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The brutal true story behind the beloved Little House on the Prairie books.

The story of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family is one ingrained in the hearts of generations of readers across the world.

This is thanks to the enduring success of The Little House books, a series of American children’s novels written by Laura Ingalls and based on her childhood and adolescence in the American Midwest between 1870 and 1894.

Over the years The Little House books have been adapted for stage or screen more than once but most successfully as the American television series Little House on the Prairie, which ran from 1974 to 1983.

Thanks to her beautifully crafted stories, millions of little girls (including me) grew up dreaming about living on the banks of Plum Creek, sleeping in the back of a covered wagon, and wearing gingham dresses while sipping from our very own tin cup. We also idolised her seemingly perfect parents, Charles and Caroline Ingalls, and were swept up the family’s now famous pioneering adventures.

Of course, like so many famous ‘based on a true story’ novels, it has been discovered over the years that much of what was recounted in Laura Ingall’s books was glossed over, sometimes even false, accounts of her and her family’s life.

Since the first book of the Little House series, Little House in the Big Woods, was published in 1932 there have been around 60 million Little House books sold in the nine book series.

The American television series Little House on the Prairie ran from 1974 to 1983. Source: Getty.

In the books, Laura and her parents, along with her sisters Mary, Carrie, and in the later books Grace, travel from Wisconsin through to Kansas, Minnesota, South Dakota, and finally Missouri and along the way survive everything from wildfires to tornadoes, malaria, blizzards and near starvation on the Great Plains in the late 1800s.

According to the 2018 Pultizer Prize winning book Prairie Fires: the American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder written by Caroline Fraser, much of what Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about in her books was fictionalised, and many of the words she did not even write herself, allowing her "simple" words to be spun and sensationalised by her daughter Rose Wilder Lane.

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"Wilder's autobiographical novels were not only fictionalised but brilliantly edited, in a profound act of American myth-making and self-transformation," author Caroline Fraser writes in her book.

"Critical or adoring scholars and readers might agree about one thing: the Little House books are not history. They are not as Wilder and her daughter had claimed, true in every particular. Yet the truth about our history is in them.

"The truth about settlement, about homesteading, about farming is there, if we look for it – embedded in the novels' conflicted, nostalgic portrayal of transient joys and satisfactions, astonishing feats of survival and jarring acts of dispossession, their deep yearning for security."

According to the book, not only were some of Laura's accounts of her life glossed over, the idyllic relationship painted between her and her daughter Rose in print was also fictionalised to preserve the family's public profile.

The book also delves into the intense rivalry that existed between mother and daughter for years despite the fact that Rose was responsible for the success of the books. It was also reported that Rose stole sequences from her mother's writing for her own and undermined her mother when a publication requested more copy.

The Little House books have also been called out for the way they depicted ethnic minorities, especially in the way the books portrayed the lives of Native Americans.

The character of 'Pa Ingalls' was always presented as the moral heart of the books, however along with much of the poverty, starvation and instances of violence the family lived through that was not entirely accurate, so too was the life of Charles Ingalls.

Like many homesteaders on the plains in the late 19th century, Charles Ingalls tried repeatedly to acquire land and there has since been intense criticism of the illegality of the Ingalls' occupation of land. Land they did not have the right to occupy.

In many chapters Laura Ingalls Wilder penned she continually called the land her family lived on "uninhabited," which it was not.

Between accusations that the Ingalls family disappeared from towns to escape looming debts to reports that Laura was both racist and anti-Semitic (quotes from her supporting this were edited from her writing, according to Caroline Fraser) it's hard now to look at these idyllic tales with anything other than skepticism in our eyes.

It does not mean that The Little House books should not still be regarded as classic works of literature, but more that they should be regarded as fiction as well as fact.

For more stories like this, you can follow Mamamia Entertainment Editor Laura Brodnik on Facebook.  You can also visit our newsletter page and sign up to “TV and Movies”  for a backstage pass to the best movies, TV shows and celebrity interviews (see one of her newsletters here). 

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