Understanding the enduring popularity of Laura Ingalls Wilder

by Janie B. Cheaney

Posted on Monday, February 23, 2015, at 2:58 pm

In February of 1867, a little girl named Laura Elizabeth was born in a small log cabin near Pepin, Wis. Some of her family lines went back to the Mayflower, others to the prominent Delano family of New York (which produced a four-term president in FDR). Her father was an iconic American type: the restless pioneer who moved his family at least eight times through five different states during Laura’s childhood years. After Laura was married and almost past middle age, she wrote the story of her early life in a manuscript she called Pioneer Girl.

It’s a rare American who doesn’t know at least some of her story. The fame of Laura Ingalls Wilder has spread even beyond our borders. The eight novels she eventually wrote, drawing from childhood experiences, inspired spin-off books, a TV series, musicals, outdoor dramas, a Japanese anime series, and the name of a crater on Venus. A heavily annotated version of the original Pioneer Girl, appearing in print for the first time, was published by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press in late 2014, but it quickly sold out its original 15,000-copy run. The publisher is rushing to print two additional editions, but readers who order from retailers like Amazon will have to wait until at least March to get a copy. 

Bestseller status for a $40 scholarly work is unheard of. What’s the source of Wilder’s enduring appeal? Pamela Smith Hill, the editor of Pioneer Girl, attributes some of it to nostalgia acquired from reading the books over and over as a child or gathering with the family to watch the TV show. But it’s more than that: It’s a deep heart connection that makes fans go weak in the knees when they visit Wilder’s final home (where the books were written) in Mansfield, Mo., and see Pa Ingalls’ actual fiddle on display. As Wendy McClure writes in The Wilder Life, “[W]ho knew how many times those books made me wish for a now other than the one I was in, that the world would somehow crack open and revel a simpler life?”

The eager buyers who snapped up Pioneer Girl and the steady stream of visitors to Ingalls homesteads in Kansas and the upper Midwest are reassuring somehow, an indication that we haven’t forgotten our unique heritage. And it’s something else, too: It’s hard to imagine another nation that dedicates monuments to ordinary people like Ma and Pa Ingalls and their progeny. All they did was match themselves against the vastness of the plains and push through “an enormous stillness that made you feel still” (as Wilder described the landscape in By the Shores of Silver Lake). Still, that’s a very big “all,” because in the process they built the nation. Great men and women stride through American history, but “little houses” are the real story. The enduring popularity of Laura Ingalls Wilder indicates that, at some level, Americans still understand.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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