The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired the Little House Books

The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired the Little House Books

by Marta McDowell
The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired the Little House Books

The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired the Little House Books

by Marta McDowell


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“If you loved Wilder’s books, or if you garden with a child who loves her books, you will enjoy the read.” —San Francisco Chronicle

In this revealing exploration of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s deep connection with the natural world, Marta McDowell follows the wagon trail of the beloved Little House series. You’ll learn details about Wilder’s life and inspirations, pinpoint the Ingalls and Wilder homestead claims on authentic archival maps, and learn how to grow the plants and vegetables featured in the series. Excerpts from Wilder’s books, letters, and diaries bring to light her profound appreciation for the landscapes at the heart of her world.

Featuring the beloved illustrations by Helen Sewell and Garth Williams, plus hundreds of historic and contemporary photographs, The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder is a treasure that honors Laura’s wild and beautiful life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781604697278
Publisher: Timber Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 09/20/2017
Pages: 390
Sales rank: 318,961
Product dimensions: 7.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

About The Author
Marta McDowell’s writing has appeared in The New York TimesWoman’s Day, Country Gardening, and elsewhere. Her previous books include Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, All the Presidents’ Gardens, The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life, and Unearthing The Secret Garden. She consults for public gardens and private clients, writes and lectures on gardening topics, and teaches landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, where she studied landscape design. She lives, writes, and gardens in Chatham, New Jersey.

Read an Excerpt

Some decades ago when I fit the criteria of Young Adult reader, I was Laura Ingalls. That is, when I wasn’t Nancy Drew or, somewhat later, a foot-stamping Scarlett O’Hara. Laura spoke her mind, rode black ponies bareback, helped Pa with the haying, and pushed off her sunbonnet. Besides, I had the genetic creds for Laura. My mother grew up in the middle of the Illinois prairie, became a teacher, and taught in a one-room country schoolhouse, just like Laura and Ma Ingalls. Her family inspired my love of gardening and my confidence with canning jars. My father was a farm boy from Henry County, Kentucky, whose stories included the Christmas crate of oranges—the single gift shared among his family of nine—and walking to school unless the creek was too high, in which case they rode the mule. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I realized that the first family car of my memory, a mammoth black Hudson sedan dubbed “Old Jenny,” had been named after a mule of his youth.

Born in 1867, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a bumper crop of books for young readers. Farming, gardening, and nature were backdrops and key plot elements for every volume in the series. Originally published between 1932 and 1943, the eight novels chronicle growing up in the Wisconsin woods and on the prairies of Kansas, Minnesota, and South Dakota over a twenty-year period starting in the late 1860s. It was a coming of age story for a girl and reflected the coming of age of a nation, as homesteaders spread west from the Mississippi.

Beyond history, her books were about natural history. Laura discussed weather and land forms. She observed plants and the animals that depended on them. She foraged wild berries and picked wildflowers. And long before she was a writer, Laura Ingalls Wilder was a gardener and farmer, growing food for the table and raising crops for sale. She lived the farmer’s covenant with the wider natural world, tending soil, plants, and animals to sustain herself and her family.

For many of us, Wilder’s books introduced us to a life in and dependent on nature. Never was germination so eagerly awaited or crop failure so devastating. Her stories, predating reality TV by decades, often read like some sort of Survivor: Prairie Edition. Yet despite grasshopper plague, drought, fire, twister, and blizzard, her love of nature shines through, buoyant with optimism. Nature, in her world, is its own character, one with a definite if sometimes unstable personality.

It isn’t too much of a stretch to group Laura Ingalls Wilder with America’s nature writers. Nature was her home, as well as little houses. Readers of her books become budding naturalists. The actions of the Ingalls and Wilder families take place in different parts of the country with different ecosystems, and the stories demonstrate the results of changes to the land. The series sows a deep appreciation for the world outside one’s own door. Now that I am approaching the age at which Laura Ingalls Wilder started writing her memoir and novels, I found that exploring her works became a personal time machine. She opened a portal into my own melting pot of memory as I explored the places
and plants of her life.

I’ve organized this book in two parts. After a short prologue, “A Life on the Land” follows the trail of Wilder’s plant, farm, and garden interests intertwined with her life story. If you’re a Wilder fan, you will find a familiar order, as it follows the sequence of the Little House books chronologically and geographically. I urge you to read or reread them alongside. Three additional chapters cover the Wilders at Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri, and the other places that her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, gardened. The second part of the book, “Wilder Gardens,” is for the traveler who wants to hop into the wagon and travel to Wilder and “wilder” gardens across America, and for the gardener—aspirational or experienced—who would like to grow the plants that Laura grew and knew, with a catalog of specifics including botanical names.

And speaking of “Laura,” I hope she would excuse the familiarity. In her day, even Almanzo did not address her by her first name until after they were engaged. After that, Miss Ingalls became Mrs. Wilder. But because she shared herself with so many who got to know her character first-hand, a chapter at a time, Laura is the name I will use when referring to her as a person, reserving Wilder for her professional name as a writer.

Table of Contents

Preface 8

Prologue 10

A Life on the Land 13

Clearing the Land: The Wisconsin Woods 15

Preparing the Soil: A New York Farm 43

Harrowing: The Prairie of Kansas, Indian Territory 73

Making a Better Garden: Creekside in Minnesota and Iowa 99

Ripening: The Dakota Prairie 135

Reaping: Settled Farm and Settled Town 171

Threshing: Prom Great Plains to Ozark Ridges 201

Saving Seed: Rocky Ridge Farm 229

Putting Food By: The Rock House and the Farmhouse 261

Wilder Gardens 297

Visiting Wilder Gardens 301

Growing a Wilder Garden 329

Source Abbreviations 336

Plants for a Wilder Garden 338

Recommended Reading 353

Sources and Citations 358

Acknowledgments 376

Photo and Illustration Credits 380

Index 382

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