This year marks the 150th anniversary of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birth on February 7, 1867, and two small presses are marking the occasion by publishing books offering new perspectives on the life and times of the beloved author of the Little House on the Prairie series.
The South Dakota Historical Society Press kicked off the anniversary year in May by publishing Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal. Koupal isn’t only the editor of this collection of 11 essays examining the life and times of the Little House on the Prairie books: she also is the director of the press, which published Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography.
The book was an instant bestseller, selling out of its 15,000-copy initial print run before its pub date. It became the hot—and hard-to-get—title of the 2014 holiday season—even though it clocked in at 472 pages and cost $40.
To date, Pioneer Girl has sold more than 165,000 copies and is in its 10th print run. In comparison, SDHSP’s second bestselling title, Tatanka and the Lakota People, has sold about 15,000 copies. Print runs for SDHSP titles typically range between 1,000–5,000 copies.
Despite the success of Pioneer Girl, Koupal insists that it wasn’t just the hope of publishing another bestseller about an author that people can’t seem to get enough of that steered her towards publishing Pioneer Girl Perspectives, which to date has sold 7,500 copies and is still in its first print run.
“We wanted more perspective moving forward with a textual study of Pioneer Girl,” she explained. “Why is she so popular? She wasn’t even a supporter of women’s suffrage and women’s rights.”
The first essay in the collection, “The Speech for the Detroit Book Fair, 1937,” is the transcription of a presentation Wilder made during a literary event held inside a Motor City department store. It is one of the rare occasions during which Wilder spoke publicly about her life and her books, and the speech includes reflections upon the world beyond the prairie and the famous little houses she lived in as a child.
Koupal said that she worked hard to make the essays accessible to the kinds of readers who snapped up copies of Pioneer Girl. The essays examine Wilder from various angles, and boast such intriguing titles as “The Strange Case of the Bloody Benders: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and Yellow Journalism” by Caroline Fraser and “Little Myths on the Prairie” by Michael Patrick Hearn. As an added treat for Wilder fans, the long-time attorney for the Little House Heritage Trust, Noel Silverman, for the first time discusses Wilder in a Q&A with Koupal in “Her Stories Take You with Her: The Lasting Appeal of the Little House Books.” His take on why Wilder is still so popular? It’s because her tales emphasize interdependence among members of a community rather than independence. “[Wilder’s] narrative says that I can build a better house, faster, if Mr. Edwards will help me, in return for which I will gladly help him build his house,” Silverman states in the Q&A.
The Natural World of Wilder
In September, Timber Press is publishing The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Marta McDowell, with original illustrations by the first illustrator of the Little House on the Prairie books, Helen Sewell, and by her successor, Garth Williams. In contrast to the scores of other books that focus upon Wilder and her family’s experiences, McDowell, a landscape designer who teaches landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, examines the impact of the natural world upon Wilder.
The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder begins with the Little House in the Big Woods in Pepin, Wis., where Wilder was born, and continues, like the Wilder family’s travels, through the Dakotas and then on to Missouri. Describing her research as an “odyssey of the natural world,” McDowell noted that Wilder wrote extensively in her fiction and nonfiction about the trees, wildflowers, creek systems, and land forms of all the places she traveled through.
Wilder’s writings also, McDowell pointed out, explore the evolution in farming practices during the late 19th and 20th centuries. “She goes from preindustrial farming to mechanized farming. She talks about everything from thresher binder machines with horses when she was a child to, by the time they moved to Missouri, having a gasoline-powered tractor and a car,” McDowell said.
Although McDowell did not grow up on a farm, and lives in New Jersey, she is only one generation removed from farm life, with a father from Kentucky and a mother from rural Illinois. Reading Wilder’s books “brought back a lot of memories” for McDowell, who includes in the book personal essays inspired by Wilder, such as an essay about how her father would crack open Black walnuts for her mother to make nut rolls, which was prompted by Wilder’s description of cracking open Black walnuts.
In contrast to Silverman’s theory about Wilder’s appeal to later generations of readers, McDowell asserted that Wilder’s popularity endures because she was a trendsetter, someone who practiced sustainable farming long before it became popular.
“Before she was a writer, Wilder was a farmer. Sustainability wasn’t a trend, it was a way of life. Farm-to-table could be measured in the distance from her garden to her kitchen,” McDowell said. “Wilder’s novels celebrate the small farm, a nuclear family overcoming hardships for the security of home and homestead. She documented a dream of life on the land, a simpler way that, for most of us, will remain in the realm of fiction. But through her words we can picture ourselves, transported, smoking the meat, picking the plums, harvesting the potatoes, and grinding the wheat.”