I became a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan at a pretty young age when I was first given the book On The Banks of Plum Creek when I was about seven or eight. Immediately after finishing it, I couldn’t wait to read the other books in the series and continued to re-read them year after year. When I was about twelve, I came across the book Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder on a bookshelf, and immediately I had to have it.
If you’ve read all of the Little House books, you only know half the story. It’s apparent that there was much more to Laura’s life after The First Four Years as she was in her early twenties at the end of that book and she lived to be ninety. It may be less apparent that there were years that her novels skipped.
Donald Zochert has put together one of the earliest attempts at a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, covering the periods she wrote about in her published books as well as what she didn’t write about. He does this by reviewing her original, unedited manuscript written from margin to margin on lined paper longhand which has now been preserved at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in Iowa. In addition, he reviewed records of the time, such as the Census records to learn about exactly where Laura’s family lived as well as the people who lived around her. In addition, he combed through newspaper archives and old church records to try and piece together her life. Finally, he interviewed people who knew her, and in one case children of someone Laura wrote about, to learn if the same stories were passed down through their family.
What he comes out with in Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder is a very readable book by merging all of this together. Instead of just a listing of facts and places, he cobbles together a narrative of her life. Though not as compelling as her first-hand accounts, it does provide a look into her life.
It also brings up differences in her account and in what actually happened. Some things might have been done deliberately, such as the changing of the name of her nemesis Nellie Owens to the more familiar Nellie Oleson. This might have been done due to the way Laura wrote about her as it paints her character in a negative light. There are other differences as well. Zochert, in his second appendix, attributes these to just the way Laura remembered her life. How many of us can accurately remember every event in our lives, even those that seemed to be very memorable at the time?
Zochert traces the path of Laura’s life. He starts out by researching where Charles Ingalls and Caroline Quiner lived before their paths crossed and they married. He then follows the path of their lives from the “Big Woods” of Wisconsin to the prairie of Kansas, back to Wisconsin, on into Minnesota, to a small town in Iowa, back to a small town in Minnesota, to South Dakota while the railroad between east and west was being set, to Laura and Almanzo meeting and their various moves, and finally to their long-time home in Missouri.
People who haven’t read anything about Laura’s life outside of her Little House books might notice a few unfamiliar places there. One thing I was shocked to learn was that the producers of the Little House on the Prairie television show got some things right in Laura’s life. I never knew before I read Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder that she did actually have a younger brother, Freddie, who died at nine months old. I thought it was all made up for the show. For Laura, I guess the experience was too painful to write about as this time period was when they moved to Burr Oak, Iowa after two disastrous planting seasons for her Pa.
It’s interesting to read all of the details of Laura’s life that are missed in the books. Zochert has done a terrific job combining story with fact and it’s very readable because of that. I enjoyed learning all of the details I missed, and the hardships the family goes through should be an inspiration to anyone.
If there’s one thing I found lacking, it’s that so much of Laura’s life in the years after she and Almanzo moved to Missouri is glossed over. I wish more had been written about their life together as that is something that is missed when I look at her life. It is nice to read about how much the letters from children meant to Laura in her later years. After the books were published she received so many letters and enjoyed reading them.
Zochert provides three appendixes to his work. The first is a list of important dates in Laura’s life. This includes births, deaths, moves, etc. The second addresses the differences between Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House books as I mentioned before. The third is a listing of all the “Little Houses” Laura wrote about and their actual location as well as a bit about what was there at the time of the book’s publication. This is perhaps the most dated as many of the sites have been restored to some degree since then. See http://lauraingallswilder.com/homesites.asp for better information.
One major complaint I have is the cover art for the book. It was obviously trying to capitalize on the popular television show at the time and depicted Laura’s family pretty much as they were shown on the show rather than how they appeared in real life based on the photographs.
There are also pictures included with the book near the center. The pictures were reprinted and faded with time. Digital restorations have been done since then and there are better copies of these photos available online.
Overall, this is a terrific biography of her life. It could have been better, but there are other books out there that now cover the topics I found missing here.