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Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 'Little House' Series

Updated on October 12, 2017

Introduction

When you first learn to read, there aren’t too many books out there that are autobiographical. Fewer are books that you can return to as an adult and have the same impact as when you first read them. I have always been drawn to books that are set in the real world with little or no fantasy elements. I like to read about real people in situations that can really happen.

One book series that I reread every few years is the Little House series. This collection of stories along with its spinoff books are just as enjoyable to read now as it was when I was a kid. They have become timeless classics as beloved today as they were when they were first published beginning in 1932. Laura Ingalls Wilder tells her story from the point of view of a young, free-spirited pioneer girl, and it’s the details and human face of this early American lifestyle that gets you caught up in her story. Below is a history of the series as well as a summary of each of the books and the impact that they have made in the literary world.

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Background

Laura Ingalls Wilder was an old woman in her 60’s, writing for farming publications when her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, convinced her to write a book about her life going up on the American frontier in the second half of the 19th century. She had never kept a formal diary or journal but had done a lot of writing, documenting her past and personal feelings. She had a lifetime of stories under her belt and years of practice describing her world to her blind older sister. So, she got to work writing her memoirs.

However, her manuscript, titled Pioneer Girl, was rejected by publishers. So, she spent the next several years reworking her manuscript from an adult autobiography to a historical fiction series for children, switching from first to third person and filling in the holes and gaps in her memory with family stories and a more literary-friendly sequence of events. Rose helped a lot, even ghost writing for her according to some sources, and by the end of the series, Rose would be a supporting character and go on to star in her own spinoff book series, Little House on Rocky Ridge.

Her first book, Little House in the Big Woods was published in 1932, and she continued to publish until 1943. There are eight books in the original Little House series. Throughout the years, Wilder’s prose has been researched, and historians have found embellishments and untold stories hidden between her famous chapters. Many of her darker tales were omitted to maintain a kid-friendly story, and timelines do not always coincide, but the general tone and sequence of events is generally accurate and authentic. Below is a synopsis of each book for those who haven’t read the series or those who need a refresher.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Tour

Little House in the Big Woods

This is the book that kicks off the series. Laura is just five years old, living with her mother, father, and two sisters in a log cabin within the big woods of Pepin, WI. Her “Ma” is a pretty woman and hard worker, teaching her daughters to be well-mannered young ladies. Her “Pa” is a skilled hunter, craftsman, and fiddler who is fun-loving, tells exciting, stories and provides for his family by hunting regularly. Her older sister, Mary, is the perfect, well-mannered, fair-haired sister who Laura both admires and envies. Her baby sister, Carrie, is too young to do much of everything but sit and stare at her family bustling around her day after day. Laura is a tomboy, always struggling to keep her bonnet strings tied and her manners in check. She can be brave, frisky, jealous, and disobedient, despite the reiterating of rules and order that are set in the Ingalls household.

There is a real sense of isolation and independence in this book. The log cabin sits miles from the nearest town or neighbor. They rarely venture from their home except to visit relatives or take a trip to town. The days are filled with chores that today’s kids wouldn’t dream of, from prepping meats and the garden crops for winter, churning butter, and sewing to more familiar tasks like sweeping the floors, making the beds, and washing the dishes. Life is about neatness and productivity, but it’s also about playing with dolls and her bulldog named Jack, visiting with relatives, and listening to her Pa play the fiddle each night.

Storytelling and singing are beloved activities in the Ingalls home. It makes their lifestyle seem less lonely and chore-filled and more fun and relaxed. Scattered throughout the book are short stories told by Pa to the girls about adventures that both as a boy and on more recent hunting excursions. They don’t have much, but there is always a story to tell or retell, tasks to be done, and lessons to learn. The story ends as quietly and good-spirited as is begins, with her Pa coming home empty-handed after an evening of hunting after two attempts to shoot a deer. Laura falls asleep, grateful for her warm home, loving family, and good life.

  • Trivia: Though Laura is depicted in the book as being five years old, going on six, she actually only lived in the big woods in WI until she was two years old. Her sister, Carrie, never even lived in that home. That is not to say that the story is entirely fabricated, but few of the stories come from the result of memory but rather family tales and the desire to include her first home in the telling of her life story from an age at which she can observe and remark on her life.

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Little House on the Prairie

The second book picks up right where Big Woods left off and starts off with a journey. The Ingalls family leaves their log cabin in search of a new home in Indian country after the woods become too crowded and hunting becomes scarce. The first section of the book is about the journey, living in their covered wagon and living as civilly as possible under the circumstances. They finally settle on a prairie field, and Pa builds another log house using timber from the nearby river. A wild, young bachelor named Mr. Edwards helps out with them and settles nearby on the prairie as their lovable neighbor.

Once they settle in, they discover many dangers on the prairie, including prairie fires, wolves, and Indian tribes. Laura is obsessed with seeing a young Indian baby, called a “papoose” but at the same time fears running into an adult Indian. They run into both “good” and “bad” Indians on the prairie. Just when the Indian tribe moves on, and the Ingalls begin to farm the land to raise crops for the winter, the government sends soldiers in to drive out the settlers. So, the Ingalls family packs up and moves on, the story ending as it began.

  • Trivia: It took the Ingalls family an entire summer to move from the big woods to the prairie where they eventually settled in her second book. Heavy rains often delayed their journey, and they typically slept in the wagon or out in the open if the weather permitted.

Farmer Boy

Wilder’s third book actually does not feature the Ingalls family at all. The farmer boy referenced is actually a young Almanzo Wilder, Laura’s eventual husband. Almanzo is a young boy living in New York with his mother, father, brother Royal, and sisters, Eliza Jane and Alice. Almanzo is the youngest in his family, and when the story begins, he is on his way to school for the first time at the age of eight-years-old. His father is a successful farmer, and Almanzo is more interested in farming than going to school.

There are many tense moments in this story from his father helping Almanzo’s new teacher from being pummeled by a gang of unruly, older pupils, the family almost being robbed by a con-artist, and Almanzo falling through thin ice while sawing ice blocks on the lake to name a few. Almanzo is also a determined little boy, anxious to prove that he is a young man. He’s desperate to own and break in his own horses, just like his father’s, but his father thinks he is too young. As luck would have it, Almanzo acquires the money from an old miser in town after being bullied by some men in town into giving him a reward for finding the old man’s lost wallet. Almanzo decides to use his money to finally buy his desired horses. His father, upon hearing his plans, tells him to keep his money in the bank and gives him two colts of his own to for his son to break in.

  • Trivia: Almanzo was born in 1957 and was 10 years older than Laura. Wilder’s boyhood home in New York is now a museum where fans of the book and TV show can tour and see the real life setting of Farmer Boy.

Map of Almanzo Wilder's Home

On The Banks of Plum Creek

The fourth installment in the series brings the reader back to the Ingalls family as they journey from the prairie to Plum Creek in Minnesota. They find a temporary home in a dugout built into a hillside. Their home is made of dirt and grass, and the family lives there by the spring until Pa builds them a more permanent home. They also live just a few miles from a town. They buy a cow and decide to become wheat farmers, buying seeds and planting on their land.

The girls attend school for the first time and meet Nellie Oleson, a bratty girl whose father is a shop keeper in town who looks down on the Ingalls girls for not wearing store bought dresses and moving from place to place all the time. The girls also attend church for the first time. They make new friends and both host and attend parties.

Their wheat crop appears to be doing well until what is described as a “cloud” of grasshoppers descends on the land and eats all of the growing wheat, ruining their crop. The land is covered in grasshoppers, and they consume everything in sight before moving on. The same thing happens the next year when the grasshopper eggs hatch and the young grasshoppers devour the newly growing crop before moving on. Grass fires contribute to their misfortune.

Desperate for money, Pa is forced to travel far from home looking for work. He earns enough money to send home to the girls and returns just in time for a harsh winter to hit. On his way home from town a few days before Christmas, he gets trapped in a cave for three days while a blizzard rages on outside. Ma and the girls are worried sick about him until he comes home, tired and hungry when the blizzard ends. Although there are no Christmas presents or a great feast, they are grateful to have him home.

  • Trivia: Plum Creek was not a freshwater spring as depicted in the books, but Laura changed the setting to reflect a more sanitary water source so that readers did not think that she and her family used unclean water.

By The Shores of Silver Lake

The next book starts out considerably darker from the others in tone. Laura, almost a teenager, is more aware of the world around her and the worries that daily life brings. After a few hard years accruing considerable debt, the family leaves Plum Creek and takes a train to the Dakota territory where Pa has gone ahead of them to find work and a new home.

Much has happened between books. After contracting, scarlet fever, Mary has gone blind. There is a new baby sister named Grace, and her baby brother, Charles, has died in infancy. These dark times are all glossed over as the family looks to get out of their debt and find work in their new town. They first settle in a shanty near the developing Silver Lake. Pa finds work with the railroad.

When winter hits, the family is able to live in town at the surveyors’ house which is stocked with food and supplies. They befriend Mr. and Mrs. Boast who celebrate Christmas with the Ingalls family and spend the winter with them. In the spring, Pa fights to claim a piece of land for his family. A few months later, the family moves back to the shanty which Pa turns into their permanent home, and the story ends with the hope that they will settle in and thrive in the Dakota territory.

  • Trivia: Many events are left out of the “Little House” series due to their dark nature, primarily when the family lived in Burr Oak, IA. This was a very hard time for the Ingalls family. Ma and the girls came down with scarlet fever, resulting in Mary’s blindness, baby Charles died of unknown causes on their uncle’s farm at the age of nine months, and they lived near some dangerous people. It was discovered that Laura once wrote about a family of serial killers who lived nearby and had murdered entire families.

The Long Winter

In The Long Winter, the Ingalls family is still living on their claim by Silver Lake and preparing for a long, harsh winter. The town has been warned that a winter like this hits only once every several years, and these claims hold true when the first blizzard of the year hits in October. After a short-lived warm snap, the family decides to move to town for the winter. They are not happy about it, but it turns out to be a decision that saves their lives.

Blizzard after blizzard hits, and the snow piles up to the point where the trains cannot get through to bring supplies to the town. The townsmen spend every clear day they can digging out the railroad tracks, hoping that the weather will hold off long enough for the trains to pass through. The girls stop going to school after getting caught in a blizzard on the way home one day. The stores run out of food, and the family’s supply begins to run low. The girls grow thin and sickly, and soon they only have potatoes for dinner. They burn sticks of straw and grind wheat in the coffee grinder to keep warm and fed. They sleep in most days and work on their lessons for as long as there is daylight.

The town begins to grow desperate. Almanzo Wilder, living in town with his brother Royal, begins to see how desperate the town is getting for food, and he and his friend, Cap Garland, set out to find a supply for the town. He convinces a man to sell him some wheat and returns with a supply for everyone. The Ingalls family, along with the others in town, are grateful for the supply which helps them make it through until spring. It is a relief when May hits, the snow melts, and the trains finally make it to the town. The Ingalls receive much needed supplies along with a Christmas barrel sent to them from their friend, Reverend Alden, and the family has a Christmas celebration in May.

  • Trivia: Helen Sewell was the original illustrator for the Little House books until they were republished in the 1940s with Garth Williams' more familiar illustrations.

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Little Town on the Prairie

The Ingalls family is still living in town at the beginning of this book. She is offered a job sewing in town and uses it to help save money to send Mary to a school for the blind. The money helps, and Mary is put on a train for college. Meanwhile, Laura works on finishing school so that she can earn her teaching degree. She has a new teacher, Miss Wilder, Almanzo’s sister, who does not get along with Laura. Nellie Oleson also returns to put down Laura and her family. Laura attends sociables, gatherings, and parties in town. She also catches the attention of Almanzo Wilder who accompanies her to a school exhibition where Laura gives a well-received speech about U.S. History. At the end of the book, she takes her teaching exams early and receives a certificate to teach at the third grade level.

  • Trivia: Mary became blind at the age of 14. She attended a school for the blind in Vinton, IA. She is the only one of the Ingalls girls to never marry. She died of a stroke at the age of 63 while living with Carrie after the death of their mother. Carrie worked for a newspaper upon graduating from high school until she married a widower with two children. She never had any children of her own and died at the age of 76. Grace became a schoolteacher until she married a farmer. She never had any children and died at the age of 64. Laura’s daughter, Rose, was the only surviving grandchild of Charles and Caroline Ingalls. The bloodline ended with her as she never had any children of her own.

These Happy Golden Years

This book chronicles Laura’s short-lived teaching career and courtship with Almanzo Wilder up until their marriage. At the beginning of the book, Pa finds Laura a job teaching a small group of children in a school house several towns away. She must live away from home for a semester but is determined to help keep Mary enrolled at the school for the blind. She hates the job at first. The children are disinterested in learning, and she is forced to live with a miserable woman and her employer, the woman’s timid, worn down husband.

Laura is not sure that she continue on after that first week until Almanzo picks her up and takes her home for the weekend. She is then able to spend the weekend at home, working on her own lessons and spending time with her family before Almanzo drives her back to work before the start of Monday classes. She starts to get through to her students by the end of the semester and begins to like the job but is grateful to be home after the semester ends.

Mary comes home that summer very much changed for the better. Laura is rewarded for her hard work upon seeing the ease with which Mary maneuvers in her dark world. Almanzo takes her on rides out into the country quite often, despite Nellie trying to steal him away from Laura. Laura is confused about her feelings for Almanzo at first. Eventually, he proposes to her, and after she accepts, they rush to get married in a small ceremony before Almanzo’s family can plan a large wedding for them. Laura wears a black dress that she had been making for herself, and the family has cake at the Ingalls’ house after a small service at the church. Laura and Almanzo then drive nearby to their new home which Almanzo hastily built for them to live in, and the book ends with her settling into married Life.

  • Trivia: Laura and Almanzo were married on August 25, 1885 by their friend, Reverend Brown. It was a small ceremony with no music or any extravagant celebration, but the two remained married until Almanzo’s death in 1949 at the age of 92.

The First Four Years

The final book in the series is significantly shorter than the others and covers Laura and Almanzo’s first four years of marriage. Almanzo decides to try his hand at farming and asks Laura to give him four years to succeed. She agrees and quits her teaching career to help him on the farm.

It is a difficult four years full of both good and bad times. She gives birth to her only daughter, Rose, as well as a son, who dies a few days after he is born. Almanzo comes down with diphtheria which leaves him permanently paralyzed for the rest of his life, making farm work difficult. As a wife and mother, Laura finds herself in tense situations, dealing with thieving Indians, cooking for threshers, and helping to raise sheep. Almanzo’s attempts at farming prove unsuccessful, and they lose their house in a fire, barely managing to escape the flames, but in the end, they decide to keep at it and continue to live as farmers, agreeing that they are happy with their lives, no matter how difficult.

  • Trivia: The manuscript for The First Four Years was found after Wilder’s death in 1957, three days after her 90th birthday. She had been working on it up until Almanzo’s death. It was finally published in 1971.

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Other Books

Dozens of books have spawned from the success of the original Little House series. On The Way Home, published in 1962, chronicles the Wilder family’s trip to Mansfield Missouri where they settled on Rock Ridge Farm. The book contains diary entries and real pictures of the family’s experience creating a less literary but more realistic tone. A second book, West From Home, published in 1974, is told through letters written to Almanzo when Laura went to visit Rose in her husband in San Francisco in 1915. It is interesting to see how Laura’s awed perspective of the world has changed very little when visiting an unfamiliar and more modern city.

There are also series featuring Laura’s mother’s side of the family, Martha, Charlotte and Caroline as well as a series of books featuring Rose growing up with her parents on Rocky Ridge Farm. The Little House books have also been developed into easy readers and theme books featuring chapters from the original series to get new readers acquainted with the Little House characters and events. Other books feature recipes, sewing samplers, and other Little House-themed activities not to mention dozens of biographies written about Laura Ingalls’ Wilder and other characters from her books.

From 1974 to 1982, a TV show was developed around the Ingalls Family titled “Little House on the Prairie.” While it strayed from the original content, many events from the book were incorporated into series. The show was nominated for 38 awards and won 16 including three People’s Choice Awards and a Primetime Emmy award.

Today, fans of the books can tour the real life settings of the towns and homes where Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder grew up. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum can be found in Mansfield, MO and features many surviving belongings mentioned in the series including Pa’s fiddle and a bread plate that survived the fire chronicled in The First Four Years. Almanzo’s childhood home in New York has also become a museum with annual events and regular tours.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Q&A

Conclusion

The success of this book series along with its lasting nature proves that a life doesn’t have to be particularly large to be memorable. Sometimes simply telling everyday stories can be just as meaningful as relaying epic fantasy tales. What’s great about the Little House series is that they actually happened. Laura Ingalls is a real human being with a lasting legacy that she left behind in her books. She is extraordinary just by living her life and telling compelling, descriptive tales that fascinated her readers, both young and old. Even before her death, Laura Ingalls was a successful writer, using her remaining years to write to her fans, and while the Ingalls bloodline ended at Rose, her legacy lives on through her books.

Laura Ingalls Wilder De Smet Home

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    • Laura335 profile image
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      Laura Smith 2 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA

      Thanks for the comment! Yes, that part of the book series and the TV series was devastating. I can't imagine.

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      Stargrrl 2 years ago

      I read this whole series! And I watched the show! I felt so bad for Mary when she became blind. Ingalls Wilder was a part of my childhood. Thanks for bringing me back.

    • Laura335 profile image
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      Laura Smith 2 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA

      Oh wow. I saw that while doing my research. I'll have to pick up a copy.

    • DrBillSmithWriter profile image

      William Leverne Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

      We just got our copy of "Pioneer Girl" today. An amazing volume on Laura and her family! ;-)

    • Laura335 profile image
      Author

      Laura Smith 2 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA

      Thanks! I'm glad you liked it.

    • DrBillSmithWriter profile image

      William Leverne Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Very nice presentation on a wonderful series of family saga stories. Thank you for sharing here! ;-)