“Little House on the Prairie: Is Laura Ingalls Wilder Obsolete?” Part Two
After four years of work on Pioneer Girl in 2014, I was ready to take a break from All Things Wilder. I cleared my desk; shelved my Wilder books; and boxed my Pioneer Girl files away in the attic. Then I reached for a new young adult novel by Elizabeth Wein, Rose Under Fire. It was set in England during World War II, an ocean away from Laura Ingalls and life in the American West.
Or so I thought.
Because there on page five was this sentence: “I can’t believe they gave me that diploma in December, like Laura Ingalls Wilder leaving school at fifteen so she could be a teacher!”1
Even when I tried, I couldn’t escape her.
Few of us can. References to Wilder and her work appear regularly in unexpected places—from Rose Under Fire to Smithsonian.com to the Big Bang Theory. Wilder has become part of our popular culture as few children’s book authors have. Like L. Frank Baum, Dr. Seuss, and J.K. Rowling, Wilder created characters who sprang from the page directly into everyday life and from there into our collective consciousness. Seventy-five years after she published her last Little House novel, Laura Ingalls Wilder is an international icon.
She has also become a lightning rod for social, cultural, and political criticism, which began a slow crescendo in the late 1980s, and led this summer to the American Library Association’s decision to strip Wilder’s name from the literary legacy medal created in her honor in 1954.
An Underappreciated Literary Legacy
As I wrote shortly after the ALA’s announcement, I wasn’t surprised by the decision, but was disappointed. The criticisms leveled at Wilder’s work seem based on a superficial reading of the Little House books and a disregard for her commitment to the historical world in which her fictional characters lived.
The irony here: As Wilder’s fame—or notoriety, depending on your point of view—has increased, a comprehensive understanding of her work and literary accomplishments has diminished. Now all these decades later, many of us seem to have forgotten that the Little House books forever changed the American literary landscape—perhaps because the literary rules Wilder broke and the innovations she introduced to young readers are now accepted principles in middle grade and young adult fiction. So let’s take a look at what Wilder achieved and how her fiction influences what we read today.
An Unforgettable Main Character
These days, we take strong female characters in middle grade and young adult fiction for granted—from Calpurnia Tate to Katniss Everdeen; from Meg Murry to Hermione Granger.
But in 1932, when Wilder published the first Little House novel, American literature for young readers featured only a handful of strong, female protagonists: most notably, Jo March and Dorothy Gale. Nancy Drew had made her first appearance just two years before in The Secret of the Old Clock.
In the United States—up until the early 1930s—the time-honored tradition in children’s literature was to present a more sentimental portrait of girls. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Pollyanna are the most enduring books in this tradition; their main characters are girls who redeem the adults in their lives. As admirable as Rebecca and Pollyanna are, they aren’t realistic characters; they’re idealized images of what early 20th century girls should be.
Wilder, on the other hand, brought new realism to American girls, in the tradition of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Like Jo March, Wilder’s Laura Ingalls is courageous, loyal, smart, strong, athletic, and hardworking. But like Jo, Laura is also flawed. She has temper. She can be jealous and sometimes even mean. In On the Banks of Plum Creek, after an especially nasty encounter with Nellie Oleson, Mary Ingalls observes, “’My goodness! I couldn’t be as mean as that Nellie Oleson.’” Laura’s response: “’I could. I could be meaner to her than she is to us, if Ma and Pa would let me.’”2
Laura remains true to her rebellious and unconventional self throughout the series. Even when she decides to marry Almanzo, she does it on her own terms, refusing the conventional wedding ceremony pledge to obey her husband. “’I can not make a promise that I will not keep,’” she says, “’and, Almanzo, even if I tried, I do not think I could obey anybody against my better judgment.’”3
Laura’s unique qualities make her a timeless character, able to bridge past and present. Generations of readers across geographical, cultural, social, and political boundaries have embraced her. They discover something of themselves in Laura Ingalls—their virtues and their vices.
But Laura Ingalls also served as a springboard for other American authors, who from the mid- 1930s on, created strong, female protagonists in books that have since become classics in children’s literature: Carolyn Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn, Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy Ray, Scott O’Dell’s Karana. Contemporary literary heroines in middle grade and young adult fiction also trace their ancestry back to Laura Ingalls. They’re part of the same literary tradition. Laura Ingalls Wilder led the way.
A New Realism in Historical Fiction for Young Readers
She also pioneered realism in historical fiction for young readers, introducing what was then a new grittiness, a sense of reality in children’s and young adult fiction. She didn’t shy away from unpleasant realities, even when they shattered the conventions of children’s literature at the time. A prime example—the grasshopper plague in On the Banks of Plum Creek: “Laura started toward the wheat-field…. [She] knew that only something dreadful would make Pa stop work in the middle of the morning. She went as fast as she could to the stable. Sam and David were in their stalls and Pa was hanging up their sweaty harness. He came out, and did not smile at Laura.” Then he tells Ma, “’We’ve got no more chance of making a crop next year than we have of flying,... When those eggs hatch, there won’t be a green thing left in this part of the world.’”4
This is a tough scene. The fictional family is ruined. Pa gives up on farming. He decides to walk one hundred miles east to find work in other men’s wheat fields, unblemished by grasshoppers. As the chapter ends, Pa leaves his family behind, and Laura looks at what’s left of their farm on Plum Creek: “No prairie grass was left, and the hungry cattle could only wander along the creek banks, eating willow sprouts and plum brush and a little dead, dry grass left from last summer.’”5
My own research for Pioneer Girl—looking into historical source material for the grasshopper plague in southwestern Minnesota in the early 1870s—revealed that Wilder got it right. Her fiction—on this subject and others—closely corresponds to original, primary sources from this period. Her historical fiction—its realism and grittiness—is grounded in historical fact.
And without Wilder’s groundbreaking work in this area, children’s literature might not have had such later classics as Johnny Tremain, The Island of the Blue Dolphins, or even such contemporary titles as Code Name Verity.
Adult Themes and Ideas
Wilder didn’t shy away from difficult topics, and this is yet another reason why her work matters. Her books introduced more adult themes and ideas into fiction for young readers. In fact, she helped create any entirely new category: young adult fiction. It didn’t formally exist as category in 1939, when she published By The Shores of Silver Lake, her first young adult novel.
In this book, Laura is thirteen, beginning to think about her future and what it will bring. Jack dies, Mary loses her sight, Pa confronts horse thieves and an angry railroad mob. Laura has to grow up: “Laura knew then that she was not a little girl anymore. Now she was alone; she must take care of herself.”6
From this point on in the Little House series, Wilder began to concentrate on what she and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane called “adult stuff.” Lane wasn’t sure this was a good idea, and even recommended that her mother switch main characters from Laura to Carrie to make the remaining Little House books more conventional, less controversial.
Wilder didn’t agree: “I don’t see how we can spare what you call adult stuff, for that makes the story. It was there and Laura knew and understood it.”7
Wilder’s later novels were sometimes controversial. Her editor at Harper and Brothers initially wanted to cut the disturbing scene in These Happy Golden Years where Mrs. Brewster waves a butcher knife over her husband as he lies in bed. The scene may seem tame by current YA standards, but it was very edgy in 1943, when the book was published.
Wilder confronted many topics that were essentially taboo in children’s literature in the 1930s and 1940s, and by focusing on “adult stuff,” she helped create the young adult category so many of us know and love today. There’s a direct literary line from Laura Ingalls to the heroine in Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire in 2013. And that literary line continues to lengthen and expand.
Deceptively Simple Yet Lyrical
Finally, there’s Wilder’s writing itself. Her style is deceptively simple yet lyrical. It has power, grace and emotional depth. Wilder certainly worked hard at her craft. As she wrote her daughter, “The only way I can write is to wander along with the story, then rewrite and re-arrange and change it everywhere.”8
But even her unedited, rough draft manuscripts often demonstrate the beauty of Wilder’s writing and its unique voice. She was an instinctive storyteller who understood the power of language and how it could pull readers directly into a scene.
She also understood that a skillful combination of language and imagery could convey mood, theme, and character—without telling readers exactly what to think or feel. Look at this masterful passage from The Long Winter: “Town and prairie were lost in the wild storm which was neither earth nor sky, nothing but fierce winds and a blank whiteness…. A lamp could shine out through the blackest darkness and a shout could be heard a long way, but no light and no cry could reach through a storm that had wild voices and an unnatural light of its own. The blankets were warm and Laura was no longer cold but she shivered.”9 Readers glean from this passage that Laura is frightened, that the situation she faces is desperate. But beyond the beauty of the prose and its lyricism, Wilder trusted young readers to interpret this passage independently; she gave them the freedom to think.
Wilder’s voice throughout the Little House books is an impressive literary achievement. The character of Laura Ingalls ages from preschooler to young woman in these books, and as she ages, her voice matures—yet remains consistent and believable. Laura Ingalls remains uniquely herself. This is a major artistic achievement, one few series book authors have matched.
“A Distinguished, Creative, Sustained Contribution”
Despite the innovations Wilder brought to books for young readers during the Great Depression, the American Library Association’s Newbery Committee was slow to recognize her contributions to children’s literature.
The Little House books were undeniably a critical and literary success as they were being published. Little House in the Big Woods, the first book in the series, was published in 1932, and as Wilder’s first editor at Harper & Brothers described it, “Here was the book no depression could stop—and here was, I felt sure, the beginning of a continued story for the years to follow.”10
By 1939, Wilder’s second editor at Harpers had “shown ‘Plum Creek’ to dozens of authors as the model for a perfect juvenile.’”11 In fact, On the Banks of Plum Creek was named a Newbery Honor book in 1938, and from that point on, all Wilder’s remaining Little House novels were named as Newbery Honor books. But none received the prestigious Newbery Medal itself.
Apparently because the “continued story” of the fictional Ingalls family wasn’t an idea the Newbery Medal committee could embrace. Wilder’s final editor at Harper’s explained the situation this way: “An influential California librarian told me ‘they’ [the Newbery selection committee] couldn’t even consider the Laura Ingalls Wilder books for the Newbery ‘because we don’t like series books.’”12
Most of the titles awarded the Newbery Medal during the years Wilder’s books received honor designations are now largely forgotten—the one major exception is Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain, which won the Newbery in 1944, the year These Happy Golden Years was an honor book.
By 1954, however, the American Library Association had come to appreciate how Wilder’s Little House books had transformed children’s literature, and created the Wilder Medal that year to honor Wilder and subsequent writers or illustrators who made “a distinguished, creative, sustained contribution to children’s books.”13
Ultimately, Laura Ingalls Wilder achieved literary greatness that most Newbery winners of her generation—and beyond—could only imagine. Yet by scrubbing Wilder’s name from the medal named in her honor, the ALA has once again failed to fully recognize Wilder’s distinguished, creative, and sustained contribution to children’s literature.
No author’s work is flawless, but the issues that precipitated the ALA’s decision in this case are issues that Wilder herself raises in her books, issues that shaped 19th and 20th century history, issues that plague us still. Wilder’s books are fiction—not history. Still, they can provide a springboard for meaningful discussions with young readers about race, gender, and prejudice in the past and present. Such discussions, paired with novels from different voices with different perspectives on the past, can broaden Wilder’s literary legacy, making her more relevant than ever.
Regardless of the ALA’s decision, however, contemporary writers for young readers—whether they acknowledge their debt or not—continue to build on techniques, ideas, and themes Wilder pioneered decades ago. Readers and writers will be remain in her literary debt for generations to come.
1. Elizabeth Wein, Rose Under Fire (New York: Hyperion, 2013), pp. 5-6.
2. Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek (New York: Harper Trophy, 1971), p. 156.
3. LIW, These Happy Golden Years (New York: Harper Trophy, 1971), pp. 269-270.
4. LIW, On the Banks of Plum Creek, pp. 207-208.
5. Ibid., p. 212.
6. LIW, By the Shores of Silver Lake (New York: Harper Trophy, 1971), p. 14.
7. LIW to Rose Wilder Lane, January 26, 1938, Box 13, LIW Series, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.
8. LIW to RWL, August 17, 1938, Box 13, Lane Papers.
9. LIW, The Long Winter, (New York: Harper Trophy, 1971), p. 123.
10. Virginia Kirkus, “The Discovery of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” The Horn Book, edited by William Anderson (Boston: 2000) p. 39.
11. George Bye to LIW, May 31, 1939, James Olivers Brown Collection, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, New York.
12. Ursula Nordstrom to Ethel Heins, June 16, 1975, in Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, ed. Leonard S. Marcus (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), p 365.
13. UN to Garth Williams, February 11, 1954, in Dear Genuis, p. 74-75