Laura Ingalls Wilder: Book or TV?

Are you familiar with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s bestselling tales of life on the frontier of white settlement? And if so, were you introduced to the stories on the page, or on the screen?

My older sister and I read (and loved) the books as a child in the 1960s.

Laura Ingalls Wilder's books

Well-loved copies on display at the Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, IA.

The television series Little House on the Prairie began a decade later, with a pilot movie that aired in 1974. The series starred Michael Landon as Pa and Melissa Gilbert as young Laura.

May 29, 1976

May 29, 1976 – Michael Landon with his three TV daughters. (Melissa Gilbert on left)

I remember watching the first few seasons with my younger sister, and we enjoyed them. Sure, some liberties were taken—starting with the fact that Laura’s book Little House on the Prairie is set in Kansas, and the television series is set in Walnut Grove, MN (the real setting for the book On The Banks of Plum Creek.) Michael Landon did not look like Charles Ingalls (and once, I’ve read, stated that nothing would induce him to wear an “ugly” beard.) But all in all, the programs I remember from the mid-70s captured the spirit of the books.

Only recently, when working on my new Chloe Ellefson mystery Death on the Prairie, did I discover how strongly some book enthusiasts dislike the series.

A docent at one of the Wilder homesites told me she’d had to break up an argument between “book people” and “TV people.” Another, at a different homesite, told me that she’d had children break into tears when they discovered that in real life, Mary Ingalls (Laura’s older sister, who lost her sight as a child) never married.

July 14, 1979 – Michael Landon, Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary), and Linwood Boomer (Mary’s husband Adam)

I hadn’t realized how far from the original books the programs had strayed until very recently, when I sampled a few of the final programs.

I will always love the books the best. The books introduced me to Laura Land, and I like knowing that the stories are presented as Laura wanted them.

KAE w/ LHBW - KK Photo

My original hardcover copy, still treasured.

But there is another important side to the debate. Someone who works at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, MN, explained that most people in her community embraced the television series and its legacy—even though she often has to gently help visitors understand that not everything they watched on TV was true.

Version 2

As many Laura fans know by now, everything in the books is not true either. While largely autobiographical, the books are presented as fiction, with details changed, enhanced, or deleted to serve the purpose of the stories.

The first time I visited the Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, IA—a location omitted from the books entirely—a family from France was on my tour. Dad explained that he’d grown up watching Little House on the Prairie on French television, loved it, and wanted to share his enthusiasm with his wife and children.

This is the original building where the Ingalls family lived.

The Ingalls family briefly lived and worked in this building.

I might wish that the television series had not wandered quite so far from the original material. But I remember studying the principles of effective heritage interpretation in college. Freeman Tilden, author of the classic Interpreting Our Heritage, wrote that “the chief aim is not instruction, but provocation.”

If the television programs provoke viewers to learn more, to read Laura’s books, to read Laura historians’ books, to visit the sites—that’s a wonderful thing.

And as a mystery author, the complexities of studying and celebrating Laura Ingalls Wilder’s literary legacy provided rich material to explore. In Death on the Prairie, Chloe—who’s not me, but is a lot like me—tours the homesites. While trying to learn more about a quilt believed to have been owned by the author, and solving a murder or two, Chloe is forced to confront the differing perspectives and opinions within the Laura community. (Her sister Kari, for example, reveals that Little House on the Prairie is her daughters’ favorite television program.)

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWeb

If you’re a Little House fan, what ignited your interest?

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38 Responses to “Laura Ingalls Wilder: Book or TV?”

  1. Ruth Nelson-Lau Says:

    I must confess that I did not read all of the books. I watched many of the TV shows. So my Laura ideas are based more on the TV version. That being said, I just finished Death on the Prairie last night! It was great! The tension between the sisters was a realistic addition. I also am liking the growing relationship between Chloe and Roelke. Can’t wait for the next book……… Great job, you keep us wanting more.

  2. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Ruth, thanks for sharing your experience. And for your kind words–I’m so glad you enjoyed Death on the Prairie! I’m hard at work on Chloe #7.

  3. caroleestbydagg Says:

    I grew up with the books, and in homage to Laura Ingalls Wilder, the main character in my middle grade historical fiction (Sweet Home Alaska, Penguin, Feb. 2016) is also a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder. When one of FDRs programs moves her family to Alaska to become self-sufficient farmers, she gets to live her dream of pioneering like Laura. I’m putting your book on order now – can’t wait to read it!

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Carole, thanks for sharing! I am familiar with your “The Year We Were Famous”–such a wonderful book about an amazing story. Now I can’t wait to read the upcoming title!

  4. Tess Mulrooney Says:

    I wear glasses because I could not put down On the Banks of Plum Creek around the time I was 9. I read by the next farm’s yard light. I bought my sister the entire set as a Christmas gift a few years later because I wanted her to love them. I’ve been to 2 of the sights, the WI wayside in Pepin County and the hotel at Burr Oak, IA. This year’s calendar is of the Laura sites around the country.

  5. Susan Shirey Says:

    I read (and loved) some of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books when I was a child. When my daughters were young, I read all of the books to them at bedtime. They, too, fell in love with stories.

    As an adult, I better appreciate what a good writer she was. Her ability to evoke an image through simple words in one or two sentences is amazing!

    My daughter, an interpreter at Fort Snelling in Minneapolis, was one of the counselors at their Laura Ingalls Wilder camp this summer. She said if the kids were unruly or bored, all the counselors had to do was start reading from one of her books. The kids were mesmerized.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Susan, thanks for sharing. Like you, I loved the books as a child, and then discovered them on whole new levels as an adult. Her descriptive talents are inspiring, and I’m very glad to know that kids still can fall under the spell.

  6. Ruth Nelson-Lau Says:

    When can we expect #7?

  7. Leaella Shirley Says:

    I grew up on the books. I value them most of all because the gave me some sense of what my grandparents’ lives had been like.

  8. Teresa Lynn Says:

    I’m definitely more a book person, although I did enjoy the TV show also. I love what you said about the show provoking people to learn more. Absolutely! I still read the books every couple years or so, and still love them.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Thanks, Teresa! I first read that line about provoking people decades again, and although I’d have to look up other elements of that book, that one statement really stayed with me.

  9. Knight Says:

    I was a Hardy Boys fan, myself. So was Doris, actually, and we iron-boundedly secured our marriage from ever dissolving by merging our Hardy Boys libraries. MK

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      OK, Michael, you got my morning off with a big smile! Whatever it takes. (Actually, I know people who would shudder at the very idea of “merging” libraries. Obviously you and Doris are both quite open-hearted people.)

  10. Nancy Rafal Says:

    I’m a book fan first and foremost. I went to a one room school in the mid 1950’s and we received a book box one a month from the county. I always volunteered to be “librarian” so I could get the LIW books first. Now I’m enjoying Death on the Prairie and am trying not to read it too fast.

  11. avidreaderinwv Says:

    I was introduced trough the books. And while there are many differences, I love both. I still watch Little House to this day. I haven’t read the books in a while, bit the set I have is very well loved and worn.

  12. Gina Parsons Says:

    Great question! I grew up in the 70s, and I watched the show before I read the books. I love both. I read the books to my 9-year-old daughter a couple of years ago, and we’re now up to season 6 in watching the TV show. Like me, she loves both the books and the show. I really don’t understand why people would like one, and not like the other. Of course the show has its silly moments (and my daughter and I have at least one really good laugh per episode at things that probably weren’t meant to be funny), but most of the episodes hold up as great family-friendly entertainment.
    For entertainment’s sake, the show of course re-imagined what the Ingalls’ lives were like (Mary teaching at a blind school and getting married? Pa punching the lights out of anyone who made him angry?). But some of the story lines, like the family’s moving to the city and managing a restaurant and hotel, seem lifted out of “Pioneer Girl.” I often wonder if that was a coincidence, or if the show’s creators did get the idea from that manuscript.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi Gina, how special that you can share your own love of all things Little House with your daughter! Interesting question about the television series’ creators possibly being inspired by the Pioneer Girl manuscript. I have no idea, but now I’ll wonder too!

  13. Dina stout Says:

    I was introduced to little house on the prairie by the TV show. It was years later that I actually collected and read the books. I truly love both the program and the books. This past summer my husband and I drove to Mansfield, Missouri to visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum and their final home~Rocky Ridge Farm. I encourage everyone to go visit because it is so wonderful. They are building a new and bigger museum to house more of the historical artifacts that they have in storage. Before we left the little town of Mansfield, we visited the cemetery and saw the graves of Laura, Almanzo, and Rose Wilder Lane. In the gift shop I bought all kinds of books about Laura and her life. I generally read fiction but almost everything I bought was nonfiction and I have enjoyed learning more and more about Laura and her life and her family. It was such a wonderful experience to take a tour of Laura and Almanzo’s house and to see the actual furniture that they used. Laura even had a very small library in a section of one of the rooms. Many of the pieces of furniture were handbuilt by Almanzo. Thank you for this blog! I definitely want to read your newest book!

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Dina, thanks so much for sharing your experience! I didn’t know what to expect the first time I visited the Mansfield site, since I hadn’t read about it. All the other sites were so real in my imagination from reading the novels. Anyway, I completely agree with you–it is very special. The house feels like Laura just stepped out, and I loved seeing some of Almanzo’s handiwork. (A particular favorite–the stones he used in the chimney, some with fossils.) And some of the family artifacts on display in the museum were incredible to see. I’ve been following the development of the new museum, and can’t wait to visit again when it’s complete!

  14. Margaret Fenton Says:

    Farmer Boy was the first chapter book I ever read, in second grade in 1977. That book launched a love of reading that continues to this day. I am so dying to visit some of the LIW sites someday, although I’ve been to her house in Missouri. The tv series was so different and I prefer the books. and I loved loved loved Pioneer Girl, published recently. Preordered it and read the whole thing the day it arrived. Are there other books before Death on the Prarie? I’m one of those series readers who has to read them in order.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi Margaret – I didn’t read FB until after I’d read the others in the series, for some reason. But that actually worked OK; it was fun to revisit Almanzo as a boy after getting to know him as a young man.

      I like to start series at the beginning too. Although all of the Chloe mysteries can be read as a standalone, there is an arc that follows the main characters from book to book. There are six out now; the first one is Old World Murder. You can learn more here: http://www.kathleenernst.com

      I hope you enjoy!

  15. Pat Murray Wegener Says:

    Like Laura, I was born in Pepin. Unlike her, I didn’t move away, but was lucky enough to be raised there! When I was eight I read “Little House in the Big Woods” for the first time. When Laura described leaving Pepin, going across the frozen Lake and looking back and seeing the big false front on the store..my world opened. I could walked down the hill to First Street and still see the big false front on what was once the store. Laura was real..just as History happened, not in some far away place, but right here where I stood. I loved the Books.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Pat, how special that must have been! I read LHBW in my home in Maryland, and Wisconsin’s Big Woods and Pepin seemed exotic and so far away! It was very exciting for me when, decades later, I finally was able to visit Pepin.

  16. Melissa Middleswart Says:

    Have you read any books by Susan Wittig Albert? She has one, A Wilder Rose, out recently, about how Laura’s books were actually created. I won’t say more because I don’t want to spoil your view of Laura and her books, if you are not already aware of this. I probably would have preferred not to have known about this, myself. I prefer books to tv show, though I’ve seen a number (by no means all) of the tv shows over the years.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi Melissa – Thanks for sharing! I am familiar with Susan’s book, as well as “Ghost in the Little House.” “Pioneer Girl,” Laura’s autobiography which was published (and richly annotated) last year also reveals a lot of information behind the curtain. My humble opinion is that Laura had a great deal of talent, and while Rose certainly had publishing connections and edited the books, sometimes heavily, Laura had her own gifts. I’ve read some of her work that was never edited by Rose, such as her diary of the trip to Missouri, and some of the writing is lovely, some the people she met along the way well-drawn. I suspect that her years of “seeing” for Mary helped hone her natural storytelling and descriptive talents.

      • Melissa Middleswart Says:

        I didn’t read Wilder Rose, after a friend read it and disliked it a great deal–I decided I’d rather not read it, accurate or not. I like your idea of Laura being a good storyteller, and needing to be descriptive, for Mary’s sake.

      • Kathleen Ernst Says:

        Melissa, thanks for sharing your thoughts. As I just mentioned in response to another comment, we can choose where we want to land on this topic! In particular, I’ve always been struck by Laura being told she must become Mary’s “eyes.” As a writer, I marvel at (and envy!) her descriptive ability, but she had lots and lots of practice in painting pictures with words.

      • Dina Stout Says:

        I love your response about Laura’s writing and story telling abilities! I had never heard about A Wilder Rose until the previous comment, so I downloaded it on my kindle. I got a couple of chapters in and just couldn’t keep going. Whether it’s true or not, I can’t stand the thought of anything taking away the “warm fuzzies” that the Little House books bring me. 🙂

      • Kathleen Ernst Says:

        Dina, so glad you enjoyed the post. I think many of us who loved the books so very much wrestle with any idea that detracts from our experience. That’s one of the things Chloe struggles with in Death on the Prairie. The nice thing is we all get to choose how far we do or don’t want to go with learning the backstory!

  17. Judy Says:

    I LOVE LOVE all of Laura’s books and have read them more times than I can count. As an elementary teacher, I often did a unit on Laura Ingalls Wilder usually in February around her birthday. I never missed the tv show either and realized some of it was fiction but a lot of the stories were based on real life people and situations. I am a huge fan of Michael Landon as well. I am 70 yeasrs olf and still love to read the books and watch the reruns. Last week we visited Mansfield, Mo. I was so sad that the museum and house were closed for the winter but I visited the gift shop and found lots of things to buy and enjoy. The girl told me to roam all around and take pictures so I did.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Judy, thanks for sharing your experiences! I would have loved to have a unit on Laura Ingalls Wilder as a child, but fortunately my parents made sure we had the books. Like you, I have reread them many times and often find new layers and details to savor.

  18. QNPoohBear Says:

    I was introduced to Laura through the TV series. I believe my parents watched it and I was too little to read the books. Once I was old enough to read, I devoured all the books over and over again and the TV show has faded from memory. I had to buy The Little House Cookbook when the library was weeding their children’s non-fiction collection. It still had the old card inside with due dates stamped on it and I know some of those were checked out to me. I tried watching the show recently but it just wasn’t for me. There was no accuracy in the story let alone historical accuracy. One of the first sites I found on the Internet was about Laura Ingalls Wilder. I found my tattered copy of Little House in the Big Woods I hope to pass on to my older niece soon and I also found a short biography of Laura by William Anderson and a photo my grandparents sent from one of the home sites. The Little House books led to the American Girl books and of course Kirsten, the pioneer.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      We obviously have a lot in common! William Anderson does great work (and he’s a nice guy, too). He talked with a lot of people in De Smet who had known the family, and had a lot to do with many artifacts finding their way to the museum there.

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