My First MOOC: On Laura Ingalls Wilder & Her Works

LIW A writer's lifeLike so many young girls over the past 80 years or so, I was completely enamored as a child with the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I always felt the books were extra-specially mine, as both the character and the author are my namesake and I was born and raised in Kansas. When people have asked me what I enjoyed so much about them, I have often said that I loved reading about how people lived and made things in the 19th century. I still do attribute my love of hand sewing, patchwork, pickling, and so forth to my reading of these books (though in reality, it is probably the influence of my mother, a crafting whiz) as well as my fascination with the prairie and the wide open skies of the west.

When my son was very small–gee, only four!–I read him the Little House series out loud while he quietly played with Legos. Looking back, he was definitely too young, but I think I enjoyed immersing myself back in these books and my childhood as much as he could not comprehend. From an adult viewpoint, I saw a number of things in the books that both disturbed and puzzled me such as the depictions of native Americans and how the books have added to the romantic view of westward expansion. I also saw the arc of the series in a new light, from Laura’s pioneer childhood to her coming of age in a newly settled Western town in the later books.

I am not sure how I stumbled on a MOOC course being offered last fall by Pamela Smith Hill, a writer and scholar of LIW and her books, offered through the University of Missouri outreach. Her book, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, was required reading for the class.  The class spent several weeks reading and discussing LIW’s later life, her source material and authorship of the books, the possible influence and contribution of her daughter and writer Rose Wilder Lane on the books, and the climate of publishing children’s books in the early 20th century. Four of LIW’s books were also assigned and analyzed during the class in order of publication: Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy, Little House on the Prairie, and On the Banks of Plum Creek. I reread the latter two for the class, plus Hill’s book.Little House on the Prairie

The course addressed some of those topics which I had casually observed while re-reading to my son such as why the Ingalls may have chosen to settle on land known to belong to the tribes and what the political/historical circumstances were that made them leave; why LIW skipped some episodes in her books like Mary’s illness, the birth and death of her brother Freddie (birth of any kind is omitted); and how the books were consciously fictionalized from both LIW’s memories and family research. Much time was spent on how much Rose Wilder Lane did or did not have a hand in the writing of the books. Hill is protective of LIW’s authorship but illuminates the heavy editorial skills Lane brought to the books, not to mention her direct theft of some of LIW’s source material without her mother’s permission or knowledge. Interesting stuff! I have a very new and much more complex view of the books, though, happily, they are not “spoiled” for me by the study.

A part two of the course covering the later books will start next spring which I am very much looking forward to, particularly now that I can see in the books Wilder’s development as an author and her full realization of her topic, themes, and the direction of the characters.

On the Banks of Plum Creek

Illustrated by Garth Williams. My favorite cover!

If you are at all interested in LIW books or scholarship, there is a very good essay by Caroline Fraser entitled Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Wolves on the politicization of LIW and her work that was published in the Los Angeles Times review of books in 2012.

Of course, I would also recommend Pamela Smith Hill’s book as well and note that she had full access to LIW and RWL’s papers, diaries, and other documents to write her book. In fact, LIW’s first, grittier manuscript, Pioneer Girl, which was the source material for the later series and some of RWL’s books has just been published, heavily annotated by Hill. This is at the top of my Christmas wish list!

Laura Ingall’s Wilder: A Writer’s Life by Pamela Smith Hill
digital copy
South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2007

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder; illustrated by Garth Williams
tattered and beloved personal copy
First Harper Trophy printing, 1971
text copyright, 1935

On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder; illustrated by Garth Williams
tattered and beloved personal copy
First Harper Trophy printing, 1971
text copyright, 1937

2 thoughts on “My First MOOC: On Laura Ingalls Wilder & Her Works

  1. okayread says:

    In 2010 a writer by the name of Wendy McClure publisher a book called “The Wilder Life” She reread the books’ did some research and then decided to do all things “Little House On The Prairie”. She visited homesteads, festivals, museums, all over the country. She does have some funny insights and perhaps this book just might interest you.. Center point Publishing.


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