Sunday, August 19, 2012

From the Trenches: Late Bloomer

Some writers find their calling at a young age, and begin scribbling on pages as soon as they can hold a pen. Other writers get that urge, and don't follow it -- maybe because they're afraid, or they're busy, or it just feels too hard to try. One famous writer found that she couldn't ignore the urge any longer, and began writing children's books when other women her age were grandmothers. Good thing she did, or else re-runs would be seriously lacking some seriously good period TV.

Laura Ingalls Wilder probably never thought of having her own career. She was a daughter, a wife, a mother, and a pioneer...and none of it left very much time for writing. But she felt the itch that all writers feel, and when she saw her daughter, Rose, making a go of writing Wilder decided she would try it herself. And so she did, and the entire world fell in love with a family that lived in a Little House.

Little House, Big Dreams

Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born in the wilds of Wisconsin in 1867 to father Charles and mother Caroline. She had an older sister Mary, who went blind, and two younger sisters named Caroline and Grace. They were true pioneers, who settled on the frontier in what's now known as Kansas. Laura's father had a wandering urge, an they moved from frontier to frontier for several years before settling in South Dakota, where they saw an entire town spring up around them.

She began teaching school at age 16 to help with the family finances even though she was still attending school herself, not to mention working for a local dressmaker. All of this stopped, however, when she married a farmer named Almanzo Wilder at age 18. She joined him on his homestead and had a baby girl, Rose, shortly thereafter. Another son was born, but he died shortly after being born in 1889.

Disaster struck, and struck, and struck. Just before her baby boy died, Almanzo (whom she called "Manly") suffered illness that left him partially paralyzed for life. A fire destroyed their home and their barn, and then drought swept through the land and lasted for years. They left South Dakota and moved to Florida, which had a warm climate. This didn't last long. They moved back to South Dakota and each took jobs to support their small family. In 1894, they moved to Missouri where the land was still wild and undeveloped. Here, they built Rocky Ridge Farm. Eking out a living was tough. Almanzo cleared the property and sold cartloads of firewood for 50 cents in town. But as the land was cleared, the fields were tilled. Over the next two decades Rocky Ridge turned into a sprawling, 200-acre farm producing poultry, fruit and dairy products.

Meanwhile, Rose was growing up and dreaming of being a writer. She began to enjoy some success and earn some money at the task, and her mother took notice. Laura decided to follow her own writing itch, and penned an article for the Missouri Ruralist. It was great, and they gave her a permanent position as a columnist as a result. The Wilders began to work their own land less and less, hiring help to toil in the fields instead, and this gave Laura more time to write. Daughter Rose Wilder Lane enjoyed some success as a national freelance writer, and though her finances suffered in the crash of '29 she earned enough to get through the Great Depression.

Her parents were not so lucky. The stock market crash and resulting financial collapse hit them hard, leaving Rose to assume financial responsibility for them. But Laura Ingalls Wilder was still writing. She penned a biographical story about her childhood on the frontier following the death of her mother and her sister. It was called Pioneer Girl.

The publishers and Rose's agent didn't like it. Laura Ingalls Wilder, who had already experienced death, drought, catastrophe and even depression, wasn't about to give up that easily. She changed the autobiographical work into a story instead. "I" became "Laura" and the focus of the book became more for young girls Laura's age. The story became The Little House in the Big Woods instead, and in 1932 it was accepted for publication. Laura Ingalls Wilder was 65 years old when it hit the shelves.

It was the beginning of a dynasty. While Rose wrote more adult fare, Laura Ingalls Wilder was thinking about her childhood -- and she wrote about it. Wilder's career as a novelist continued with Little House on the Prairie and a whole host of children's books that followed. Since the first Big Woods book was published in 1931, Wilder's novels have never been out of print.

Her first royalty check came in 1932 in the amount of $500 USD. In 1938, The Saturday Evening Post gave her $30,000 to serialize her book Free Land. She was a huge success as an author, and her writing brought in steady income -- not to mention fan mail. The next few years were filled with writing, and Wilder produced 8 Little House books. They fairly flew off store shelves.

Almanzo died in 1949 at age 93 at Rocky Ridge, where carloads of fans stopped nearly every day to meet the real-life Laura of the Little House books. She lived alone at the farm until 1957, and died just three days before she would have turned 90. She's buried, with Rose and Manly, in the nearby town cemetery.

You can still visit Rocky Ridge Farmhouse today if you like. The townspeople got together to buy the house and grounds, which they turned into a museum. Rose Wilder Lane gave them some of the funds they needed to complete the sale, and donated a portion of her earnings to its continued upkeep.

Years after Wilder's death, the Little House books became a television series on NBC. It ran for 8 years, from 1974 to 1982, and has rarely been out of syndication since. If you've got a TV, you've probably seen Little House on the Prairie at least once. Laura Ingalls Wilder couldn't possibly live long enough to see her book become a beloved and long-running TV show, but it probably would have delighted her. She once said that she wrote the Little House books because she wanted girls to see how much, and how quickly, America changed in her own lifetime. 

She got more out of her one lifetime than some people could get with five. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a late bloomer in the world of writing, because she wasn't afraid to try something new -- not even when she was what we would call a senior citizen. She wrote from the trenches in rugged circumstances, in times of financial trouble, because she had a story she just had to share. And for my part, I'm really, really happy she found a way to share it.

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