Monday, February 6, 2017

Happy Birthday, Laura Ingalls Wilder

February 7, 2017, marks the 150th birthday of American author Laura Ingalls Wilder. Born in a log cabin near Pepin, Wisconsin, Wilder traveled in a covered wagon with her pioneering family through the Upper Midwest and Great Plains. Her beloved “Little House” series of books describe a young girl’s coming-of-age in a harsher, simpler time. Loosely based around Wilder’s late-1800’s childhood on the American frontier, they have never gone out of print, and later became the basis for a long-running television series, a television miniseries, and a musical. Because of their popularity, Wilder's later years inspired two made-for-TV movies and led to the posthumous publication of her earlier articles and journals.

Now, you may have noticed that I said the books were loosely based on her life, and the books were only the basis for the TV series. Like most authors, Laura didn't hesitate to change the timeline or details to make for a better story, and the TV show writers used creative license to take the story even further from actual events. (I don't think I ever watched more than a couple episodes of the TV show. They were just so very different from the books, I didn't particularly enjoy them.) So, how much do you know about the real Laura Ingalls Wilder vs. the literary and TV ones? Some of the questions are easy, but some of the answers may surprise you.

1    1.    What were Pa’s and Ma’s first names?
      (a) Carl and Charlotte
      (b) Charles and Caroline
      (c) Curt and Carla
      (d) James and Angeline

The correct answer is b, Charles and Caroline. Savvy readers may know that Charles and Caroline (and also Carl, Charlotte and Carla) all derive from the Latin name Carolus. (The two US states named for England's King Charles are North and South Carolina). Which means, Ma and Pa had the same first name, sort of. James and Angeline were the names of Almanzo’s parents.

Ma and Pa Ingalls. Unlike television Pa, real Pa had a beard.

2      2.    How many children were there in the Ingalls family?
            (a)  3
            (b)  4
            (c)  5
            (d)  6

The correct answer is c, 5. The books and TV series open when the family had only three: Mary, Laura, and Carrie. There was a seven-year gap between Carrie and the youngest child, Grace. Laura wrote her book series for children, which may be why she left out any mentions of her brother Charles Frederick (Freddie) who died at ten months of age in 1876. Freddie was the fourth child, between Carrie and Grace, and was named for his father and for Caroline Ingalls’s stepfather, Frederick Holbrook. Baby Freddie appeared briefly in Season 1 of the TV series. The adopted children introduced later in the TV series were pure literary license.

3    3.    How many children were there in the Wilder family?
             (a)  3
             (b)  4
             (c)  5
             (d)  6

The correct answer is d, 6. Laura wrote about Almanzo’s childhood in the book Farmer Boy, but the book only mentions the middle four children—Eliza Jane, Royal, Alice, and Almanzo. The oldest was Laura, who was 13 years older than Almanzo. She was left out so as not to confuse readers with another Laura character. In the book, Almanzo complains about being the youngest – which was true during the time the book covers. However, when Almanzo was 12, the Wilders had one more child, Perley Day. While Perley Day wasn't mentioned in any of the books, he did make it onto the television show.

      4.     Where did Laura and Almanzo meet? 
      (a)  Wisconsin
      (b)  Minnesota
      (c)  South Dakota
      (d)  Iowa

Trick question! The correct answer is e, none of the above. If you watched the television show but never read the books, you might have guessed Minnesota. The producers chose to keep the series set in Walnut Grove far longer than the Ingallses actually lived there. (I suppose making them move would have meant losing all the supporting cast members.) Of course, if you read the books, you might have chosen South Dakota...which isn't technically right either. After leaving Minnesota, the family settled near the new town of DeSmet, which is where Laura and Almanzo met. However, at the time, DeSmet was in the Dakota Territory. Three months after Laura and Almanzo’s marriage, the southern portion of the Dakota Territory joined the union as the new state of South Dakota.

      5.     So then, how many years did the Ingalls family actually live in Minnesota?
    (a) 4
    (b) 5
    (c) 6 
    (d) 7

The correct answer is a, 4 years—but there’s a catch. The timeline for the books follows the family more closely than the television series, but Laura left out the year the family spent in Iowa. The Ingallses moved to Minnesota in 1874. About a year after Freddie’s death, they moved to Burr Oak, Iowa, where Grace was born. They stayed about a year, then returned briefly to Walnut Grove, Minnesota before traveling west to the Dakota Territory. Altogether, they were in Minnesota about four years.

6. Who was Laura's nemesis at school?
    (a) Nellie Oleson
    (b) Stella Gilbert
    (c) Genevieve Masters
    (d) Nellie Owens

Oh, dear, it's another trick question. The correct answers are b, c, and d, so give yourself a point if you picked any of them. However, if you guessed Nellie Oleson, too badthere was no girl named Nellie Oleson in Laura's childhood. The character, which appears in three of the novels and seven seasons of the television show, was a composite of several girls Laura knew in Walnut Grove and DeSmet, probably Nellie Owens, Genevieve Masters, and Stella Gilbert. Nellie Owens was the daughter of a Walnut Grove shopkeeper and had a young brother Willie. Originally from New York, Genevieve Masters wore beautiful clothes and was fond of telling everyone how things were done back in the east. Stella Gilbert lived on a claim near DeSmet and apparently had a more than a friendly interest in bachelor Almanzo Wilder. 

      7.     Which musical instrument did Mary Ingalls play?
            (a)  piano
            (b)  fiddle
            (c)  organ
            (d)  drum

The correct answer is c, organ. Pa played his fiddle in each of the “Little House” books (except Farmer Boy, the one about Almanzo’s childhood), but nowhere is there a mention of any of the girls learning to play it. Mary went blind at 14 shortly before the family left Walnut Grove, Minnesota. (Those must have been some very difficult years, what with Freddie’s death followed so closely by Mary’s blindness.) During the 1880’s, Mary attended the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School, where she learned to play the organ. Ma and Pa then bought one for their home in DeSmet, so Mary could play there.

8.     How old was Laura when Almanzo began to court her?
      (a)  15 
      (b)  16
      (c)  17 
      (d)  18

The correct answer is a, 15. In the book Little Town on the Prairie, Almanzo asked Laura if he could see her home after a revival service at church. She walked into the house to hear Ma saying, “But she’s only fifteen!”

Laura around the time she married Almanzo Wilder

9.     Almanzo was how many years older than Laura?
      (a)  4
      (b)  6
      (c)  8
      (d)  10

The correct answer is d, 10. In the books, Laura took liberties with the timeline in order to make the age difference smaller, perhaps in deference to modern sensibilities. In real life, Almanzo was ten years her senior. No wonder Ma expressed dismay. He did have honorable intentions, but I wouldn’t recommend this situation to any modern romance writers. Interestingly, the TV show portrayed them as having a sizable difference in their ages. Dean Butler, who played Almanzo, is eight years older than Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura. However, the producers of the show changed the dynamics of their relationship by having Laura pursue Almanzo rather than the other way around, perhaps another nod to modern notations of courtship. In her unpublished autobiography, Laura suggests that her teenage crush was actually schoolmate Cap Garland.

Almanzo, around the time he married Laura

10.     How many children did Laura and Almanzo have?
       (a)  1
       (b)  2
       (c)  3
       (d)  4

The correct answer is b, 2. Rose was their first, and she became a well-known writer before Laura started writing novels. Like Laura’s parents, the Wilders also lost a son at a very young age. Baby Boy Wilder had not even been named yet when he died at less than two weeks old. In the last season of the TV show, Almanzo got custody his niece Jenny after his brother Royal's death. The real life Royal lived to be 78 years old. And he never had a daughter named Jenny.

11.   How many grandchildren did Ma and Pa Ingalls have?
       (a)  2
       (b)  4   
       (c)  6
       (d)  10

I'm feeling generous, so count either a or b as the correct answer. Laura had Rose and the son who died as an infant. Unlike TV-show Mary, the real Mary Ingalls never married. Grace was 24 when she married Nathan Dow, but they had no children. Carrie married later in life (age 41) to widower David Swanzey. He had two young children (8 and 5) from his first marriage, whom Carrie raised as her own. Final total: two grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.

12.   Who was the first member of the family to be a published author?
       (a)  Mary Ingalls
       (b)  Laura Ingalls Wilder
       (c)  Carrie Ingalls Swanzey
       (d)  Rose Wilder Lane

The correct answer is c, Carrie. After high school, Carrie taught school for a short time (like Laura) and worked as a typesetter. She learned all facets of the newspaper business (including writing and editing) and eventually landed a job as manager for some of businessman E. L. Senn's newspapers. The job led her to Keystone, South Dakota, where she met David Swanzey. Laura sometimes consulted with Carrie about events from their childhood when she was writing the "Little House" books.

Carrie Ingalls

13.  How many grandchildren did Laura and Almanzo have?
      (a)  0
      (b)  1
      (c)  2
      (d)  3

Sadly, the correct answer is a, 0, although I suppose an argument could be made for b, 1. Rose Wilder Lane’s only child was stillborn, after which she was unable to have children. She and her husband later divorced. Rose went on to become an successful writer in her own right (and worthy of her own post...perhaps someday), being counted one of the highest paid female authors of her day. Unfortunately, the Great Depression wiped out most of her and her parents’ savings. She was living in a separate house on her parents’ farm in 1930 when Laura showed her a rough draft of a children's book later titled Little House in the Big Woods.

Rose Wilder Lane

14.   Where are Laura and Almanzo buried?
       (a)  South Dakota
       (b)  Florida
       (c)  Missouri 
       (d)  Minnesota

The correct  answer is c, Missouri. Life proved difficult on the Wilders’ South Dakota homestead, and they endured incredible hardship during the first four years of their marriage. Crop failures, the death of their second child, an illness that partially paralyzed Almanzo, and a house fire left the couple physically, emotionally, and financially broken. With their young daughter, they retreated to Minnesota to live with Almanzo’s parents for a time while they recovered. They tried a stint in Florida (the humidity didn’t agree with them), returned to DeSmet briefly, and then bought a farm in what would be their final home of Mansfield, Missouri. It was on Rocky Ridge Farm that Laura wrote her books. She was 65 when she sold the first one, and 75 when the last in the series came out. Almanzo passed away in 1949 at the age of 92, and Laura died three days past her 90th birthday. The books' success allowed the Wilders to finally enjoy financial security during their last years. 


  1. What a charming and fantastic post! Sadly, I did not ace the quiz. Many of my answers were influenced by the books and TV, not Laura's real life.

    This show was such a huge part of my growing up years, and I loved the books. My favorite was Farmer Boy!

  2. Thanks, Susie. the post turned out to be more work than I expected (maybe because I kept adding questions), but it was a lot of fun too. Glad you enjoyed it.

    Now you can dazzle friends tomorrow with Laura Ingalls Wilder trivia.

  3. This is charming, CJ, and I love the pics. Sadly, I was working on galleys all today and just now remembered to check here. Going to share now...

  4. It's all right, Anita. Tomorrow's the actual birthday anyway. I just started the party early.

  5. Wonderful post and so sweet! My dream is to go to all the real life locations in Laura's life AND the Lewis and Clark expedition.

  6. Thanks, Deb. Turns out I've been close to all the places she lived (except maybe the Missouri one), but I was a kid then and didn't realize until years later how close I'd been. Have you been to the Almanzo Wilder Farm in NY?

  7. Very interesting! I LOVED the Little House series when I was a kid - and as Debra will attest, I used to stay up past my bedtime reading the books - by the light of my electric blanket controller!

    1. Electric blanket light? Haha. I love it. I wish I'd thought of that!

    2. I did this too and thought it ruined my eyesight, but it's really b/c I have astygmatism. My grandchildren now have reading lamps on their beds. KIDS THESE DAYS!!

  8. This is fascinating. I love the multiple-choice questions.

    Well done!

    I wish I had a copy of the set of Little House books that was in my school library when I was growing up. I have a set now that has the same illustrations on the paper covers, but they're not printed on the actual hardback covers like the ones from my school were. I miss them.

    1. You mean the print was actually on the cover itself, not on a book jacket? I have one from our library sitting next to me, and the book jacket (which is wrapped in clear plastic and taped on) has the illustration, but when I peek under it, the book is plain.

      I don't remember what was in my school library. A friend and I managed to cobble together most of the set using our allowance money and summer job money. (Back in the dark ages, we kids did farm work in the summer.) We each had half and then we'd pass them back and forth.

    2. Yes, the actual hard book cover had the illustrations printed on them. I always thought they were beautiful. Never saw them anywhere else.

      Hmmm, I tried to find a photo of what I'm talking about on the internet, but I'm not seeing it. If I remember right, the illustration on the hard cover was in a box on the front and the rest of the cover was fabric-y. Then the outside dust cover looks just like what you mostly see now.

      I saw one like it years ago online, but it was just one volume (Farmer Boy) and very expensive. I'll keep looking. I loved those books. :D

  9. CJ this is a fantastic post. Thank you for sharing!

  10. I'm late to the party, but that was fun. Being a bigger fan of the show than the books, I understandably got a lot of the answers wrong. LOL.


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