Movie Review:  This Was An Eye-Opener

Release date:  December 2020

Review, short version:  All thumbs up.

Review, long version:

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on American Masters’ Laura Ingalls Wilder:  Prairie to Page.

Laura Ingalls Wilder!  Author of the Little House books!  Hero of my childhood reading!

I devoured those books, all of them. 

Or at least, I thought I did.

Then I watched Prairie to Page, and realized my belief that I’d read all the Little House books was a myth.

Just like, as the film reveals, much of what Wilder wrote in her books.

There are nine Little House books:

Little House in the Big Woods
Farmer Boy
Little House of the Prairie
On the Banks of Plum Creek
By the Shores of Silver Lake
The Long Winter
Little Town on the Prairie
These Happy Golden Years
The First Four Years

Not only had I not read them all, I hadn’t even heard of a couple of them.

So that’s my myth.  What was Wilder’s?

Wilder (1867-1957) wrote about her family living the pioneer life in the vast, open spaces of the Midwest in the mid-to-late 19th century.  Yes, there were many challenges, wrote Wilder, but the family survived.

The family was Ma, Laura and her sisters, and Pa, whom Laura clearly idolized.  Or perhaps a better word is idealized, as the ultimate pioneer – strong and brave and resourceful and kind and patriotic, and a wonderful father who played the fiddle to serenade his family.

And when I was reading the books – when I was nine and 10 – Pa seemed like the best dad ever.

After watching Prairie to Page, I’ve revised my opinion.

“Pa” was Charles Ingalls, born in 1836.  He’s pictured here with his family in 1894:

Left to right: Caroline (Ma), Carrie, Laura, Charles (Pa), Grace and Mary.

Revised my opinion…why?

Prairie to Page was an eye-opener about good ole Pa.

Ingalls would have been 25 in 1861, the year the Civil War began.  In 1863 the U.S. Congress passed the Conscription Act, requiring all men between the ages of 20 and 45 to register for the draft.  Yet as we see in the film, according to Wilder biographer Caroline Fraser, Ingalls never served his country, was never in the military.

Doesn’t sound all that patriotic to me.

And despite all the other glowing ideals that Wilder attributed to her father, it becomes very apparent in Prairie to Page that Pa Ingalls was…

A flake:

He got jobs, but somehow they didn’t work out.  He tried farming, repeatedly, but that didn’t work out, either.

And he moved around – a lot – dragging his family with him. 

He’s quoted in Wilder’s books as saying, “My wandering foot gets to itching,” and sounding proud of it.  Ingalls’ “wandering foot” eventually took the family more than 2,000 miles, most of it by horse-drawn covered wagon and on foot.  Here, according to mprnews.org, is a map of their “wandering” before Laura, 18, married Almanzo Wilder in 1885:

And poverty followed the family’s every step.

One story that never appeared in the Little House books was Ingalls having to sign a document in front of county officials declaring that he was “wholly without means.”  This earned the near-starving family a barrel of flour.

Wilder also didn’t write about the time when she and her sisters were hired out for domestic work at a local hotel to help support the family.  

The first known photograph of the three eldest Ingalls sisters, taken around 1879 or 1880. Left to right: Carrie, Mary and Laura.

Or when Ingalls woke up everyone in the middle of the night, packed their meager belongings into a wagon, and left town to avoid his unpaid debts.

Then there were Ingalls’ bad decisions, like building a cabin on land in Kansas, ignoring the fact that the land belonged to the Osage Indian Reservation.  It was not open to settlers – or “squatters,” as they were called – but he built there anyway.  When rumors circulated that U.S. soldiers were going to sweep illegal homesteaders off the land, Ingalls packed up the family and wandered on – again.

“By the time Laura was 15,” said a film interviewee, “she’d lived in 14 different homes.”

As the American Masters’ synopsis put it,

“Though Wilder’s stories emphasized real life and celebrated stoicism, she omitted the grimmer and contradictory details of her personal history:  grinding poverty, government assistance, deprivation…”

Doesn’t sound like an idyllic “Little House ” childhood to me.

There’s much more in Prairie to Page, including Wilder’s racism (“There were no people; only Indians lived there”); the death of her younger brother, Freddie, never mentioned by her; and the extensive involvement of Wilder’s daughter, Rose, in the Little House books, the first of which was published in 1932.  Wilder wrote, but Rose edited, added, deleted, and coached Wilder throughout the process.  To the point that, as another interviewee put it, “Without Rose, there would have been no Little House books.”

The mother/daughter collaboration is widely known now, but back then, it was a secret.

Laura Ingalls Wilder had a lot of secrets.

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