Laura Ingalls Wilder, Her Wild Daughter Rose, and the Little House with a Long Shadow

Chris —  August 4, 2009

The values vision set forth by the Little House books is one worth showing our children.  But, as adults who live in the long shadow of the little house, we should probably also know something about the trajectory of the stories.  This might spare us from unduly romanticizing small living on the big prairie of modernity.  And, it might help us raise the right questions about the Little House series (Philippians 1:9-11).

I especially wonder about a deficient doctrine of the church, and, “yes,” I remember that Ma was excited to go to church.

Your thoughts?


Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.

The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees.  As far as  man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods.  There were no houses. . .

So, begins Little House in the Big Woods.  I listened to my mother read it, plowed through it myself in my elementary years (though I liked Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone better), and have read it to children.  I’ve recommended it as a pastor.  Still do.

(Sadly, I watched the television series in which Melissa Gilbert played Laura and Little Joe played Pa.  I view any admission of having watched television as a sad one).

Given my investment in the Little House series, I was interested to read Judith Thurman’s article, “Wilder Women: The Mother and Daughter Behind the Little House stories,” in The New Yorker.  The article focuses on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s complex relationship with her daughter Rose.  I found myself reflecting on the influence of the Little House books on evangelicals.

Here is my question.  Those of us who were spoon fed the Little House books could easily list virtues the books teach: the importance of the traditional family, loving discipline, hard work, and perseverance.  But, I wonder how much we have ever critiqued the series.  How explicit is the Gospel, for instance?  What do we have to say about the restlessness of Pa?  How developed is the doctrine of the church in the series?  And, what part does a deficient doctrine of the church play in the direction things took for Laura’s daughter?  If we tell our children the Ingalls saga, should we also tell our children the Wilder saga of Rose? 

Whether or not you interact with my question.  Judith Thurman’s essay, “Wilder Women,” is worth reading.  It would be best to click through on that link.  But, if you insist on excerpts, it begins:

In April of 1932, an unlikely literary débutante published her first book. Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder was a matron of sixty-five, neat and tiny—about four feet eleven—who was known as Bessie to her husband, Almanzo, and as Mama Bess to her daughter, Rose. The family lived at Rocky Ridge, a farm in the Ozarks, near Mansfield, Missouri, where Wilder raised chickens and tended an apple orchard. She also enjoyed meetings of her embroidery circle, and of the Justamere Club, a study group that she helped found. Readers of The Missouri Ruralist knew her as Mrs. A. J. Wilder, the author of a biweekly column. Her sensible opinions on housekeeping, marriage, husbandry, country life, and, more rarely, on politics and patriotism were expressed in a plain style, with an occasional ecstatic flourish inspired by her love for “the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.” A work ethic inherited from her Puritan forebears, which exalted labor and self-improvement not merely for their material rewards but as moral values, was, she believed, the key to happiness. Mrs. Wilder, however, wasn’t entirely happy with her part-time career, or with her obscurity. In 1930, she sat down with a supply of sharpened pencils—she didn’t type—to write something more ambitious: an autobiography.

Regarding Laura’s daughter Rose:

The transformation of a barefoot Cinderella from the Ozarks into a stylish cosmopolite who acquired several languages, enjoyed smoking and fornication, and dined at La Rotonde when she wasn’t motoring around Europe in her Model T is, like the Little House books themselves, an American saga. Rose’s published writing was sensationalist, if not trashy, but her letters and her conversation were prized for their acerbic sophistication by a diverse circle of friends which included Dorothy Thompson, a leading journalist of the day; Floyd Dell, the editor, with Max Eastman, of The Masses; Ahmet Zogu, who became King Zog of Albania; and Herbert Hoover, despite the fact that he had apparently tried to suppress an embarrassing hagiography that Rose and a collaborator had cobbled together in 1920.

And concludes,

Last June, Anita Clair Fellman, a professor emerita of history at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Virginia, published “Little House, Long Shadow,” a survey of the Wilders’ “core” beliefs, and of their influence on American political culture. Two streams of conservatism, she argues—not in themselves inherently compatible—converge in the series. One is Lane’s libertarianism, and the other is Wilder’s image of a poster family for Republican “value voters”: a devoted couple of Christian patriots and their unspoiled children; the father a heroic provider and benign disciplinarian, the mother a pious homemaker and an example of feminine self-sacrifice. (In that respect, Rose considered herself an abject failure. “My life has been arid and sterile,” she wrote, “because I have been a human being instead of a woman.”)

Fellman concludes, “The popularity of the Little House books . . . helped create a constituency for politicians like Reagan who sought to unsettle the so-called liberal consensus established by New Deal politics.” Considering the outcome of the November election, and the present debacle of laissez-faire capitalism, that popularity may have peaked. On the other hand, it may not have. Hard times whet the appetite for survival stories.

Click here to read the whole thing.

HT: Challies

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28 responses to Laura Ingalls Wilder, Her Wild Daughter Rose, and the Little House with a Long Shadow

  1. I too have been a fan of the Little House series since childhood. I have never viewed it as overtly Christian, however. It appears as though church was something a moral person attended, and it was a social outlet. It is also mentioned that the Ingalls girls heard Bible stories and memorized verses while growing up.

    Probably the most overtly Christian passage (that I have found) is from “Little Town on the Prairie” where Laura and Mary walk, discussing the goodness of God. “Everyone knows that God is good. But it seemed to Laura then that Mary must be sure of it in some special way.”

    One thing I feel the need to work carefully through with my own children is the overt bigotry, particularly toward American Indians, that is found throughout. (Not only Indians–Pa and some of the townspeople appear in blackface as “darkies” for the entertainment society at one point.)

  2. Alice, have you ever, though, gotten the sense that sometimes Christians have presented the Little House as an idyllic scenario?

  3. Chris–yes, definitely. Sometimes when we like books or shows because we perceive them as wholesome, family-oriented, and moral, then that’s translated into them being Christian–without pausing to search for reality behind what’s presented. (Current day example: Jon/Kate/8). As stated in Christianity Today, “We evangelicals are easily impressed.”

    That’s why I think articles, such as the one you linked to in the New Yorker, are so helpful. The Little House books began as memoirs and were massaged by Rose Lane into children’s books. I read one account where Laura put in a story about her cousin Charley (remember the boy who got stung by the bees?) attempting to molest her and her threatening him with the shotgun. Rose told her, “If you put that in, it’s no longer a children’s book.”

    I think the Little House books are wonderful literature and also provide valuable insight on American pioneer life. But as Christians, I believe it’s important to take off the rose-colored glasses and try to see them as clearly as we can (you could have another post on the Anne of Green Gables series or the Louisa May Alcott books!).

  4. Chris, I’m right with you on the “idyllic scenario” issue. A preacher I respect once said that he thought Little House books (and worse, the TV show) could be quite dangerous for children, giving them a sentimentalized view of love and life.

    Of course, it depends on how parents are reading them to their children, and I am certain that Alice is a model of helping hers think about issues in the books rightly!

    Good to run into you, Alice, in another corner of the blogsphere! 🙂

  5. Scott is my friend; he’s biased. (But, thank you!)

    On a side note, I think the books have to be separated from the TV show. To borrow a quote from Roger Ebert (about the Dukes of Hazzard, but it can apply here), “Yes, it is still another TV program I have never ever seen. As this list grows, it provides more and more clues about why I am so smart and cheerful.” 🙂

  6. I grew up with the Little House books. I am the fourth of five children, and we didn’t get a television until I was about 12 (I often regret that we got one, even though it opened up the world of sports to me). We sat together many evenings as Mom read through the Little House books. So the books are very important to me. I have a 3 1/2 year old daughter, and I can’t wait until she’s ready for me to read the series to her. For me and my siblings it brings back great memories. Twenty-five years ago we all traveled together to the Wilder museums, one summer to Rocky Ridge and another one to DeSmet, South Dakota.

    My parents were also explicitly Biblical in their thinking, and we were very involved in church. For me (and I suspect for my siblings), the books were very important, and yet I never thought they should guide our thinking. They were moral people but probably in a way that made it hard for them to see their need for Jesus. As a kid I was always confused about Rose and why she didn’t turn out well, as my mother would occasionally mention.

    I think too many Christian parents might jump on this series as THE series for their children because they seem idyliic in a way that can be inviting–the idea that I can create a place for my family where the hard things of the world can be avoided. And I think too many Christians, myself included, can get lost in the difference between morality and moralism, and miss Jesus in the process.

    And for the record, I’ve only seen the show a couple of times in reruns, and when I run across someone who says they love Little House and have only seen the tv show, I tell them they have no idea what Little House really is.

  7. Perhaps I’m missing the point you’re trying to make, but I don’t look for the Gospel or the doctrine of the church in “Little House” but then I don’t look for them in Shakespeare or Twain or Louis L’Amour either. Why would I? In a systematic theology I’d expect to find it, but in otherwise positive entertainment, that’s not what I’m looking for. Are you suggesting that people have improperly elevated “Little House” to a level that requires such…or is your complaint something else?

  8. Watchman, you may find this article. In it Ryken interacts with how he believes the Gospel is present in Shakespeare.

    We definitely should look for redemptive themes in entertainment and how a movie interacts with it. Movies like Pretty Woman or Titanic preach their own gospel and people are shaped by them, perhaps, especially if they aren’t alert to the values being communicated.

    Yes, I think that a times the Little House world has been elevated in ways that are unbalanced.

  9. I’ve read many, many books to my children. Nearly every day of my kids life-I’ve read a book to one of my three. So, we’ve been through all of the classic children’s books. Seriously, the “Little House” books are the best when it comes to overall writing style, description and beauty. Granted, you won’t find Jesus-but many, many, character lessons were taught as we plowed through each book. The description about American life in the period Wilder writes about, I use as an American history teacher in a secondary school. Might I recommend the Long Winter. I’d have to say I was breathless as we observed the Wilder’s surviving a scary Winter in the Dakotas. I honestly had never really learned about the sad life of Rose, but our lives have been toughed by the Wilder’s and I’ll want to read them to my grandchildren when the time comes.

  10. may I make that touched by the Wilder’s instead

  11. That is so wonderful that you have read to your children. I agree with you about the beauty of the books. I enjoyed both the beginning and the end of The Little House in the Big Woods. And, I also am a fan of Mr. Edwards when he comes for Christmas. I think the books should continue to be read!

  12. I currently hold an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. One of the things a writer must decide is what information to share and what not to share. Many born again writers pen stories that appear as good moral stories and nothing more. Many Christian memoirists don’t choose to divulge their deepest beliefs. Just because a writer does not include a scene of repentance or a scene of “how to be born again” does not make that writer out of touch with Christ. In the same way, just because a writer tells a great moral story, even with strong allusions to biblical truth, does not necessarily mean they know Christ. The problem for me is that I see Christians expect that if a fellow believer is in the arts that they will write, sing, perform in a blatantly Christian manner and nothing else. In other words, Christians allow Christians in other professions to sell cars without a sign that designates them as “Christian car salespeople”, they allow Christians to be doctors without posting a sign saying “Christian Pysician.” However, when a Christian is in the arts, they are condemned, scrutinized, and judged if they don’t carry out their craft in the Christian (only) Market.

    The idea of Christian literature–or Christian bookstores for that matter–is relatively new. The Christian presses, in most cases, have very limiting criteria in order to be published. Quite frankly, I’m appalled at the rows and rows of “Christian” romances these stores carry. The writing quality is low; most of the stories are predictable, formulated. That’s because the criteria of what is allowed is so limited; the bar for writing style is set so LOW, embarrassingly low.

    Now, I’ve said all that to get to this. It bothers me that Christians pick and chip away critically at any type of good literature that isn’t blatantly Christian. This discourages Christian writers who would love to publish in a Christian market, but have deviated from the formulated Amish-girl-falls-in-love-with-bad-boy-leads-him-to-Christ-everybody-churns-butter-and-all-live-happily-ever-after-amen type of books being published in the Christian market. The following writers are all born-again Christians, but if they were to submit their work today to a Christian publisher, they would most likely not get published: Flannery O’Conner; Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. And while some may extol the writings of Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens and C.S. Lewis has nobody examined why they have not been excluded from the Christian cannon? Seriously, has nobody considered the content of pagan symbolism in the Chronicles of Narnia and his other fantasy work? And yet we revere his work based on his blatant Christian writing in other works–the only reason his work graces Christian bookstore shelves. Has nobody considered the fact that Tolstoy took both his wife and his wife’s mother as lovers (causing the latter to attempt suicide)? What about the famous author of “A Christmas Carol” who ran off with an actress (young enough to be his daughter) when he tired of the wife of his youth?

    What I’m trying to say is this: why are we soooooo harsh on artists when we don’t scrutinize the Christian (or just moral) doctor, lawyer, etc.? I have a theory and a hunch. The greatest thing that will lead your child to the throne of God will be this: the example you set in your child’s life. And, even then, your child has free will. Every parent who has an adult child knows this.

    Furthermore, I don’t know if L.I.W.was a “true” Christian or a good moral person or a fraud or a bad parent. But I do know that there are several passages that would lead me to believe that it was something more than just midwestern-do-gooder-morality. For instance a close reading of By the Shores of Silver Lake, chapter 23 talks about Brother Alden leading them in a prayer (on their knees, which is a position modern Christians seem above) and asking God to forgive them and help them to do what is right. In context, with a careful reading of the entire chapter, one will see that Laura was struggling with having to teach school to help Mary go to college. But after the prayer, she is at peace. She describes herself as being “hot dry, dusty grass, parching in drought, and the quietness [read it in context, the quietness is a result of the prayer] was a cool and gentle rain falling on her.” She goes on to say that this prayer strengthened her and helped her be glad to do the right thing. Before we are so quick to judge, I’d like to point out that I know very few adults, let alone children, who would put aside their plans to help anyone, except maybe for a two week mission trip that is both fun, entertainment and some sort of help. In addition to this scene, take the scene in The Long Winter, where although almost starved and worn out by the continuous blizzards, the Ingalls family decides to sing (remember this scene takes place BEFORE the Wilder boys return with the wheat that will save the town. To put the scene in context, Pa is suddenly angry at the storm and stands up and curses it. Then, he decides instead to sing). What exactly are they singing (refer to Chapter 28, Four Days Blizzard)? They are singing hymns of praise! The first song references Paul and Silas being bound in jail. What a fitting song for a situation where there is seemingly no hope. And look at the reference to one of the hymns “After a moment, Pa sang again, and the stately measures were suited to the thankfulness they were all feeling.” He then proceeds to lead them in a chorus of “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised.” You see, he wasn’t having a ho-down. He was actually doing spiritual warfare, praising God in a horrible situation. How many Christians do that when they are truly down to their LAST meal of wheat?

    Lastly, I’d like to say two things. First, let’s not judge the Ingalls too terribly. They lived in the 1800s. Unlike modern Christianese, they didn’t have three Christian radios to choose from, an endless supply of sermons on CD to build them up, a twenty-four hour prayer line, a Christian bookstore, the Bible in four different versions, including lexicon and the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek. They had one Bible, an occasional service (how many of us would be faithful to keep Sunday holy by ourselves and attempt to have at-home services?), they had hymns–preachers were RARE, usually covering several towns. They didn’t get to hash over who had the “correct” doctrine. They had ONE church! The last thing I’d like to say is beware of anyone who writes about somebody else’s life (especially after they are dead and can’t defend or amend anything they’ve said and written). If we were to believe everything written about other writes then we’d have to believe that Shakespeare was gay and so was Jesus. Writers write from a perspective, an opinion and in a market that they know what will sell. They filter out what they want you to know. For instance, if Rose Wilder Lane repented and got saved, you’d never read it in the New Yorker…it wouldn’t be published. Yes, your kids are impressionable and maybe the Little House books are “idealistic.” But look at the world they live in, it’s pretty close to Sodom city now. A little idealism never hurt anyone. It’s your life that will really speak to them. Just my opinion. –Sarah Langdon, a writer and a Christian.

  13. Sarah,

    Thanks for your input. Yes, I have to a person putting comments in for the first time. It’s a guard against Spam. And, I was preaching this morning.

    Good thoughts on literature and Christian writing. As I said previously, I am a fan of the Little House books. I’ve read them and read aloud from them. I agree also with you about Dostoyevsky, O’Connor, etc.

    Thanks for your thoughtful input and informed contribution to the discussion.


  14. Thanks for bearing with a long-winded, opinionated writer. I found your blog while researching the New York ledgers (the source of the “continued stories” mentioned in By the Shores of Silver Lake). Somehow your blog showed up on my search! I’ve enjoyed reading other entries in your blog as well. Nonfiction—including memoir, autobiography, biography and ghostwriting—is my specialty area (although the books are classified fiction) so I always enjoy reading any pertinent research that has been done on L.I.W. Although, I have to say that even professors are strongly divided on what really happened with Rose, Laura and the whole publishing / editing collaboration. I guess that just adds to the mystery!

  15. Your blog inspired me to do some more research. I thought you might find the following information interesting. The Ingalls were primarily involved in the American Home Missionary Society churches set up by Reverend Alden. The churches were most closely identified with Congregationalism–a church consisting of a local body that believed in an adult conversion experience, as opposed to being born into the church. From what I researched, it seems that due to the preeminence placed upon local leadership (as opposed to a more universal government), Congregational Churches tend to differ a bit in what they places as a priority their belief systems. I think it’s safe to say that the Congregation Church of yesterday does not mirror the modern church of today. Although, I have to admit, I have limited knowledge on the history of church doctrine in America and even on some of the present doctrine governing many churches. However, I did find that Reverend Alden, a traveling missionary to western pioneers, set up such a Walnut Grove church firstly in the home of Robert Kennedy. During the first service two adults were baptized, Charles and Caroline Ingalls. (Resources–Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Donald Zochert and various Congregational Church websites googling both history and doctrinal beliefs).

  16. Sarah, you really need to write about this! This is great stuff.

    I can attest to the fact that the “congregational” church of today doesn’t necessarily reflect the church of yesterday. My church is independent of any other group and evangelical.

    I was still thinking about your comment last evening — which is unusual since my brain is so fried on Sunday after preaching. If my post was expressing any concern, it wasn’t with the Little House books. Indeed, I can say that what I read about Rose whether it is true or not did not make a big difference for me. My concern rather would be with a naive reading of the Little House books and people who think, “If only we lived on the prairie like Laura and Mary.”

    I can’t remember if I said this earlier, but I certainly agree with you about the Christian romance genre.

  17. I guess I didn’t take away from the original blog post that either Chris or the New Yorker article were chipping at the Ingalls, particularly for not being “Christian enough” in the Little House books. Rather, that sometimes Christians put on rose-colored glasses with regard to certain elements in culture because they are moral and “good” and adopt them as for sure-and-certain evangelical.

    I helped a fellow professor of my aunt’s at SUNY Buffalo with his dissertation on Laura when I was 7 or 8 years old (I made Susan–Laura’s corncob doll!) and have kept up the love for the Little House books ever since. I would never denigrate them or keep them from my kids. I love to study the blurring of lines between fiction and autobiography too. In any case, it can never hurt and can only help to do as much research as we can rather than just blindly embracing something because we perceive it as Christian.

    On a sidenote–Madeline L’Engle was a self-professed “Christian agnostic” and C.S. Lewis did interweave much ancient myth and medievalism into his Narnia books, but the strong Christian themes present as well as his well-documented conversion and theological writings I think are what put his books on the shelves of Christian stores (that, and that they are great stories). I guess that’s a whole other conversation though. 🙂

  18. Oh, yeah. I agree that C.S. Lewis is a great writer! I love his books. It has just puzzled me that some Christians accept his books, but categorize other writer’s who employ such tactics as pagan. The information I got on Madeleine L’Engle is actually from a book she wrote half on the craft of writing and half as autobiographical. In the book she goes into quite a bit of detail on her Christian beliefs and how publishers tried to get her to tone down her Christian allegory. At one point in the book she stated that publishers accused her of pushing her Christianity and her beliefs on others. The book is actually available through a Christian publisher and sold at Christian bookstores. I’ll see if I can figure out the name of it.

  19. The book is Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life. I found it on Amazon. I’m fairly certain it is the same book, but possibly a reprint of an earlier edition. Here’s the link to the book. If you scroll down you can read some of the reviews.

  20. “Conversion for me was not a Damascus Road experience. I slowly moved into an intellectual acceptance of what my intuition had always known . . . In the evening of life we shall be judged on love, and not one of us is going to come off very well, and were it not for my absolute faith in the loving forgiveness of my Lord I could not call on him to come.”–Madeleine L’Engle

  21. I can’t say I have been a big reader of the books, but of course have watched many shows about the books so I have a question? The character of Isaish Edwards the neighbor and friend who is so much fun-what happened to him in real life? In a recent presentation it had him going off by himself to parts unknown to explore.. Is this the truth? Did they never meet again? What became of this man? This is just plain curiosity. I have done some research trying to fine the answer, but have come up short. I found your web and thought why not..Regards, Cynthia Marsh

  22. Hi Pastor. I am a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan and researched on the web about her family. I like how some of the real information is passed down to today’s times. I am also fascinated about Rose Wilder Lane and her being a Libertarian. It’s funny because I wonder how Laura would view the world as it is today even with the split process of conservative valuses and progressive policies ^ how Libertarians are completely different on a whole other scale. In just being a Christian and then how Our Country has changed upside down through fundamentally and politcally …. I also think that Mother / Daughter adult relationships have grown away from maybe Laura being close to her mother and maybe Rose finding a way to be close with her own mom. Maybe trying to write the books with her but the sufferage was too painful for Laura to comprehend with her daughter. Unfortunately caused unhappiness in times of trouble…. I find this prevalant in MANY mom / daughter relationships…. even with my own mom….any thoughts???

  23. Hi Jennifer. Thanks for commenting. Family relationships are so complicated. And so formative. I suppose that the writing did shape them in some way. But I suppose it is hard to say.

  24. Angela Waring July 28, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    I loved the Little House books as a child and still do. I’m also a very devoted Evangelical Christian and mother. I’ve read them with my daughter. I never saw them as Christian books even as a child I felt it was a very watered down version of Christianity even then. I saw them as the story of a young girls life on the prairie and the simplicity of life. I don’t think it’s harmful to read these books to our children it reminds us of our history and really my own family’s history. I never taught my daughter that they were Christian books. I feel the same way about Anne of green gables books.

  25. Angela, that is very well said on your part. My approach is very much the same, and my analysis of the series would be the same as yours. Likewise, I so appreciated Anne of Green Gables. There are so many themes to consider in either series.

  26. Chris thank you for your consensus. I think we always need to be careful especially when our children are concerned that we never take the word of any man over Gods word. Even when reading “Christian” books. I have read a few that I could see that someone might be lead astray into a false doctrine under the guise of Christianity. Not to offend anyone but there is a lot of prosperity gospel going around. So, I hope we are all very careful when reading any book written by man. It’s ok to read them just not with the authority Gods word should take in our lives. We need to teach our children to be discerning.

  27. Both the books and TV series need to be read and viewed as entertainment only while put in proper perspective. I don’t think “Blackface” in the books and Hester Sue in the series matches up, do you ? Same with their feelings about native Americans. Remember the one with “Spotted Eagle” ? So much of the series is nothing but bogus misconstrued as facts and mixed with the warm & fuzzies of Hollywood. Both very entertaining with huge grains of salt.

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