Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Laura Inglalls Wilder: A biography

Laura Inglalls Wilder: A biography

William Anderson
For ages 10 and up
HarperCollins, 1992   ISBN: 0060201133

It is hard to imagine the world of books that we had when we were children without the thinking about the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Through her we learned about a time in American history when great change took place, when people were on the move. In 1862 the Homestead Act encouraged thousands of people to move west, to settle on a 160 acre piece of land that the government would give to them if they lived on it for five years. Certainly this drew Laura's father out of the "Big Woods" of Wisconsin and out onto the open prairie. But there was more to it than that.

From the time when she was very young, Laura, her sisters, her mother "Ma", and her father "Pa" seemed to be almost always moving from place to place, seeking the right spot to put down roots. Pa Ingalls had an 'itch' to be moving which was hard on his wife who wanted a home, security, and the comforts of a 'civilized' life. Ma wanted her girls to have a school to go to. She also wanted a church to visit on Sundays, and neighbors to call on. To make matters worse, bad luck dogged the family. Every time they seemed to find the right spot and had created a pleasant home for themselves, something dreadful would happen. In Kansas the government forced them to move off Indian lands; in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, grasshoppers ate their crops.

After the disappointment of Walnut Grove the family then spent a year in Burr Oak, Iowa working in a hotel among other things. Always Pa and Laura felt the west pulling on their feet and hearts. For these two town life had no attraction. They wanted the open spaces and the big prairie sky. So, back the family went to Walnut Grove where the grasshoppers were now gone. All went well for a while and then tragedy struck the family again. After getting sick, Mary, the eldest Ingalls daughter, became blind. Now the family had a new challenge and Laura had a new job; she had to be her sister's eyes.

Pa's itch to go west had been working on him for a while and when he was offered a job as a bookkeeper for the railroad company store he was eager to accept. Pa saw this as a great opportunity to get one of the free homestead claims that were being offered by the government in the Dakota Territory. Ma was not keen to make yet another move, especially now that Mary was blind. She agreed but with the promise from Pa that this would be the last time the family would have to start all over again in a new place.

It was in this way that the Ingalls family came to be the first permanent settlers near what came to be called the township of De Smet. Pa found a claim nearby that he liked the look of and Ma finally had a home again. Pa kept his word and the family was not moved ever again.

This was not the case for Laura. Laura grew up and flourished in De Smet. She met and married a young farmer called Almanzo Wilder and it seemed as if their future would be a happy one. Almanzo, or "Manly" as everyone came to call him, built a little house for Laura and then a baby, Rose, was born. Then a series of tragedy's occurred. First a hail storm destroyed their crop of wheat. Then a fire destroyed part of their hay crop and the barn. After this Laura and Manly got diphtheria. Manly was especially sick and even after he was well again he walked with a pronounced limp for the rest of his life. Drought hit the Dakota's very hard in 1889 and the Wilders lost their crops as a result. They also lost something more precious. Their second child, a baby boy, died after living only a short while. It was soon after this that the Wilder home caught fire and burned to the ground. Very little was saved.

Not surprisingly Laura and Manly decided, after trying to live in a few other places for short periods of time, that they needed to have a proper and fresh start somewhere new. Once again setting up a covered wagon, the Wilders loaded up all they owned and left behind Laura's family to begin a new life in Missouri, in the Ozarks. It was in this place, much later in life, and only after their farm had well and truly taken off, that Laura began to write her famous books.

A recognized authority on Laura Ingalls Wilder, William Anderson has written a wonderful book about an extraordinary woman. He shows us how unique and determined a person Laura Ingalls Wilder was. We learn what the 'real' Laura did and how much hardship she had to suffer before she finally got to a place where she was financially secure. We also discover that Laura had a strong dose of that very same itch that drove Pa west, that made him seek open skies and lands where there were very few other people. We also discover how often Laura put up with situations that made her very unhappy so that she could take care of those she loved. Laura took on jobs that she disliked to earn money that was desperately needed; she sacrificed a great deal for her family again and again.

What is truly wonderful for us is that Laura was encouraged by her daughter Rose to write. William Anderson particularly emphasizes Rose's role in her mother's journey toward becoming a book author. Rose guided and supported her mother as Laura wrote book after book in what would become the series of "Little House" books. We all owe Rose a great deal it would seem, for without her it is possible that we might not have these wonderful stories in our lives.

In his colorful and descriptive prose William Anderson shows us Laura Ingalls Wilder as she was and as we close his book we can be grateful that he chose to tell he story with such compassion, humor, and devotion.