Laura Ingalls Wilder's beloved Little House on the Prairie series is an amalgamation of memory, fact, and fiction. As recorded in Little House on the Prairie, for the child Laura traveling to Kansas by covered wagon and settling on the open prairie was a big adventure. The truth is, it is not likely an experience she remembered.
Beginning with Little House in the Big Woods, Wilder may not have anticipated writing any more books. Thus, when she decided to write about her family’s
experience in “Indian Territory,” she transposed events from 1869-1871, when she was about three years old, to continue the story from their years in Pepin, Wisconsin, around 1871-1874. This change made the fictional Laura older and skipped Carrie’s birth in Kansas altogether. Many of the events she described in Little House in the Prairie are Wilder’s memory of the stories her parents told rather than her own memories, and some details are entirely fictional.
Writing for children allowed Wilder to sanitize her autobiography in many ways. Instead of describing the grime, inconvenience, and loneliness of settling a prairie homestead, she emphasized the values of ingenuity, perseverance, hard work, and family. In part to avoid her own unpleasant memories and in part to preserve childhood innocence, Wilder left out significant parts of her family’s story and creatively altered other parts throughout the entire series.
Sarah Miller's historical novel, Caroline: Little House, Revisited, is a retelling of Little House on the Prairie (volume 2 of the series) from Ma's point of view. It is filled with the grit, mud, fear, anxiety, and loneliness a child does not experience when she is secure in the love and protection of her parents. It also fleshes out a deeply introspective and circumspect woman, who never speaks a frivolous word throughout Wilder's books. Miller's novel explores the experience of a pregnant Caroline Quiner Ingalls traveling over 700 miles from family and friends in a covered wagon in late winter and early spring to settle on an undeveloped homestead of questionable legality (the invasive visit from the local Osages may have been for "rent" collection). There was plenty to be anxious about. What if one or all of them drowned in a treacherous river crossing? How would she manage giving birth without another woman to tend her? What if something happened to Charles, leaving her alone, pregnant with two little girls, in what felt like the middle of nowhere? Were they endangering their children? And would any fear she showed be a poor example for Mary and Laura? The constant strain of being brave for her family was exhausting.
The real Ingalls family story is found in Wilder's first autobiographical manuscript, Pioneer Girl, which was published in a beautifully annotated edition in 2014. Memory is constructed rather than organic. The side-by-side presentation of Wilder's original autobiographical notes with historians documented annotations illustrate just how true that is. One can easily imagine Wilder growing up, listening to Pa rant about intrusive government and the importance of American freedom—a.k.a. manifest destiny and white settlement—and constructing her own belief that government Indian policy forced them from their land in Kansas. But the historical record does not support this version of events. Although the Ingalls family arrived ahead of legal settlement, before they left Kansas the Osages had already agreed to relocate to what is now Oklahoma and their reserve in Kansas was about to be opened to white settlement. Thus, historians believe the real reason the Ingalls family left Kansas was because the buyer of their property in Wisconsin defaulted on his payments. They returned to Wisconsin in order to reclaim their property.
Years later, Wilder in company with her daughter Rose, tried to locate the site of her parents’ homestead. Her efforts were unsuccessful for several reasons. First, she was too young when they lived in Kansas to have retained her own accurate memory. Second, she mistakenly believed that they had lived on land from which soldiers were evicting white settlers and may have conflated the Osage Reserve with the Cherokee Strip in Oklahoma. Finally, she did not have access to records which documented where they had lived. It was much later when historians discovered the Ingalls family in the 1870 Federal Census, which showed them living in Montgomery County, Kansas. Without the facts, Wilder searched for the homestead in vain in Oklahoma rather than Kansas. As she wrote in Little House on the Prairie, she believed her family to have lived forty miles from Independence, Kansas, when in reality they were only thirteen or fourteen miles from town. This story illustrates both how family stories get altered and why tracking down the documentation is so essential. Memory alone cannot be trusted.
As family narrative, Wilder's work represents not only her own memories, but inherited prejudices. Today, her reputation is tarnished by racist insinuations in the narrative. Rightly so as this is not a value we want our children to emulate. And yet, as family narrative these references provide a fuller picture of her parents' thoughts, feelings, motivations, and personality. It allows us to see them as real, flawed people. The same is true for any of our ancestors. We risk placing our forebears on sainted pedestals if only their virtues are preserved. Only when we know the good, the bad, and the ugly about them will they be real people in our imaginations. Only then will they be fully known to us.