The debate over Laura Ingalls Wilder

By Alexandra Jacobs
Updated July 17, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

So, it’s girl power you want? Let’s recall what Laura Ingalls Wilder endured on the Midwestern prairie before authoring arguably the best-selling children’s literature of all time: Fireballs, pestilence, blizzards—and that’s just the tip of the dust bowl.

But it’s nothing compared to the debate now raging in academia over whether it was the frugal, stoic Laura or her spendthrift, suicidal daughter, Rose, who primarily wrote the nine books that comprise the beloved Little House series. William Holtz staked a claim for the latter with his sepulchrally toned 1993 biography, The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane (University of Missouri Press, $29.95). Now South Dakota State University professor John E. Miller is urging a retreat to the former with his just-out Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend (Missouri, $29.95). ”The relationship with her daughter is a fascinating subject because it’s so emotionally charged. I think saying it’s tortured would be accurate,” says Miller, who will chew over questions of authorship, feminism, and cultural identity with his colleagues in the Wilder field at a conference at Iowa’s Herbert Hoover Presidential Library this September. ”I certainly respect [Holtz’s] scholarship and think he wrote a very fine biography of Rose, but I’d like to bring the pendulum back toward giving Laura major credit.”

It’s dubious, however, whether either Wilder would want credit for some of the Little House merchandise HarperCollins has churned out over the past five years. Cookbooks. Calendars. Historically incorrect friendship bracelets. ”Every item that comes out has to be approved by the estate,” insists Harper senior editor Alix Reid of the gingham-trimmed tchotchkes. ”It’s been an extremely profitable program for us, and the last thing we’d want to do is hurt our best property.”

Still, some of the simplified picture books and ”gentle adaptations” that have saturated the market over the past five years will be discontinued in 1999, the better to focus on a line of prequels and sequels spearheaded by Roger MacBride, Rose Wilder’s former neighbor. Aimed at Little House‘s core 8- to 12-year-old audience, the books will venture all the way back to the life and times of Laura’s great-grandmother. ”The message we’re going out with is that here are five generations of pioneer girls that span a century of American history,” says Reid. Make way for Frontier Spice!

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