Today is the birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957), a distant cousin of mine via our mutual ancestor Edmund Ingalls (1586-1648) of Lynn Massachusetts. I would have been delighted to have known this as a kid, when I was a fan of the tv show based on her series of kids books, which in turn were based on her life, Little House on the Prairie (1974-1982).
The tv Little House simplifies the setting to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, while the real life Ingalls’ lived all over the place: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and the Dakotas. While running a successful farm with her husband in Missouri, Wilder began contributing columns to local newspapers. During the Depression this finally led, with the encouragement and support of her already successful daughter Rose Wilder Lane, to the publishing of her fictionalized memoirs. When Lane died, the rights went to her heir and “adopted grandson” Roger MacBride. who produced the tv series some 40 years after the books were written. (MacBride, politically influenced by Lane, went on to be the Libertarian Party’s candidate for President in 1976.)
Nostalgia for Little House on the Prairie tends to be something people my age bond over. This show did much to stimulate my imagination about pioneer life, a foible of my boyhood I wrote about here.
Although when you went back and read the original book(s) you realized how idealized the tv version was. On the show, the house seems more spacious and clean than would be true, the clothes are pristine. The parents are played by Michael Landon (previously of Bonanza) with his blow dried hair, dimpled chin and perfect teeth, and the lovely Karen Grassle; they are too modern and articulate for their roles, almost urbane, compared with what I imagine the truth to have been.
Melissa Gilbert, with her adorable overbite, was extremely likable as the author in her girlhood; Melissa Sue Anderson was her pretty, humorless older sister; and the babbling toddler Carrie was played by a pair of twins, Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush (that’s the custom in Hollywood where small children are concerned, it keeps them from working long hours. )
My favorite actor on the show however was Victor French, as the brusque, lovable, funny Mr. Edwards. With his scruffy beard and bulging eyes he reminded me of the illustrations of “Pap” in my edition of Huckleberry Finn. He was the only one who seemed properly rough enough to be believable. But I am also with the majority in a lasting appreciation of the comical Olsen family, the townfolk who ran the mercantile: the henpecked husband Nels (Richard Bull), his odious scheming wife Harriet (Katherine MacGregor) and their hilariously evil children Nellie (Allison Arngrim) and Willie (Jonathan Gilbert). Nellie, with her blonde curls, became a sort of archetype of villainy, while Willie was more like her stupid lackey. Dabbs Greer was also extremely memorable as Rev. Alden (and I subsequently caught him in countless old westerns).
The show lasted 9 seasons, but I lost my enthusiasm for it after the first 3 or 4, as I was by then in junior high school and moving away from “childish” family programming. I also resisted change, and new characters began to be added. I didn’t like the kid who played Albert, for example. I found him too “pretty” and “sweet” and boring. (There was a long list of male kid stars I preferred, most of them with a mischievous, funny side: Jack Wild, Danny Bonaduce, Eric Shea, Johnny Whitaker, Adam Rich, Lance Kerwin, and the three guys on The Brady Bunch all spring to mind.) And the show seemed to jump the shark when Mary went blind, got married etc (even though the stuff really happened. I still didn’t like it). And it became very preachy as was the trend in the late 70s, with each episode focused on some “issue of the week”, alcohol, gambling, prejudice, etc. I am against those things too. But you know what the REAL problems prairie farmers were dealing with in the 1870s? Oh, things like locusts, blight, drought, blizzards, starvation, primitive medicine, etc etc etc. There was precious little time for conversations about social problems. The early seasons dealt more with those aspects of frontier life, and I preferred them. Yes, the cannibalism of the Donner Party, that’s what family programming needs!