Laura Ingalls Wilder's letters give a peak inside 'Prairie' life

Alongside a generation of American children, William Anderson grew up reading the “Little House on the Prairie” books. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of her family’s homesteads, Pa’s cabin building and fiddle playing, and Ma’s cooking and caretaking, captivated the young Anderson.

When he was in the third grade, a set of classroom activities based on the popular children’s novels sealed Anderson’s fate.

“We built a teepee, we churned butter and made cornbread, we did murals on the classroom wall, we did map studies of the tracks that the Ingalls and Wilder families made across the heartland of America,” says Anderson, 62. “I would say that experience in third grade made an imprint on my whole life as a teacher/author/historian.”

Throughout his childhood, Anderson wrote letters to Wilder museums, voraciously read from the World Book Encyclopedia and even convinced his parents to take him to the home in Mansfield, Mo. Wilder lived in the Mansfield area from 1894 until her death in 1957. (Anderson, who lives in Michigan, now serves on the board for the Mansfield historic site.)

As a young adult, he took a summer job at the Wilder historic site in South Dakota. Since then, he has penned several books and biographies about the family.

His latest, “The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” offers yet another perspective into Wilder’s motivation for writing the “Little House” series. Anderson will discuss and sign copies of the book Thursday at Left Bank Books.

“She saw in her own life just a huge transition from rural early America to modern-day America, and she felt that children should know exactly what it was that made America what it became,” he says. “I think she was very much the same person that people admire and love from her books, from her early life right up to the end there at the time of her death.”

Appreciative of Wilder’s effect on his own life, Anderson says the collection of letters also reveals the extent to which Wilder cared about her young fans.

“She told her editor that (she couldn’t) bear to disappoint a child and not answer their letters. And some of them wrote back, and then they developed correspondences with her, too. So she to me represents the best of the pioneer era and a real stalwart American values person.”

In 1935, in response to a letter from a teacher and her students in Iowa, Wilder answered some questions and told them what stories they would see next:

“After you read Little House on the Prairie, I hope to have another book ready for you. I think I shall call it On the Banks of Plum Creek. Would you like that? I am sure you will like Little House on the Prairie, which will be published early next fall. I am sorry it will not be so large as Farmer Boy.”

Aside from delving into Wilder’s life, Anderson takes time to address the controversy regarding Rose Wilder Lane’s contributions to the writing of her mother’s “Little House” novels. He acknowledges the rumors of such ghost writing by Lane, Wilder’s only surviving child, but maintains that the reality is far from nefarious.

“I always call the Laura/Rose connection in the making of the ‘Little House’ books a collaboration because the stories were all Laura’s,” Anderson says. “She would write in her line-school tablets in pencil her first draft of whatever book she was working on, and her daughter Rose would take time out of her high-paced career to discuss these drafts with her mother, or if they weren’t living in close proximity, they corresponded. That correspondence that still exists has given biographers and scholars a good idea of the Laura/Rose collaboration.”

Anderson credits Lane — and her connections with editors and agents — with getting the books published. “Rose was significant in the making of these books, but she certainly didn’t ghost write them,” he says.

What William Anderson • When 7 p.m. March 24 • Where Left Bank Books, 399 North Euclid Avenue • How much Free • More info 314-367-6731; left-bank.com

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