Little House, Big Fans: These People Really, Really Love Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series have become a symbol of the American pioneer spirit. More than a century later, the books are a lifestyle for her superfans.
Midway through the three-hour-long Avengers: Endgame, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) meets his dead father, Howard (John Slattery). Their encounter, facilitated by time travel and infinity stones, is one of the mega-movie’s most poignant moments. But all Chris Czajka could think about was the movie’s reference to Little House on the Prairie. Howard says his wife wants to name their unborn son Almanzo, the name of author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s husband.
“I choked in the theater and wanted to laugh out loud. No one else laughed,” Czajka tells Refinery29. Czajka is used to catching the Little House references the uninitiated miss. He became obsessed with the books and show as a kid in the '70s and early '80s, and his devotion never waned.
Granted, most people who spent their childhood in the United States have encountered Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her eight children’s books (published in the 1930s and '40s) have sold 60 million copies and spurred an entire chunk of the American culture pie: a beloved TV series, pageants, plays, musicals, cookbooks, and more.
But Czajka didn’t leave Wilder behind in childhood. After losing track of how many times he read Wilder's novels, Czajka’s inner monologue is peppered with Ma Ingalls’ advice. Each year on Wilder’s birthday, he throws a themed brunch. He’s one of a devoted subset of the population who will smile knowingly after hearing the subtle insult in the quote, “It wasn’t Susan’s fault she was only a corn-cob,” also known as Little House’s equivalent to, “You’re doing amazing, sweetie.”
Call them them Laurarati, call them Bonnetheads, call them what you will: They are devoted to keeping the spirit of Laura Ingalls Wilder alive, and for two weekends in July 2019, such Laura fans descended upon two small towns in Wisconsin and Minnesota to do so.
Much like people go to Sedona to stand over portals and soak up the good energy, Wilder fans head to the places where Wilder once stood for an experience of profound connectivity. “It opened everything up to me. You can feel her there,” journalist Sandra Hume tells Refinery29 of her first trip to De Smet, SD.
Museums have sprung up on the homesteads where the Ingalls clan once nested — even if the family’s “big woods” have been replaced by soybean fields. “If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you can go to Universal; you can’t go to Hogwarts. If you’re a Little House fan, you can stand in the places where the books took place. It’s goosebump-inducing,” Czajka says.
So in July 2019, both contingents of the fandom — the Little House on the Prairie book series and TV show devotees — had their own celebrations on Laura’s turf.
Over at the Little House TV 45th anniversary in Walnut Grove, MN, fans lined up to meet cast members, participated in look-alike contests, and gathered in crowds 3,000-strong to watch an annual pageant unfold, where the book’s events are performed in an outdoor theater. Alison Arngrim, who played the loathsome Nellie, spawned a veritable fandom of her own with the memoir Confessions of a Prairie Bitch and popular stand-up routines.
The Walnut Grove of the massively popular Little House show, which ran from 1974 to 1983 on NBC and is still in syndication, was actually filmed in California — but fans make the trek three hours south from Minneapolis for the real thing. Other devoted fans, like my neighbor, a middle-aged man who unwinds every afternoon with an episode of Little House, visit Walnut Grove in reruns.
There were fewer people in Wilder-inspired clothing at the fifth-ever Laurapalooza conference, held in a Wisconsin town not far from Pepin, where Wilder was born — but still a good number. “Never try to make a dress out of plaid,” recommends attendee Sarah Uthoff to anyone who wants to take up her hobby of sewing 19th-century clothing.
Laurapalooza, an academic conference founded in 2009 and created by the nonprofit Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association (LIWLRA), is a pilgrimage for hardcore book devotees. At the conference, university scholars and hobby historians alike present Wilder-related findings, with topics ranging from fashion in Wilder’s novels, prairie droughts, and Pa’s family tree to thornier topics like Native American inclusion in the books.
While the TV show and book fans share an intense affection for Ingalls Wilder, sometimes it seems that’s all they share. “There are people who are serious aficionados of the books who want nothing to do with the TV series, who think it was an abomination because it didn’t go word-for-word with what Laura wrote. But you can’t do anything to help those people,” Dean Butler, who played Almanzo on the show, tells Refinery29 while on his odyssey to Walnut Grove.
For Laurapalooza attendees, Wilder’s life and literary oeuvre offer a playground for academic discovery. “Some people have no interest in learning about Laura’s real life. But the people I know can't ever get enough of learning about the real Laura,” Hume, the former LIWLRA president who founded the conference in 2009, says.
At Laurapalooza, historian Melanie Stringer says, it’s a relief to be around like-minded people. “You get to be yourself. Nobody’s going to judge you because you like something the rest of the world thinks is for children.”
Though most of the Laurarati first encountered Wilder’s books as children, they were hooked for life for different reasons. When Stringer’s family was in the throes of economic hardship, Laura’s struggles on the frontier in the Little House books offered connection in an otherwise socially isolating experience. “She knows what it’s like to be poor. Ma being very resourceful was reminiscent of my mother, who was babysitting before and after school and working in healthcare at the weekends,” Stringer says.
For Hume, the Little House books were the “literary mac ‘n’ cheese” of her childhood — pure comfort reading. Barbara Mayes Boustead, the current president of LIWLRA, found a role model in Laura’s disposition: “A bit rebellious, but trying to do the right thing.”
While the Wilder community can be divided between “book” and “TV show” fans, many, like Czajka, loved both — for the same reasons.
“Wilder romanticizes what could be a hard life and turns it into a life of hope, celebration, and simple pleasures, which is very touching. The books have a sweetness about them that is unmistakable and undeniable. [Creator] Michael Landon was able to capture the spirit of the books and infuse it into the series,” Butler says.
When read as children, Wilder’s books are a portal to a different era, where work was hard, play was delightfully unsupervised, and family was a candle in a cavernous wilderness. As adults, the books open up a wormhole of questions — and that’s largely what devotees explore at Laurapalooza. Who was the real Laura Ingalls Wilder?
It’s a complicated question. “There are multiple layers of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” Czajka explains. “There’s Laura, the woman who lived from 1867 to 1957. There’s Laura, the character in the books, who’s a somewhat sanitized and fictionalized version of the real woman. There’s the Laura of the show [played by] Melissa Gilbert. Then, there’s the myth, the legend, the cultural Laura — she symbolizes an entire era of American history.”
"Wilder romanticizes what could be a hard life and turns it into a life of hope, celebration, and simple pleasures, which is very touching."
After years as a homesteader, teacher, and farming columnist (among other jobs), Wilder finally became a writer in her early 60s. Her memoir, Pioneer Girl, was uniformly rejected by publishers, but she had more luck refashioning the story into a children’s book, written in third-person recollection and edited by her daughter. The first of eight novels, Little House in the Big Woods, came out in 1932.
While heavily drawing on her itinerant upbringing, her children’s books are ultimately fiction. As Wilder herself said, “All I have told is true but it is not the whole truth.” For example, Wilder made her family seem far more isolated than they actually were. During the famed Long Winter, which devastated South Dakota in 1880-1881 and left the Ingalls stuck in their De Smet house, the family had house guests who don’t appear in the books. Further, Wilder’s books never mention her younger brother, Charles Frederick, who died as an infant. Wilder’s memoir Pioneer Girl, hidden until it was published in 2014, gives a darker look at those years of hardship, battling poverty, locusts, and her father’s often unsound decisions.
In the space between what Wilder wrote and what (and how) she lived, the academics at Laurapalooza see a chance to do their own scholarship — and, of course, compete in cutthroat Laura Ingalls Wilder trivia.
The past 20 years have seen a spike in interest in books about Wilder’s real life. For his decades of books about Wilder, William Anderson has earned "celebrity" status at Laurapalooza. The Wilder flurry pierced the mainstream in 2018, when Caroline Frasier’s exhaustive and illuminating biography Prairie Fires won the Pulitzer.
Around the same time that Laura scholarship was serious getting serious in the late ’90s, the Laura community was knitting together. “The internet was a big boom. There got to be a way to find each other,” Uthoff, who runs a Laura-themed podcast called Trundlebed Tales, tells Refinery29. Prior to the internet, the only connective tissue was a subscription to De Smet homesite’s newsletter called Laura Lore.
With the internet came listservs, blogs, and Facebook groups where people like Uthoff could share their fan expressions and findings. The LIWLRA's site Beyond Little House hosts read-a-longs where Wilder devotees take turn “recapping” chapters and providing historical commentary based on their own area of expertise.
Eventually, so involved did she become in the fandom, Uthoff built a research and production building on her Iowa farmland where she films living history videos, records her podcast, and houses her merch. Uthoff’s collection dates back to the wagon her grandfather made as a girl and now include dolls, pins, and stuffed-animal versions of Laura’s bulldog from every homestead. “It’s kind of sad. I look on eBay now and see a lot of the stuff I already have,” Uthoff says, laughing.
While collecting merch is a temptation that nearly all Wilder fans contend with, the fandom’s signature trait is intellectual curiosity. It’s not just about reading Wilder’s books. It’s about the projects Wilder’s books drive you to undertake.
For Linda Halpin, fandom emerges in the intricate quilting patterns inspired by Wilder’s tales. For Stringer, it’s giving interactive lectures as Wilder in locations around the country. For Hume, who grew up on the East Coast and moved out West when she married a farmer, it’s writing a series of Wilder-themed travelogues. “I feel like I’m a part of the books,” Hume explains.
Other fan expressions include crafting, genealogy, or, in Czajka’s case, consulting on musicals and reality TV shows recreating frontier life. Even actor Dean Butler is part of the fandom: He actively studies the Wilder family history, produced two Wilder-themed documentaries, and owns a small record label called Pa's Fiddle Recordings, and advocated for the rehabilitation of the real Almanzo’s childhood home in New York.
“People’s passion about Laura Ingalls Wilder is expressed in so many different ways,”Boustead tells Refinery29. “To each individual it’s custom to how they encounter and understand her story.” Uthoff compares the fandom to pop culture: “It’s like an episode of The Simpsons. There are all these different levels. The more you watch, the more you see.”
Boustead’s particular passion emerges in the intersection between the books and meteorology, her academic area of expertise. She’s spent a decade studying the Wilder’s experiences in the hard winter that affected South Dakota from fall 1880 to spring 1881, chronicled in her book The Long Winter.
With Laurapalooza, all these varied fans come together to debate minute details of Wilder’s books and have geeky fun. The convention is attended by conservatives and liberals, men and women, historians and librarians and crafters, people from Japan and people who work in the Ingalls’ museums on the prairie, people in their 30s and people in their 70s. “It brings a swath of America together. What Laura gives is common ground,” says Boustead. “We come from many different perspectives and parts of the country.”
At Laurapalooza, attendees put their differences aside and sing karaoke. Unity is possible, so long as no one brings up Rose Wilder, Laura’s daughter who had a hand in editing her books — and everyone has an opinion on how much of a hand. “People have strong opinions about Rose,” Hume laughs. Did Rose, who was also a writer, lightly edit her mother’s manuscripts? Or did she go so far as to write them herself?
So unity is possible, so long as certain hotspot topics (read: Rose) aren’t goaded. But if certain “taboo” parts in Wilder’s books aren’t addressed, then do they have a future in a changing America?
Nearly 100 years after Little House in the Big Woods' publication, Wilder’s books have irrevocably shaped Americans’ understanding of their own history. Her novels conjure up a tight-knit family singing songs to light up the dark woods, working hard to overcome hardships, sacrifice and long skirts. The name “Laura Ingalls Wilder” has become a shorthand for the past — even when it’s an inaccurate association. Once, Uthoff was visiting a living history site in Virginia’s Jamestown settlement and overheard a father point to an old-fashioned stove and say it was just like Laura Ingalls Wilder.
“He was 200 years and 2,000 miles off, but that is the template for American history people have in their heads. A lot of people, when they picture history, they picture what they know about Laura,” Uthoff says.
Wilder wrote one of the enduring American myths of the American West — but, as she admitted, she didn’t tell the whole truth. “There were horrible things happening just off stage,” Czajka says of the books. To name a few of those horrible things: slavery, the Civil War, forced migration of American Indians, and violence between settlers and indigenous populations.
Wilder usually doesn’t mention those topics. But when she does, her remarks are cringeworthy to 21st-century ears. Famously, a character named Mrs. Scott says, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Ma, who is scarred from her proximity to the wars with the Osage tribe in Minnesota, doesn’t disagree. Wilder and her family are essentially squatters on Native American land. At one point, Laura questions Pa’s decision to move onto restricted land — but Pa brushes her questions aside. And so Wilder effectively brushes the question aside, too.
Already, Wilder’s legacy has been questioned because of her racist depiction of American Indian and Black characters. Whereas the book’s white characters are nuanced, Indian characters are reduced to dangerous adversaries or noble savages. As a result, in 2018, Wilder’s name was stripped from a prestigious children’s literature award. Some school districts have questioned Wilder's place on the curriculum, cutting off the main source to the Wilder-fandom’s perpetuation.
The fan community, which is predominantly white and female, is torn about how to address their favorite books’ new status as “problematic.”
“People have grown up with Laura,” Stringer says, explaining why some LIW fans become defensive when she refuses to sugarcoat the racism in Wilder's work. “So when they hear the name, this is someone they care about. It almost feels like you’re attacking their family. They’re like, ‘But she’s so wonderful. How can you say these bad things about her?’ It’s not that she was trying to be a bad person, so much as perhaps she was sheltered and ignorant, because lots of people were.”
Wilder wrote the Little House books through the then-contemporary lens of the 1930s, a time of Jim Crow and boarding schools trying to wipe American Indians of their traditions. She might not have broken out of the paradigm, but readers today can.
“When you read the stories as an adult, you start to ask yourself questions. I’m ashamed and embarrassed that I didn’t pay closer attention much sooner in my lifetime,” Stringer says.
So, part of Stringer’s expression as a fan has become figuring Wilder in for the modern era. At this year’s Laurapalooza, Stringer gave a lecture about “a path to Native American inclusion” in Wilder’s books.
Depending on how they’re introduced to young readers, Little House books can either be a springboard for discussion about the United States’ past or the perpetuation of a popular, but myopic, understanding of frontier life.
The uncomfortable reckoning has been a “powder keg” among the fan community, says Czajka. But with the community’s many historical studies, it was headed toward this re-reading of Wilder’s legacy. The Little House books are often thought of as a passage to a simpler time. With dialogue, performances, and an endearing inauthenticity that feel very '70s-'80s today, the show is especially rosy. Fans, Butler says, are drawn to the show’s depiction of a “less complicated” life.
Actually, it wasn’t a simpler time — just a different one. “I’m not so sure it was simpler. I’m not sure it was less complicated,” Butler says. “It was a bloody and wild history.”
In her books, Wilder sang a sanitized song of America. Going forward, it might be harder to hum along.