M acBride failed as a politician, but he succeeded at managing Lane’s estate. Lane had been divorced since 1918; her only child had died at birth. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s will had specified that when her daughter died, the valuable book rights should go to the tiny public library in Mansfield, Mo. Lane, however, instead left the Little House rights to MacBride, whose daughter still owns them today.
MacBride began systematically renewing copyrights to the Little House books in the 1960s, and sold the rights to television—turning it into the series that aired in the 1970s. Although the TV show departed in a saccharine way from the Little House books, it entranced another generation of fans.
Clearly, the Little House ethic of self-sufficiency appeals to a much wider American audience than just one with Libertarian politics. Pioneers could be cold, dirty, or hungry without whining. They faced down adversity. They made do with little. They respected the power of storms and the patterns of wild animals. The books inspired whole generations of women, and Americans of all political persuasions admire the tenaciousness of settlers like Ma and Pa Ingalls and their four daughters.
Lane must have known, as she redrafted her mother’s handwritten memoirs, that this notion of pioneer bravery—and the very real fortitude of the family—would prove an irresistible American theme. The result was a series of books that helped instill a deep national code of frontier values, including the notion that isolated Americans can thrive because the government leaves them to draw only on their personal energies and ethics. It’s an appealing idea, and it has become woven into our image of the pioneers. But it’s not the full story of what happened out there on the prairie.
Christine Woodside, a writer in Deep River, Conn., and editor of the journal Appalachia, is writing a book about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter.