Adults of a certain age grew up reading and watching the adventures of pioneer girl Laura Ingalls, her sisters Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace, Ma and Pa Ingalls, the spoiled Nellie Oleson and many others. The saga started with the 1932 children’s book Little House in the Big Woods and the 10 books that followed, then continued growing with the Little House on the Prairie television series that ran from 1974 – 1984 and starred Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert.
Both the books and TV series captured a simpler America, where times may be tough but love for God, country and one another could overcome any obstacle.
Now a previously unpublished autobiography from the books’ author, the real Laura Ingalls Wilder, shows that life wasn’t so idyllic — and at times was a truly dark, dangerous place.
Entitled Pioneer Girl, it was originally written in the 1930s and covers details of domestic abuse, love triangles, alcoholism, and a near-sexual assault. The author failed to publish it, and after her death in 1957 the original draft was saved at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri. In November of last year, the South Dakota State Historical Society published the annotated autobiography with an initial print run of 15,000, but it sold out in only a few weeks. An additional run of 15,000 more copies sold out, and now a third run of 45,000 books has been released — an unheard of number for any size publisher in the internet age.
“Everybody who’s ever read a Little House book or everybody who’s ever seen the TV show Little House on the Prairie really has been fascinated by Laura Ingalls Wilder and her life,” Nancy Tystad Koupal, director of the South Dakota State Historical Society Press, told NPR. “And this book offers an opportunity to get behind the scenes and see what that life was really like.”
Koupal explains that the book primarily covers a period when the family was not living in their famous “Little House” and times were much more difficult. “I think that time in Iowa was a time when the family was at a very low ebb financially. It just was not a happy time. They didn’t have a home of their own for the most part. They were living above stores and — it just was not a good time in their lives.”
But, as the saying goes, that which does not kill us makes us stronger, and the book demonstrates how these events helped shape the woman who would eventually write those much-beloved adventures. It may be dark, but it’s a very “Little House” lesson nonetheless.