Unlike her parents and grandparents, Lane turned up her nose at manual labor, and there’s little evidence to suggest she felt any reverence for the hardscrabble people of the plains. In 1933, Lane sketched an outline, never finished, for a “big American novel.” One of the characters was the pioneer, whom she described as “a poor man, of obscure or debased birth, without ability to rise from the mass.” In a letter to her old boss in April 1929, six months before the stock market crash, she had written: “Personally, I believe what we need—what every social group needs—is a peasant class.”
When Black Tuesday did come, the Wilder-Lane households began a painful two-year downslide, as Lane’s savings deflated from $20,000 to almost nothing. Magazine work dried up. Wilder, too, lost some money but, characteristically, scraped together savings and paid off the farm. Lane fretted about money, missed rent payments to her parents, borrowed thousands from friends, and continued to call herself the head of the household. She also began to consider other possible writing projects.
For a decade already Lane had milked various snippets from her parents’ lives for short stories. Now she saw an opportunity for her mother. Pioneer struggles could eerily mirror the struggles of the Great Depression, and Lane thought Americans were ready to hear about covered-wagon childhoods. After magazines rejected Wilder’s real-life account, Lane began reworking some of the memoir into what would become the first children’s book, “Little House in the Big Woods.”
Published in 1932 by Harper & Brothers, the book was praised by book critics for its honesty and caught the interest of readers nationwide. The Junior Literary Guild, a national book club, paid them an additional fee to print its own run. The income crisis at the Wilders’ ended. In the shadow of the crash, tales of overcoming great adversity resonated, and the editors wanted more.
Wilder and Lane responded with their now-famous sequels. From the start, there was tension between their approaches. Wilder argued for strict accuracy, while Lane, the seasoned commercial writer, injected made-up dialogue, took out stories about criminals and murder, and—most significantly—recast the stoic, sometimes confused pioneers as optimistic, capable people who achieved success without any government help.
Laura Ingalls Wilder never got used to Lane’s heavy rewrites, but the evidence suggests that on the main approach, playing up toughness in adversity, she agreed with her daughter. Both women believed fervently that the nation in the depths of the Depression had become too soft. In 1937, Wilder wrote Lane that people’s complaints about having no jobs made her sick. (“People drive me wild,” she wrote. “They as a whole are getting just what they deserve.”)
The early books celebrated Laura’s early childhood in a cozy log cabin in Wisconsin. They celebrated Pa Ingalls’s storytelling abilities and described in gripping detail how backwoods and prairie farmers took care of themselves—hunted, butchered, cooked, built, and made things like soap and bullets—in the 1860s and 1870s. The third book, “Farmer Boy,” was about Wilder’s husband Almanzo’s life on a New York State farm. In the fourth book, “On the Banks of Plum Creek,” the Ingalls family relocated to Minnesota (the locale of the TV show), where they built a house and became wheat farmers despite a grasshopper plague.
In shaping the memoirs into novels, Lane consistently left out the kinds of setbacks and behavior that cast doubt on the pioneer enterprise; the family’s story became a testament to the possibilities of self-sufficiency rather than its limitations. The last four books—which tell the story of the Ingalls family’s attempt to homestead in the future state of South Dakota—are particularly fired by Libertarian themes.
Comparing Wilder’s original memoirs to the contents of the published books, it’s possible to see a pattern of strategic omissions and additions. In the fifth book, for example, “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” Laura promises to become a teacher to pay for her older sister Mary to attend a college for the blind. Wilder’s own account of her life reveals that although Wilder’s sister did attend a college for the blind, in reality it was the government of Dakota Territory—and not the family’s hard work—that covered the bills.
The next book, “The Long Winter,” stops for a moment of free-market speechifying almost certainly added by Lane. When a storekeeper tries to overcharge starving neighbors who want to buy the last stock of wheat available, a riot seems imminent until the character based on Wilder’s father, Pa, Charles Ingalls, brings him into line: “This is a free country and every man’s got a right to do as he pleases with his own property....Don’t forget that every one of us is free and independent, Loftus. This winter won’t last forever and maybe you want to go on doing business after it’s over.” It’s an appealing, if perhaps wishful, distillation of the idea that a free market can regulate itself perfectly well. Wilder rarely wrote extended dialogue in her own recollections, the manuscripts show; her daughter most likely invented this long exchange.Continued...