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S34 Ep7

Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page

Premiere: 12/29/2020 | 00:03:26 |

An unvarnished look at the unlikely author whose autobiographical fiction helped shape American ideas of the frontier and self-reliance. A Midwestern farm woman who published her first novel at age 65, Laura Ingalls Wilder transformed her frontier childhood into the best-selling “Little House” series.



About the Episode

American Masters Explores the Cultural Legacy and Complicated History of Author Laura Ingalls Wilder in a New Documentary

Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page presents an unvarnished look at the unlikely author whose autobiographical fiction helped shape American ideas of the frontier and self-reliance. A Midwestern farm woman who published her first novel at age 65, Laura Ingalls Wilder transformed her frontier childhood into the best-selling “Little House” series. The documentary delves into the legacy of the iconic pioneer as well as the way she transformed her early life into enduring legend, a process that involved a little-known collaboration with her daughter Rose. Directed and produced by Emmy® Award winner Mary McDonagh Murphy (Harper Lee: American Masters).

Featuring never-before-published letters, photographs and family artifacts, the film explores the context in which Wilder lived and wrote, as well as the true nature of her personality. Victor Garber (Argo, Alias, “Titanic”) narrates, with Academy Award nominee Tess Harper (“No Country for Old Men,” Breaking Bad, “Crimes of the Heart”) reading Laura Ingalls Wilder and Amy Brenneman (NYPD Blue, Judging Amy, The Leftovers) reading Rose Wilder Lane. The film includes original interviews with Caroline Fraser, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her Wilder biography; Pamela Smith Hill, author of “Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life” and editor of Wilder’s New York Times bestselling memoir; Wilder biographer and editor of “The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder” William Anderson; Christine Woodside, writer of “Libertarians on the Prairie”; authors such as Louise Erdrich, Roxane Gay, Lizzie Skurnick and Linda Sue Park; and actors from the beloved TV series Little House on the Prairie, including Melissa Gilbert (Laura Ingalls Wilder), Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson) and Dean Butler (Almanzo Wilder). Historians, scholars and fans provide additional perspectives on Wilder’s life and legacy.

Wilder has an enduring fanbase — including self-proclaimed Bonnetheads — and the books and TV program loosely based on them have become cultural touchstones. Starting with “Little House in the Big Woods” (1932), the books chronicle the adventures of a family struggling to survive on the American frontier and have inspired four generations with the courage and determination of their heroine. Though Wilder’s stories emphasized real life and celebrated stoicism, she omitted the grimmer and contradictory details of her personal history: grinding poverty, government assistance, deprivation and the death of her infant son. In recent years, Wilder’s racist depictions of American Indians and Black people have stirred controversy, and made her less appealing to some readers, teachers and librarians. Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page reveals the truth behind the bestsellers, exploring a rags to riches story that has been embraced by millions of people worldwide.

Now in its 34th season on PBS, American Masters illuminates the lives and creative journeys of our nation’s most enduring artistic giants — those who have left an indelible impression on our cultural landscape. Setting the standard for documentary film profiles, the series has earned widespread critical acclaim and 28 Emmy Awards — including 10 for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series and five for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special — 14 Peabodys, an Oscar, three Grammys, two Producers Guild Awards and many other honors. To further explore the lives and works of more than 200 masters past and present, the American Masters website offers streaming video of select films, outtakes, filmmaker interviews, the American Masters Podcast, educational resources and more. The series is a production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET.

"The true way to live is to enjoy every moment as it passes, and surely it is in the everyday things around us that the beauty of life lies."


The subtle libertarian politics of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books
What should be done about racist depictions in the “Little House” books?
Clip | The letter from NY that changed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life
Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1951.
8 Interesting facts about Laura Ingalls Wilder
What’s it like to attend “Laurapalooza,” the conference for Laura Ingalls Wilder superfans (“bonnetheads”)?
A “Little House” adulthood: How the books changed when I grew up
In promoting the “myth of white self-sufficiency,” the “Little House” books rewrite history
Covered wagon
Play Laura Ingalls Wilder bingo
Clip | Roxane Gay and others on racist “Little House” depictions
Join the Laura Ingalls Wilder #ShareYourShelfieContest
Clip | The word that Laura refused to say in her wedding vows
Clip | Until she was an author, money was a struggle for Wilder
Clip | The secret mother-daughter collaboration on “Little House”
Clip | Disaster was looming when the Ingalls moved to Minnesota
Clip | How the logs of the “Little House” cabin were stolen
A replica of the house that was described in the book "Little House in the Big Woods" near Pepin, Wisconsin.
How well do you know the life and work of Laura Ingalls Wilder? Test your knowledge with this expert quiz.
How well do you know the life and work of Laura Ingalls Wilder? Test your knowledge with this beginner quiz.
How well do you know the life and work of Laura Ingalls Wilder? Test your knowledge with this advanced quiz.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s famous gingerbread recipe
A replica of the house that was described in the book "Little House in the Big Woods" near Pepin, Wisconsin.
Laura Ingalls Wilder biographical timeline
Favorite quotes from the “Little House” books
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1916 column for Thanksgiving reminds us to “just be glad that we are alive”
Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1951.
10 of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s most inspiring quotes
127 songs are mentioned in the “Little House” books. This playlist presents many of them.
A Laura Ingalls Wilder suggested reading list

Major funding for Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Doug and Carole Baker Sr., The Leslie and Roslyn Goldstein Foundation and The Julie and Doug Baker Jr. Foundation.

Support for American Masters is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, AARP, Rosalind P. Walter, Seton J. Melvin, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Vital Projects Fund, Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family Foundation, Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, Judith and Burton Resnick, Ellen and James S. Marcus, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, and public television viewers.


About WNET
WNET is America’s flagship PBS station: parent company of New York’s THIRTEEN and WLIW21 and operator of NJTV, the statewide public media network in New Jersey. Through its new ALL ARTS multi-platform initiative, its broadcast channels, three cable services (THIRTEEN PBSKids, Create and World) and online streaming sites, WNET brings quality arts, education and public affairs programming to more than five million viewers each month. WNET produces and presents a wide range of acclaimed PBS series, including Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, PBS NewsHour Weekend, and the nightly interview program Amanpour and Company. In addition, WNET produces numerous documentaries, children’s programs, and local news and cultural offerings, as well as multi-platform initiatives addressing poverty and climate. Through THIRTEEN Passport and WLIW Passport, station members can stream new and archival THIRTEEN, WLIW and PBS programming anytime, anywhere.

About Twin Cities PBS
Twin Cities PBS (TPT), the PBS affiliate for Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, is a prominent content producer for the national public television system. TPT’s most recent documentaries for PBS include Going to War, The Dictator’s Playbook, and When Whales Walked: Journeys in Deep Time. Other films include the Emmy Award-winning The Forgetting: A Portrait of Alzheimer’s, Peabody Award recipient Depression: Out of the Shadows, and 2012 Sundance Film Festival selection Slavery by Another Name. TPT co-produced the classic feature documentary Hoop Dreams, a Peabody and Sundance Film Festival winner. More information at


Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page is a production of the award-winning National Productions group at Twin Cities Public Television and THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET. Mary McDonagh Murphy is director and producer. Christopher Czajka is associate producer. Michael Kantor is executive producer of American Masters. Michael Rosenfeld is executive producer for Twin Cities Public Television.


♪♪♪ Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bringing you the stories that define us.

Support also provided by the following Young woman: 'Once upon a time, 60 years ago, a little girl lived in the big woods of Wisconsin in a little gray house made of logs.

The great dark trees of the big woods stood all around the house and beyond them were other trees and beyond them more trees.

There were no people.'

Narrator: When Laura Ingalls Wilder told the stories of her childhood, millions of young readers were spellbound.

For teachers, the 'Little House' books were a perfect primer on the settling of America, written by someone who was there.

Harper: 'I realized that I had seen and lived it all -- all the successive phases of the frontier -- first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers, and the towns.

And then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American history.'

Anderson: Laura Ingalls Wilder is the quintessential American pioneer.

Thousands of people had very similar experiences as Wilder and her family.

But her storytelling made that an adventure story.

Young woman: 'Pa and Ma were still and silent on the wagon seat, and Mary and Laura were quiet, too.

But Laura felt all excited inside.

You never know what will happen next, nor where you'll be tomorrow, when you are traveling in a covered wagon.'

Fraser: She's almost like a folk artist.

The novels as she left them are almost works of folk art that capture the attitudes of the time.

Narrator: After more than 30 million copies sold, and a long-running TV show... Laura: Home is the nicest word there is.

Pa: One of the nicest, that's for sure.

Narrator: ...the 'Little House' books are a part of the American fabric, and so is the woman who based them on her extraordinary childhood.

Anderson: We have the image of this wonderful, white-haired, pretty lady telling America's kids all these great stories.

That became an urban legend.

Narrator: To her readers, Wilder's novels were a wondrous achievement from a humble farm woman who seemed to have perfected her craft all on her own.

They had no idea the books emerged from a hidden collaboration with her daughter, Rose.

Fraser: Rose's role in this is not to be dismissed.

Anderson: Friends of hers ask her, 'What did you have to do with your mother's books?'

And she cut them off very sharply.

It was a deep, dark secret.

Hill: I think all good writers are mysterious in some way.

What was real and what was not real in their lives?

Fraser: They're wonderful family stories.

They show us who we want to think we are.

We want to think that we're self-reliant pioneers.

We want to think that that's the truth about ourselves.

But when you examine that fantasy, you realize that the reality was much, much, much more complicated.

Sarah: There are two Lauras.

There's Laura of the book, and there's Mrs. Wilder, who used to be Laura.

Harper: 'All I have told is the truth but not the whole truth.'

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Fiery: 'Mrs. Laura I. Wilder, Rocky Ridge, Mansfield, Missouri.

Dear Mrs. Wilder, I like the material you have used.

It covers a period in American history about which very little has been written, and almost nothing for boys and girls.'

Narrator: The news from a New York editor was unexpected.

And at 64, Laura Ingalls Wilder was on her way to becoming a children's author.

The manuscript, 'When Grandma Was a Little Girl,' was spun out of a memoir Wilder had written called 'Pioneer Girl.'

It showed promise, but it needed more work.

Fiery: 'Would you be willing to make some editorial changes on your manuscript?

The more details you can include about the everyday life of the pioneers, such as the making of the bullets, what they eat and wear, et cetera, the more vivid an appeal it will make to children's imaginations.'

Narrator: 'When Grandma Was a Little Girl' turned into 'Little House in the Big Woods,' and that turned into something else entirely.

Harper: 'When to my surprise the book made such a success and children all over the U.S.

wrote to me begging for more stories, I began to think what a wonderful childhood I had had.'

♪♪♪ Narrator: So began the 'Little House' series -- Wilder's eight books about growing up and moving West.

Running through them all, she later said, were her parents' values.

'When possible, they turned the bad into good.

When not possible, they endured.'

Harper: 'Sister Mary and I loved Pa's stories best.

We never forgot them, and I have always thought that they were just too good to be altogether lost.'

Narrator: And when Wilder preserved her father's stories, she made him a mythic figure -- always looking West.

Her readers would come to know Charles Ingalls as Pa, just as she did.

Charles Ingalls was born in Western New York in 1836, one of nine children.

Fraser: Charles Ingalls came from a family of not great means and some insecurity himself.

He was born in Cuba, New York.

His father didn't have his own land, is working as some kind of laborer.

Narrator: Mottos and slogans of the day said, 'Go West, young man, and grow up with the country,' and the Ingalls family did just that, heading out to Illinois.

Fraser: This is for sure Charles Ingalls' first exposure to the prairies.

This may be the time in his life when he is exposed to music.

Maybe gets his fiddle in this town or crossroads in Illinois.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Narrator: But for all the opportunity advertised, the family never found it.

They eventually moved on to Wisconsin.

Fraser: There's not a lot of stability in -- in this family.

They're working. They're trying to make a living.

They're not really succeeding for any length of time.

They can't really put together enough of a stake to last, and so that's Charles' youth.

And he will basically hew to that pattern for most of the rest of his life.

Narrator: In Wisconsin, Charles Ingalls' family befriends the Quiners who live across the Oconomowoc River.

Charles courts Caroline Quiner, and they marry in 1860.

Harper: 'Mother was descended from an old Scotch family and inherited the Scotch thriftiness which helped with the livelihood.

Although born and raised on the frontier, she was an educated and cultured woman.

She was very quiet and gentle, but proud and particular in all manners of good breeding.'

Hill: Their personalities were very, very different.

Caroline was more quiet and reserved.

Charles Ingalls was more outgoing, a poet, a hunter, a musician.

That's how Laura Ingalls Wilder came to think of her father.

Wilder: Pa holds his fiddle, and he nearly always sat in his chair when he played and kept time to the music by patting his foot on the floor.

♪♪♪ Hill: He was the more romantic of the two, I think.

But they had a very solid, very happy marriage.

Harper: 'The spirit of the frontier was one of humor and cheerfulness no matter what happened, whether the joke was on oneself or on the other fellow.

Strangers coming West possessed or acquired that spirit if they survived as Westerners.

My parents possessed this frontier spirit to a marked degree.'

♪♪♪ Narrator: Charles and Caroline's early years together were marked by the Civil War.

But another war hit closer to their Wisconsin home.

Fraser: The incident that is mentioned in 'Little House on the Prairie,' the U.S. Dakota war of 1862, happened five years before Laura was born.

Beane: The Dakota War took place because of a number of broken treaties, broken promises between this government and Dakota people.

The people who did fight in the war were fighting to protect the rights of our families to remain in our homeland and to remain Dakota.

And they were very, very violent battles that took place.

And the media coverage that happened during that era was media coverage that was trying to incite fear in people.

Fraser: The Ingalls would've known all about that because they were living just across the Mississippi in Wisconsin.

[ Chuckling ] Wisconsin as a state was -- was scared spitless, because the refugees came flooding back across the river into Wisconsin.

So all the Wisconsinites thought that they were next, you know, that they were going to be attacked.

White women at that time did feel great fear of Indians.

And, you know, Wilder, years later, I think she was rem-- remembering the fear that her mother must have expressed and the racism that her mother clearly felt.

Narrator: 1862 also brought the Homestead Act.

In exchange for a small filing fee, men and women, freed slaves and immigrants, were given the chance to own and farm 160-acre plots.

American Indians continue to be forced off tribal lands in the rush to settle the Great Plains.

McDowell: That was really the push of the day.

It was push out, you know, Westward expansion.

Let's get the churches built and the schools built and the railroad built and connect the whole country from coast to coast.

Narrator: Charles and Caroline settle into a log cabin near Pepin, Wisconsin, where they are surrounded by family and neighbors.

Their first daughter, Mary, is born just as the Civil war is coming to an end.

Laura arrives two years later, in 1867.

Young woman: 'Once upon a time, 60 years ago, a little girl lived in the big woods of Wisconsin in a little gray house made of logs.

The great dark trees of the big woods stood all around the house and beyond them were other trees and beyond them more trees.

There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.'

McDowell: When I compare Laura Ingalls Wilder's writing, I think of Thoreau talking about Walden Pond.

It's that same sort of connection to 'how I built my cabin, how I lived, and what I saw.'

Narrator: When Laura is 2, the Ingalls leave the log cabin bound for Kansas.

Harper: 'Pa stopped the horses and the wagon they were hauling away out on the prairie in Indian territory.

'Well, Caroline,' he said, 'Here's the place I've been looking for.'' Narrator: Charles and his family settle near Independence, Kansas, where their third daughter, Carrie, is born.

Fraser: They settle on land that it's pretty clear he knew was not available for white settlement at that time.

It belonged to the Osage Indians.

The logs that Charles Ingalls used to build the little house on the prairie did not belong to him.

They belonged to the Osage.

It was an act of theft.

Certainly wasn't seen so at the time by people like Charles Ingalls.

But now it's quite clear that it was.

♪♪♪ Erdrich: The idea that this was empty space -- It was shocking to me that I hadn't noticed that, but I was a child. So this is how children read it.

They read these books with a complete sense of storytelling and faith in these books.

Narrator: 'Little House on the Prairie,' Wilder's third novel, would describe her family's time in what she called 'Indian country.'

Fraser: She also portrays the child, Laura, as having a fear but also a deep fascination with what she describes as these, you know, wild people who were completely different.

That kind of encapsulates the very strange attitude that whites had at that time towards these people as if they were, first of all, not people, that they were something that could be had for the taking.

That is one of the things that makes that novel, I think, one of the most important documents about the history of that time.

♪♪♪ Narrator: Laura is barely 4 when the Ingalls leave Kansas.

The family returns to Wisconsin, and the next three years of Laura's life are spent in the cabin near Pepin.

Harper: 'When the work was done, Ma would cut out paper dolls for us and let us cook on the stove for our play house dinners.

She taught Mary how to knit.

She said I was too little, but sitting by and watching, I caught the trick first.'

Fraser: Wisconsin seems to have been probably the most stability that they might have ever experienced if they had just stayed.

They seemed to have been able to kind of eke out an existence there.

So they might have saved themselves quite a lot of toil and trouble if they had stayed.

But they didn't. [ Laughs ] Narrator: The Ingalls' second stay in Pepin became the basis for 'Little House in the Big Woods.'

The time frame was shifted a bit for the novel.

When she wrote for children, Wilder eliminated and embellished, shaping and stretching her own history.

Fraser: And I think, ultimately, writing the 'Little House' books was her was her way of trying to process all that had happened to her both in positive and negative ways.

She was both revisiting the closeness and the love she had for her family.

But she was also reliving the terror of their experience, because on many occasions, they did face ruin or starvation or disaster.

Narrator: Disaster was looming when the Ingalls moved West to Minnesota to start a new life in a dugout.

Fraser: The Ingalls family comes to this area near Walnut Grove in 1874.

And they settle in this place called Plum Creek which is a beautiful spot.

And they begin all over again. He builds a house.

She calls it the beautiful house.

I think it was one of the nicest places that they'd ever lived. [ Chuckles ] And then, of course, he plants this beautiful crop.

And it's growing very nicely.

Harper: 'The weather was just right, and the crops grew and grew.

He said the grain was all soft and milky yet, but it was so well grown, he felt sure we would have a wonderful crop.'

Fraser: The wheat is coming up.

And it's gonna pay all their debts.

[ Laughing ] And, you know, they -- they've built castles in the sky on this crop.

And then they hear their neighbor screaming.

Harper: ''The grasshoppers are coming!

The grasshoppers are coming!' she shrieked.

'Come and look!'

And then we saw that the cloud was grasshoppers, their wings a shiny white making a screen between us and the sun.'

Narrator: It's 1875, and the Ingalls have just experienced the Rocky Mountain Locust Invasion -- trillions of grasshoppers in a cloud that covered nearly 200,000 square miles.

Grasshoppers would again ruin a second Ingalls' harvest the following season.

Fraser: The grasshoppers eat everything.

And how, you know, heartbreaking that must have been because it just destroyed all of their hopes in a matter of hours.

Narrator: The locust plague appears true-to-life in Wilder's fourth novel, 'On the Banks of Plum Creek.'

Hill: What I think is really striking is that her account in 'Pioneer Girl,' which is essentially nonfiction, traces fairly closely to what she did in the fictional version in 'On the Banks of Plum Creek.'

It's -- It's relatively close.

Young woman: 'It was a cloud of something like snowflakes, but they were larger than snowflakes, and thin and glittering.

Light shone through each flickering particle.

Plunk! Something hit Laura's head and fell to the ground.

She looked down and saw the largest grasshopper she had ever seen.

Then huge brown grasshoppers were hitting the ground all around her, hitting her head and her face and her arms.

They came thudding down like hail.

The cloud was hailing grasshoppers.

The cloud grasshoppers.'

Anderson: The devastating grasshopper plagues ruined their chances of successful farming.

♪♪♪ Narrator: In Walnut Grove, Caroline gives birth again.

This time, it's a boy they call Freddy.

Charles, now deeply in debt, signs a pauper's oath -- a public acknowledgement that he is destitute.

It allows him to receive food for his family -- in this case, 2 1/2 barrels of flour.

Sarah: It is not well-known that he signed a pauper's oath during the grasshopper plague, and that was -- I mean, that would've been a huge blow.

To swear anything, to swear any kind of oath was -- We don't appreciate what that means today.

He was writing down on paper, 'I am a pauper.

I cannot support my family.

I need help.'

And that's so counter to the Pa that we're familiar with.

Anderson: And they were essentially so in need of funds that Charles Ingalls concocted a scheme that they would move to Burr Oak, Iowa.

Narrator: And the downward spiral continues.

Caroline is sick, and there are more doctor's bills.

On the way to Burr Oak, baby Freddy dies.

Harper: 'Little brother was not well, and the Dr. came.

I thought that would cure him as it had Ma when the Dr. came to see her.

But little brother got worse instead of better, and one awful day, he straightened out his little body and was dead.'

Hill: Probably the biggest omission that Wilder made in the 'Little House' books, the biggest deviation from her real life, was the family's experiences in Iowa and the loss of baby brother Freddy.

Freddy died very suddenly.

He was only 9 months old.

And Laura Ingalls Wilder chose not to write about him or the family's experiences in Iowa.

♪♪♪ Fraser: Charles Ingalls, he's again heavily in debt to doctors.

In fact, at one point, you know, the doctor's wife in Burr Oak approaches Caroline Ingalls about possibly adopting Laura as a kind of surrogate daughter/household worker.

Narrator: After the birth of the last Ingalls daughter, Grace, the doctor's bills and debt become insurmountable.

Fraser: If you got in debt to somebody, there were legal ramifications for that.

And so they end up leaving Burr Oak in the middle of the night.

Charles Ingalls loads the whole family and all their belongings in the wagon.

And they just flee the town, flee their debts.

I mean, she just would not have dreamed of saying that, I think, in a book for children.

Harper: 'Sometime in the night, we children were waked to find the wagon with a cover on standing by the door and everything but our bed and the stove loaded in.

Then we climbed in and drove away in the darkness.'

Fraser: You see her again and again trying to grapple with her -- her father's failures as a provider.

[ Chuckling ] You know, and there's this sort of tragic sentence in one of her manuscripts where she writes, 'Pa was a good farmer.

He always paid his debts' -- you know, complete fantasy.

Narrator: In her fiction, Pa moved the family West in a straight line.

The truth was a different story.

It was a meandering journey.

By time she was 14, Laura lived in at least 15 different homes.

Sarah: The trajectory in real life is very zig-zaggy.

In the books the -- the movement is attributed to Pa's wandering foot and to this Westward pull that he experiences.

But the reality looks more like he's just -- he's bouncing a bit.

He tries something, and it doesn't work, so he has to go backwards and try something new, and that works for a bit.

And then he gets a better idea, or it doesn't work.

It's a lot of trial and error.

Narrator: By the late summer of 1877, the Ingalls family is zig-zagging once again, back to Walnut Grove.

Fraser: Laura begins working in a hotel for a family called the Masters family.

She's exposed to all kinds of shenanigans in that hotel.

It's sort of a, you know, slightly squalid, dangerous atmosphere for a kid.

In fact, one of the Masters' wastrel sons almost seems to have tried to abuse her or attack her in the middle of the night one night.

And she fights him off by telling him that she'll scream if he does anything to her.

Harper: 'One night, I waked from a sound sleep to find Will leaning over me.

I could smell the whiskey on his breath.

I sat up quickly.

'Is Nannie sick?' I asked.

'No,' he answered, 'Lie down and be still!'

'Go away quick,' I said, 'or I will scream for Nannie.'

He went, and the next day, Ma said I could come home.'

Fraser: It shows you just how kind of out of control the whole situation had become.

Narrator: Then Mary, who had been sick for several months, became gravely ill.

Harper: 'She was delirious with an awful fever, and one morning when I looked at her, I saw one side of her face drawn out of shape.

Ma said Mary had had a stroke.

After the stroke, Mary began to get better, but she could not see well.

As Mary grew stronger, her eyes grew weaker until when she could sit up in the big chair among the pillows, she could hardly see at all.'

Narrator: Mary likely had viral meningioencephalitis, and her blindness deeply affected Laura.

Hill: When Mary went blind, Pa charged Laura with being Mary's eyes.

And that role of describing the world, describing what was happening in the outside world for her sister made Laura more aware of the outside world, more aware of the importance of vocabulary and description.

And I believe it went on to make Laura the writer that she actually became later on.

Narrator: Mary's blindness is attributed to scarlet fever in the novel 'By the Shores of Silver Lake,' which follows the family to what would become De Smet, South Dakota.

Charles Ingalls has a job as a bookkeeper with the Chicago and Northwestern Railway.

He takes full advantage of the Homestead Act and files a claim.

McDowell: So, imagine De Smet when the Ingalls first arrived.

We start to lay out a town.

So we go from the railroad, and we start to lay out roads.

They're coming on straight lines.

And from those roads, we have all of these sections being laid out.

We divide them up, and we have schools.

And we have claim shanties being built.

And we have churches being built.

And we have grocery stores coming.

And Charles Ingalls is building some of those buildings, so it starts to become a town.

Narrator: And Charles is one of its founding residents.

Hill: He was on the school board.

He was a city leader.

He was a prominent citizen of De Smet when they finally settled down.

So, he had this kind of romantic life, but he was also very civic-minded.

♪♪♪ Narrator: De Smet is where Charles and Caroline Ingalls stay for the rest of their lives, and it is the setting for the remainder of the 'Little House' books.

Anderson: I think the book that gives us the clearest picture of hardship is 'The Long Winter,' when they suffered from near malnutrition and were cold and without supplies and truly isolated in the community of De Smet, South Dakota.

That's a survival story.

Fraser: The actual event, you know, which was really known as the hard winter was even more horrific for the family than she let on in the novel.

They were trapped in this very small house with no insulation with another family, George Masters and his wife and their baby.

Sarah: During the Long Winter, there was another couple.

A married couple and their infant son were with them in the house in town for the entire winter.

They were boarders, and they just seem to have taken the perspective that, 'We're not part of this family, so we're just going to sit.'

They didn't contribute.

Fraser: They did nothing to really help.

And she hated them for the rest of her life.

[ Laughs ] And -- And the way she dealt with that in the novel was to leave them out entirely.

Sarah: She refused to touch that in 'The Long Winter.'

She wanted that family to be a complete unit, everybody pitching in equally to see them through.

And she said it would -- It would ruin the picture that she was trying to make if she let the Masters family intrude on that.

Harper: 'Storms followed storms so quickly that the railroad track could not be kept open.

The company kept men shoveling snow and snow plows working all they could, but the snow plows stuck in the snow and the snow blew back faster than the men could shovel it out.'

Narrator: At the end of January, there was too much snow for trains to get through, and food and supplies ran low.

The people of De Smet began to starve.

Fraser: Eventually, they got to the point where it was clear that somebody was gonna have to try to go out during one of these windows of opportunity between storms to try to find a farmer who had seed wheat.

Narrator: Enter Almanzo Wilder, a homesteader in his 20s, who volunteered for what seemed like a suicide mission.

Hill: Laura Ingalls Wilder sets up the scene in 'The Long Winter.'

We have a great deal of suspense as readers as to whether Almanzo and Cap Garland are gonna find that settler, and if so, can they persuade him to sell the seed wheat.

Ultimately, they do.

And then on the drive back, there's another blizzard on the horizon.

And Cap and Almanzo make it back into town just in the nick of time.

It's a really suspenseful, dramatic, kind of scary scene.

This was something that they actually did in real life, and they saved the town.

♪♪♪ Young woman: 'And the fear and the suffering of the long winter seemed to rise like a dark cloud and float away on the music.

Spring had come.

The sun was shining warm, the winds were soft, and the green grass growing.'

Narrator: By the next November, Mary has gone off to Iowa to attend a college for the blind.

Wilder: Mary graduated from the Iowa College for the Blind at Vinton, Iowa.

After graduating, she lived at home with Pa and Ma.

She was always busy helping Ma with the housework and with her books and music.

She never regained her sight.

♪♪♪ Narrator: Laura takes her first teaching position at a school about 8 miles south of De Smet.

She is 16. And around this time, Almanzo Wilder begins to drive her to and from De Smet every weekend.

Skurnick: What I remember most about the romance is that even when it's not clear that they're dating but that Manzo still shows up and takes her home every weekend -- She has not asked.

He has not even said he's going to do it.

He just understands, and he does it, and he commits and shows his commitment that way.

You know, he's not -- not even doing it so he can see her.

He's doing it so she can see her family.

That is the part of their courtship that made me understand actual courtship.

♪♪♪ Narrator: The courtship continues when Laura returns to De Smet and to being a student.

During that year, she writes an essay which reads, in part... Young woman: 'Without an ambition to excel others and to surpass one's self, there would be no superior merit.

To win anything, we must have the ambition to do so.'

Hill: There's that remarkable scene with Mr. Owen which occurs in both 'Pioneer Girl' and later in the 'Little House' books themselves, where Mr. Owen compliments the young Laura on her first exposition, her first writing assignment.

Young woman: 'He looked at her sharply and said, 'You have written compositions before?'

'No, sir,' Laura said.

'This is my first.'

'Well, you should write more of them.

I would not have believed that anyone could do so well the first time.'' Hill: What I think is remarkable about that is not only that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about the scene both in 'Pioneer Girl' and later in the 'Little House' books, but that she kept the original writing assignment from Mr. Owen for all of those years.

She still has that, and she has -- And she kept all of her scraps of poetry.

For me, that indicates that Laura Ingalls Wilder probably had the ambition to write very early on.

Narrator: Laura's school days end when she takes another teaching job, this one closer to home and to Almanzo.

By now, they have affectionate names for one another -- Manly and Bessie.

Harper: ''I was wondering if you wanted an engagement ring,' he answered.

And I gave a startled gasp.

'That would depend,' I said, 'on who offered it to me.'

'Would you take it from me?' he asked, and I said 'Yes!'

Then he kissed me good night, and I went into the house, not quite sure if I was engaged to Manly or to the starlight and the prairie.'

Narrator: Laura refused to say the word 'obey' in the wedding vows.

It would set the tone for their lifelong partnership.

Young woman: 'She summoned all her courage and said, 'Almanzo, I must ask you something.

Do you want me to promise to obey you?'

Soberly he answered, 'Of course not.

I know it is in the wedding ceremony, but it is only something that women say.

I never knew one that did it, nor any decent man that wanted her to.'

'Well, I am not going to say I will obey you,' said Laura.

'I cannot make a promise that I will not keep, and, Almanzo, even if I tried, I do not think I could obey anybody against my better judgement.'

'I'd never expect you to,' he told her.'

Sarah: She had the -- the -- the presence of mind, the c-- the confidence to say to her future husband, 'I can't promise this.'

Speaks to her strength of character.

It speaks to her knowledge of herself.

She knows that she can't do that.

And she feels comfortable enough with him to -- to put that forward.

And that he accepts it says a good deal about him, as well.

Anderson: Almanzo was perfectly competent and a strong, hard worker.

But he was willing to defer to his wife.

And they had a unique partnership in their marriage before most marriages were organized in that fashion.

Before Almanzo made any purchases or changes on the farm, they consulted together.

And if he would do something rash without asking her, she made it known that she really didn't care for that.

Narrator: They are married in August 1885.

Hill: Laura Ingalls Wilder's first four years of marriage with Almanzo were extraordinarily difficult, one financial disaster after another.

Their barn burned down. Their house burned down.

♪♪♪ They lost an infant son.

Almanzo suffered a stroke, and it left him crippled for the rest of his life.

Narrator: Laura would later relive that terrible time in 'The First Four Years,' a novel she drafted but never published.

Hill: Very few young couples, I think, could have faced as many crises in the first four years of marriage as those two did.

The one bright spot in those first four years was the birth of Rose, their daughter.

Narrator: After surviving so much tragedy in De Smet, the young family heads south, eventually landing in the Ozarks, lured by the promise of 'the land of big red apples.'

Like her parents before her, Wilder crosses the plains in a horse-drawn wagon.

She records the trip in a tiny notebook, leaving a rare glimpse of her emotional self.

Harper: 'We crossed the James River, and in 20 minutes, we reached the top of the bluffs on the other side.

We all stopped and looked back at the scene, and I wished for an artist's eye or a poet's brain or even to be able to tell in good, plain prose how beautiful it was.

If I had been the Indians, I would have scalped more white folks before I ever would have left it.'

Fraser: She sees the -- you know, the banks of this -- this river and is, you know, kind of overcome with I think everything she's leaving behind.

You know, she feels incredibly melancholy.

I think she felt quite keenly the fact that -- that she and Almanzo had, essentially, been failures as farmers and -- and were being driven out of this place they could no longer stay in and -- and that there was just nothing to be done about it.

Narrator: Laura is 27 years old.

The part of her life that would become her books is now behind her.

♪♪♪ Narrator: In 1894, the Wilders get their fresh start.

They buy 40 acres with a one-room cabin and call it Rocky Ridge Farm.

Laura had a clear vision of what it could become.

Harper: 'Everything we needed to build it was on the land -- good oak beams and boards, stones for the foundations and the fireplace.

The house would have large windows looking West across a brook over the gentle valleys and wooded hills that hid the town.

The kitchen would be big enough to hold a wood stove for winter.

And in the parlor... big book cases filled with books and a hanging lamp to read them by on winter evenings by the fireplace.'

Narrator: Laura Ingalls Wilder would live in Mansfield, Missouri, for the next 62 years, but until she became a best-selling author, life was a constant struggle to make ends meet.

The couple always had second and third jobs.

Laura raised chickens and took in boarders.

Almanzo tended to the apple orchard and delivered kerosene.

Their young daughter, Rose, picked huckleberries to sell and remembered her childhood none too fondly.

Brenneman: 'No one knew what went on in my mind.

Because I loved my parents, I would not let them suspect that I was suffering.

I concealed from them how much I felt their poverty, their struggles and disappointments.

These filled my life, magnified like horrors in a dream.'

Narrator: In the spring of 1902, Laura receives word that her father is dying.

[ Bell ringing ] She travels back to De Smet to see him one last time.

Fraser: It must have been a really heartbreaking loss for her, because she always identified strongly with her father.

They loved each other.

She always referred to her earliest memories of him carrying her, you know, and singing to her, and, you know, gazing at her.

And I think she felt a security and a closeness with him that she never felt with anybody else.

Narrator: After Charles dies, Wilder writes an essay about him filled with the memories and music of her childhood.

Harper: 'All Father needed to make him happy was his family, a new, wild country to live in or travel over, good hunting and fishing, some traps, his gun, two good horses hitched to a rain-proof covered wagon, and his violin.'

Narrator: The next year, Rose leaves home to finish school in Louisiana.

She is 16.

Woodside: She thought that she had had the worst childhood ever and she couldn't wait to get away from the farm.

For a long time, she felt that way.

Sarah: She doesn't fit in the world that she's born into.

It's too small. It doesn't suit her.

She was stubborn.

She was very, very forceful, I think, in her opinions.

She taught herself to read.

When she discovered, like, how to write she just loved the act of writing so much that she was harming her arm and her hand.

They had to make her stop, and she was not but 4 or 5 years old.

She just had this fascination right from the get-go with language, with words, with writing.

Narrator: Fittingly, Rose went on to a career as a writer and then urges her mother to do the same.

Sarah: Rose had always had this preoccupation with her parents' financial stability and for quite some time is urging her mother to do something in addition to supplement the farm income.

So Rose encourages her to write.

Narrator: And Laura begins writing articles for the Anderson: Laura Ingalls Wilder earned money as a country journalist and the secretary treasurer of the Mansfield Farm Loan Association.

John: The articles that she wrote, about 1,000 words twice a month, were stories that helped people under-- mainly women, because it's a women's page -- understand who they were and what they were doing, how they could be better farmers, how they could be better community citizens.

It's all about improving people, making them happier, and she's a -- she's an ethicist.

Hill: She already had an arsenal of writing skills under her belt when she started writing the 'Little House' books.

Anderson: And I think Laura Ingalls Wilder's early poverty challenged her to work hard, use her talents, and give 120% effort to edge them into middle-class somewhat security.

[ Train whistle blows ] Narrator: In 1915, Wilder takes a train to San Francisco to visit Rose.

Sarah: When the World's Fair is happening in San Francisco, Laura goes out there with an eye toward learning more from Rose, observing the Fair, you know, having -- having this broader sort of pool of experiences to pull from, and also to be tutored by Rose so that her writing can be more commercial or reach a broader audience.

Narrator: Rose is making $30 a week writing fictionalized, first-person accounts of criminals, hero cops, and stool pigeons for the And her stories are advertised as having 'the authority of truth, the power of reality.'

Hill: Rose became her mother's editor and urged Laura Ingalls Wilder to think big, to think beyond just writing for the Narrator: Wilder returns home, newly determined to find a larger audience.

At Rose's suggestion, she eventually writes an article about her kitchen.

It sells to in 1924.

Laura appears to have bristled during the editing process.

Brenneman: 'I'm sorry that, as you say, knowing it was my work that sold takes some of the joy out of it.

Dearest Mama Bess, in some ways, you're like a frolicsome dog that won't stand still to listen.

Please, please, listen.

All I did on your story was an ordinary re-write job.

You must understand that what sold was your article, edited.

You must study how it was edited, and why, and just what was done, so that next time, you can do the editing yourself.'

Narrator: When Caroline Ingalls dies that same year, Wilder publishes an emotional column in the Harper: 'The world seemed a lonesome place when Mother has passed away and only memories are left us.


Sometimes I wonder if they are our treasures in heaven or the consuming fires of torment.'

Fraser: And it was really remarkable as a statement, because she's really reacting to her mother's death.

And it shows you how very few spontaneous remarks we have from her.

Most of what she wrote was very considered and restrained and controlled.

But that one passage about her mother's death clearly just came in the moment.

Narrator: Laura turns again to her family memories, writing to an elderly aunt in 1925 asking for details about her mother's childhood.

Harper: 'Dear Aunt Martha, could you, I wonder, tell the story of those days and any special stories that you remember about the things that happened then?

Just tell it in your own words as you would tell about those times if only you could talk to me.'

♪♪♪ Narrator: In 1928, Rose -- now Rose Wilder Lane after a failed marriage -- returns home to live at Rocky Ridge.

By now, she has travelled the world and is a highly paid writer.

With her earnings, Rose builds her parents a modern house on a corner of the farm, and she spends lavishly.

Then the Financial Crash of 1929 and the resulting Depression leaves the whole family in terrible straits.

In her diary, Rose recalled just how bad things had become.

Brenneman: 'Our accounts are gone. This is the end.

Price levels have fallen below costs.'

Narrator: By 1931, Laura had written the story of her life -- 'Pioneer Girl.'

Fraser: Writing the memoir is both her lifelong dream -- you know, she has talked about this for a long time.

But it's also very economically motivated, because I think Laura looks at her daughter and sees a woman who has been very successful in a lot of ways, has made a lot of money.

Woodside: Rose took the manuscript, and she typed it all up, and she edited it as she went smoothed it over and gave it a little bit of structure, but she didn't do much to it at all.

And the next time she went to New York to try to get work and see her agent, she tried to sell it.

Narrator: With the Depression on, a memoir about the harsh realities of frontier life held no interest for publishers.

'Pioneer Girl' is turned down everywhere.

Without consulting her mother, Rose takes some passages from 'Pioneer Girl,' turns them into 'When Grandma Was a Little Girl,' and helps launch her mother as a children's author.

Woodside: When you look at 'Little House in the Big Woods,' we see a lot of proof that Rose had a great deal of involvement in -- in major revisions to that once they were expanding on it.

Narrator: 'Little House in the Big Woods,' with illustrations by Helen Sewell, was published in April 1932.

The its 'refreshingly genuine and lifelike quality,' noting that 'the portrait of Laura's father is drawn with loving care and reality.'

Fraser: I think her relationship to her father is kind of unique in children's literature in a lot of ways.

There are a lot of bad fathers [Laughing] in children's literature, a lot of scary, punitive, even abusive fathers.

But her relationship to Charles Ingalls was really special in -- in its closeness.

John: Pa getting down on his hands and knees and playing mad dog with the girls and playing his fiddle and telling all the stories and everything, I think Pa was an unusual father for the time.

He seems very modern in the way in which he connected with his girls.

He didn't have any boys.

Maybe that had something to do with it.

♪♪♪ Newsreel narrator: 'Almost immediately upon taking office, the new President closed all banks by proclamation.'

Sarah: Politically, she's writing at a time when FDR is in the White House and is apparently never leaving, and she doesn't like him very much at all.

And she feels that people are just -- can't find their bootstraps.

And I think that informs the way that she tells the story of her life to -- to make the Ingalls family so independent and so self-reliant when that was not, in fact, always the case.

Newsreel narrator: 'Aimed at benefiting the farmer by reducing wheat, corn, and cotton crops, the AAA was enacted.'

Woodside: They both were sort of physically ill over FDR and the New Deal.

They felt that it was just a really inappropriate response to hard times.

They had seen hard times.

Why did the government want to help people?

And Laura thought that everybody was starting to whine in response to the New Deal.

She just couldn't stand it. It made her sick.

Harper: 'Lord, give me patience!

How exasperating a bunch of Communists in Washington can be!

[ Sighs ] I suppose all we can do is await their pleasure.

Give them time enough, and they will put us all on the Federal payroll or on the relief.'

Narrator: Ironically, the Wilders themselves had already benefited from a federal program -- a farm loan taken when Laura was working at the Mansfield Farm Loan Association.

♪♪♪ Debuting in the early days of the Depression, 'Little House in the Big Woods' seemed tailor-made for the times.

Fraser: And so I think she had a bit of a message there for children about poverty, that it's nothing to be ashamed of.

If there's love in the family, if there's pleasures in life from a simple meal or from music, that that's enough in life.

Anderson: Without being overly moralistic, the 'Little House' books stressed self-responsibility, community cooperation, taking care of one's needs oneself, and with these goals, a person could be free and independent.

Narrator: After such a good reception for 'Little House in the Big Woods,' the question was what to do next.

Woodside: Laura's idea evidently was, 'Well, let -- Well, okay, we've done my -- my life story, so now let's do my husband's life story.'

Wilder: 'Farmer Boy' was written from facts and stories Almanzo told me.

They are all true.

The old house just as described in the book still stands on the old farm where Almanzo worked and played and went fishing on rainy days.

Woodside: Laura sat down with Almanzo probably in the evenings and mined his memory for things, and she wrote a manuscript of 'Farmer Boy,' and then Rose edited it fairly quickly, and they sent it in, and they had to rewrite that one completely.

Narrator: As part of improving the manuscript, Rose took a research trip to Malone, New York, her father's birthplace.

After substantial revisions with Rose, Laura resubmits 'Farmer Boy.'

Raymond: 'My Dear Mrs. Wilder, I have finished reading the new version of 'Farmer Boy.'

And I feel it is a much more cohesive piece of work than before.'

Hill: Somewhere as she was writing that second book, she began to think in broader terms.

So when we get to 'Little House on the Prairie,' that's a totally different kind of book, and here, for the first time, we kind of see Laura Ingalls Wilder's vision for the series about the West and about how the West was settled.

Harper: 'I am satisfied with the title 'Little House on the Prairie.'

I suggested it thinking it had a selling value because of the other 'Little House' stories.'

Narrator: 'Little House On The Prairie' is followed by 'On the Banks of Plum Creek,' and the books will soon be marketed as a series.

'Plum Creek' is the first of Wilder's books to receive a runner-up honor from the Newbery Awards, the coveted stamp from librarians that signals distinguished children's literature.

Fraser: I think the books had great word of mouth among librarians and -- and school teachers, who began reading them to their classes.

Teacher: Describe Laura.

What is her personality like?

Anderson: They simply became part of many, many teachers' curriculums.

And I think the teachers loved reading the books and introducing them to the children.

And the children responded well.

Narrator: When 'Plum Creek' is about to go on sale, Wilder appears at the Detroit Book Fair, her first and only time on a national stage.

There, her description of how the 'Little House' books came to be becomes a bigger and better story.

Harper: 'I wanted the children now to understand more about the beginning of things -- to know what is behind the things they see, what it is that made America as they know it.'

Narrator: With these remarks to booksellers, Wilder is mythologizing -- about the perpetual promise of moving West... and about herself.

Sarah: Laura Ingalls Wilder had a lot of responsibility in -- in forming the myth.

Just always insisted that everything in the books was true, true, true.

And Rose also, you know, went on with that legacy, that insistence that this was biographical more than fiction.

And it's -- it's just not so.

Narrator: And yet at the close of her speech, Wilder pointedly says, 'All I have told is true but not the whole truth.'

Fraser: [ Chuckling ] It's very clear that she wanted to believe her own fiction.

You know, she began trying to sell it as the truth.

And so that's, you know, what we keep coming back to it for is -- is to f-- try to figure that out.

And yet, part of the joy of reading the books is -- is their emotionalism.

And that's what keeps people coming back to it.

It's not because they're political texts.

It's not because they have something to say about, you know, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, although they do.

But that's not why people read them.

Narrator: The letters between Rose and Laura during writing of the fifth novel, 'By the Shores of Silver Lake,' reveal how mother and daughter worked together.

Woodside: Rose had the gift of structuring the novel.

She understood if you're narrating a novel, it must be through whatever narrative voice you choose.

Laura did not know anything about that, so she would say -- There's a famous letter where she writes her about -- you know, 'This is Laura's story.

You must stay inside Laura.'

Brenneman: 'Try always to make sight, scent, sensation immediate.

'So Laura took the lines in her hands,' is better than, 'so Laura drove the black ponies.'

Get it all directly, as sight, emotion, thought, scent.

Don't say, 'It reminded Laura of other times.'

Say, 'This was like other times.'

Stay inside Laura.'

Narrator: There were many arguments over how 'By the Shores of Silver Lake' should start.

Brenneman: 'Dear Mama Bess, I still think the place to begin is on the house on Plum Creek.

There are four years to skip if Laura is 12.

She was 8 in Plum Creek when she started to school.

Therefore, the more nearly you can tie the two books together, the better, and the house on Plum Creek will do that.

It seems to me that this book is about railroad and town-building.

Let's get the theme of this one clear right away.'

Harper: 'Rose dearest, to make the changes you want to make in Silver Lake, it will have to be practically rewritten.

The theme of Silver Lake is I am sure this is all plain in the story.

I have given you a true picture of the time and the place and the people.

Please don't blur it.

But I know you won't.'

Brenneman: 'Dear Mama Bess, you are one of the very few writers in the country who would turn down a collaboration with Rose Wilder Lane, but go ahead.

You certainly are handling the material much better all the time, and if you don't want this book touched, you're absolutely right not to have it touched.'

Narrator: And if Rose had prevailed, Mary would never have been blind.

Brenneman: 'I am still doubtful about Mary's being blind.

Why? If she must be blind, her blindness should be brought in as the end of an illness.

I can handle this, if you agree to it.

Only write me a letter telling me all about what actually happened.'

Narrator: But Laura insisted.

Harper: 'I can't take Mary along in the story as she should be if she were not blind.

She would not fit in.

A touch of tragedy makes the story truer to life and showing the way we all took it illustrates the spirit of the times and the frontier.'

Narrator: Wilder's description of Mary's blindness is arguably one of the most affecting scenes in all of her books.

Young woman: 'Her blue eyes were still beautiful, but they did not know what was before them, and Mary herself could never look through them again to tell Laura what she was thinking without saying a word.'

Narrator: While they are working on 'Silver Lake,' Rose writes to her mother about their partnership and gives her very specific advice.

Brenneman: 'As to similarity in our writing, of course.

You often write lines and whole paragraphs that I feel are what I would have written or, anyway, wish I had.

What you haven't developed is structure, a kind of under-rhythm in the whole body of the writing, and a 'pointing up' here and there.

English is an impressionistic language, an onomatopoeic language.

It has the quality of a sunrise or a landscape, a meaning in feeling.

Essentially, it is poetry.'

Woodside: I would call it a full-blown collaboration.

They were partners in the project.

They conceived it together, they wrote it together, and they edited it together.

Hill: She was a fine editor.

And I think we're all indebted to her editorial skills on the 'Little House' books.

Fraser: She's not easy to like always, and yet it's very doubtful that we -- we would have the 'Little House' books if it weren't for Rose with her encouragement, her urging her mother on, her bullying her mother sometimes, her professional connections to agents and publishers in New York.

She was crucial in this whole thing.

Anderson: Rose was at the apex of her career, writing short stories, magazine serials, novels, and works of nonfiction.

She wanted no taint of being involved with children's books.

The children's book publishing field in the 1930s and '40s was miniscule in comparison with what it is today.

And it was simply not Rose's wish to get recognized as the co-author or editor of her mother's books.

And Rose denied any connection with those books to her dying day.

Narrator: In fact, Rose had appropriated her mother's childhood for her own material.

Her novel 'Let the Hurricane Roar' is based on the Ingalls family.

But Rose would become best known for her political theories.

Her non-fiction book 'The Discovery of Freedom' was published in 1943 and became fuel for the founding of the Libertarian Party.

Around the same time, Laura's editor, Ursula Nordstrom, decides it's time for a new edition and new illustrations.

She taps Garth Williams, the illustrator of children's book 'Stuart Little' and later 'Charlotte's Web.'

Williams meets Wilder at her farmhouse in 1947.

Williams: She was very lively.

And she was fixing her garden, and I sat in the car.

She didn't know I was there.

And I watched her, and she was picking flowers.

And she bent right down, and she picked up flowers without any trouble at all.

And I said, 'Well, my goodness, she looks about 20 or 30 years younger than she really is.'

Narrator: Wilder shared her family photos, artifacts, and the details of her life.

Williams wrote down his impressions.

Man: 'An architect would have described the sod house on the bank of Plum Creek as extremely primitive, unhealthy, and undesirable.

But to Laura's fresh young eyes, it was a pleasant house, surrounded by flowers and with the music of a running stream and rustling leaves.

She understood the meaning of hardship and struggle.

She never glamorized anything, yet she saw the loveliness in everything.

This was the way the illustrator had to follow -- No glamorizing for him, either.'

Narrator: Shortly before the new editions were released, editor Nordstrom attended to some troubling aspects of the text.

A letter from the aunt of an 8-year-old girl took issue with a passage from 'Little House on the Prairie' that read, 'There were no people.

Only Indians lived there.'

Responding to the complaint, Nordstrom said... Woman: 'I must admit to you that no one here realized that those words read as they did.

Reading them now, it seems unbelievable to me that you are the only person who has picked this up in the 20 years since the book was published.'

Narrator: 'A stupid blunder of mine,' Wilder wrote.

'Of course Indians are people, and I did not mean to imply that they were not.'

The sentence was changed to 'There were no settlers.'

Beane: So, there was the line, 'There were no people, only Indians,' when they're coming into the territory.

And in the 1950s, they struck out the word 'people' and put in 'settlers.'

And it still said, 'There were no settlers, only Indians.'

And why are we 'only'? What does that mean for us?

And what message does this give our children?

John: They had been there for centuries, if not millennia.

So Laura was typical of her times and not really having an understanding of or appreciating the Native American history.

Park: Even as a young child, there were parts of the books that made me really uncomfortable or unhappy, that I just didn't like reading.

And how this manifested to me personally was there's a passage in which Laura is fascinated by an Indian baby's very dark eyes.

Young woman: 'Then came a mother riding, with a baby in a basket on each side of her pony.

Laura looked straight into the bright eyes of the little baby nearer her.

Only its small head showed above the basket's rim.

Its hair was as black as a crow, and its eyes were black as night when no stars shine.

Those black eyes looked deep into Laura's eyes, and she looked deep down into the blackness of that little baby's eyes, and she wanted that one little baby.'

Park: I had very dark eyes.

So in my childhood mind, when Ma said horrible things about Native Americans, it felt like she was saying horrible things about me.

Gay: I think I first started reading the books in 1981.

So we had very different sensibilities then.

It didn't even occur to anyone to think anything of the depictions of Indians in those books.

And I think that's deeply unfortunate, and it shows just how much work we had to do with regards to recognizing the racism of those books.

Narrator: Nordstrom also asked Wilder to consider cutting a scene from 'Little Town on the Prairie' in which Pa appears in blackface and sings a racist song.

Wilder agreed, and some of the offending lyrics were trimmed, but the word 'darkies' and the illustration can still be found in the book today.

Hill: I know some colleagues have said that they wish those scenes would be cut from new versions of the book.

I don't agree with that.

It's very disturbing, but it is part of our history, and if we don't talk about these issues honestly with our children, we are jeopardizing their future and the future of our country.

Gay: The books just have to be taught in context, and the proper context, not revisionist context.

Teacher: Brainstorm in your groups some new names that may be more respectful to the Native American culture.

Erdrich: What I see these books as, basically, I would say they're like 'Gone with the Wind' for kids.

Kids are certainly gonna love 'Little House.'

Grown-ups like 'Gone with the Wind.'

But what is it, really?

It's a way of valorizing the things that destroyed entire peoples in this country.

Narrator: The racist scenes moved the American Library Association to rename its Laura Ingalls Wilder Lifetime Achievement Award.

♪♪♪ In 2018, it was changed to the Children's Literature Legacy Award.

Goldberg: They took the name off of the award because they didn't feel they could hold up Laura Ingalls Wilder as a contemporary role model for young readers.

The books are dehumanizing to children of color.

And they have a lot of really damaging messages for -- for white children.

Park: I was hurt by those books.

And that took me 50 years to reconcile.

Because the books that we love as children, oh, they're part of us. Right?

They're -- They're -- They're so much a part of our identity.

♪♪♪ Narrator: While her books were growing in popularity, Laura and Almanzo spent their time downsizing.

They sold most of their land and moved back into their original farmhouse.

Rose had settled in Connecticut.

And in the fall of 1949, Wilder's beloved Manly suffers a heart attack and dies.

Her farmer boy, her steadfast partner of 64 years, was gone.

Hill: Almanzo Wilder, I think, was a very tolerant man.

He had a headstrong wife, and he had a headstrong daughter.

But I've always viewed Almanzo as being a kind of feminist.

And he certainly emerges that way toward the end of 'These Happy Golden Years' when he woos Laura.

So I think he gave her the freedom to be the woman she needed to be.

And for the time, that was very unusual and very rare.

Anderson: After Almanzo Wilder died in 1949, Laura was bereft.

They had had such a companionable, successful marriage.

Fraser: I think she was quite lonely after that.

She mentions being lonely in letters.

Rose came intermittently after Almanzo died.

Laura's health was -- was not great.

You know, she was pretty frail.

There were some kids who lived nearby who kind of, you know, worked for her.

[ Laughing ] You know, she would pay them a quarter, and they would go fetch the mail for her.

Anderson: I think she was very gratified by the success of the 'Little House' books.

It was probably the culmination of her long, hardworking life.

She loved the fact that she had memorialized her own family, preserved her father's stories, achieves a degree of financial success.

She loved the letters that children sent to her.

And friends that would drop in would remark, 'I seldom came here to visit Mrs. Wilder and didn't find her working on her fan mail.'

Narrator: A few days after her 90th birthday, with Rose by her side, Laura dies at home.

Rose, Wilder's only child, would be her only beneficiary.

Rose dies in 1968.

Her obituary does not mention her famous mother or the 'Little House' books.

Mother and daughter both kept their silence.

It would not be long before researchers found the evidence of the collaboration between them.

Woodside: It was a shock. It was a total shock.

Well, that was because the two women were heavily invested in keeping that secret.

Narrator: And though Laura and Rose were gone, the 'Little House' books were about to take on a new life.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ After more than 40 years on bookshelves, Laura Ingalls Wilder's characters came to life on the small screen.

Gilbert: I remember my mom telling me that they were going to make it into a television series and that I was gonna audition for the role of Laura.

And I remember being incredibly excited about that.

Laura: 'Look at the country girls.'

Made me so mad I wanted to smack her good.

Narrator: Melissa Gilbert played Laura on the NBC TV series 'Little House on the Prairie' for nine seasons.

Gilbert: Loved that book. I loved her character.

I loved the adventures.

I think like all young girls who read those books, she had me hook, line, and sinker.

And I wanted to be like her.

Little did I know, you know, it was not long later that I was going to get to play her.

Laura: I beg you to forgive me for what I did.

Narrator: Alison Arngrim played mean-girl Nellie Oleson.

Nellie: You are forgiven.

Narrator: Dean Butler played Almanzo Wilder.

Butler: I had no previous knowledge of these books or these people before doing the series.

And now I can say with a -- with a great confidence and happiness that they are a part of my life forever.

TV show narrator: Narrator: The show, watched by millions, has never gone off the air.

It is still in syndication and streaming.

Friendly: And I think one of the reasons why the television show is so popular is they got to live with this family, this idealized version of a family, for nine seasons.

Narrator: Trip Friendly's father, producer Ed Friendly, turned the books into the TV show, and it remains a family business.

Friendly: So he had an enormous, abiding love for the West and for the history of our country and the settlers and the pioneers.

And I think he felt it was great, classic American literature that should be adapted for television.

Skurnick: So the TV show, of course, as any 'Little House' reader will say, it looked wrong.

You know, that's not their house.

That's not the sunlight. That's not the coziness.

That's definitely not Pa!

♪♪♪ Goldberg: The drama in the books comes from the hardships of how they were living, where they were living, and when they were living.

TV has to always add a layer of sentimentality, and, you know, there's more humor in the television show, I think.

They made it more for TV.

They made it more for an audience that wanted to see the tropes of family television that they were used to seeing but set in the 19th century.

Gilbert: We also took a lot of dramatic license, clearly, with our show.

We never left Walnut Grove.

That is not exactly how it went for Laura.

I think our show was an interpretation of what the 'Little House' stories were applied to that time in America in the 1970s.

Narrator: The TV show brought legions of new readers to the books.

Butler: I have signed books for the little girl who got the book from her mother, who got the book from her grandmother.

Families are sharing these books and the 'Little House' experience together.

I think that's one of the beauties of the show.

Narrator: The renewed interest in all things 'Little House' included the actual houses.

Schodorf: And when the pilot TV show came on, and it was two hours about Kansas, and 'Little House on the Prairie,' out here in the middle of the prairie near Independence, Kansas, we started getting streams of cars driving by.

We've lasted for 45 years.

Every year, people come from all 50 states and 35, 40 countries.

Stan: After the TV show aired, we had thousands of people coming here.

Because of the crush of people, my parents couldn't handle them in the kitchen anymore.

Narrator: Today, all of the places associated with Laura Ingalls Wilder are museums -- out-of-the-way destinations throughout the Midwest -- for fans looking to connect with the pioneering family they feel they know.

Redman: I love seeing how personal some of these items are, the connection that people have with them, and just how much they care.

A lot of people really like her library.

They're very interested in what she read, what her literary influences were.

Pa's fiddle, as well.

Scrivener: I'm David Scrivener, and I have here Pa's fiddle.

[ Cheers and applause ] [ Fiddle playing ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Arngrim: Yeah, if you had told me that 45 years later, 40 years later, we'd have these events and TV shows and go to these sites, never in a million, trillion years if you told me that I would be talking to people from every country on earth who would be crying at meeting me and the rest of the cast... impossible.

Narrator: The yearning to know more about the beloved author continued.

In 1971, 'The First Four Years,' Wilder's book about the early, difficult days of her marriage, was released.

Its different style and tone raised new questions.

By that time, Rose's role was already being examined.

Woodside: The amazing thing about this is that scholars knew and were writing about Rose's involvement from the 1970s, but people just didn't accept it.

Narrator: Later in her life, Rose became known for her politics.

Woodside: Rose was sort of a rock star, in today's slang, to the Libertarians.

Narrator: And some passages, particularly in the last two 'Little House' books, suggest her political hand at work.

Young woman: 'She thought -- Americans won't obey any king on earth.

Americans are free.

That means they have to obey their own consciences.

No king bosses Pa. He has to boss himself.'

Woodside: Many of us, myself included, did not realize the political undertones to much of the series and did not understand the ways in which political messages were put into dramatic scenes.

I think that, for Laura, it was absolutely not conscious at all.

I think, for Rose, it was her idea of what is truth.

So, in that sense, it wasn't conscious, either.

It was Rose being Rose.

NARRATOR: 'Pioneer Girl,' Wilder's early attempt to tell her story, appeared in 2014, 84 years after it had been written.

It quickly became a publishing sensation, as Wilder's 19th-century stories climbed to the top of 21st-century best-seller lists.

They resonate to this day.

♪♪♪ Sarah: The popularity is a really interesting phenomenon to me, because this is a story of tremendous hardship.

And yet it makes so many people feel so secure.

It's emotional comfort food.

Gay: They were so engaging, and they were so beautifully written, and they were so charming.

Like, that I can remember details from those books, literally, f-- almost 40 years later, and I still remember the book the first time I read it as clear as day.

And I can't say that for books I read last week.

Fraser: She's born just shortly after the end of the Civil War and lives until 1957.

The covered wagon to the atomic bomb is a real stretch.

And, you know, it's -- it's an amazing life, not only in -- in that sense, in the sort of larger sense of what has happened to society, but just what she has been able to achieve.

You know, was born in -- in a log cabin in the woods in Wisconsin and barely is able to, you know, put two cents together and dies with an obituary in the celebrating her career as a writer.

So, it was unimaginable, really, what she was able to accomplish.

Narrator: Nearly a century after her first book was published, Laura Ingalls Wilder's voice is still heard.

Harper: 'Dear Children of Chicago, I was born in the little house in the big woods of Wisconsin just 80 years ago the 7th of this month, and I am calling this my birthday party.

The 'Little House' books are stories of long ago.

The way we live and your schools are much different now.'

Teacher: Three or four days the blizzard lasted.

That's a long time to sit in a cold shanty, isn't it?

Harper: 'But the real things haven't changed.

It is still best to be honest and truthful, to make the most of what we have, to be happy with simple pleasures, and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.

With love to you all and best wishes for your happiness, I am sincerely your friend, Laura Ingalls Wilder.'

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪


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