Wilder’s “Little House” Books: Tales for Her Time

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.

book signing

Laura Ingalls Wilder at a book signing in Springfield, Missouri, in the year 1952.

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.

Great-Grandma “Patty” and Her Kids

Last time, we learned that the great-grandmother of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Martha Morse, actually shared a birthday with her famous great-granddaughter, the author of the beloved Little House books. We also learned some things about her family, the location of her birth, and even that she likely had the nickname “Patty.” This time, we’re going to explore some facts about Martha’s children and the later part of her life.

chicadee

The chickadee is the state bird of Masachussetts, the home state of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s great-grandparents Martha Morse Tucker and Joseph Tucker.

If you’ve read the series Little House: The Charlotte Years, you’ll remember that, in these books, Charlotte has four siblings: Lewis, Lydia, Thomas, and Mary. According to my recent research, Martha may have had even more children than just those five. One family tree on Ancestry.com suggests that she actually had a total of ten children of which Charlotte was number 6. However, I have only found records confirming that six of those children actually existed, and these children are Lewis L., Lydia V., Thomas J., Charlotte Wallis, Caroline C., and Mary W. I could find no birth records for these children, which means that we can’t be certain about their birthdays. However, death records tell us the approximate years of their births, and each child  has at least one record that connects them to parents with the names “Joseph and Martha Tucker,” confirming that they are, in fact, the children of our very own Joseph and Patty.

Although it’s hard to tell if we’re looking at the right Tuckers in every case since “Tucker” is a pretty common name, there are marriage records that suggest that each of these six Tuckers married and that every one of them, except for Lydia, had children. One of Charlotte’s children was given the name Caroline Lake. Caroline Lake would one day become Laura’s “Ma.” Interestingly enough, her name actually comes from Charlotte’s sister Caroline, who married a Mr. Lake.

Sadly, Martha’s husband Joseph passed away around the age of 60 in Roxbury, Massachusetts. The date of his death is listed as June 12, 1837 and, elsewhere, as June 17 of the same year. Regardless of the exact day, his death would have left 58-year-old Martha alone. Apparently, however, she was able to find comfort in the refuge offered to her by her children. In an 1850 Roxbury census, Martha Tucker, age 73, is said to be living in the household of a 38-year-old “Nathaniel Jenkins,” a jeweler, and his 36-year-old wife “Mary Jenkins.” This Mary is  Martha’s daughter, Mary W. Tucker, who married Mr. Jenkins in 1835. During this time in her daughter’s house, Martha would have been able to spend quality time with her three Jenkins grandsons, George, Charles, and Alfred, who were 13, 6, and 3 in 1850.

In April of 1859, Martha lost another family member. This time, it was her daughter Mary, the very daughter who had opened up her home to her widowed mother. Mary was only 45 when she died. After Mary’s death, rather than staying on with her son-in-law and the three boys, Martha moved in with her other daughter, Lydia. Lydia V. had married a “James A. Morse of Roxbury” in 1851. (Considering that Lydia’s husband shares Martha’s maiden name, there’s a chance that James was some distant relation of Martha’s.) In the 1860 census of Roxbury, Martha Tucker is listed as living with Lydia and James, who are both in their forties at this time and have no children listed as living in their household.

Martha only spent around two or three years in Lydia’s house, however. According to Roxbury death records, she passed away on October 12, 1862, around the age of 84. The site of her grave is unknown.

Check back in a few more weeks to learn about one of Martha’s children, Charlotte Tucker, the woman who would one day become the grandmother of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

What We Know about Martha Morse

In the last post, I spent some time debunking some of the myths about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s great-grandmother, Martha Morse, and attempted to draw a distinction between the real Martha and the fictional Martha of the Little House books. This time, I’m going to tell you some stuff that we actually do know about Martha’s life.

I guess the best place to begin our story of Martha is at the beginning… with Martha’s birth.

mayflower

The mayflower is the state flower of Massachusetts, the historical birthplace of Martha Morse.

Martha was born on February 7, 1779, in Walpole, Massachusetts, sharing a birthday with her famous great-granddaughter, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her parents were Martha and Jathenal Morse. A Boston marriage account states that “Jethniel Morse of Boston” married “Martha Hayden of Brainbree” in January 1772. I could not find a record of Martha Hayden’s birth, but I did find a record of the birth of a “Jethanil Morse” in the lists of Walpole births. He was born on June 25, 1746. Assuming that this “Jethanil” is the same as Martha Morse’s father, “Jathenal,” then we know that Martha’s father had twelve siblings. All thirteen of these Morse children were named after people from the Bible. Some of them had some more obscure Bible names, such as Ichabod, Bennoni, and Mehetabel. Just imagine how many nieces and nephews Jathenal had because of all of these siblings… and how many cousins Martha Morse would have had too! I bet family get-togethers were pretty crazy.

Before Martha’s birth, Jathenal and Martha Hayden had at least one other child while they were in Walpole. His name was George Morse, and his birthday was January 18, 1778. He would have been Martha’s older brother by about eleven months. Although I could find no other children born to Martha and Jathenal in the Walpole birth records, our Martha may have had other siblings born elsewhere if she and her family moved around. This is very likely, in fact, because Jathenal and Martha Hayden were not married in Walpole, and the Walpole death records do not include an account of Jathenal or Martha Hayden’s death. This means that they may have moved in the years after George and Martha were born.

The next big thing we know about Martha is that she married a man named Joseph Tucker. Although even the date of her wedding is uncertain, we do know that she married a Tucker, thanks to her death records. We also know her husband’s first name because, in the death records of her children, the name of the father is listed as “Joseph.”

During my search to find the Joseph Tucker, I looked mainly in three different places. The first place was Walpole, since that is Martha’s birthplace. When I looked here, I found a Joseph Tucker born to Joseph and Abigail Tucker on October 18, 1779. If this is the right Joseph Tucker, then he would have had five older siblings, all girls. Poor little Joseph.

The other two towns I looked in were Roxbury and Norton, Massachusetts. I looked in Roxbury because that is the place of Martha’s death, and a Joseph Tucker also dies in Roxbury around the right period of time. I was unable to find a Joseph Tucker born in Roxbury during the right years. Then I looked in the Norton records because the death record of one of Martha’s children lists the father’s birthplace as Norton. This information could likely be incorrect, especially since the father’s name isn’t even listed in this death record. However, I decided to give it a shot. In those birth records, I found another close fit and strong possibility for the Joseph Tucker. This guy was born on December 4, 1777, to Amos and Ziporah Tucker. He was the third of four kids, and he had an older brother and sister and one younger sister.

In a record of Roxbury marriages, I found an account of a marriage between Joseph Tucker “of Roxbury” and Patty Morse “of Walpole” on December 29, 1799. Since no Patty Morses appear in the Walpole birth records and since Martha herself was from Walpole, there’s a chance that this “Patty” is actually Martha Morse herself. In fact, as Dorla, a fellow Ancestry.com user, explained to me, the name “Patty” was often used as a nickname for “Martha.” She referred me to a site of nicknames from the 18th and 19th centuries to confirm. This fact makes it even more likely that “Patty Morse” is the woman we’re looking for.

Check in next time to hear what we know about Joseph and Martha’s children and the end of Martha’s life.

The Search for the Real Martha Morse

Growing up, the Little House books were some of my favorites. I loved hearing about the adventures that Laura had as a child and the beautiful places she got to visit. I loved the stories her Pa would tell and the stories that she herself got to live as a pioneer girl.

Not long after I finished the series, my mom got her hands on some of those rare copies of the other Little House books: the Martha Years, the Charlotte Years, the Caroline Years, and the Rose Years. I gobbled those up books too, delighted by the interesting stories of they told of Laura’s great-grandma, grandmother, ma, and daughter, respectively.

The stories of Martha Morse were especially interesting to me since, according to these books, Martha was born and grew up in Scotland. However, as I recently discovered, research has shown that the real Martha Morse never even set foot in Scotland.

DSC_0649

The thistle is the national flower of Scotland, Martha Morse’s fictionalized birthplace.

As Melissa Wiley, the author of the Martha Years books, says, the books about Martha are historical fiction, not biography. The stories they tell of Martha Morse are based on an account of Martha that Grace Ingalls Dow, Laura’s youngest sister, shared in a letter. As Wiley explains, Grace wrote in this letter “that her great-grandmother, Martha Morse, was the daughter of a Scottish laird who married someone the family considered beneath her station.” That’s the only “fact” about Martha that Wiley had to work with. From there, she used her imagination and some research of life in Scotland during the late 1700s to formulate her delightful stories. It turns out, however, that the information Grace shared in her letter does not fit with the facts we find in historical records. The story that Grace told must have arisen in the imaginations of her her tale-loving family members.

Thanks to Wiley’s fun books, there’s a lot we know about the fictional Martha Morse and perhaps about the person that Laura and her sisters thought Martha was. But what about the real Martha Morse? What do we know about her?

In the following series of posts, I will be sharing the things that I have discovered in my recent research of Martha Morse and her daughter, Charlotte Tucker. As we explore these two relatively elusive characters of history, you’ll get a little more information about the background and childhood a slightly more well-known character of history, Caroline Lake Quiner, the girl who would one day become the mother of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge the work of all those curious individuals who have already compiled information about Martha’s life, making my search that much easier. Thank you specifically to Dorla Tam from Ancestry.com and John Bass for their help in answering my questions and pointing me to helpful resources.

Be sure to stick around! I’m positive that this adventure through history will be one worth having.

Almanzo: The Science of Horse-Training and Courtship

Last time, we discussed the story from Farmer Boy about Almanzo and the half-dollar. We explored the way that the lessons Almanzo learned through this episode would later influence his decision to venture out into the wintry Dakota prairies during the long winter of 1880 and 1881 to find the homesteader with the wheat. That very decision, however, also shows more of Almanzo’s qualities, including his perseverance and daring. These qualities of his first appear in the early tales of Almanzo.

Almanzo the Farmer

Almanzo driving his Morgan horses, Buck and Billy, at Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri

In Farmer Boy, young Almanzo spends a lot of time with his young oxen, Star and Bright. In one chapter, he even daringly decides to hitch his sled behind the young animals to have them pull him and his friends through the snow. The experiment is a disaster, and the boys end up in a heap in the snow. But that upset doesn’t cause Almanzo to quit training his team.

Much later in the book, Almanzo hitches his team to his own bobsled and successfully drives them while hauling wood. Well, he’s successful only until the team starts falling into ditches full of snow. Even though the going is tough, Almanzo continues to persevere through the snowy mess. We are reminded of this instance of Almanzo’s early perseverance when, in The Long Winter, he and Cap have to repeatedly dig their horses and sleds out of the deep snow on the way to the homesteader’s place to fetch the wheat for the rest of the town.

There’s another time later on in his life when Almanzo yet again perseveres through the cold and the snow. In These Happy Golden Years, Almanzo comes twelve miles through the cold week by week to bring the young Miss Laura Ingalls home from the Brewster school. And he continues to do this even when Laura tells him that she doesn’t want to drive with him anymore after she’s done with the term. When he continues to come pick her up and bring her home anyway, Laura tells him that she didn’t think he would come after what she had said. In response, Almanzo protests, “What do you take me for? … Do you think I’m the kind of a fellow that’d leave you out there at Brewster’s when you’re so homesick, just because there’s nothing in it for me?”

And, with this story, we come to probably the most defining aspect of Almanzo’s character: his gentleness and patience. Ever since he first began training his young team of oxen, Almanzo has known that teaching young, spirited animals to love and trust you won’t happen if you’re always angry, loud, and impatient. Rather, it calls for a certain quietness and slowness. From his first interaction with Laura to the moment he asks for her hand in marriage, Almanzo proceeds slowly and patiently, giving her time to learn that she can trust him and love him. Even though she doesn’t seem to think much of him at first, by the end of These Happy Golden Years, Laura is convinced that she and Almanzo “belong together.” Who knows if she ever would have realized that if Almanzo hadn’t known the importance of treading quietly.

So, there you have it. Through her incredible story-telling techniques, Laura the writer is able to successfully re-introduce her readers to Almanzo as a young man and make them confident that this young man is just a older version of the farmer boy whom we once knew and loved.

Almanzo: A Good Head on His Shoulders

If you were with us last time, you’ll remember talking about that moment in Farmer Boy when Almanzo decides that he wants to train horses and be a farmer. As I pointed out, his choice as a ten-year-old would help shape him into the young man we meet in the later books—the young homesteader in Dakota Territory.

Young Almanzo

Almanzo Wilder around age 28

This young homesteader has certain qualities about him that, in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing, set him apart from the other characters of those books. When someone starts talking about Almanzo Wilder as a young adult, two of the main stories that come to my mind are the story of the wheat and the bigger story of his courtship of Laura Ingalls. In these two stories alone, Laura the writer touches on the most admirable aspects of Almanzo’s character.

As we see in The Long Winter, when Almanzo sits and ponders how long his own seed wheat would be able to keep the rest of the town alive during the months of blizzards, this young man is extremely thoughtful and good with figures.  Also, his choice to set out with Cap Garland to find the homesteader with the wheat shows his perseverance and daring. Finally, Almanzo’s gentleness and patience becomes utterly clear in his courtship of Laura. Despite her initial uncertainty about him and her unpredictable and spirited nature, Almanzo quietly persists in pursuing her until, finally, he wins her over.

These qualities of Almanzo’s didn’t just come out of nowhere, though.  Let’s consider, for a moment, Almanzo’s thoughtfulness and his calculating, analytical mindset. If you think about it, he actually learned to think carefully about his resources when he was only a boy. That’s also when he learned how to work figures in his head.

One of the stories that most strongly shows Almanzo’s development in this area is the story of the half dollar that Laura tells in Farmer Boy. In this story, Almanzo asks his father for money so that he can buy lemonade. After hearing his father explain all of the hard work that goes into making one half dollar, however, Almanzo ultimately decides to buy a young pig with the money instead. This is how Almanzo first learns about investing. Getting lemonade with his money would have brought him instant gratification, but buying the pig allowed him to make a profit later.

It’s this same sort of thinking that helped him, during the long, hard winter, to not only see that selling his seed wheat to the town would likely prevent him from planting his crop in the spring but also to recognize that his own seed wheat wouldn’t be enough to feed the entire town for the months until the trains could make it back through with supplies.

His perseverance during the cold, treacherous journey with Cap didn’t come out of nowhere either. In fact, it seems that he’s always kind of had a habit of going on adventures like that.

Check back next time, and we’ll explore more of Almanzo’s snowy excursions.

Almanzo: Farmer Boy to Farmer Man

We first meet Almanzo Wilder in the second book of the Little House series, Farmer Boy. After a couple hundred pages with him, his baby oxen, and his longing after his father’s young colt, however, the book ends. We don’t see Almanzo again until Laura Ingalls Wilder briefly mentions him in her fifth book, By the Shores of Silver Lake. By this time, however, he’s no longer a boy living with his parents in New York. Now he’s a young man—a homesteader, braving the rough Dakota prairie with his older brother, Royal. According to Laura’s fiction, nearly ten years have passed by this time. This begs the question: is this young man the same character that we once knew as the 9-year-old farmer boy? Has Laura, as a writer, successfully tied in the young character with his older counterpart?

Wilder Siblings(2)

Almanzo and his sister Alice

Thanks to her literary genius, Laura certainly has accomplished this. Let me prove it to you.

As I’ve searched the books, I’ve come across some pretty strong thematic parallels between events from Farmer Boy and from the later books, including The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years. Through these parallels, Laura reminds us that Almanzo the young man is the same character we once met back in New York state.

The most obvious connection between Almanzo the boy and Almanzo the man is Almanzo’s very lifestyle. While Almanzo’s older brother Royal decides that he wants to be a storekeeper, Almanzo chooses to pursue the life of a farmer. At the end of Farmer Boy, he explicitly chooses this lifestyle over the life of a wheelwright’s apprentice. As Almanzo’s father says in the final pages of Farmer Boy, “[As a farmer, y]ou work hard, but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come. You’ll be free and independent, son, on a farm.” This is the life that Almanzo chooses when he says definitively, “I want a colt.” In response to this, Almanzo’s father gives him the colt Starlight to train, allowing Almanzo to start off his own career as an independent farming man.

Ten years later, we see that Almanzo has definitely been pursuing his childhood dream of being a farmer. Now, he has his own homestead, and he has continued to train horses—similarly to how he once trained the young oxen, Star and Bright and later the colt Starlight. In Little Town on the Prairie, the townspeople of De Smet even say that he has the “best team in the country.” When Pa Ingalls declares that “[Almanzo] has it coming to him…. That young man knows how to handle horses,” it becomes completely obvious to us readers that the young Almanzo of the early books has achieved his dream of becoming an independent farmer and horse trainer. This certainly is the same character we once met way back in Malone, New York.

His early training to become the independent, farming, and horse-taming type also led to a number of qualities in Almanzo’s young self that Laura would incorporate into the later books. And one of these qualities would play a big role in his courtship of the young Miss Laura Ingalls.

Come back later for more on the Almanzo of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series!