True West

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House Books

Edited by Caroline Fraser
Library of America, $75, 1,512 pp.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was “past sixty,” as she put it, when she began writing her “Little House books,” which chronicle the adventures of the Ingalls family, her family, as late-nineteenth-century American pioneers. Those sixty years had seen such dramatic changes in American life and in the country’s landscape that the stories of young Laura Ingalls seemed like dispatches from another world. In a letter distributed by her publisher, Wilder assured readers, “I lived everything that happened in my books.”

Wilder’s eight books, published in the 1930s and ’40s, made her a literary celebrity in her old age. She spent her final years attending dedication ceremonies for libraries named in her honor. Generations of children have been brought up on her stories. Now, a new two-volume edition of the Little House books from the Library of America stakes a claim for Wilder’s work as an enduring part of the country’s literary heritage—not just a journal of a frontier girlhood meant to amuse children, but skillfully crafted literature. The Little House books are a valuable eye-witness account of a fascinating and fleeting time in America’s history. They are also first-rate fiction, with gripping drama and finely drawn characters—particularly the author’s alter ego, Laura Ingalls, who thrives on the edge of civilization and is ambivalent about settling down into adulthood. Wilder’s straightforward, plainspoken style, with its occasional bursts of lyricism, has aged well—though she...

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About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is Commonweal's associate editor at large. She blogs at dotCommonweal.