Well before fans began tuning in for their weekly fix of Ma, Pa, Mary, Half-Pint, Carrie and their Walnut Grove neighbors (Nellie Oleson, give us a smirk!), the books on which the series was based had made Laura Ingalls Wilder one of the most influential children’s authors in American history. Her lively retelling of experiences from her childhood in the world-famous historical fiction series helped shape the popular idea of the American frontier.
In 1932, at the age of 65, Wilder published the first of her eight Little House books, Little House in the Big Woods. It told the story of her early childhood years in Wisconsin and was a huge hit with readers. Wilder was 76 years old when she finished the final book in her "Little House" series. Yet without the help of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, the series may never have reached a wide audience.
“Chick Lit” Pioneer
Although her Little House books are now considered classics, Wilder’s literary career has its roots in a chicken coop. Having married Almanzo “Manly” Wilder in 1885, she used the byline Mrs. A. J. Wilder for her first paid writing job in 1910—which was as the poultry columnist for the St. Louis Star Farmer. In her 40s at the time, she drew on her considerable expertise in raising Leghorn hens. Meanwhile, she was also serving as secretary-treasurer of the Mansfield Farm Loan Association. She used these connections and her own farming experience to begin writing columns for the Missouri Ruralist and, later, McCall's Magazine and The Country Gentleman. At this time, she began using the androgynous pseudonym A. J. Wilder to give her work more credibility among male readers.
What’s in a Nickname?
“(Pa) would come in from his tramp to his traps, with (icicles) on the ends of his whiskers, hang his gun over the door, throw off his coat and cap and mittens and call “Where’s my little half pint of cider half drank up?” That was me because I was so small.”
This footnote explains that when Wilder introduced her nickname in Chapter 2 of Little House in the Big Woods, it had become “little half-pint of sweet cider half drunk up.” Even when she was fully grown, Laura was only 4 feet 11 inches tall; however, that was not considered exceptionally short for women of that time.
A Pioneer Girl First
Wilder's first attempt at writing an autobiography, called Pioneer Girl, was uniformly rejected by publishers. Undeterred, she spent the next several years working on her memoirs, asking relatives for their accounts of what happened during her childhood years and changing the story to the third-person perspective. (On December 30, 2014, the South Dakota Historical Society Press published Wilder’s complete first draft of her own story—all 472 pages—as Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography.)
A Daughter Blooms Into a Writing Partner
Laura gave birth to her daughter Rose in 1884 in the Dakota Territory. Due to illnesses and crop failures, Rose’s childhood was defined by a series of moves and she would go on to travel extensively for most of her life. In 1909, Rose moved to San Francisco where she worked as a writer/reporter for the San Francisco Call. She married Gillette Lane in 1909 and became Rose Wilder Lane; the marriage ended in divorce in 1918.
By the 1920s, Lane had established many connections in the publishing world and was well known as a ghostwriter. Lane's exact role in her mother's famous series of books has remained unclear, but she certainly encouraged Ingalls. She also recognized that an American public weary of the Depression would respond warmly to the story of the loving, self-sufficient and determined Ingalls family overcoming obstacles while maintaining their sense of independence, as told through the eyes of the spunky Laura as she matured from ages five to 18.
Ongoing correspondence between the women concerning the development of the multi-volume series supports a mutual collaboration that involved Lane more extensively in the earlier books, and to a much lesser extent by the time the series ended. Little House in the Big Woods kicked off the series in 1932 and Farmer Boy, an account of Manly's childhood in New York state, followed in 1933. Two years later, Little House on the Prairie appeared on the shelves. Five more books followed that took the reader through Wilder's courtship and marriage to Manly: On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937), By the Shores of Silver Lake (1939), The Long Winter (1940), Little Town on the Prairie (1941), and These Happy Golden Years (1943).
After her mother's death in 1957, Rose did edit and publish several posthumous works (including the last of the series, The First Four Years, about the beginning of Laura’s marriage to Almanzo, which she based on her mother's diary).
Where the Wilder Things Are
In 1894, the Wilder family (Laura, Almanzo and Rose) moved to Missouri to what Laura dubbed Rocky Ridge Farm. This is where they finally settled down and where Laura wrote her books. Now the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home & Historic Museum in Mansfield, Missouri, the site claims to have the most comprehensive collection of Ingalls/Wilder memorabilia. It also hosts an annual celebration to commemorate its favorite and most famous resident. This year’s event, set for September 19, 2015, will feature the second Annual Fiddle Contest as well as complete tours of the home—the upstairs of the historic house on the grounds of Rocky Ridge Farm will be open this day only.