragedy the author never wrote about in her fiction books.

For those who want to know more about the real Laura Ingalls Wilder, a memoir, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, was published in 2014, the same year the TV show based on Wilder’s life celebrated its 40th anniversary. Wilder began working on the memoir manuscript in 1930, and decades later the autobiography offered a much more realistic look at the hardships she suffered as a young girl.

“I think one of the things that comes through very clearly is that the real Ingalls family struggled financially even more than the fictional family did,” editor Pamela Smith Hill told USA Today. “So Laura Ingalls Wilder is much more candid about the family’s financial difficulties and hardships. That comes through very, very clearly in Pioneer Girl.”

The book contains stories omitted from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels, including violent stories that the author herself felt would be inappropriate for children.

[Featured Image Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain]