Jump to Main ContentJump to Primary Navigation

Love triangles, alcoholism and domestic violence: the gritty truth behind Laura Ingalls' prairie childhood


The name Laura Ingalls Wilder conjures up wholesome images of bonnet-clad children running through sunny hay fields and Pa playing his fiddle in a snug Wisconsin log cabin.

But a newly released memoir written by the beloved Little House author is set to cast light on a darker, more realistic side to the author's pioneer childhood in 1800s Midwestern America.

Pioneer Girl was the original version of Ingalls Wilder's childhood written for an adult audience that she and her journalist daughter Rose Wilder Lane tried - and failed - to get published in the early 1930s.

It was not until this autobiography was expanded and edited for a junior readership that it eventually hit the shelves in 1932, as best-selling children's title Little House In The Big Woods.

But the original rough draft was preserved and now the South Dakota State Historical Society Press plans to release it under the name Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography this autumn, complete with original misspellings and idiosyncrasies.

The original copy of the world-famous books will offer up a starker, more realistic take on frontier life, with themes such as domestic violence, alcoholism and an ill-fated love triangle.

The Little House TV series of the 1970s and early 80s offered up an idyllic, sanitized version of Laura Ingalls' childhood

Back in the 1930s, publishers cut out scenes from much of the time the Ingalls family spent in Burr Oak, Iowa, and Walnut Grove, Minnesota, on the basis that they were unsuitable for children to read about.

In one particularly harrowing incident, one of Ingalls' drunken neighbours pours kerosene through the window of his house and sets it on fire before dragging his wife around by her hair. He only stops when Laura's father Pa intervenes.

The story also includes intriguing details of a love triangle "gone awry" - although it's not yet clear what characters are involved.

Even Pa, portrayed as a saintly figure in the books and subsequent Little House TV series, was apparently a more flawed character in real life.

The story includes one scene in which Mr. Ingalls skipped on paying rent to his landlord, deriding him as a "rich old skinflint" (very un-Pa like language, as anyone who has read the books will know).

Despite being pitched to children, the Little House series was stark at times, with the hardships of pioneer life clearly laid out in books such as Little House On The Prairie and The Long Winter - when the whole Ingalls family nearly starved to death after being cut off from vital supplies by snow on the railroads.

But it seems the first draft of Laura's books contains a few more gritty home truths about the family's time out West.

Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls in the Little House series

Amy Lauters, an associate professor of mass media at Minnesota State University in Mankato, said: "That first version was blunt, it was honest.

"It was full of the everyday sorts of things that we don’t care to think about when we think about history.

"And it’s certainly not the fantasized version we saw on Little House on the Prairie, the television show."

The writer Laura Ingalls Wilder

Pamela Smith Hill, a biographer of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the lead editor on the autobiography, said: "You can read Pioneer Girl as nonfiction rather than fiction and get a better feeling of how the historical Ingalls family really lived and what their relationships were and how they experienced the American West."

"I am very excited to see people have access to this," said Sandra Hume, who helps organise Laurapalooza, a conference dedicated to the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

"Her life story has been pretty muddled because people get mixed up with the TV show and it’s nice to see an interest in people seeing basically what is the primary source."

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Biography by Laura Ingalls Wilder is out this September

Photos: Rex Features



Lauren Bacall: in memory of a Golden Age icon


"A make-believe siren, unsophisticated as a Rhine maiden": new book reveals Cecil Beaton's cutting verdicts on the stars he photographed


Inside Madonna's 1920s-themed birthday bash


The 10 ultimate healthy breakfast recipes


10 proven ways to get a great night's sleep


Behold the world's most brilliant phone covers



Pussy Riot’s new single is pro-vaginas and anti-Trump

“The idea of powerful female sexuality is much bigger than any populist megalomaniac man.”

by Moya Crockett
27 Oct 2016

Mamma Mia! ABBA confirm plans to reunite for “live experience” in 2018

All four of the original Dancing Queens are on board

by Kayleigh Dray
27 Oct 2016

The best A-list Instagrams from the week so far

From Gisele's bucket list adventures to Victoria Beckham's night out

by Nicola Colyer
27 Oct 2016

Bake Off’s Mary Berry on her TV reunion with Mel and Sue

The future for these GBBO stars is very bright indeed…

by Kayleigh Dray
27 Oct 2016

Lady Gaga fans, the full Carpool Karaoke video is beyond incredible

James Corden’s face says it all, really

by Kayleigh Dray
27 Oct 2016

Sorry Mel C, Little Mix don't want you to be their mum

You can be ours though

by Anna Pollitt
26 Oct 2016

This Instagram star's honest selfie has gone viral

A glimpse behind the filtered curtain

by Amy Swales
26 Oct 2016

The Alexander McQueen biopic just cast the perfect Hollywood star

Another British bad boy.

by Moya Crockett
26 Oct 2016

Jennifer Garner opens up on co-parenting with ex-husband Ben Affleck

The pair try to teach their children the importance of charity

by Sarah Biddlecombe
26 Oct 2016

Life advice from Helen Mirren, “the nastiest of nasty women”

Ignore those who judge by appearances, don’t rush into marriage, and only drink on days ending in 'Y'.

by Moya Crockett
26 Oct 2016