Episode 2 – Laura Ingalls Wilder

Posted 7 February 2011 by

Channel your inner pioneer. Think tall plains grasses, humble and hardworking people who knew what it meant to carve a life out of the rugged terrain.  The woman we talk about this week is remembered for romanticizing her childhood and for sporting a really, sweet bonnet. But her reality was not all about fiddle playing and homesteading- it was a difficult life. One that was full of failure, and some controversy, on the road to literary success .

Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder was born in 1867, the second child of Charles and Caroline. Her childhood began in Wisconsin and then took off as the family was led by her Pa’s roaming spirit around the then just establishing Midwestern states. It was a hard life  of danger and self-reliance, but also an exciting life of new frontiers and conquering the unknown.

The history of Laura’s early life is outlined in the beloved nine-book, Little House series. One of the books, Farmer Boy, is a recounting of the early years of her husband, Almonzo Wilder. The last book in the series , The First Four Years,  gives an idea of what early married life was like for the couple. But these books are fictionalized accounts written for children. They talk of the hardships of the times in a most simple fashion, and major heartache is omitted entirely.


We are all about simple, and children’s books are a main staple in both our houses, but we had some burning questions: What was Laura’s life really like? How many times did her family hit rock bottom, only to pick themselves up and get busy reinventing their lives? What influences did her own daughter, Rose, have on the Little House books? How hunky were Pa and Almonzo?  What type of life does the only child of a humble and simple couple lead?  What did Laura do with her life from the point that the stories end? And why is it so hard to find a picture of this woman smiling? ( Really, it was.)

Already an established columnist when her  first books were published,  Laura’s  Little House books  have made an impression on readers since the 1930’s. The TV show, Little House On The Prairie, lasted for a good chunk of our own formative years. The show wasn’t exactly an accurate representation of the books, which , we guess, is ok becaus the books were not exactly an accurate representation of the real life of Laura.

So that you don’t have the image of the freckle faced TV actress, Melissa Gilbert in your head:

Young Laura Ingalls

Adult Laura

And we have a smile!

And Ma and Pa  don’t look exactly like they did on the TV show:

Charles and Caroline, these are the faces you should imagine when you read the books!

That man put a lot of time into his beard, we should admire it.

Another key player in Laura’s life is her husband, Almanzo

See? Hunky, right? Manly, yes, but we like him, too.

And here is a picture of the young couple early in their marriage:

The couple would have two children, but a son died very early in his life. This is Rose, their only child, as an adult. We think she looks eager to shed her simple upbringing and live a cosmopolitan life. She did have a very extensive career as a writer and speculation over her actual contribution to the Little House books often clouds her own accomplishments.  Although her mental health often came into question, she was an outspoken and intelligent woman by any standard.

We discussed the contrast between the stylized wardrobe of the TV show, and the actual clothing of the time.  Here is a  portrait of the Ingalls family:

The Ingalls family, ( Left to Right) Caroline, Carrie, Laura, Charles, Grace and Mary

Here is one poor woman who needs a break:

Gathering fuel. In about 20 pounds of clothes!

Before you fire off a note, yes, we are aware that it was Coach who sang the Albania song on Cheers, not Woody. Sorry about that!

And finally, because we are women of our words…a parsed sentence. By Susan.  Get her, linguists!

The last time I did this, Gerald Ford was president.

THE (determiner) LAST TIME ( adverb) I( proper noun) DID (verb)THIS (pronoun), GERALD FORD ( proper noun) WAS ( verb)PRESIDENT(noun).

Time Traveling With The History Chicks

If you are interested in taking what you now know, and diving into the life of a really remarkable woman, here is what we suggest:

READ THE BOOKS. Yes, we outlined them in the podcast, but go pick up the set. They are children’s books, find a kid to read them to!  Or read them yourself and brag that you read NINE WHOLE BOOKS in a week.

Here is a link to a really fantastic New Yorker article on the relationship between Laura and her daughter, Rose. There is also a podcast of an NPR Linda Werthheimer interview  with Judith Thurman, the author of this article. Link up and learn!

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2009/08/10/090810crat_atlarge_thurman?currentPage=all ( Article)

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=111992555 ( NPR podcast)

Find the subculture. Here are a couple of links to some great sites of fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder. There are more, you know how to find them. These fans plan tours, have book discussions, share recipes… they are a very welcoming community eager to share their knowledge. Before long you will be layering heavy tights under boots and over ruffled skirts, cooking pancakes over a fire, and digging through the boxes of your youth in search of your own bonnet.

Here’s one! http://frontiergirl.proboards.com/index.cgi

And another! http://beyondlittlehouse.com/

Check this one out– how we rocked it in the 1970’s.

Click the link to learn how to make it…although don’t quote us on the two hour part.

http://www.motherearthnews.com/Do-It-Yourself/1978-07-01/Make-Your-Own-Sunbonnet-in-Less-Than-Two-Hours.aspx

The Chicks, and our chicklettes,  are planning a trip this summer to the local Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum. There are many, all over the country, in homes where she used to live. We’ll do a flashback after we go, so email us a picture if you we have inspired you to travel to one as well. We’ll post some!

As always, music for our podcast comes courtesy of Music Alley. Visit them at music.mevio.com.

11 Responses to Episode 2 – Laura Ingalls Wilder

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  3. Jackie says:

    Wow, your second episode was great too! It was fun travelling back in time, with you two “at the helm” :) Thanks!

  4. Beth says:

    I recently discoverd your podcasts and have really enjoyed them so far.
    You speculated that Laura’s descriptions are so vivid because she may have been describing things for her sister Mary. When my fifth grade class read the books (in the 1960s), our teacher told us that Laura described the world to Mary when she lost her sight and that translated into the books.

  5. Custom avatar Jen says:

    I live in the Black Hills of South Dakota and you really should try to make the DeSmet Laura site. They do a huge outdoor production each year. We used it as a history lesson when I home educated our youngest. Love the podcast and look forward to more!

    • The History Chicks says:

      That does sound wonderful, Jen! What a terrific lesson for kids (or adults!) History, literature, and performing arts all rolled into one!

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  7. Danelle Moore says:

    I have always believed that 19th century people “dressed for the camera dude”. I just can’t believe that women never wore pants while doing chores and always wore all those clothes no matter the temp. It’s ludicrous. It has got to be the best kept secret ever.

  8. Custom avatar Cordelia Morgan says:

    There is a wonderful book “The Little House Cookbook” by Barbara M. Walker which is a wealth of information about frontier cookery. Not just recipes but what a frontier housewife would have on hand in her pantry, cellar etc. just a delight to read. The author, indiscussing Laura’s intense descriptions of family feasts in the Big Woods house book and especially Farmer Boy, was of the opinion that her fascination with food was due to the fact that her family was always just this side of starving. Not only in the Long Winter but before and although her father hunted his efforts did not always result in bounty and wild game is lean meat and probably not enough protein or calories for bodies doing the heavy physical labor needed to survive. It is a testament to thei determined strength of will that they persevered(sp?).