We could perhaps blame Ronald Reagan for the fact that Laura Ingalls Wilder isn’t better understood. In the 1970s, he told an interviewer that Little House on the Prairie, loosely inspired by one of her novels, was his favourite TV show. He used to well up watching its moralising tales about the homesteading Ingalls family, led by the often shirtless Pa (the star and producer Michael Landon). But the show was far removed from the focus of the eight original Little House novels, in which a girl called Laura recounted her life from childhood to marriage, witnessing the eviction of Native American tribes, the coming of the railroad and the agricultural destruction of the prairies that set in train the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl. In the 150th year of Wilder’s birth, I headed to her former farmhouse for the annual celebratory Wilder Day to try to assess the writer’s place in modern American identity.
There are Amish men in their horse-drawn buggies along the edge of the freeway as you drive to Mansfield, Missouri. It is still farming territory and according to the US census bureau, one of the 100 poorest towns in the US. In the visitors’ car park of Rocky Ridge Farm museum, Wilder’s fine stone house on a hill, there are large Mennonite family groups – the women in floral home-sewn maxi dresses, their hair in modest buns. This corner of the Ozarks is still defined by the culture of the white pioneer settlers who arrived 120 years ago.
When Wilder and her husband, Almanzo, moved here from South Dakota in 1894, she was still in her twenties. They had lost their original farm as a result of drought and crushing debt in the aftermath of the 1893 Great Panic – a banking crisis far worse than the 1929 Wall Street Crash. With a 100-dollar bill hidden in her writing box – all that they had left – she, not Almanzo, bought the land on which they built Rocky Ridge Farm; and it was here she wrote her novels, intertwining fact and fiction.
Since then the house has become a site of pilgrimage. Many visitors see Wilder as an all-American patriot of traditional values, while liberals claim her as a proto-feminist who refused to say “obey” in her wedding vows, and whose stories celebrated a dark-haired rebellious little girl who hated being “ladylike” and “good” like her angelic, passive sister Mary. There are Wilder sites of interest all over the Midwest, from Wisconsin to South Dakota; she wrote about real places and events,…