A to Z: Laura Ingalls

L

I discovered Laura Ingalls in Ms. Spivey’s third grade class. She would read a chapter or two from Little House in the Big Woods every afternoon. It was all detailed, vivid description about homesteading in the nineteenth century. Housework, farming, maple syrup candy, butter-churning and smoked venison. And it was absolutely fascinating. I think it’s the starting point for what has turned out to be a thus-far life-long love of historical non-fiction.

Laura Ingalls  is very much in the same vein as Jo March. She’s a bright, spirited tomboy and often unfavorably compared to her older sister Mary. While Mary was content to quietly practice her tiny, neat stitches with Ma, Laura was more often helping Pa with the horses or splashing in Plum Creek with Jack the bulldog. But if the Little House books are about anything, they’re about family. Laura is hard-headed and has a lot of impulses to resist, but in the end she’ll always do what’s best for the people she loves.

Then Pa looked straight at Laura and said, “You girls keep away from the camp. When you go walking. don’t go near where the men are working, and you be sure you’re back here before they come in for the night. There’s all kinds of rough men working on the grade and using rough language, and the less you see and hear of them the better. Now remember, Laura. And you too, Carrie.” Pa’s face was very serious.

“Yes, Pa” Laura promised, and Carrie almost whispered, “Yes, Pa.” Carrie’s eyes were large and frightened. She did not want to hear rough language, whatever rough language might be. Laura would have liked to hear some, just once, but of course she must obey Pa. 

Ma, Carrie, Laura, Pa, Grace and Mary
Ma, Carrie, Laura, Pa, Grace and Mary

My favorite books in the Little House series are actually the later ones, after the family does some moving around and finally settles in Dakota Territory near the town of De Smet. By the time I got to these books, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years, I was in the fifth grade. At this point in the stories, Laura’s a young woman. (And the summer between fifth and sixth grades, I was convinced I was too.) She’s still fiercely independent and stubborn but she’s also starting to shoulder a lot of responsibility in her family.

The Long Winter is a pretty harrowing story of a winter so severe, trains stopped running to De Smet. Blizzards became so frequent, Laura and Carrie were unable to walk to school. Food supplies were running low and Laura helped Pa twist hay into tight bundles to use a fuel. The town was saved from starvation by a dashing bachelor farmer named Almanzo Wilder, who risked his own life to bring a delivery of wheat into the town. (Hint: This guy becomes important later.)

For real, though. Almanzo Wilder is ridiculously good looking.
For real, though. Almanzo Wilder was ridiculously good looking.

In Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years, Laura begins working so that her family can afford to send Mary, who had long since lost her sight to scarlet fever, to a school for the blind. Laura’s first job as a seamstress is less than ideal. Mary was the one with tiny, neat stitches after all. Not Laura. Her next job  is even harder. At only 15, she takes a job teaching at a settlement miles away from home. She battles homesickness and a class full of students, some even older than she is, who are determined to test her. She stays with a very unhappy family that provides a stark contrast to her own.

A small ray of sunshine is that handsome homesteader, Almanzo Wilder. He travels every weekend to bring Laura back home and to the school again so she can see her family. Laura eventually grows more confident in the classroom and completes her two terms… and hands every bit of the money over to Pa, for Mary’s schooling.

I’ll admit, my favorite part of these books is the Laura and Almanzo’s three-year courtship. They initially bond over Almanzo’s pair of Morgan horses and go for carriage rides every Sunday. He eventually proposes to her in what I consider, to this day, to be the most romantic bit of prose I have ever read:

“I was wondering . . .” Almanzo paused. Then he picked up Laura’s hand that shone white in the starlight, and his sun-browned hand closed gently over it. He had never done that before. “Your hand is so small,” he said. Another pause. Then quickly, “I was wondering if you would like an engagement ring.”

“That would depend on who offered it to me,” Laura told him.

“If I should?” Almanzo asked.

“Then it would depend on the ring,” Laura answered and drew her hand away.

The next week, he brings her a garnet and pearl ring. And she says she would like to have it. Of course the ring itself didn’t matter. That’s just Laura Ingalls being Laura Ingalls. When he brought her home, she let him kiss her for the first time. (No, really. She said, “You may kiss me good night.”) Eleven-year-old me swooned. Even my own proposal twenty years later only barely outclassed this.

In preparation for writing this post, I did a little bit of reading on what other people think about Laura and whether or not she was a feminist.  I think she absolutely was. Her relationship with Almanzo is probably the most clear illustration of this.

Laura was silent again. Then 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.

“Are you for woman’s rights, like Eliza?” Almanzo asked in surprise.

“No,” Laura replied. “I do not want to vote. But 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.”

Heck, Almanzo might be a little bit of a feminist here too. (Or perhaps just a realist. You don’t date Laura Ingalls for three years and think she’s ever going to “obey” you without question.) Laura’s not a suffragette, but she’s clearly looking for equality in her marriage. I really think the only reason Laura wasn’t concerned about getting the vote is because, frankly, it wasn’t a priority. At only 18, she’d experienced severe illness, near starvation and failing crops. The life of a woman on the frontier was hard. Laura’s stubbornness might have kept her at odds with Nellie Oleson, but it probably also helped keep her family going. Who has time for politics when there’s cabins to build, pigs to butcher and crops to bring in? I think maybe if Laura had been born to a wealthy family in an urban area, she might actually have gotten involved in the women’s rights movement.

Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, took after her mother. She was bright and independent and  became a journalist, writer and political theorist. There’s some debate over how much of the Little House series was ghostwritten by Rose. Most tend to think it was a fairly even collaboration… which I like. A mother and daughter creating one of the most beloved series of children’s books ever. Pretty cool.

Laura ingalls Wilder

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26 Comments

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  1. I too loved these books, especially the later ones. I was quite disappointed when I discovered that there was another, later one called The First Four Years, which wasn’t written half so well. I think it must have been a work in progress when Laura died. Still, it was interesting to see what happened to her and Almanzo, and also to see her from Rose’s perspective. Thanks for the read. It was like meeting some old friends.

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    1. The First Four Years was published posthumously, so it’s definitely not as polished as the other books. Plus, it’s kind of a downer. Those first four years were rough.

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      1. Yes but it ends optimistically, and frankly I would have (and still would) read anything written by her. I was eight years old and living in Cheshire when I first read Little House on the Prairie and yet I was right there with her in that covered wagon crossing Kansas. A great, and appalling underrated, writer.

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        1. After The First Four Years, I read a few of the novels written by Rose Wilder Lane’s friend Roger Lea MacBride. They addressed the family’s move to Missouri from Rose’s point of view. It was definitely nice to see what happened after those first four years, but I didn’t enjoy them nearly as much. The voice just wasn’t the same as in the Little House books.

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  2. Wowee. I never read them, but I agree with you about that proposal scene. It is quite romantic.

    And your point about why Laura didn’t want the vote is well-taken. That whole “cabins to build and pigs to slaughter thing” makes perfect sense to me.

    And yeah, Almanzo is quite a good-looking man, especially for the era.

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  3. I’m supposed to be taking a break from the blogosphere this week. HA. I’ve re-read these several times. The Long Winter and These Happy Golden Years are still my favorites. I’m still fascinated by the way the Ingalls family survived and were self-sufficient, all the little details of homesteading life. It’s definitely informed my fiction-writing, though I don’t think that comes out in obvious ways.

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  4. I love this series with all my heart- and her books! I really enjoyed reading your blog post about her. I was so young when I read these that she refused to obey Almanzo totally went over my head. Thanks for pointing that out.

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  5. I always liked the later “Little House” books, too–pretty much everything from The Long Winter onward. I probably read and re-read Little Town on the Prairie and Happy Golden years a dozen times or more.
    I’ve got a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder sitting on my TBR pile that deals with her relationship with her daughter Rose and the whole “who really wrote what” issue–I’m hoping to get to it soon.
    Really nice “L” post! 🙂

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    1. I was never able to get into the show. And it’s all because Michael Landon didn’t have a beard. I mean, I understand why you don’t want to cover his angelic face with hair, but Pa’s whiskers were such a defining characteristic in the books that I just couldn’t accept a Charles Ingalls without them.

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  6. To say that I’ve been obsessesed at times with Laura, Almonzo and Rose is an understatement. I have a set of the Little house Books. They’re a bit worn from the years of rereading. I have all of Rose’s books and every summer, my daughter and I venture to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Days at Mansfield, MO. I live about an hour away. Two summers ago, my daughter and I visited the Kansas and Iowa sites. Fun fun fun.

    Great L choice.

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  7. Oh my gosh, you just took me waaay back. I loved this series when I was younger. I would love for my daughter to read some of the series I read as a child so she and I could discuss them. But it’s not her thing. She is more into Fantasy Fiction. Luckily we both enjoyed the Hunger Games and Divergent series so I was able to fulfill my dream of mother/daughter book club! But historical fiction is definitely the genre I like best. I’m so glad I read this, it brought back wonderful memories!

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    1. Hi Gretchen, Your post brought up memories of reading & re-reading this series, at a later age, with my beloved maternal grandmother. We would talk about these characters, while my grandmother would compare these stories with tales from her own youth. I learned so much of my family history, that could have simply been lost. Granted my grandmother (1912-2001) was from the 20th Century, but she was raised by a young (19) widow in rural Mississippi. Hardship, sacrifice and love of family is the common thread in those stories. I just loved those books and the memories from our little book club. Don’t give up. Your daughter could change her mind, you may find yourself with another daughter or a beloved granddaughter to begin your own little book club. Enjoy! I enjoyed mine and cherish the memories. I have enjoyed the A-Z series on women characters immensely.

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      1. Wow, Vicki, what wonderful memories you must have of these talks with your Grandmother. I think there’s nothing more special than the stories and recounts we hear from our Grandparents. I used to sit for hours and listen to my Grandparents tell stories from their life, their youth. But I think there’s something intimate about reading and discussing a book together. And a widow at 19… she must have had some life. My maternal grandparents have both passed, but I wish I could go back and ask learn more. While I spent hours around the kitchen table listening, I wish I’d asked more questions. And to have read books with my Grandmother… what a gift that would have been!

        I think you’ve inspired me to not give up. My oldest daughter isn’t into the series I read when I was younger but I have read some of her books so that we could connect over our shared love of reading. My youngest daughter isn’t of reading age quite yet but I will make every effort to share my love of these books with her. And the important thing is that we connect, hopefully with some books involved! Thank you so much for sharing your story of your Grandmother. That sounds like something I’d love to hear more about!

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        1. Thank you for your reply. Mother & daughter relationships are so difficult, my own mother inspires me to hang on just a little while longer. She is famous ( in our circle) for saying, “Children! just before they kill you, they grow up.” Gotta love my Mother. So do not give up.

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  8. I always loved stories of women from different time periods who went out and did rather than sat. Don’t get me wrong women like my grandmothers worked from sun up to sun down. I wonder if life was in some regards easier for the men.
    Delightful A to Z about some serious women.
    Moondustwriter

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    1. I love reading about history, but so much of history is focused on politics and war. Which, yeah, is probably the important stuff. But what’s really, really interesting to me personally is how people lived day to day. What they ate, how they dressed, how they worked and played and related to each other. And so much of that stuff is centered around the women.

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  9. I loved these books as a youngster and reading your post has made me want to go back and read them again. Thanks for the good read!

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    1. It realized as I was writing this that it’s been 20 years (!!) since I read these books. I’m thinking about re-reading them too, I just have to find a spot for them in my queue.

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