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Prairie dreams

Alison Osius
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

“This has been a tough year for me,” a friend from back East wrote. “My husband and I are divorcing, eldercare for my mom, and single motherhood since my husband moved out West.”

I e-mailed back expressing concern and even surprise. An article she had written, about herself and husband taking their daughter climbing, had portrayed him tenderly.

Yet that was all true, too, she replied, in its own context. She added, “I recently read a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder and it turns out she had a god-awful childhood. Her books were sort of based on facts but she spun them a different way.”



I knew what she was talking about, though like legions of little girls in America, I had read and loved the glowingly affirmative Little House series by Wilder. A tale of the American frontier, it follows her family, at times in a covered wagon, in a series of moves from Wisconsin to Kansas, Minnesota and the Dakota Territory. My sisters loved the series, too; Lucy, at 11, cried when she finished it.

Last winter, as part of the Sisyphean task of getting my sons to read, I brought home Farmer Boy, the one book centered on a male (Laura’s eventual husband, Almanzo), for Roy, then 12. Rereading it behind him, I marveled, even more than the first time around, at its rich content, and how the values of hard work and providence limn scenes of shearing sheep or fighting crop-destroying frost. When Roy liked the book, I hurried back to the library for The Long Winter. Laura’s memoir of the continual raging blizzards of 1880-81 that blocked trains and supplies from the town of DeSmet, Dakota Territory, it delineates the pioneers’ resourcefulness as food and fuel ran out, and the courage of the two young men, Almanzo and his merry friend Cap Garland, who set off across the prairie on a rumor that a settler had grain.



How much of these books was true? I spent a couple of evenings on the Internet, and found the events of that winter indeed real, as are many of the series’ most dramatic events, such as the devastating loss of crops to grasshoppers. An illness leaves Laura’s sister Mary blind, an event that, in an amazing omission, occurs between books; the author could not bear to write about it.

I found plenty, too, that surprised me, later summarized by a summer New Yorker article. Laura did not, as her byline denotes, pen her books alone, an unpracticed master. They were ghostwritten, though to what degree is disputed, by her daughter, Rose, a professional journalist and the author of at least two biographies fictionalized enough to earn threats of legal reprisal. The flamboyant and tart-tongued Rose took her mother’s rough memoir, Pioneer Girl, and shaped it for young readers, setting scenes and injecting dialogue and idealized characterization, though Laura clearly supplied events and brimming detail. Pa – twinkly idealized Pa who always called his beloved Laura “Half Pint” (for “little half pint of sweet cider half drunk up”) – was a downright drifter, dragging his family from one precarious situation to another in a life of bone-hard work. At one point, the family was forced to go live with relatives.

Still, ultimately, Laura and Rose were a great collaboration. Visiting Kansas, where my husband grew up, over Thanksgiving, I thought fondly of Laura often as I looked out at the waving gold prairie grasses and the pooling sunsets that she used to describe for her sightless sister.

We can all use the ideals of her frontier values. At one point in the final book, Almanzo hesitates, looking at an outdoor thermometer reading minus 40, to fetch Laura home for the weekend from a dreadful teaching-boarding situation across the prairie. Until, that is, Cap comes around the corner, says, “God hates a coward,” and walks away laughing.

Recently my nephew Sam, 9, to whom Lucy has read all the books, had to retrieve something from a dark basement. He peered into it with trepidation, then said, “God hates a coward,” and stepped down.

– Alison Osius (aosius@hotmail.com) lives in Carbondale.


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