Millions of young people grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series — or watching the TV show based on the books — about a young girl growing up on America’s frontier plains in the 1800s. The nine-volume “Little House on the Prairie” collection is semi-autobiographical, drawing on Wilder’s experiences living in several frontier states, including Wisconsin, Kansas and South Dakota.
Now a new book by Wilder biographer William Anderson provides amazing insight into the author’s adult life. “The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder” is a collection of letters she sent to fans, friends, and publishers. Most notably, the book contains letters written to her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who had become a successful writer before Wilder’s emergence.
By the time Wilder published her first book in 1932, Lane had already risen to stardom in the literary world. There are even claims that Lane was the ghost writer of the “Little House on the Prairie” books. This collection of letters clearly reveals that even though the mother and daughter collaborated on the books’ themes, characters and style, Wilder was the primary author, starting with a pencil-written first draft.
The letters also provide a window into an American family living through the Depression and also reveal the author’s disdain for President Roosevelt’s New Deal. In one letter to Lane, Wilder writes, “Have you celebrated F.D.R.’s birthday properly? Mansfield (Wilder’s Missouri hometown at the time) is all torn up over it.” About a local WPA project she writes, “God help the poor taxpayers.” It’s no wonder that Wilder’s books are popular with the Libertarian movement.
The book also includes responses to fan mail, which, at the peak of the author’s popularity, arrived in bunches of 25 to 50 letters a day. Wilder’s letters to school children across the country are treasured documents and are often held in museums and archives.
Anderson said he first became attracted to the “Little House on the Prairie” books in grade school.
“I was in the third grade, studying Native Americans and frontier living,” he said. “One day, the teacher took a book and read to us. It was ‘Little House.’ It changed my life. I was curious. These are true stories and real people."
When he was around 10 or 12, Anderson wrote to Lane, who answered many questions he had about her mother. He still has her letters tucked away at home. While on a family vacation out West, Anderson’s family visited Wilder’s final home, Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Mo. Family vacations often included detours to other Wilder homes, where Anderson soaked up Wilder lore.
“I was doing research and didn’t know it,” he said.
While studying at Albion College, Anderson took a summer job at the Wilder homestead in De Smet, S.D., which has been preserved and turned into a museum.
“I immersed myself in her life,” he said. “I gave tours, helped restore the houses and did research in old newspaper files.”
Wilder was a prolific letter writer who continued to respond to fans right up until her death. She left behind a huge amount of documentation, despite many of her letters having been burned or lost.
“Letter writing was the only way to communicate back then,” Anderson said.
Anderson said that the book also refutes the popular myth that Wilder was “a little old lady in a rocking chair.” The letters show that Wilder, whose first book wasn’t published until she was 65, was an astute business woman who got down to the “real nitty-gritty” when her books were being published.
Anderson noted that Wilder was popular among Michigan readers. Several fan letters from the state are included in the book, and Detroit was the first city to name a library in Wilder’s honor, in 1947. Wilder reciprocated by donating manuscripts of “The Long Winter” and “These Happy Golden Years,” along with photographs and other ephemera. The material is now held by the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library’s Main Branch.
In addition to business details and politics, Wilder peppered her letters to her daughter and friends with local gossip, telling them about visitors, describing wild flowers and showing her excitement over fashion styles.
“Don’t you love the styles this spring?” she writes. “Oh all the clothes are the prettiest for years and years.”
Anderson, 62, who lives in southeast Michigan, teaches English in Lapeer. He laments that letter writing and reading aloud are lost arts.
In the classroom, he said, it’s “almost taboo to read to children. It’s seen as a waste of time — it doesn’t impact test scores.”
William Anderson presents “The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder”
Author talk and book signing 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 16 FREE Schuler Books & Music (Eastwood Towne Center location) 2820 Towne Center Blvd., Lansing (517) 316-7495, schulerbooks.com