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The eight books written and published by Laura Ingalls Wilder are Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy (about her husband, Almanzo Wilder), Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years, chronicling Laura's life from her childhood in Wisconsin to her marriage in what would later become South Dakota.
Not counting Farmer Boy, the first three and a half books chronicle the Ingallses' family life as they move from place to place on the American West frontier, partially to carve out a better life and partially to satisfy Pa's "itching foot." Farmer Boy, meanwhile, chronicles a year in the life of nine-year-old Almanzo (the same year his future wife was born), growing up and working hard on his family's prosperous farm near Malone, New York.
The last three and a half books are about the Ingalls family finally settling permanently in the brand-new town of De Smet, Dakota Territory, as Ma has finally put her foot down and demanded that her girls receive a stable education. The Ingallses are also recovering from a bout of scarlet fever, which has left oldest daughter Mary blind. These books focus in on Laura's life as she grows up and struggles to find ways to help her parents survive on the harsh frontier, while also exploring life away from home. Oh, and falling in love with Almanzo, who has also just arrived in De Smet and is now ambitious for his own farm.
There is some contention about how much of the books are purely Laura Ingalls Wilder: the stories are hers, to be sure, but her daughter was a popular author and was instrumental in encouraging her mother to publish her story. While Laura already had a background writing columns for local newspapers, some suggest Rose, who was an accomplished ghostwriter, wrote the books herself, while others suggest she merely offered advice and put Laura in touch with her publishing connections; the truth is likely somewhere between the two extremes.
After Wilder's death, her daughter found her journal account of their move from De Smet to Mansfield, Missouri, and had it published as On the Way Home. This was the kiss of death for Laura's immortality, as, after Rose's death, her lawyer and heir, Roger Lea MacBride, brought to light a manuscript Rose entrusted him with. MacBride published Laura's ninth book, The First Four Years, along with a collection of letters she wrote to Almanzo while visiting Rose in San Francisco during the World's Fair, West From Home. Not content to stop there, he also wrote a series of books about Rose, drawing on stories she told him as a child and tossing in a few creative liberties.
HarperCollins was similarly discontented, as they smelled a zombie franchise in the making (nearly half a century later!), and have since published books about Caroline Quiner Ingalls, Mary Ingalls, Nellie Oleson, and Laura's grandmother and great-grandmother, plus Old Town in the Green Groves, a book about the "lost years" Laura felt were too painful to include in children's books, written by Cynthia Rylant. These extra books vary in quality and success at emulating the charm of the originals, but all are interesting portraits of "America's favorite pioneer family."
A television adaptation began airing in 1974.
Tropes relating to Laura's books, and their companions, sequels, prequels, ad nauseam:
- Aerith and Bob: The Wilder siblings are named Royal, Eliza-Jane, Almanzo, and Alice.
- Altar the Speed: Laura and Almanzo decide to get married in a week, in the minister's parlour, because Eliza Jane and Mother Wilder are coming to out from Minnesota to plan a big church wedding neither bride nor groom can afford. Plus the harvest season is coming up. Laura is married in the black cashmere dress she conveniently has just made up. Back then, an elegant black dress in cashmere or (more commonly) silk, suitable for church or any other formal occasion, was a must for every practical woman's wardrobe.
- Annoying Younger Sibling: Grace sometimes comes across as this, as she's so much younger than Mary, Laura and Carrie and is frankly a little spoiled because of it.
- Arc Words: "Everything is evened up in the end. The rich have their ice in the summer but the poor get theirs in the winter."
- Author Avatar: Obviously. Although Wilder took quite a few liberties for the sake of her story, including combining three young rivals into 'Nellie Oleson' and eliminating a few very rough years in the Ingalls' lives that she apparently couldn't bring herself to write about.
- Automaton Horses: Averted.
- Barefoot Poverty: In Little House in Brookfield (the first book in "The Caroline Years," prequel series to this one) Caroline's oldest sister goes to church barefoot one day because the family is too poor to buy her new shoes and the old ones pinch her feet something terrible. She thinks her new long dress will cover up her shoeless feet, and she's right for most of the time but eventually gets caught. Her parents are not pleased.
- Beware the Nice Ones: Mr. Corse in Farmer Boy.
- Beta Couple: Cap Garland and Mary Power, until they break up.
- Big Damn Heroes: Almanzo and Cap make a cross-country journey in the depths of winter to bring back enough wheat to save the town from starvation.
- Blondes Are Evil: Nellie Oleson.
- Brainy Brunette: Laura has brown hair and is consistently at the top of her class. Her daughter, Rose, also has brown hair and is something of a prodigy.
- It's not a contrast between the blondes and brunette's in the book, however. Mary, who has blonde hair, is described as being incredibly smart with a great memory. Carrie's intelligence is never really addressed in the books.
- Brother Chuck: Unlike Royal and Eliza Jane, Alice doesn't appear again after Farmer Boy. Almanzo does mention Laura would like his mother, and he mentions his father when he tells her about his first horse, Starlight. Sadly, Alice's disappearance is probably because she died in Florida at the age of 39.
- Cassandra Truth: The Indian in The Long Winter who warns about "seven months of winter". Most of the townspeople don't put much stock in his claim at first.
- Coming of Age Story: The entire series chronicles Laura's life from childhood to adulthood.
- Composite Character: Nellie Oleson... thank God. Laura apparently felt it would be in poor taste to name real people if she was portraying them in a negative light, and so three unpleasant girls Laura knew were rolled into one. And yes, one of them moved from Walnut Grove to De Smet. Possibly also Mr. Edwards. The descendants of the three girls remain distinctly unimpressed with how much Laura made up.
- Costume Porn: Several of the books contain detailed descriptions of the clothes that Laura and her mother made for her and her sisters.
- Daddy's Girl: Laura. Pa's pet names for her were "Half-Pint" and "Flutterbudget." And not, as Cynthia Rylant would have you believe, "Apple Pie" or "Pumpkin Pie."
- Dead Little Brother: Freddy (Charles Fredrick Ingalls, Jr.) was only nine months old when he died (August 27, 1876), and the cause listed on the death certificate was diarrhea. In "Pioneer Girl" (an early manuscript), Laura describes Freddy as a sickly child. He began to lose weight without cause, and the family called for a doctor. After which Laura wrote, "But little brother got worse instead of better, and one awful day he straightened out his little body and was dead." The root cause could have been any number of things, several of which no longer exist in our society. It is also noteworthy that Laura and Almanzo's infant son also died soon after birth from "convulsions", as well as their daughter's infant son. Some speculate that the cause of these deaths could be some hereditary disease.
- Determinator: Almanzo and Cap Garland, who in The Long Winter head out to look for the homestead of a man who might have enough grain to keep the town from starving. They're not even sure where it is, or whether or not the man decided to winter on the prairie or go back East. Given the frequency of blizzards, it's a rather dangerous undertaking, but they find him, persuade him to give them some wheat, and successfully make it back to town. On a more personal note, Almanzo's unwilling to be put off by Laura's initial reluctance to let him court her, which of course paid off in the end.
- Determined Homesteader's Children: All of the Ingalls girls, naturally.
- Determined Homesteader's Wife: All of the "protagonist" girls except Rose, but especially Ma.
- Dogged Nice Guy: Almanzo Wilder's initial courtship of Laura takes essentially this form, particularly when she tells him up-front that she's letting him take her to and from her teaching job on the weekends so that she can get home, but doesn't plan to continue to go with him afterwards, so he shouldn't feel any obligation to keep coming to pick her up. Not only does he go right on doing so (in forty-below-zero weather), once her teaching job is over and she's back home, he turns up at her door the next weekend to ask if she'd like to go sleighing. (She would.)
- Education Mama: Ma, who was a schoolteacher when she was younger and has her heart set on one of her girls following in her footsteps. Everyone thought Mary would be the one, including Mary herself, but her blindness derailed her plans. Laura ends up becoming a schoolteacher, partly to please Ma, but mostly to earn enough money to send Mary to the college for the blind in Vinton, Iowa.
- Embarrassing First Name: Eliza Jane, who hates her name after an embarrassing ordeal in school. Almanzo's clearly not too fond of his, either (as he explains in-story, it stems from a family tradition of a 'Moorish' soldier named Al-Manzoor who once saved a Wilder ancestor.)
- It doesn't help that, once Nellie Oleson told the other girls why Eliza Jane hated her name, Laura's friend Ida wrote (with a little editing help from Laura) a nasty but humorously catchy limerick about it that half the little boys memorized and then sang loudly through the entire town. Eliza Jane needless to say was not pleased.
- Everyone Can See It: Everybody but Laura catches on to Almanzo's intentions around the time he starts driving a twenty-four mile round trip to bring her home for the weekends during her first teaching job.
Mary Power: And now to think that Laura's teaching school, and Almanzo Wilder's beauing her home.
- Eye Scream: In Farmer Boy, Almanzo and his sister Alice are helping their father burn potato stalks. They get hungry long before lunchtime, and bury a couple potatoes in the pile to roast for a snack. Unfortunately for Almanzo, when he goes to check on them, one explodes right in his face. He manages to shut his eye before it can blind him, but winds up with a nasty burn all over that side of his face.
- Failed a Spot Check: It takes Laura a good year to figure out just why Almanzo keeps seeing her home from church and driving her all over, and when she does she freaks out over it a little. Rather justified by the fact that she's fifteen years old and thus completely clueless about men. Ma, on the other hand, is much more Genre Savvy and for quite a while does not approve.
- Food Porn: Especially in Farmer Boy, to the point where it becomes a mild Running Gag. All that hard work in the fields gives little Almanzo a fierce appetite, and his mother is a fabulous cook; just how fabulous is spelled out on nearly every page. Worth noting that this'd be all organic, free-range ingredients, too...
- There are also at least two lengthy passages describing harvest and butchering time, with detailed descriptions of preparing and storing up food in various ways -- these are surprisingly engrossing.
- The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: Explicitly, beginning in the first book -- when they're about four and six respectively -- between Laura, who is plain, strong-willed and active, and Mary, who is pretty and perfectly well-behaved. Lessens naturally as they grow older, especially after Mary's blindness forces Laura to become her eyes. No doubt describing everything around her for her sister's benefit helped her writing talent, too.
- There's a nice scene in one of the later books where Mary admits that part of the reason it was so easy for her to be "good" when they were little was the pleasure of one-upping Laura -- so really, a lot of the time she wasn't being genuinely "good" at all.
- Hair of Gold: Mary and Grace, and Eliza in The Caroline Years. Sweetly lampshaded in the first book: when Laura, jealous of Mary's curls as compared to her own straight brown hair, sulks to her adored father, he points out that his hair is brown, too.
- Hidden Depths: In-story, Laura is surprised to realize that her gentle, ladylike mother hates sewing as much she does. In spite of this, both Laura and Ma are skilled seamstresses, as being able to make the family's clothes was an essential accomplishment.
- Hypocritical Humor: Mary confesses to Laura that she would like to write a book, and muses that she also planned to teach school, but now Laura is doing that for her. Laura finds the idea absolutely hysterical and tells her to write her own book.
- Ill Girl: It takes Carrie a long time to recover from the malnutrition the family suffered in The Long Winter. She's often mentioned as being "delicate", and suffers frequently from what sound like migraines. At one point she almost faints in school during an unjust punishment, prompting Laura to resent Eliza Jane even more. The fact that EJ picks on sickly little Carrie is what sends Laura over the edge, and makes her give up trying to get the other children to behave.
- Improbable Age: Laura, who gets her first teaching certificate at the age of fifteen, wonders if she's too young to be a capable teacher. The fact that three of her students are older than her really doesn't help her self-confidence, and she hits some rough patches during her first term because of it. It works out in the end, though.
- That's Truth in Television though, straight out of the real life of Clara Barton, who was thirteen when she first taught school.
- In with the In Crowd: Not even a year after Laura receives a new autograph album, Nellie Oleson finds out about name cards, and arbitrarily changes the fashion amongst the girls at school. Laura is initially reluctant to ask her parents to buy her some, but they eventually get her to admit she wants them and tell her that they want her to have the same nice things as other girls her age. Laura is both guilty and pleased. See also: Laura's hoopskirts (Laura: "They're a bit of a nuisance, but they are in style, and when you're my age, you'll want to be in style.") and bangs (or, as her parents call them, 'lunatic fringe').
- Injun Country: There are several descriptions of the displaced Indians in Little House on the Prairie, not openly unsympathetic (except from Ma's POV) but still as dangerous NobleSavages. Native American educators have some pretty harsh things to say about the books and the true story behind the Native situation at the time.
- I Was Quite a Looker: Ma was not as slim as she used to be, after five pregnancies, but described how tiny her waist was when she and Pa first met at one point (at the time the book is set, extremely small waistlines were in fashion and corsets were standard wear).
- Loophole Abuse: In On the Banks of Plum Creek, after being told she and Mary could no longer slide down the haystack, Laura decides that she can still roll down it. While she doesn't get punished for it, her father does then clarify that she is no longer to even touch the haystack.
- May-December Romance: A very mild example. In the books Laura shaved a few years off her and Almanzo's age gap--he was ten years her senior, meaning when he started courting her she was fifteen and he was twenty-five. That wouldn't have been seen as at all odd in the 1880's, when an age disparity in a couple might easily be twenty years, but by the time she wrote Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years it would have been considered a little skeevy. (Though not so startling as, in By the Shores of Silver Lake, the story of a girl who was married at thirteen; even Laura and her friend Lena are shocked by that, as they're both nearly the same age.)
- Misplaced Kindergarten Teacher: New schoolmarm Eliza Jane gives a speech on her first day about how she intends to rule by love, not fear: "Birds in their little nests agree!". Laura and her friends find it embarrassing and don't think it will go over well when the older boys start coming to school... as it turns out, they're all too right.
- My Card: The first time Laura and Almanzo properly speak to one another, they exchange name cards.
- Of Corset Hurts: Laura is not fond of her corset; she describes it as "a sad affliction to her". She actually looks forward to the hard work of bringing in the crops, because it means she can leave it off. She also can't follow her mother's and sister's example -- they both sleep in theirs, which she gives up on fairly early on. Carrie isn't too keen on the idea, either, and Laura tells her to be grateful to be without one while she has the chance.
- Old New Borrowed and Blue: When Ma Ingalls objects to Laura using her new black cashmere dress as her wedding dress, citing the saying "married in black, you'll wish yourself back," Laura cheerfully invokes this trope in response, saying she'll wear the dress with her old blue-lined bonnet and borrow Ma's gold brooch. Ma concedes that there is probably not much truth in such sayings.
- One Steve Limit: Carrie's just a nickname, she was named after her mother, Caroline. Almanzo's oldest sister was also left out of Farmer Boy so as to not confuse readers, since her name was also Laura -- which is also why Almanzo called his wife "Bess" or "Bessie" (her middle name being Elizabeth). Laura's friend, Mary Power, is also always referred to by her full name - as to avoid confusion with Laura's sister.
- Overprotective Dad: Averted with Pa, who has no problem with the much older Almanzo's courtship of Laura, nor of that courtship mostly consisting of driving around behind unbroken horses. Ma isn't too pleased about it; at one point she opines that it seems Almanzo wants to break Laura's neck, and she hopes he breaks his own first.
- Perspective Flip: Farmer Boy.
- Pet the Dog: Eliza Jane is usually not portrayed in the best light, but she does one good moment: after Almanzo ruins the wallpaper in their mother's parlor - by throwing a brush at Eliza Jane, no less - EJ finds the leftover paper in the attic and patches it up before Mother and Father find out.
- Plot-Relevant Age-Up: In Little House in the Big Woods, Laura is portrayed as being about five years old. In reality, she was only three. A publisher had her increase her age because it seemed unrealistic that a three-year-old would have such specific memories.
- Plucky Girl: Most of the female characters; the 1880's frontier life tended to require it.
- Princess Curls: "Nasty" Nellie Olson's hair, as shown in the famous Williams illustrations, is a classic example of this style.
- Rapunzel Hair: In These Happy Golden Years, Laura's hair is described as falling past her knees when it's loose. Ma also mentions that when she and Pa were first married, her hair was so long she could sit on the braids. At that point in time long hair was considered a defining trait of femininity, so most women grew it as much as they could, and rarely (if ever) cut it.
- Pa cut Mary's hair short during her bout with scarlet fever (a common practice at the time, since it was thought that cutting off hair could reduce fever). Ma takes great pains to hide this when they're out in public.
- Sadist Teacher: Eliza Jane picks on sickly little sister Carrie to make Laura mad, because she's under the impression Laura is throwing her weight around due to Pa being on the school board. Possibly a Take That, since the real Laura and Eliza Jane didn't get along very well at all; see also EJ being portrayed as a bossy little bitch in Farmer Boy.
- Scenery Porn: Loving descriptions of the prairie scenery are a staple of the series.
- Shipper on Deck: Laura for Mary Power and Cap Garland. And to a minor degree, Mary Power for Laura and Almanzo. Pa Ingalls seems to encourage Laura and Almanzo's courtship as well.
- Spirited Young Lady: Laura develops into a middle-class American version of this, while Mary remains a Proper Lady (see Tomboy and Girly Girl, below).
- Tomboy and Girly Girl: Laura and Mary respectively, when they're little. Mary enjoys sewing and knitting, whereas Laura would much rather be outside, either playing or helping Pa. When neighbors come to visit in Little House in the Big Woods, Mary and the neighbor girl play nicely in the house, while Laura and the boy go climb trees. Laura becomes less of a tomboy as she grows up, but she never does learn to like sewing - although she took a lot of seamstressing jobs to help her family financially.
- In the Rose Years series, whistling is mentioned as something Laura enjoys, though it's not considered very lady-like.
- Tongue on the Flagpole: During a cold snap in Farmer Boy, Almanzo muses that some kids are foolish enough to take the dare to lick a pump handle, but he knows better.
- Tsundere: Laura puts up a sharp front because she doesn't dare show much affection for Almanzo. This changes after he proves himself by saving the town... and she proves herself extremely handy at outmaneuvering her rival Nellie.
- Whip It Good: A gang of rough older boys comes to Almanzo's school every winter to beat up the teacher and drive him away... until this year's model, small, soft-spoken Mr. Corse, literally drives them out Indiana Jones-style with a borrowed bullwhip.
- Write Who You Know: Justified Trope, since the books are partially autobiographical.
- It is true, however, that The First Four Years, which was written without Rose's help, is similar in content but noticeably different in style to the rest of the series.