Little House in the Present: America's economic downturns run through Laura Ingalls Wilder's books like a big three-hearted river

About halfway through On the Banks of Plum Creek, something that should have been quite obvious finally dawned on me: The Ingalls family didn't live in a dugout in the ground because Ma and Pa thought it would be neat. They lived there because they were poor. And after Pa bought a prefab house on credit against the wheat harvest, which was then devoured by locusts, they were even poorer — so poor that Pa had to walk 300 miles back east to find work.

There was a real-life Midwestern locust plague in 1874, which followed close on the heels of the Panic of 1873, an international financial catastrophe that brought on the original Great Depression — subsequently redubbed the Long Depression, for obvious reasons.

Could it be mere coincidence that Little House in the Big Woods was published in 1932, just as Americans were coming to grips with the fact that the Wall Street crash of 1929 was more than a passing turbulence in the stock market?

Aimee Levitt
Laura Ingalls Wilder as a young girl in De Smet, South Dakota.
Laura Ingalls Wilder as a young girl in De Smet, South Dakota.

When I asked McClure that question, she explained to me that Laura Ingalls Wilder didn't sit down to write Little House in the Big Woods because she felt moved to reminisce about her childhood. She started writing books because she needed cash.

As an adult, Rose Wilder Lane abandoned Mansfield for a career as a globetrotting journalist. She made a good living writing for slick magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, and she invested a good deal of it in the stock market — along with Laura and Almanzo's savings, which had grown considerably from that first $100 bill. When Black Monday came, the family lost everything.

With no other recourse, Lane returned to Mansfield and took up residence in her parents' farmhouse, displacing them to the English-style cottage she'd built on the farm back when she had money to burn. She proceeded to cook up potential get-rich-quick schemes. Should they move to California and try their hand at chicken farming? Laura was in her sixties; Almanzo was ten years older. It would be more practical to stay put. Perhaps, Rose thought, her mother could turn the many vivid childhood memories she'd retained into stories they could sell to magazines. After all, for fifteen years Laura had written a column, "As a Farm Woman Thinks," for The Missouri Ruralist. A book might actually prove to be profitable, especially with a boost from some solid editing from Rose.

William V. Holtz created quite a stir with his 1993 biography of Rose Wilder Lane, The Ghost in the Little House, which drew on correspondence between Wilder and Lane to reveal that Rose's role in rendering her mother's childhood in fictional form was decidedly hands-on. (Regardless, the experiences recounted in the books are undeniably all Laura's.) But the collaboration between mother and daughter, coupled with the circumstances that brought the series into existence, highlights a more compelling confluence of historical context: When Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing about the 1870s, she was up to her eyeballs in the realities of the 1930s — the very same eyeballs, no less, that had taken in the life-altering events of the 1890s.

So the Great Depression runs through Little House in the Big Woods like a big three-hearted river.

Perhaps most striking, however, is that the book's central theme is made most conspicuous not through the events and details described in its pages but by the things that aren't there.

There's no Depression in the Big Woods. There's no sign that the Civil War was less than a decade in the nation's rearview (aside from one minor character, Uncle George, who ran off to be a drummer boy and came home "wild"). There are no banks. There isn't even a cash economy: A description of the family's visit to the store in town depicts a dazzling oasis of consumerism, but Pa pays for the calico and the sugar in trade, with bear and wolf pelts. There's no government. In fact, a government would seem superfluous. No need for police or courts, because everyone gets along. The Ingallses have everything they need thanks to Pa's seemingly limitless frontiersman skills and Ma's "Scottish ingenuity" on the domestic front.

In the real world of 1932, meanwhile, Franklin Roosevelt was campaigning for the presidency on the promise of a "New Deal" that would expand government in order to provide more jobs, chiefly on public-works projects. Later, after he was sworn in, Roosevelt proposed that farmers destroy their crops in order to decrease supply and drive up prices. For lifelong farmers like the Wilders, this could not stand. It was anathema especially to Rose, who while stuck in Mansfield was developing her own political philosophy, based on individualism and freedom from government interference. To everyone his or her own Big Woods! Though others were following the same line of thought, it was Rose Wilder Lane who gave it a name that stuck: libertarianism.

Laura wasn't overtly political, but she shared Rose's libertarian ideals. As she wrote in a 1937 letter to her literary agent: "One thing I hate about the New Deal is that it is killing what, to me, is the American pioneer spirit.... All the old character-values seem simply insane from a practical point of view: the self-reliant, the independent, the courageous man is penalized from every direction."

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