Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the making of the Little House Books by Christine Woodside
I adored the Little House on the Prairie books growing up. They provided many an hour of joy as I immersed myself in the amazing story of this pioneer family and the trials and tribulations they faced trying to survive in the American West. Although these books were instrumental to my love of reading as a child, I never pursued information about the author, Laura Ingalls Wilder as I grew older. Perhaps if I did, the information contained in “Libertarians” would not have been such a surprise. It never occurred to me that the story of Wilder’s early years would not be absolutely accurate and that her daughter manipulated the course of the narrative to support her own political philosophy.
Christine Woodside has done extensive research to prove that the books written during the 1930s and ‘40s were heavily influenced by Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane and that the original manuscripts developed by Ingalls were substantially altered by Rose. Woodside is able to compare the “before and after” to show how the finished copy bears the Libertarian philosophy of self-reliance and anti-government intervention in a direct reaction to New Deal reforms and the growing reliance on the Federal Government to solve problems. In fairness to Rose, Woodside also makes it clear that she is by far the better writer and that the end result of her editing produced better books than had she not been involved.
Although Laura held conservative views, it was her daughter Rose who grew to become one of the greatest proponents of modern Libertarian thought. Laura was no writer when she undertook to write her story in her early ‘60s but her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane was a famous author and journalist and it becomes quite clear early in the Woodside’s book just how much influence Rose had while “editing” the books. A fact that was well hidden from the public at the time. In fact, the strain placed on the relationship between mother and daughter became permanent due in part to the heavy edits Rose made on her mother’s work in order for the story to support her increasingly strong political views.
As Lane became more conservative, she interacted with other conservative thinkers including H.L. Mencken, Ayn Rand, and even the Koch brothers. If nothing else, “Libertarians” gives us a peripheral view into the rise of conservative thought in this country. This isn’t the easiest book to read. It jumps around and repeats things but if you loved the Little House books and are interested in American history, I suspect you will find this read time well spent. If you are already well versed in Ingalls’s history and her daughter’s political views and role bringing the books to the public, there probably isn’t much new for you in this book. As for me, I plan to go back and reread these the Little House series to watch for the subliminal (and the more obvious) messages that Rose Wilder Lane was able to incorporate into her mother’s writing.