The Myths of Mary Ingalls

Last time, I rocked some of your worlds by debunking the Little House TV show myths about the Ingalls family’s adoption of Albert and the Cooper siblings.

This time, I’m going to take care of some myths that the TV show spread about the young adult life of Mary Ingalls.

mary

A photo of Mary Ingalls as a young adult.

#3 Adam Kendall

According to the TV show, Mary goes blind at the age of fifteen and attends a school for the blind in Iowa. Although this much is true about the historical Mary, the accuracy ends there. In the show, Mary eventually falls in love with her teacher at the blind school, Adam Kendall, and they marry when she is sixteen. In real life, however, Mary never fell in love with her teacher (as far as we know) and she never married. It goes without saying, but she also never moved to New York with her lawyer husband. She actually attended the school for the blind in Vinton, Iowa, for seven years between 1881 and 1889. After graduation, she returned to her parents’ home in De Smet, South Dakota, where she lived almost the entire rest of her life.

#4 The Walnut Grove School for the Blind

With all that being said, it’s important to emphasize that the historical Mary never actually helped found or teach in a school for the blind in Winoka or Walnut Grove. Thanks to her seven years of schooling in Vinton, however, Mary did become a very accomplished and educated young woman. The school for the blind allowed Mary to graduate with skills in needlework and beadwork and in playing the organ, to name a few. She could also read braille and raised type with her fingers.

#5 Baby Kendall

In the TV show, Mary becomes pregnant at least twice. The first time, she miscarries her baby boy. The second child is also a baby boy that they name “Adam Charles Holbrook Kendall.” Sadly, this baby dies in a fire that burns down the blind school in Walnut Grove. Because she never married and never helped found a school for the blind in Walnut Grove, Mary never experienced these tragedies. However, she also never experienced the joys of motherhood, even though she would have been able to spend time with Laura and Almanzo’s daughter when Rose was only a young child in De Smet.

“Little House” Myths

Here at the Memorial Society, we have visitors of all ages come from all over the country and even from across the globe. But the thing that really distinguishes one visitor from another is that visitor’s Little House “educational background.” Some of our visitors got all their facts from Laura’s original books, others researched the actual history of the Ingalls family, and still others are just familiar with the TV show. If you’re like me, you’ve dabbled in some combination of the three, and you have a strong appreciation for each of them.

We love all of our visitors, no matter what background they have, but I often feel bad for our visitors who only know the TV show. The Ingalls family history that all of us tour guides talk about here in De Smet is shockingly different from the history that people remember from the show. I always feel bad whenever I have to tell people that something from the TV show is not factual.

But that’s exactly what I’m going to do on this blog over the next few months: debunk the TV show myths so that all of you TV show fans are prepared to hear about the actual history when you make it out here to  visit our place.

Myth #1: Albert Ingalls

ingalls

A photo of the entire Ingalls family, taken circa 1894. (From left to right: Ma, Carrie, Laura, Pa, Grace, and Mary.)

I thought I should start with one of the most painful ones. Sadly, everyone’s favorite mischievous street urchin named Albert, who supposedly joined the Ingalls family while they were living in Winoka and later adopted when they moved back to Walnut Grove, is completely fictional. Charles and Caroline Ingalls did have a son at one point, however. He was born to Charles and Caroline in Walnut Grove, but he died when he was only nine months old. Charles Frederick or “Freddie,” as the family liked to call him, does appear in an early episode of Little House on the Prairie and does die as an infant. However, the historical Ingalls family never lived in a town called Winoka, and they never adopted a cute brown-eyed boy named Albert.

Myth #2: James and Cassandra

With all that being said about Albert, I guess I should just come right out and say it: the historical Ingalls family never adopted any children. And that includes the cute Cooper siblings, James* and Cassandra, whose parents die tragically in the TV show and whom the fictional Ingalls family adopts. The Ingalls parents only ever had five children: Mary, Laura, Caroline (Carrie), Charles Frederick (Freddie), and Grace. Only the four girls survived to adulthood.

Check back in the following months to learn about the other myths from the beloved Little House TV show.

*Fun fact! The actor who played the role of James Cooper Ingalls is Jason Bateman. Mr. Bateman continues to be a prolific actor today, appearing in television shows and movies such as Arrested Development, The Switch, Horrible Bosses, and Identity Thief. He even played the voice of the fox, Nick Wilde, in the recently released movie Zootopia.

 

 

Wilder’s “Little House” Books: Literary Genius

(A continuation of the previous blog post, “Wilder’s ‘Little House’ Books: Capturing Imaginations.”)

When Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books were first published, something about the stories she told made her books attractive to her contemporary readers. This “something” has continued to capture the imaginations of readers from all generations since then. As discussed in the last post in this series, this “something” that has made the books so attractive is likely the elements of truth and goodness in Wilder’s tales. At the same time, however, this sense of truth and goodness avoids the danger of becoming preachy thanks to the elements of beauty in Wilder’s storytelling. She tells her stories with sincerity, bringing them alive with her naturally engaging voice.

laura pic

Laura Ingalls Wilder as a young adult.

In a recent interview, Dr. Dedra Birzer of Hillsdale College noted Wilder’s intentions behind writing her series. Birzer acknowledged that, although Wilder did not realize the significance of what she was doing right away, she eventually came to recognize the extent of her mission as she continued to write more and more of her books. Birzer referred to a letter of Wilder’s that appears in the recently released Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder. In this letter, Wilder explains,

I began to think what a wonderful childhood I had had. How I had seen the whole frontier, the woods, the Indian country of the great plains, the frontier towns, the building of railroads in wild, unsettled country, homesteading and farmers coming in to take possession. I realized that I had seen and lived it all—all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers, and the towns. Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American History. (Selected Letters, page 60)

Her intention, therefore, became to preserve this period of history for future generations through the memories she shared in her children’s books. Pamela Smith Hill, editor of Wilder’s autobiography, also noted the historical influence of Wilder’s books, saying, “Wilder’s Little House books are built on a foundation of historical authenticity. They spring from the American experience—or at least, one aspect of the American experience. This makes her books especially compelling.”

Through her books, therefore, Wilder offers a sincere depiction of the era of American history from her childhood. Wilder does not simply relay history, however. Her skill as a writer and a storyteller keeps her tales from becoming trivial and makes them truly enduring. Birzer noted that “Wilder’s subject matter, childhood on the American frontier, had widespread appeal. But her skill as a writer made her books into classics of American literature.”

According to Birzer, Wilder largely inherited her storytelling skills from her father, whose stories “first inspired her move into Juvenile Literature, which barely existed in 1932 when Little House in the Big Woods was published.” Wilder’s influence as a storyteller points to her engaging style and unique voice as well as the other powerful literary elements of her books that make them stand out among other classics.

In her interview with the Memorial Society, Hill pointed out the elements that make Wilder’s voice especially unique. “Her style is deceptively simple yet lyrical,” Hill said. “It has power, grace, and emotional depth.  Wilder knew how to balance simplicity against beauty; her language brings a scene, a character, or a setting to life. But beyond that, Wilder’s narrative voice matures as Laura—and young readers themselves—grow and change.”

It is not just Wilder’s engaging voice that makes her stories so powerful, however. The characters she depicts are powerful as well. As Birzer asserted, “Wilder’s storytelling abilities are amplified by the compelling characters she creates, and by her talent for descriptive writing.” Through this “descriptive writing,” as Birzer went on to say, Wilder is able to “[draw] Laura and Mary, Pa and Ma in such vivid strokes that readers of all ages become immediately attached to the characters and really care what happens to them.”

Hill zeroes in on the character of Laura Ingallls in particular, calling her an “unforgettable main character.” According to Hill,

[Laura] is courageous, loyal, smart, strong, hardworking, and athletic. But Laura Ingalls is also flawed…. Laura’s flaws make her believable, genuine, and ultimately timeless. Generations of readers relate to her on a uniquely personal level. We discover something of ourselves in Laura Ingalls—our virtues and our vices.

With the character of Laura Ingalls, the more personal aspects of Wilder’s own voice find an outlet. Through this literary character, Wilder depicts her historical self, allowing readers to follow her childhood likeness through the experiences of a young girl on the American frontier. Readers see this growth as Laura’s voice develops from book to book. Hill says that “the Little House narrative voice, from Wilder’s perspective, had to change and evolve, but in a consistent believable way.” The sense of Laura’s growth in these books is so powerful because Wilder was able to maintain that consistency and believability. So, as Hill asserted, “[U]ltimately, Laura is always Laura, which makes the growth and change readers experience with her all the more believable. This is a rare artistic achievement, and another reason why Wilder’s books are American literary classics.”

Through the character of Laura and through Wilder’s beautiful narrative voice, readers get to experience and enjoy the truth and goodness of her stories without being turned off by preachiness or insincerity. These stories remind our fast-paced world of the beauty to be found in the simple things in life. They are timeless because they speak of the true human experience and point to the things in life that have lasting value. This beautiful glimpse of truth and beauty in Wilder’s stories was the “something” that set Wilder’s books apart in her own time and that continues to make the books so attractive to readers today.

“As you read my stories of long ago I hope you will remember that things truly worthwhile and that will give you happiness are the same now as they were then. It is not the things you have that make you happy. It is love and kindness and helping each other and just plain being good” (Laura Ingalls Wilder).

Wilder’s “Little House” Books: Capturing Imaginations

(A continuation of the previous blog post, “Wilder’s ‘Little House’ Books: Timeless Tales.”)

Despite the changing times and the changing culture of the past several decades since the initial publication of the Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of her life as a pioneer girl on the American frontier have continued to engage readers of all ages. The fact of their widespread popularity speaks to the intrinsic attractiveness of these books. They are not simply the passing fad of a cultural moment but rather enduring and endearing tales that have truly made a mark on history as a whole.

little oneAs suggested in the last post in this series, the reason for the books’ intrinsic value is the presence of truth and goodness within Wilder’s stories. They represent a very real and true aspect of human experience while also celebrating the good things of life.

Yet the real magic of Wilder’s stories appears not in the simple fact of the truth and goodness throughout these stories but in the way she tells the stories. This is also where the aspect of beauty comes in.

As Wilder biographer Pamela Smith Hill told the Memorial Society in a recent interview, “The genius of Wilder’s books—and all great children’s classics—is that they don’t set out to teach children about truth and goodness. They trust readers to make up their own minds about the characters and situations within their pages.” She went on to explain that, rather than simply “preaching,” Wilder’s books “tell compelling stories about compelling characters…. The Little House books will make young readers think.  And that’s what all great books—for young readers or adults—should do.”

In essence, Wilder’s goal in writing these stories was not to sermonize or pound a certain idea of truth or goodness into the heads of readers. The ultimate goal of these books was to tell a story—to paint a picture for history to enjoy. This story and this picture, not any potential “life lesson” that readers can reap from the tales, are what have captured imaginations for years since the first reader clapped eyes on the opening words of the series, “Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin…”

Dr. Dedra Birzer of Hillsdale College put it all quite well recently when she explained that Wilder’s books “represent profound larger truths about everything from family life to the values inculcated by hard frontier living.” She went on to say,

The books present essential, permanent truths about what it is to be human. Wilder is still popular because she appeals to the best of humanity. Readers recognize a humane soul speaking to a humane soul. There is goodness throughout the series, though it is not of a Pollyanna-ish sort. Rather, the Little House books reveal the goodness of life itself and the beauty found in daily activities and relationships as well as the prairies and plains of the American West. Wilder’s vivid writing continues to inspire readers to see the truth, goodness, and beauty in their own lives and in the natural and social worlds in which they live.

So, in a way, Wilder’s books communicate wisdom, but it is the kind of wisdom that is gentle and quiet. While still celebrating good and true things, the stories are imaginative. They are beautiful. And, as Hill said, they are compelling. These are the things that have made them endure across generations. This is why many kids today can still say that they love “old-fashioned things.” They may not realize what exactly they mean when they say that, but generally the thing underneath that attraction is their desire for the goodness and beauty of life. As long as some people in the world continue to love the sort of beauty that can be found in the simple things of everyday existence, these stories will continue to capture imaginations for generations to come.

In all the truth and goodness of her books, Wilder is able to escape the greatly dangerous element of “preachiness” that would otherwise have rendered her stories tactless and valueless. Avoiding this element requires a great level of talent as well as sincerity on the part of the author. Stay tuned for our next post in which we will address Hill’s and Birzer’s observations regarding Wilder’s genius ability to maintain the sense of gentle wisdom in her books.

Wilder’s “Little House” Books: Timeless Tales

(A continuation of the previous blog post, “Wilder’s ‘Little House’ Books: Tales for Her Time.”)

When the first of her Little House books hit the shelves in the 1930s, Laura Ingalls Wilder found herself in a cultural moment in which the everyday person should not have been interested in a children’s book. Despite the struggles of daily life during the Great Depression, however, the nation seemed to find something valuable in the stories Wilder told. There was something encouraging about the tales of pioneer determination in the face of adversity, and there was also something just plain attractive about the stories from the old times gone by.

readersThese tales that were so gripping to Wilder’s generation continued to grip readers for generations to come, suggesting that the popularity of the books was not solely due to the culture in the time of their publication but also to something intrinsically valuable about the books. In a recent consultation with Wilder scholars Dr. Dedra Birzer of Hillsdale College and Pamela Smith Hill, Birzer stated that “Wilder’s characters are just as compelling and her storytelling just as profound as they were in the 1930s.” Not only that, but the stories also hold incredible valuable to the study of American history. “This series,” Birzer said, “remains the major introduction to the American West and the frontier experience for readers throughout the world.”

Hill similarly observed the lastingly valuable nature of the Little House books. “Wilder’s themes,” she observed, “are timeless. Best of all, Wilder’s books offer engaging characters and stories that inspire young readers to explore the past, and then think about how it relates to their own lives—and our contemporary world.” As Birzer recalled, Wilder once observed that the children of her time seemed to “like old fashioned stories.” Perhaps the same can be said of many children from later generations as well.

Although a large majority of today’s youth seem too taken up by modern distractions such as technology to pay attention to anything as old fashioned as tales of covered wagons and log cabins, these stories still have the ability to capture the imagination of kids who spend time with Wilder’s books. They not only capture the imagination, though. Any average video game or TV show can do that to some extent. Rather than encouraging passive enjoyment, they inspire an active pursuit of the history of Laura’s times. Best of all, however, they lead to engagement with something that is true and good—true in that Wilder’s series depicts a real part of American history and of the human experience and good in that the stories give readers a glimpse of the lasting and important things in life.

While discussing the value of the Little House books when it comes to modern-day families, both Birzer and Hill took a moment to acknowledge the fact that these books are not simply for the little kids. Wilder’s series is the sort of literature that grows as the reader grows, leading to greater engagement and a greater understanding of the characters. According to Birzer, “For parents of young children, the first four books in particular, with their focus on Mary and Laura’s younger years, offer great read-aloud opportunities. Starting with By the Shores of Silver Lake, the Ingalls girls move into adolescence and more mature situations perhaps outside the understanding of young children.”

Not only are these books valuable to kids of all ages, but something about the books also makes them worth even re-reading as adults. The Little House books are not simply “cotton candy books” that taste good for a moment but have no “nutritional value.” Wilder’s books contain enough truth and depth that they can hardly keep from inspiring study and exploration. When read with new eyes, the simple stories reveal more value than ever before. Life enlightens the truths readers once overlooked as children, showing them that this thing they had simply once enjoyed as a kid is actually worth contemplating.

In all this attention to truth and goodness, however, Wilder’s books never fall into a preachy style. In fact, some of the occurrences of the books seem far from “good” but rather wreak of human imperfections and misunderstandings. What makes them so effective and so worthy of reading and re-reading, however, is the beautiful storytelling of Wilder’s books. The next post in this series will examine the elements and effects of Wilder’s storytelling. Check back soon to read more about the literary genius of Wilder’s Little House series.

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.