The Prairie Queen

The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane

by William Holtz
University of Missouri Press, 425 pp., $29.95

The First Four Years

by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Harper Trophy, 134 pp., $3.95 (paper)

A Little House Sampler

by Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Rose Wilder Lane, edited by William T. Anderson
Harper Collins, 243 pp., $12.00 (paper)

West from Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, San Francisco 1915

edited by Roger Lea MacBride
Harper and Row, 124 pp., (out of print)

Little House in the Big Woods

Harper Trophy, 238 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Farmer Boy

Harper Trophy, 372 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Little House on the Prairie

Harper Trophy, 334 pp., $3.95 (paper)

On the Banks of Plum Creek

Harper Trophy, 339 pp., $3.95 (paper)

By the Shores of Silver Lake

Harper Trophy, 290 pp., $3.95 (paper)

The Long Winter

Harper Trophy, 334 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Little Town on the Prairie

Harper Trophy, 307 pp., $3.95 (paper)

These Happy Golden Years

Harper Trophy, 290 pp., $3.95 (paper)

No one who has not pioneered can understand the fascination and the terror of it.” Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote these words. They appear on a historical plaque by the side of South Dakota State Highway 25, a mile and a half north of the town of De Smet. The plaque marks the site where Wilder and her husband, Almanzo, lived in a claim shanty in the late 1880s while they tried and failed to grow wheat.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of autobiographical novels for children—the most famous is Little House on the Prairie—still conveys the fascination and the terror that the Great Plains held for those from the east who attempted to settle them. Published between 1932 and 1943, the eight “Little House” books describe Wilder’s childhood homes in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indian Territory (now Kansas), and Dakota Territory. They remain the most popular fiction about the opening of the western frontier to home-steading, beloved in a way that realist adult fiction about the same era has never been. The books have also inspired a variety of often sentimental homages: memorial societies, museums at the sites of Wilder’s homes, a bowdlerized television series, and a variety of sequels and imitations.

Beyond their appeal to children, the “Little House” books are serious works, meticulous first-hand accounts of a family’s struggle to survive in a harsh and unfamiliar world. They are also lyrical—even romantic—in their depiction of the effects of terrible losses, of crops, homes, and health, and of deep poverty on the people of the small towns and farms of the prairies. Although poor in possessions, the central character, Laura Ingalls, has a rich sensual and spiritual appreciation of the natural world.

The myths of the opening of the frontier, the settling of the West, and the proliferation of the stock figures of the heroic frontiersman, the Indian fighter, the cowboy, the outlaw, and the rest have been re-examined and debunked in all kinds of ways, from the movies of Sam Peckinpah to recent revisionist academic works. From the 1890s on, novelists, journalists, and, not least, those who lived through the period have offered realistic accounts of the arrival of white settlers and the often unhappy consequence for themselves, for the native peoples who already lived in the West, or for the land. Wisconsin Death Trip (1973), Michael Lesy’s horrifying compilation of period newspaper photographs and clippings reporting crimes, suicides, alcoholism, and insanity in a small Wisconsin town during the 1880s and 1890s, graphically documents the blunted lives in isolated American towns during the same period Wilder described. So does the fiction of the period. Ole Rölvaag, a Norwegian who emigrated to South Dakota as a young man in 1896 (two years after the Wilders left it), in Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie (1927) tells of the wife of an emigrant who was driven to religious madness by her hatred and fear of the empty spaces of the …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.