Laura Ingalls Wilder wasn’t your typical debut novelist when her first book, “Little House in the Big Woods,” was published in 1932. She was 65 years old, decades removed from the childhood memories that provided the foundation for her colorful story of hardship, adventure and survival on the Wisconsin frontier that struck a chord in Depression-era America.
Children devoured the wholesome tales celebrating family, self-reliance, hard work and neighbor helping neighbor. “There had never been anything like this for children, telling them what the pioneer days—a time in history that was still pretty recent—were like,” says Christine Woodside, author of the new book “Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books.”
Wilder authored seven more books over the next 11 years, including “Little House on the Prairie,” which chronicled the exploits of the itinerant Ingalls family as they endured everything from blizzards of grasshoppers to plagues of snow as they rattled westward in their covered wagon across the wilderness and plains of the upper Midwest in the late 1800s before finally settling in the Dakota Territory.
While only the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder was emblazoned on the book covers of one of the most popular series in American literary history, scholars researching her family papers slowly came to the conclusion in the decades following her 1957 death that the beloved stories of Pa, Ma and sisters Mary, Carrie and Grace were the product of not just one woman—but two.
Unknown to readers at the time, Wilder secretly received considerable assistance from her only adult child, Rose Wilder Lane. While Wilder was an unknown author when “Little House in the Big Woods” was published, Lane was one of the most famous female writers in the United States, having penned novels, biographies of Charlie Chaplin and Herbert Hoover and short stories for magazines such as Harper’s, Cosmopolitan and Ladies’ Home Journal.
Unlike her mother, however, Lane had little affinity for the hardscrabble life of the American heartland and left the family’s Missouri farm as a teenager, eventually moving to San Francisco. Able to speak five languages, she traveled extensively and by the 1920s was living in Albania in a large house staffed by servants. Although she always had a tense relationship with her mother, Lane began to long for home and returned to the family farm in 1928.
Knowing a good story when she heard one, Lane prodded her mother to put her childhood experiences to paper. Wilder, however, had little literary experience outside of pieces that she wrote for rural newspapers. Lane, though, knew how to make a manuscript sing and hold chapters together, and she used her contacts in the publishing industry to sell “Little House in the Big Woods.”
“Laura had lived the life. She had the memory. However, she didn’t have any experience making a novel,” Woodside tells HISTORY. “Rose knew how to do that. They were each crucial to the book. Laura couldn’t have written the books without Rose, and Rose couldn’t have written them without Laura.”
Lane not only polished her mother’s prose but infused Wilder’s stoic outlook with the joy and optimism that connected with many readers. The author’s secret collaborator also sanitized Wilder’s real-life experiences for an audience of children, scrubbing away the hard edges such as the death of a baby brother at 9 months of age and replacing stories of murders on the frontier with images of swimming holes and bonneted girls in dresses skipping through tall grasses and wildflowers.
Woodside’s book also shines light on the political views of Wilder and her secret collaborator that were below the surface of the “Little House” series. Like many Americans, the Wilders were hit hard by the Great Depression. Both mother and daughter were dismayed with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and what they saw as Americans’ increasing dependence on the federal government. A life-long Democrat, Wilder grew disenchanted with her party and resented government agents who came to farms like hers and grilled farmers about the amount of acres they were planting.
“They both hated the New Deal,” Woodside says of Wilder and Lane. “They thought the government was interfering in people’s lives, that individuals during the Depression were becoming very whiny and weren’t grabbing hold of their courage. The climate of America was really irritating them. The New Deal, for a lot of farmers and definitely the Wilders, made them change their politics.”
An acquaintance of Ayn Rand and a critic of Keynesian economics, Lane would become an early theorist of the fledgling political movement that would eventually form the Libertarian Party in 1971. Neither woman set out to indoctrinate children with their political views, but their beliefs in individual freedom, free markets and limited government can be seen in the pages of the “Little House” books. “Lane didn’t explicitly use it as a political manifesto,” Woodside says. “She was being who she was, and they both felt strongly that the pioneers should be examples to people. It was inevitable she was going to flesh out the story by focusing things like free-market forces at work in the general store and farmers being free and independent.”
While the “Little House” books emphasized self-reliance, at least two instances of government assistance that benefited the Ingalls family were downplayed. In addition to receiving their land in the Dakota Territory through the Homestead Act, it was the Dakota Territory that paid for the tuition of Mary Ingalls at the Iowa School for the Blind for seven years. “It’s an inconvenient fact,” Woodside says. “Rose suppressed that detail.”
Ultimately, close quarters and close collaboration caused the fault lines between mother and daughter to reappear. The pair became estranged, and Lane moved to Connecticut, where in 1943 she wrote “The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle Against Authority,” considered to be a libertarian manifesto. By World War II, Lane refused a ration card, grew and canned most of her food and deliberately curtailed her writing in order to pay as little tax as possible.
After inheriting the royalty rights to the “Little House” series after Wilder’s death in 1957, Lane donated money to the Freedom School in Colorado, a free-market academy that taught libertarian theory. When she died suddenly in 1968, future “Little House” royalties were bequeathed to her sole heir and “political disciple,” lawyer Roger Lea MacBride. In addition to becoming the first person to cast an electoral vote for a Libertarian Party ticket in 1972, MacBride was the Libertarian Party candidate for president four years later.
Both mother and daughter carried the secret of their collaboration to their graves. By the time a new generation of children were becoming exposed to Wilder’s stories through the “Little House on the Prairie” television show, on which MacBride served as a co-creator and co-producer, scholars were learning of the partnership from the women’s letters and diaries. “Laura and Rose were very clearly collaborators from day one on these books,” Woodside says. “Our understanding and celebrating that is essential to understanding why these books are so wonderful.”