My introduction to Laura Ingalls Wilder was a used copy of The Long Winter when I was seven or eight years old. I immediately fell in love with the Ingalls family story of pioneer life in the late 1800s. More than 20 years later, that book is a bit more worn, and I proudly consider LIW one of my favorite authors. Like millions of fans around the world, I’ve repeatedly read all of Wilder’s Little House books and seen the TV series. So why does a story about a family traveling west in a covered wagon resonate so much nearly 60 years after Wilder’s death?
Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957) didn’t set out to become a writer. After a short stint teaching to help pay for her sister Mary’s tuition at the Iowa School for the Blind, Laura became a farmer’s wife to Almanzo and a mother to their only child, Rose. It was decades later when the Wilders had settled in Mansfield, Missouri, that Laura began writing, starting with columns about farm life for The Missouri Ruralist.
When Laura was in her 60s she began writing her life story by hand, recounting adventures with Pa, Ma, and her three sisters as they moved from Wisconsin to Kansas, Iowa and Minnesota, and South Dakota. Laura and Rose shopped a manuscript to Rose’s publishing contacts, but no one bought it. When they reworked some of the earliest stories into a juvenile book, published by Harper & Brothers in 1932 as Little House in Big Woods, everything changed.
Laura became an immediate sensation with schoolchildren everywhere, who devoured her simple stories about life, family, hard work, and the pioneering American spirit. Pa and his fiddle, blind and beautiful Mary, and Jack the faithful bulldog came to life through Wilder’s vivid descriptions and intimate style. She subtly inserted moral lessons and turned banal chores like churning butter and making hay sticks into activities readers yearn to experience. Nine books in all, the Little House series won multiple library awards, including five Newbery Honor awards.
In 2014, Wilder fever rose again with the long-awaited publication of Pioneer Girl, Laura’s original manuscript, by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press. The first limited print run sold out in days. The hefty hardcover is perfect for devoted Wilder fans—filled with annotations alongside the original text, archival materials from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum (an American Writers Museum affiliate), and dozens of other records. Since its release, Pioneer Girl has sold more than 140,000 copies.
Perhaps the biggest reason Wilder’s books have inspired such long-lasting devotion and cemented her place in American writing history is because the themes are just as relevant today as in the 1800s. “Pioneer Girl began with her family’s quest to find a home; it ended with Wilder’s discovery of her place in the world, her own little house, says editor Pamela Smith Hill.