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The greatest essay ever written about Little House on the Prairie

Dr Paula Morris reveals the seething family dynamics and political turmoil that went on behind the scenes of the books loved by millions.

Southern Missouri, 1928. On a green ridge outside the sleepy town of Mansfield, an elderly farming couple lived in a white wooden house, its soaring stone chimney built entirely from the rocks on their farm.

Their prodigal only daughter returned from Europe to live with them after years away spent working as a writer. Adventurous and sophisticated, trained as a journalist, she’d been married and divorced. She’d learned four languages. She’d driven across the desert toward Baghdad and sailed the Aegean Sea.

She’d made her name and living as a writer of popular fiction, mainly stories and serials published in magazines and newspapers, and returned to America to write, stabilise her finances, and spend time with her ageing parents. She planned to return to Albania, one of her favourite places, and build a house there with courtyards and fountains, to live in splendid, exotic isolation, visited by intellectuals and politicians and writers from all over the world.

In Missouri she was joined by an old friend from her days working for the Red Cross, a wartime nurse who had travelled across Europe with her in a Model-T Ford. This friend set up camp on the lawn behind the house. She’d recently published her World War I diaries, and would go on to write a series of books based on her own experiences as a young nurse.

Every afternoon they sat outside in the garden drinking coffee served in an elaborate Albanian tea service. The rest of the day they wrote. The daughter pounded away on her typewriter up in her old attic bedroom, writing stories for The Saturday Evening Post and working on a novel inspired by family stories of pioneer life.

This was Rocky Ridge Farm: the prodigal daughter was Rose Wilder Lane; her mother was Laura Ingalls Wilder; and work was about to begin on the classic children’s series known as the Little House books. Rose’s friend was Helen Dore Boylston — from 1936 the author of the best-selling Sue Barton books.

Almanzo Wilder, Laura’s husband and Rose’s father, was in his 70s, a man of few words, happiest working with horses. For 40 years he’d walked with a limp, after a bout of diphtheria that led to a stroke. Both Laura and Rose had an uncomplicated, affectionate relationship with him. Laura called him “Manly”. He called her “Bessie”. Everyone called Helen by her childhood nickname, “Troub”.

It sounds idyllic, but it wasn’t. Laura and Rose had a difficult relationship, made more difficult because of conflict over money and conflict over writing, and because Rose did not want to be back at Rocky Ridge. Rose thought that the solution to some of her problems, at least, would be a little house, built for her parents on another part of the farm.

She was wrong.

A prairie with a little house on it. Image: Pixabay.

In the quiet camaraderie of the Ingalls family, I found a haven. Unlike our house, the little houses of the books were peaceful. Parents never raised their voices. They always knew right from wrong. They were cheerful in the face of terrible adversity, and made cosy homes for their children in lonely, dangerous places. They ventured into the unknown with an axe, a gun and a covered wagon, ready to fell trees, light fires and fend off claim jumpers or hostile Indians. From this family, this safe haven, a heroine as smart and daring and spirited as Laura could emerge. I idolised her. I envied Laura her pluck, her place, her life. I still remember the thrill of reading Little House in the Big Woods for the first time. I was seven years old and followed Laura and the Ingalls family from log cabins in Wisconsin (Little House in the Big Woods) and Indian Territory (Little House on the Prairie); to a river-side dugout near Walnut Grove, Minnesota (On the Banks of Plum Creek) and a surveyor’s house in eastern South Dakota (On the Shores of Silver Lake); and then to a claim shanty and store building in the new town of De Smet (The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years). In the first book Laura is a little girl, with a big sister named Mary and a baby sister named Carrie. Along the way another sister, Grace, is born. Their Pa is a jolly man with a beard who plays the fiddle; their Ma is soft-spoken and demure. The series ends when Laura turns 18 and marries the handsome Almanzo Wilder.

When I moved to the US in the early 1990s I realised that — at long last — I would be able to experience the places described in the Little House books first-hand. I could travel to some of the sites of log cabins, schoolhouses and false-fronted store buildings, and see what places like Kansas and South Dakota really looked like. I could find out what happened to everyone in the Ingalls family when they grew up. The books would come to life in the dispersed hamlets and endless fields of America’s vast, secretive heartland. It would be a pilgrimage and an adventure.

It got out of hand, as obsessions often do, and turned into numerous odysseys over a two-year period, visiting every site related to the books and Laura’s life, and sitting through three Little House pageants — in Minnesota, South Dakota and Missouri — which is at least two pageants too many. I spent intense weeks at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, immersed in diaries, letters, manuscripts and other people’s personal business.

I stopped envying Laura. Sometimes I didn’t even like her that much. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a complex woman. A resourceful and determined adventurer, she could be snobbish, dogmatic and manipulative.

She wrote books celebrated for their simple integrity, yet in her personal life she was often disingenuous and sometimes spiteful. The Little House series is a paean to the self-sufficiency of her close, loving family, but as an adult she lived far from them and didn’t visit her mother or older sister at all during the last 20 years of their lives, even though she travelled to other places equally distant. Rose, her only daughter — as mercurial and determined as her mother — went through life feeling bitter towards Laura, and unloved. Laura in turn was a little scared of her daughter, and, even as she urged Rose to remain at home, found her almost impossible to live with.

*

Rose was born in 1886 in Dakota Territory. Her parents, Laura and Almanzo, suffered disaster after disaster: their house burnt down, their baby son died, they both fell dangerously ill with diphtheria, and drought caused crop after crop to fail. The Great National Panic of 1893 morphed into a nationwide Depression. Crop prices fell and farmers in the middle of the country, in too much debt, lost their farms to the bank.

This happened to Laura and Almanzo. They retreated to Minnesota to live with his family, then to Florida with Laura’s uncle to try out homesteading there. They even considered moving to New Zealand. In 1894 they set for Mansfield in the Missouri Ozarks, based on reports of a good life. The journey took them six weeks. They camped in the woods until, with their savings, they bought the land that formed Rocky Ridge Farm. For a decade they lived in a crude cabin. They were dirt poor. At first Almanzo made a living selling firewood. At the town school, Rose was the poor country cousin and she felt ashamed of her poverty: she had no shoes and her clothes were shabby.

Rose was a sensitive, bookish child, a loner, someone who easily felt excluded — this didn’t change throughout her life. In her letters and diaries she often vented resentment towards friends with more middle-class backgrounds. In her lowest moments, she still felt patronised and dismissed, at a social and economic disadvantage.

Laura was to glorify her own poor childhood in the Little House books, but Rose had no residual fondness for hers. She escaped Mansfield at 17, working as a telegrapher in Kansas City, and then moving to San Francisco, where her journalism career began (and a short-lived marriage, to Gillette Lane, began and ended).

She was to mix, and hold her own, in many cosmopolitan circles in Europe and New York, but she retained the self-image of the barefoot, under-educated child in the wagon train, her family one of the desperate thousands hoping to eke out a living somewhere else. She had to work much harder, she believed, than many of the other writers she met. Her diaries are crammed with calculations about money, about how much she could earn and save, and her writing career was a series of compromises, in which she wrote things she despised — like corny Ozark tales for Country Gentlemen magazine, later compiled into a book called Hill-Billy — or acted as a ghostwriter for other people. Making money was always the most important thing. The financial insecurity of her childhood never left her.

She also felt financially responsible for her parents. They’d built the farmhouse at Rocky Ridge in 1911, but their life was still one of rural drudgery, particularly harsh in the winter. She wanted them to travel more and to enjoy modern comforts, like electricity and running water, or maybe to sell the farm altogether. The more magazine stories and popular novels and biographies Rose wrote, the more she earned, and the more she could give to her parents to buy them freedom from farming, beyond the $500 she paid them each year during the 1920s.

She wanted another kind of freedom as well, for herself — to be free from the obligation of being in Mansfield, helping to feed the pigs, mop the floors and haul in wood. One of the appeals of Albania for Rose: she could afford servants there. She didn’t want to live at Rocky Ridge being a servant herself.

When Rose returned in 1928 to Rocky Ridge, she was a middle-aged woman. A long-term relationship had ended. She was coming back to her childhood home, to stay with her parents on a long-term basis.

Her parents were happy to have their only child back, but the daily hubbub of farm life, and her mother’s desire for her company, intruded on Rose’s writing life. Troub had a small inheritance as well as her investments: she could write for fun. Rose needed to write — and her agent needed commercial work to sell — so she could become financially independent, with her “solid $50,000 properly invested”, and leave. The magazine market was booming, and financial freedom seemed just within reach. Like many adult children who skulk home in order to regroup, she wanted to save money and to be left alone.

Rose — temperamental, domineering and prone to depression, as well as flush with investment money — decided that her parents needed to move out. She’d use a few thousand of her savings to build them a little house just over the hill, with all mod-cons and no stairs, ideal for their doddering old age. She decided to remodel the farmhouse, install electricity and modern plumbing, and live in peace with Troub and any other visiting writer friends.

The little house Rose built had rock walls, gables, a shingled roof, a tall stone chimney and five rooms, plus a telephone nook in the hall and built-in bookcases in the living room. Rose bought all new furniture for the place. The Wilders dubbed it the Rock House, and moved in at the end of 1928.

Working men who might have looked a bit like the men in the Ingalls family, you never know. Image: Pixabay.

The Depression trapped Rose at Rocky Ridge. She simply couldn’t afford to leave. Returning to Albania would not be possible. She felt guilty, too, that she’d persuaded her parents to invest money in the stock market, money that was gone for good.After the stock-market crash of 1929, Rose needed money. She and Troub and the Wilders had lost their investments. Rose had nothing but debts. The building of the Rock House had cost way too much: she’d budgeted $4000 but it ended up costing  $11,000. She still owed money for the fixtures and furniture she’d bought on credit in Springfield. So now the need to write, and to sell what they wrote, became an urgent necessity for both Rose and Troub. Rose spent long hours typing in the attic, but publication options dried up.

For Troub, the Depression was a wake-up call. The day the last of her investment money dried up, in November of 1931, she decided to move back east to find work. After six years of friendship and travel with Rose, Troub was gone.

At the end of that year, Rose reflected on her own financial situation. All her investments had disappeared. She owed $8000. She had just over $500 in the bank. Magazines were cutting rates, laying people off and taking less. In fact, Rose earned nothing at all from her writing between October 1931 and April 1932. She could no longer afford to pay her parents the expected $500 annuity. By 1933 she could barely afford the $60 rent each month for the farmhouse. One month, when Rose couldn’t pay, Laura announced that she and Almanzo would turn off their electricity at the Rock House to save Rose money. “It’s amazing how my mother can make me suffer,” Rose wrote in her diary.

Cheery news from Troub didn’t help her mood. Troub wrote to announce she was house-sitting in Connecticut that summer, with use of a car. It was, Rose wrote, a “crowing, triumphant letter. There is a woman well into the thirties, with no more sense of responsibility than a spoiled child.”

In Troub’s 1984 obituary in The New York Times, the seven books in the Sue Barton series, published between 1936 and 1952, are described as having sold millions of copies.

*

Laura and Rose began writing together in 1930, when Laura showed Rose the handwritten manuscript of Pioneer Girl and asked for help. It needed a lot of work. A typed manuscript is held in the Hoover Presidential Library: this is something Rose had already “put through” her typewriter, as she used to say, and cleaned up. Its original title is Prairie Girl, corrected in Laura’s hand to her preferred title. Within these pages are the bones of the Little House books.

Rose edited and polished it, moving the Wisconsin section into a separate manuscript, called When Grandma was a Little Girl. This, she thought, could become a picture book. The rest might run as a serial in a magazine. Rose sent the manuscripts off to contacts in New York, and went there herself to try to place it.

After publishers rejected Pioneer Girl, Rose distilled the Wisconsin episodes and the tales Charles Ingalls had told of his own childhood, and shaped them into a novel for children. The book was published in 1932 as Little House in the Big Woods, and the career of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author and heroine, was launched.

The publisher wanted more books. Rose immediately started work rewriting Laura’s draft of Farmer Boy — one of her mother’s “juveniles”, as she called them. This was no quick fix: Rose spent months working on the novel, time she resented because it meant she couldn’t focus on her own work. “Preparing to rewrite my mother’s second juvenile,” she wrote in her diary in January 1933. “Work on it every day till teatime, going over first typed mss. with pen. Would like to finish it this month but can’t possibly.” The amount of time needed suggests how much of the book was Rose’s work.

This mutual dependence — mother on daughter for writing help, daughter on mother for stories — caused terrible tension at Rocky Ridge, as Rose’s angry diary entries attest: “I want to finish work on my mother’s juvenile by the end of this month if possible . . . But there can be no genuine pleasure in generosity to my mother, who resents it and does not trouble to conceal resentment.”

But Rose could not disentangle herself from her mother’s writing, or her parents’ lives. Laura couldn’t disentangle herself either. Even after Rose left Rocky Ridge Farm in 1937, her collaboration with her mother continued. As Laura grew in confidence as a writer, arguments about style and structure in letters between the two increased. But she knew how much she owed Rose. In a 1939 letter, Laura told Rose: “Without your help I would not have the royalties from my books.”

For generations of readers, the members of Laura’s family were as real and vivid as our own, and Laura’s beloved Pa— with his big beard, jokes and fiddle-playing — is the central figure. Laura came to think of her first book as a tribute to him, because he was at the centre of her earliest memories of log-cabin life in the wilderness.

The Big Woods of Wisconsin were a fitting home for the big man Laura wanted her father to be. He was a dreamer, always looking west, edging his way across the continent from New York State, where he was born, to the very edge of the Great Plains. He had the mythic pioneer dream of moving west and rode the last wave of it. But he was doomed to fail. The land he was trying to farm in the Dakotas was on the edge of the Great Plains – once known as the Great American Desert, which is why settlers before the Civil War bypassed it, opting for the Pacific West instead. He struggled, as many others did, with the thin soil and poor irrigation.

The man who moved his young family to five different states in his search for a place he could live and prosper ended his days working as a carpenter, living in the middle of a town, a life he’d always despised. His neighbours remembered him as a gaunt figure with a bushy beard who stalked the boardwalks of De Smet’s filling streets, tool kit in hand. He was helping to raise the buildings that hemmed him in. Every ring of the hammer sounded the end of his Western adventure, his ambitions, his flight from the crowded Big Woods to the never-ending Big Sky of the Plains. The relentless optimism of the Little House books is a way of never admitting this defeat.

Mary, blind at 14, was the sister who wanted to grow up to become a writer. “I am planning to write a book some day,” Mary confided in Laura, during one of her summer vacations from college. “But I planned to teach school, and you are doing that for me, so maybe you will write the book.” Despite her dreams and her education, Mary would write little in her life but conventional verse. As her mother predicted, she “would be home to stay when she finished college”.He died in 1902 at the age of sixty-six. Caroline Ingalls outlived her husband by more than 20 years, and this meant she had almost no income. Her life was spent in genteel poverty, living the quietest of lives with her blind daughter, dependent on neighbours’ gifts of food. Laura and Almanzo returned to De Smet during her father’s final illness, and that was the last time she saw her mother and Mary.

Mary is usually characterised in books as cheerful, resigned to a life of knitting and Braille books, but in the photographs of De Smet social life — clubs, porches, tennis players, church groups — she looks drawn and anxious. The College for the Blind in Vinton, Iowa, listed her in its enrolment book as physically weak, and this wan demeanour never left her. After her college days, Mary would make only two more long journeys, both by train: one with her father to Chicago, to seek medical treatment for her searing headaches; the last to stay with Carrie in the Black Hills, where she died in 1928.

Ma, Pa, Half-Pint, blind Mary and the baby: the cast of Little House on The Prairie. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In 1972 the Little House series was adapted into a TV show called Little House on the Prairie that ran for 10 years. It would have made Laura roll in her grave. She was opposed to any film version of her books that were not entirely faithful renditions. Rose agreed, and rejected any offers after her mother’s death to adapt the books for TV or movies. The Little House TV series fixed the Ingalls family in the town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota. The show involved a combination of melodrama, sentimentality and slapstick, and some of the episodes were direct rip-offs of episodes of Bonanza, the show on which star and producer Michael Landon found fame. In the TV series a boyish Pa cries every week, a pretty Ma simpers and giggles, Jack the bulldog is a shaggy Disney extra, the family gets an adopted brother, and blind Mary gets a husband.

If Laura and Rose were both dead set against a TV series, how did this happen? Laura had been dead since 1957; Rose had died in 1968. So who controlled the estate? Who sold the rights? Who stood to benefit from them?

When Laura died, she left her literary estate to Rose with an important stipulation: that when Rose died the rights would revert to the library in Mansfield, an institution that book-loving Laura had helped found. Her will stated that on Rose’s death: “I direct that said copyrighted literary property and the income from same be given to the Laura Ingalls Library of Mansfield, Missouri.”

But the local library didn’t inherit anything. In 1972 they were given a cheque for $28,000 and told that this was the only royalty cheque they would ever receive. It’s been the subject of two subsequent lawsuits, the most recent in 2000.

What happened between Laura’s death and Rose’s was this: the copyright on each of the books was renewed in Rose’s name, so they were no longer part of Laura’s estate and no longer subject to Laura’s will. This was done on Rose’s behalf by her lawyer and business manager, Roger Lea MacBride.

He was also Rose’s protégé, and liked to call himself her adopted grandson, though they weren’t related at all and she didn’t legally adopt him. MacBride was the chief beneficiary of Rose’s will, and his heirs now control the estate, estimated to be worth around a $100million.

MacBride was a Republican who’d served one term in the House of Representatives. In 1972 he was living in Virginia and was one of the Republican Party’s electors — that is, he was supposed to go to the convention and cast his vote, on behalf of Virginia, for Richard Nixon. Instead he cast his vote for the Libertarian Party candidate. This new party had just been founded the previous year. By 1976 MacBride was its presidential candidate, with ballot access in 32 states. All political campaigns in the US are very expensive, and running for president costs a lot of money. MacBride financed his campaign with the income from the Little House books and TV series.

He received a grand total of 173,000 votes. He also went on record to say he hated the TV series, blaming Michael Landon for all its faults. But he took the money, and ran with it. He wrote a manifesto called A New Dawn for America, declaring the Republican Party dead and demanding the repeal of all income taxes. Late in life he began a sequel series to the Little House books called Little House on Rocky Ridge, based on Rose’s childhood, which his daughter and various ghostwriters continued after his death in 1995.

When I persuaded my parents to buy me paperbacks of the Little House books, I was helping to finance an extreme right-wing politician in the US.

Another prairie with another little house on it. Photo: Getty Images.

Mansfield is a very small town in southern Missouri, near the woods and peaks of the Ozarks, and Rocky Ridge Farm lies a mile to the east. The population is around 1200.The old town centre feels moribund, because the highway bypasses the town, and everyone drives to big stores like Walmart to shop. The town’s major attraction is Rocky Ridge Farm.I visited Rocky Ridge with my friend Julia Hamlin Marsden, another Little House obsessive. We’d both flown into Kansas City — Julia from Los Angeles and me from New York — and driven the four hours down to Mansfield in a rental car. We had to drive to Springfield, Missouri, 50 miles west, to get a drink. (There was no bar in Mansfield; we were told the county was dry.)

The farmhouse itself is white, irregular and individual. Even with the road nearby, its setting is serenely pastoral. When we visited, the museum was staffed by a fierce array of middle-aged women. Our guide, Vi, ushered us to the compulsory first stop, the video room, and gave us lots of statistics: 12 tour guides; five bookstore workers; 50,000 visitors; 60 million books sold.

Julia and I were the first visitors that day. We sat on trestles watching the video collage of old photos and listening to the sound of ‘Pa’s fiddle’. By the time this finished, a group of elderly ladies in bright sweatshirts were waiting impatiently outside, and we asked permission to see the house before we looked through the museum — an outlandish request, judging from her shocked expression — in order to get a head start on the new visitors. Inside the house we were hurried from room to room at quite a pace, as though there were hundreds at our heels waiting to enter through the screened back porch.

Apparently everything sat just as it was when Laura died forty years ago. The house was an appealing jumble of small rooms, reflecting a place built in stages as the Wilders could afford to expand. Almanzo had built a low chair for Laura — she was very, very short — and constructed kitchen counters to scale so she wouldn’t have to stoop, as well as window seats and boxes to store her things. With its bright yellow and green paint, the kitchen felt like something out of a dollhouse. The living room featured a fireplace built with giant slabs of stone, something Laura personally demanded. The windows were large.

After the house tour, we sat on a bench under an oak tree. The next set of visitors was a large group of Amish people. The elderly ladies made a brisk tour of the house and then climbed back into their snappy white minivan, pointing us out to each other.

We had to drive to the Rock House, because Vi told us it was no longer possible to walk there across the ridge as Rose did every day to drink tea and talk writing with her mother. The little house where Laura wrote her first four books looks exactly like the picture in the Sears catalogue. The view was a broad meadow and an almost unbroken vista of green.

Later that day we returned to the old house to linger outside in the last of the afternoon sun. The rock chimney stood tall and rugged, unlike the spindly Rock House chimney that needed to be rebuilt several times. The farmhouse was calm now, house and carpark emptied of visitors, the back and side doors hazy behind screened porches. Sun lit up the roof above Rose’s attic bedroom and the trees threw shadows on the lawn. On our house tour, the only room we were not permitted to see was Rose’s.

After Rose left Rocky Ridge for good in 1937, Laura and Almanzo moved back here. The Rock House was too small. Laura wrote the rest of the Little House books in the big house, with her big picture windows. She was world-famous before the series was finished, answering readers’ letters from her rocking chair in the dining room. Rose never lived in Mansfield again. She didn’t even return for a visit until her father’s funeral, late in 1949. The little house she built just before the Wall St crash — when everything still seemed possible in her life, and the Little House books didn’t exist — sat empty, just as it does today.


The essay is an edited, abridged version of the full 10,000-word masterpiece that appears in the new book of essays and short stories False River by Paula Morris (Penguin, $35), available at Unity Books.

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