In 1932, when Laura Ingalls Wilder’s debut children’s book, Little House in the Big Woods, first hit bookstores, the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression—a time of hardship, disappointment, and poverty. It was a time when something as impractical as a children’s story should have received little to no attention from a nation of people struggling to survive.
As a result of the difficulties of everyday existence, past dreams of promise and prosperity faded into the background of American life, and escaping the stark realities of the present became hard. Remarkably, however, something about the tales Mrs. A. J. Wilder tells in her children’s books made them immensely popular among her contemporary readers. This “something” also makes her works true classics, enabling them to stand the test of time and become the sort of stories that would continue to receive the love and attention of readers for generations to come. By many standards, the tales in Wilder’s series should have been ignored in her own time and should still be obsolete today. Yet, defying circumstance, the Little House books remain some of the most defining works of American literature.
Curious to explore this “something” that has made Wilder’s stories into such timeless tales, the Memorial Society here in De Smet recently contacted two scholars of Wilder’s life and books to get their educated perspective on the elements of the literature of Little House that have made them so prominent and influential among works of American literature.
The first scholar was Dr. Dedra Birzer,* lecturer in history at Hillsdale College. Dr. Birzer teaches a class on Wilder’s literature at Hillsdale College and specializes in the history of the American West and the intersections of fiction and history. The second was Pamela Smith Hill,** editor of Laura’s autobiography, Pioneer Girl, and author of the Wilder biography entitled Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life. She has also taught writing and literature classes at universities in Oregon, Washington, and Colorado.
One of the things discussed with these scholars was the question of the books’ initial appeal to Wilder’s contemporary readers. As mentioned earlier, the Great Depression was not a time when children’s books should have been given much attention at all. Hill observes, however, that perhaps it was the themes of these books that made them so perfect for that generation of readers.
“[The books’] themes,” she said, “—optimism in the face of adversity, the virtues of hard work, the triumph of family over poverty, growth and change—were especially timely and relevant to young readers of that generation.” She noted that Wilder’s attention to the hardships and difficulties of pioneer life especially made these stories stand out. Her honest approach to the tough aspects of her history brought about what Hill calls a “new realism” in historical fiction. Hill explains, “She didn’t shy away from unpleasant realities…. Her novels broke through the established literary conventions of the period.”
Birzer looked at this issue from another angle. “By 1937,” Birzer recounts, “Almanzo Wilder had purchased the largest mailbox allowed by the U.S. Postal Service to have enough space for the copious amount of fan letters Wilder received.” Wilder’s fan mail included the correspondence of both children and parents. Birzer recalls something that Laura said in one of her letters: “I have gotten the idea that children like old fashioned stories.” (This quote comes from page 60 of the recently released book The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited and annotated by William Anderson. You can find this book at our online store.)
Something about the “olden days” gripped the attention of the youngest among Wilder’s generation. Perhaps the stories of old times gone by just happened to strike at certain chords in the hearts of those kids. Yet, as Birzer noted, these stories did not just appeal to the kids of Wilder’s time—they appealed to the parents as well. According to Birzer, “Parents wrote to Wilder of the similarities in her stories with their own parents.” She summed up the universal appeal of the books, saying that “Wilder’s books resonated with children, who wanted to know what childhood was like on the frontier, as well as with adults, for whom such stories were not all that removed.”
As both Hill and Birzer observed, Wilder’s Little House books were tales for her time, well-suited to the cultural moment and to the people of that time, giving readers a refreshing glimpse of days past as well as offering them hope for the present.
Yet, the value in these books did not pass with the cultural moment and with Wilder’s contemporaries. Rather, something about her literature continues to make the books valuable to the cultural moment of today. Come back next time for more of Hill’s and Birzer’s discussion on the literature of Little House and the significance it holds for modern readers.
* Dr. Dedra McDonald Birzer is a professional historian who specializes in the history of the American West and the intersections of fiction and history. She is a lecturer in history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, where she teaches an honors course on the Literary Genius of Laura Ingalls Wilder and courses in the history of the American West, the history of the American Family, and Latin American History. She is the mother of 6 and wife of historian and author Bradley Birzer. She is writing a book on twentieth century women who were public intellectuals, centered on Rose Wilder Lane and her cohort of writer friends, such as Dorothy Thompson. She has published a wide range of articles and book reviews as well.
** Pamela Smith Hill is editor of the New York Times bestseller Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the author of Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life. She is also the author of three award-winning young adult novels. Ms. Hill has taught writing and literature classes at universities in Oregon, Washington, and Colorado. Her popular massive open online course on Laura Ingalls Wilder, offered through Missouri State University, has reached 10,000 students around the world. Her books have been recognized by the Junior Library Guild, the Oregon Book Awards, Western Writers of America, Women Writing the West, the New York Public Library, the National Indie Excellence Committee, and the Mark Twain Award Committee. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she continues to teach and write.