Happy Birthday, Laura Ingalls Wilder

Beloved American author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, was born on February 7, 1867.


Her books are so much a part of my childhood that they don’t even feel like books, they feel like actual memories. I was 7, 8, 9 when I read them, and I LIVED them. Not only did I live them, but my mother made me a sunbonnet out of lilac-flowered material that I actually wore around the house (like Naomi Watts in I Heart Huckabees). Of course, at the same time that I was LIVING these books, a television series based on them came on the air, and the confluence was like a dream come true. Despite its bizarre and explosive ending, reviewed by my friend Betsy, the series captured some of the simplicity and beauty in the books. Laura, Mary, Nellie Oleson – we used them as reference points as kids. Whispering to each other about a classmate: “She’s such a Nellie Oleson”. Even now, that particular description would work for me. It would tell me everything I needed to know about a person.

Now, of course, a movie is a-comin’. The first person I needed to tell the news to was the aforementioned Betsy. There is one legendary moment in our friendship when we were in high school, at her house, long grown out of our Little House phase, we had moved into the B-52s and Devo, and we ended up watching an episode. We treated it like Mystery Science Theatre. Someone had fallen down a well, that I remember. We were actresses, even then, and we commented on how Michael Landon appeared to be working hard to squeeze out a tear. Listen, I love Michael Landon, but Betsy and I knew what we were talking about. As the episode came to its close, we both fell silent as we were watching. So-and-so was pulled out of the well, and I found myself quietly in tears. Betsy glanced over at me, and laughed in my face. I was like, “It got me! I can’t help it!”

Not only do Ingalls’ books work as great stories in and of themselves, but they portray the pioneer experience in such an immediate and first-hand way that it came to life for future generations. There I was, frolicking in the dirt of my backyard in Rhode Island, in the tired days of the late 1970s, with gas lines and Iranian hostages and tired-looking Presidents making weary speeches on television, that was my world, but because I had read those books I knew about the great plains, and covered wagons, and how medicine was different back then and what it was like to have no money so that one Christmas they each got a cookie, a shiny penny and a peppermint candy for presents. And the girls were thrilled about these presents, which seemed insane to me, but the way the book was written meant that I went into THEIR world, rather than expecting them to reflect mine. A huge gift for a young kid, better than a history lesson in school. Laura Ingalls Wilder described that one blizzardy Christmas so well, the snow piling up, the beauty of those simple hand-made gifts, that I, as a child, really learned something about the world reading that section. I remember thinking, (I must have been 8 years old): “They only got a candy-cane and a cookie? And a PENNY??? How could they have been happy with that????” But the WAY she wrote it made it clear that the entire thing was magical and exciting as the snow pounded against the log cabin windows. And so I got to have a realization when I was in third grade: “Wait. This is their Christmas. Times were really tough for them, and life was different for them. They were happy. They were happy.” I still remember the quiet realization I had, learning a lesson about … oh … materialism, and gratitude. I learned that my world was not the only world. That my time was not the only time.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was encouraged by her daughter (also a writer) to write down stories of her childhood. To get a glimpse of just how intense that relationship was, check out this fascinating New Yorker article about Rose Wilder. Quite a family psychodrama, and it seems far far removed from the fresh windy air and wide open spaces that make up the landscape and world of the Little House books. By the time Laura Ingalls Wilder started publishing, the entire world she described in the books had disappeared. Her first book Little House in the Big Woods was published in 1930. Lindbergh had flown across the ocean. There were railroads criss-crossing the country. Autmobiles. Telephones. Laura Ingalls Wilder straddled an enormous generational divide. Her books are the bridge.

My favorites were By the Shores of Silver Lake and The Long Winter.

I’ll close with an excerpt from Little House in the Big Woods that captures the home-spun evocative magic in these books:

When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”

“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said. “Go to sleep, now.”

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods.

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.

Happy birthday to Laura Ingalls Wilder, and thank you for making me see, as a young child, that things like log cabins and Pa and Ma and firelight “could not be forgotten”. Thank you for making that “long time ago” come to life for me, a young East Coast girl at the tail-end of the 20th century.

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39 Responses to Happy Birthday, Laura Ingalls Wilder

  1. Lisa in Fort Worth says:

    I was Lisa Ingalls, I lived it too…I bought the yellow boxed set for my 10th birthday and they still sit on the book shelf in my bedroom next to Baby Beans. My favorite was also The Long Winter. The illustrations by Garth Williams make is so real. My Grandma made me a granny night gown with a granny cap. I wore these for years.

  2. Jennchez says:

    I did the same thing too. At my grandparents we had a tree fort, in my mind though it was always out “little house”. I also have the yellow box set and have saved them for my daughter. Sadly she just is not interested. She did promise to try the first one after she finshes the last Sisters Grimm, I think just to get me off her back :)

    • sheila says:

      haha. A friend of mine was trying to get her daughter into the Anne of Green Gables series, and her daughter is so into vampires and werewolf slayers and teen-gothic-supernatural stuff that she was like, “Uhm, no thanks.”

    • Maureen says:

      My daughter was the same! Totally not interested! I am kicking myself I didn’t start reading them to her when she was really little-but I thought she would want the enjoyment of reading them herself. She is 19 now-maybe I could bribe her to read the first one??

  3. CheesyBee says:

    My mom taught me to read on Little House in the Big Woods, and I loved it so much my mother gave me the yellow box set for my eighth birthday. I read all the books by the time I was nine. Laura’s world was so far removed, but so close. I come from a large family and our Christmas loot was usually pretty humble, but still an exciting and magical time. I passed on the tradition and gave the books to my nieces when they were in grade school. My mom also introduced me to Anne of Green Gables and a lifelong love for L.M. Montgomery was born. I still have those books.

  4. rae says:

    We took a trip in grade school to see where their home was near Walnut Grove — and got to stand the big rock, which keeps sinking into the ground by the creek — and also attended an outdoor production (at night!) based on part of the story. It was magical!

  5. melissa says:

    I love these books. Especially the Long Winter. I still remember the shock I felt realizing that much in these books happened not far from where I lived in Southern MN. The difference from pioneer day to modern day made it feel like a different country, not just down the road…as opposed to the Betsy, Tacy and Tib books where I always knew that the books were based in my grandmother’s home town, where we’d go drive up the Big Hill and past the Chocolate house .

  6. allison bennett says:

    Remind me to tell you on Saturday about the woman I sat next to at a recent industry event….she is a direct decendent of Laura Ingalls Wilder….she was fascinating.

  7. My Yuhu says:

    When I think of her I marvel that her life spanned from shortly after the end of our Civil War, through all that history of war, scientific and technological advancement, Wright brothers up to ICBMs, and the topper– being alive to witness Elvis.

  8. Stacia says:

    I grew up in Missouri and felt especially close to Laura Ingalls Wilder. When I was about 9 I finally got my parents (who were reluctant to do anything like this) to go to Mansfield, MO and see Wilder’s home after she married Manly. What I loved about it was how it looked exactly like all the other well-built 100-120 year old homes around us. It’s so huge on the outside, but with the typical thick Midwestern walls that make the rooms inside so much smaller than you expect. Pa’s fiddle is there, and it looked like a much nicer version of my own family’s hand-me-down fiddle (ours has been cracked for nearly 100 years, but we still have it). At the State Fair one year, probably 1979, one of her quilts was on display, this sturdy, solid, tasteful quilt right next to all the fancy and gaudy ones on competition (the 1970s were not a great time for tasteful quilts!) and I couldn’t stop staring at it.

    Wilder was hugely influential on me. Her stories and her life showed me that all of these little things I was used to because of familiarity were still wonderful, amazing, and came from a long history. The books are mostly from her life in the upper Midwest (and a short time in Kansas IIRC) but she ended up in Missouri where I was! Just plain old Missouri, but SHE had lived there, and was far from plain. She made life seem boundless.

    • sheila says:

      Stacia – what beautiful details you’ve shared. Thank you so much. I love the bit about the quilts.

      And: “she made life seem boundless”. Yes, yes, yes.

  9. Maureen says:

    I also have the boxed set, and I re-read the series every couple of years. Sheila, you made the point so eloquently-I read these books over and over as a child, and they do seem like my memories in a way, instead of things that happened in a book. Sometimes I wonder how much of my life was shaped by them, I grew up in an urban area but majored in Agriculture in college-lived and worked on farms for years after. Moved to Alaska which is called “the Last Frontier”, and where people do still live that kind of subsistence lifestyle like Laura did. I haven’t gone that far, I live in Anchorage :) I do enjoy my comforts, like running water! If I hadn’t read those books, would I still be in the same place I grew up, like my siblings are? Hard to say, but they opened my mind in ways I don’t think any other books have, and most importantly I think they taught me that contentment is found in the little things in life-a lesson I am most grateful for!

    • sheila says:

      Beautiful, Maureen. The books do have such a charm to them, a quiet homey charm. They really made such a huge impact on me and it sounds like they did on you, too. Wonderful.

  10. Paula says:

    First book series I ever binge read, at the age of 9. Grew up in small town Colorado so the places and people she described were familiar to me so I’m always fascinated to hear people that love these books that grew up in “the city” as we said when we were little kids.

    “She’s such a Nellie Oleson”. LOL, we did this too! I always wanted to be Mary, such a serene peace maker. Didn’t realize at the time that I was definitely more of a Laura who would grow up to be a Nellie “the prairie bitch woman”, haha.

    These three always reminded me of Beth, Jo and Amy in Little Women.

    • Paula says:

      Do you remember Holly Hobbie dolls? (Now that’s a flashback to the 70s)? I had Holly and her friend Heather but would pretend they were Mary and Laura in their little prairie bonnets. Might have been a wee bit obsessed with the sisters.

  11. Patsyann says:

    I must have read the Little House series a hundred times. I think The Long Winter was my favorite, but I also liked Farmer Boy a lot. To this day I can’t see or hear the word “pint” without thinking “half-pint.” :)

    When I was a kid of course I thought about that Christmas story from the kid point of view, naturally; but the other part of it (and correct me if I’m getting confused here, it’s been a LONG time) is that they only got the gifts that they did because Pa’s friend Mr. Edwards played Santa Claus and made it to their house even through major flooding and put his life at risk to do it. As a kid it was just an exciting and heroic story but as a parent I sometimes think about what it must have meant to Ma and Pa to have someone do that for their children. I always have a soft spot for Mr. Edwards.

    The show was required viewing in my house – I was exactly the right age for it, and I also had to wear my hair in two long braids every day for several years, so I got called “Laura Ingalls” a lot. I even looked quite a bit like Melissa Gilbert as a kid, so I’ve always had a soft spot for her too. ;)

    • sheila says:

      Patsyann –

      // As a kid it was just an exciting and heroic story but as a parent I sometimes think about what it must have meant to Ma and Pa to have someone do that for their children. //

      That is so incredibly moving, thank you. I hadn’t thought of it that way at all.

      I love how much this show/book impacted the lives of girls from a certain generation. I wonder if it’s still popular in the same way – in the world of Hunger Games I just don’t know. I should ask my middle-school teacher sister – she’d know.

      I should re-read The Long Winter. That one just swept me away. I still have it on my shelves!

      • Patsyann says:

        I’ve got sons, and my older one never wanted to sit still and be read to, but my younger one does. He’s also capable of reading far beyond his own age level. I had sort of bemoaned not being able to read the “girl” books with him, but thinking about it more, there’s really no reason why I shouldn’t. If I don’t make an issue of it, neither will he. :P On the other hand I’ve read a lot of stuff with him that I didn’t hit in childhood – “The Phantom Tollbooth,” most of the Roald Dahl books, and we’re on “The Borrowers” right now.

        Looking back one of the things that made the Little House books and others similar (Anne of Green Gables, naturally; and I was into animal books, so the Albert Payson Terhune dog stories and the Black Stallion books were huge for me) was that I was a late-in-life child, so I could ask my dad about a lot of the things in the book and he could not only explain them but remembered them. Like what it was like in WW2 in the US for his family, or just simple things like what an icebox was. :P

        • sheila says:

          Patsyann –

          Oh man I loved The Phantom Tollbooth! When we were kids, it was my brother who thrilled to that book – and so I got curious and read it – I was maybe 10 years old – and it is still a favorite!

          Interesting about being able to ask your dad stuff about them! Kind of a nice bond!

          And The Borrowers!! That series so thrilled me when I was a kid because I was obsessed with “little” things for some reason – mini-teapots, mini-everything – and the idea of being that small, and being able to fit into a thimble or whatever was SO fascinating to me. Maybe that was one of the appeal of the Alice books too – all that fluctuation in size. Different perspectives.

          • sheila says:

            Were you into EB White books? They were pretty major for me: Stuart Little, Trumpet of the Swan, and Charlotte’s Web – MAJOR experiences for me as a kid.

            Plus Harriet the Spy – which basically showed me who I was when I was 10 years old. She is still a role model, even in her fearless unscrupulousness.

          • Patsyann says:

            I was TOTALLY into EB White! Trumpet of the Swan was my favorite. To this day I think of swans when I hear Louis Armstrong. Charlotte’s Web was huge, of course, too; and in fact I just read it and Stuart Little with my son.

            Others I recall – I think I read every Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys book that I could find (I had a wild crush on Frank Hardy, which was wildly bolstered when Parker Stevenson played him in the tv show) and also all the Trixie Belden books. Also, oddly, a lot of sci-fi and fantasy that belonged to my parents; they had shelves and shelves of those paperbacks. I know I read most of Asimov and Arthur C Clarke at an age where I couldn’t really hope to understand what I was reading. Plus a ton of Tolkien ripoffs that I didn’t realize were ripoffs because I didn’t actually read Tolkien until adulthood.

            I actually missed Harriet the Spy, not sure why -but I read all the Beezus books, if you recall those? I always felt like a Beezus, hehe.

          • Patsyann says:

            Hah – I meant to say I felt like a Ramona, not a Beezus. :) Maybe I should look those up again.

            These are starting to flood back to me now – Black Beauty (the horse thing), Little Women and the rest of the series, Heidi, The Secret Garden, the Narnia books, Susan Cooper’s “The Dark Is Rising” were all favorites. I could probably keep listing books all night but I’ll stop, heh.

          • sheila says:

            Ramona and Beezus were HUGE in my house – and they felt like documentaries because I had sisters. It was so accurate.

            I love Beverly Cleary!

            The Trixie Belden books, for whatever reason, were bigger for me than Nancy Drew – although I read the Nancy Drew books. I hung on with the Trixie Belden series for a good 4 or 5 years, and the thrill I felt when a new one was released …

            My God, it was like hearing that a new Star Wars movie had a release date or something.

        • sheila says:

          Oh, and I loved the Black Stallion books and Roald Dahl too!

          A bit later came Judy Blume.

          Were you into Enid Blyton at all as a kid?

          I was OBSESSED. I still am, frankly. I should read her “Adventure” series again, with 4 kids getting embroiled in international crime syndicates and trying to wiggle their way out of whatever they uncovered. And they were so BRITISH, which also appealed.

          • Patsyann says:

            I thought “Surely I must have read Enid Blyton!” but I just went and read through her bibliography and I actually think I must not have. Wow. She’s amazingly prolific! I’m going to have to investigate.

          • sheila says:

            Enid Blyton is AWESOME. She had a couple of different series – the one I was really into was (at least in my mind) the “Adventure” series.

            Mountain of Adventure. Valley of Adventure. and etc.

            It was 4 kids, on their summer or winter “hols,” uncovering crimes and having adventures.

            But there are other series too – Blyton was a favorite among the vast swirl of O’Malley cousins, for some reason – we passed them around amongst us.

  12. Rachel says:

    I read these books to my son and he LOVED them, girl books didn’t even enter into the equation. I knew as soon as I was pregnant that I would read every book I loved as a child to my child. It was such a pleasure to be able to see them again through the eyes of a child and to experience them as an adult at the same time.

    I also love The Long Winter–that daily ritual of the coffee grinder and the seed corn, I don’t think I ever really appreciated that until I was grown up.

    • sheila says:

      Rachel –

      I love that you read those books to your son! What a wonderful experience that must have been!

      and yes, the coffee grinder in The Long Winter!

      The books are filled with such homey lived-in details like that – the everyday details of how life was lived – and it made such a huge impression on me as a child. Like, I knew my parents drank coffee – and so the coffee grinder in The Long Winter was sort of kind of the same thing – but not … so it opened up my eyes to things like progress, and technological innovation, and yet still: it was the same ritual. Coffee in the morning.

      I just love that.

      All of this talk has made me want to read Long Winter again!

    • sheila says:

      Also it is just so heartening to me to know that he loved the books and didn’t even consider that they were “girl” books.

      Hope for the future! :)

      • Rachel says:

        I think he just liked being read to and reading together so much that he didn’t complain when I pulled them out. Although, in fairness, he liked the Little House books a lot. Other old favorites he wasn’t necessarily as enthralled with.

        • sheila says:

          It’s funny what kids thrill to.

          My friend couldn’t WAIT to share the Anne of Green Gables books with her daughter and her daughter could not care less. She was all about sci-fi fantasy stuff.

          I was like, “Ceileidh, so no Anne of Green Gables, huh?”

          HUUUUUGE eyeroll. Ha!

          • Rachel says:

            Yeah, kids develop their own personalities early. But some of that is sheer perversity. My Dad tried in vain to get both me and my sister to read Kim; he loved it as a kid, but we wouldn’t touch it. Then he bought a copy for my son, again no sale. Then one day I picked up my son’s copy and read it in one sitting. It’s such a great adventure! What was my problem? Meanwhile, my son remains unmoved.

          • sheila says:

            Rachel –

            Yes, Kim!! It really is so exciting – I think I read it when I was a kid, mainly because I went on a Kipling tear after seeing the Chuck Jones animated and Orson Welles narrated cartoon of Rikki Tikki Tavi. Like, that was my “way in.” Of course my father had to remind me (and I was no more than 9 years old) that Kipling hated the Irish. hahaha “Yes. Good story. The man hated our people. Keep that in mind.” I’ve never forgotten that – and as an adult, I so appreciate the moment – not for anything other than the humor and consistency of who my Dad was.

            The movie is really good too – if you can get past actors with darkened faces. Errol Flynn and Dean Stockwell – very exciting and funny and fun. Maybe that would be a good “way in” although, as you say, you never can tell.

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