Although Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in a far different world from what we know, her life and her legacy still have relevancy in the modern day. Little girls (and boys for that matter) continue to devour the books that she wrote exploring her life in the Midwest and Great Plains during the United States’ late 19th Century homesteading era. We can read of the hardships that accompanied this simpler life and learn some moral lessons along with Laura as she recalls her interactions with neighbors, friends and family.
For some of us, the life that Laura lived – from her early years in Wisconsin to her adolescence on the high plains to her later years in the Missouri Ozarks – was idyllic. We long to live a life filled with hard work, the opportunity for exploration, and the attitude that the entire Ingalls and Wilder families had of never being afraid to dream and try something new.
Laura was born in 1867 in a little cabin in Pepin, Wisconsin to a family that was typical of the pioneers that settled the American plains. They moved often, in search of better land, more forgiving climates, job opportunities, or perhaps they were of the spirit that consumes so many young Americans – the spirit that spurs us to venture out in the world and put our heart, soul and body into something new. She married another product of the pioneer lifestyle, Almanzo Wilder, and the two started a life together in South Dakota before finally settling in the Missouri Ozarks to live out their lives.
They had one daughter, Rose, who found her fame and fortune in writing. It was not until 1932, when Laura was 65 years of age, that she began writing down her memoirs after her daughter encouraged her to do so. Her conversations with interviewers often show that she did not feel she was doing anything special, she was just recording history. But to the rest of us who came along long after Laura had passed, she was a heroine and an inspiration.
If you visit one of the homesites of Laura’s childhood or adult years, you are bound to look around and wonder how anyone could scrape a living off of it. Visit the high plains in the winter, and you doubt that anyone could have survived in a small cabin without insulation, with the nearest food supply several miles away by foot or on horse. And if you read through her many books, you come away with the understanding that she had a kind, hard-working family. There is something else though that is hard to put words to – reading her works makes you want to experience her lifestyle. Through all the tribulations, the simplicity of it is so endearing to us as we proceed through life at breakneck speed.
Tracing Laura’s life through the Midwest and high plains does not make for a thrilling journey to the typical American family. But if you get the opportunity to visit one of her homesites, take advantage of it. Or, if you are just traveling through the plains, be sure to close your eyes and envision what life must have been like for pioneering families like the Ingalls. And at the very least, immerse yourself in her writings. The Little House on the Prairie series will leave you satisfied knowing that people like the Ingalls and Wilders exist. And it will leave you hungry to strike out and explore a lifestyle that is so simple, yet so complicated to achieve in our 21st century world.