5 Ways the Little House on the Prairie Books Stretched the Truth

Lorie Shaull, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Lorie Shaull, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

There’s nothing weirder than learning that one of your favorite stories didn’t really happen that way. For the thousands of devoted fans of the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder (who was born on February 7, 1867), that problem is particularly acute. After all, the books are based on real events—but events that are also largely fictitious. Where does history end and fiction begin? 

1. THE INGALLS FAMILY DIDN'T ALWAYS HEAD WEST.

From the moment the Ingalls family sets out in their wagon and leaves the Little House in the Big Woods, the Little House books show an unceasing push West. Real life and Manifest Destiny don’t always line up, though, and in fact the Ingalls family tracked back and forth several times before setting down in De Smet, South Dakota.

The Ingalls family’s first stop after Wisconsin was Independence, Kansas (with a possible stop in Missouri), where they built a “little house” on the open prairie. But the land was not theirs to settle: It was owned by the Osage people [PDF] and the Ingalls family, like thousands of other settlers, were squatters waiting for the Osage to be driven out so that the United States could take it over. It’s not entirely clear why the Ingalls family left, but instead of continuing west they went back to Wisconsin.

Next, they went west again, this time settling near Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Then, financial difficulties, illness, and a plague of locusts forced them to move on. They went to visit family elsewhere in Minnesota, but while there, Laura’s 10-month-old brother, Freddie, died after a sudden illness. Then they continued on to Burr Oak, Iowa, where they ran a hotel. The Ingallses then backtracked to Walnut Grove, where Mary lost her vision, then went west again and eventually settled in what is now South Dakota.

Nonetheless, Laura and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who heavily edited and helped develop the first books, decided that the fictional Ingallses should always move West. The result is a sense of wanderlust and movement that gives the series its structure.

2. JACK, LAURA'S DOG, DIDN'T LEAVE KANSAS.

Aw, Jack! Laura’s happy little puppy pal! Though faithful Jack tracks the fictional Laura through the books until she becomes an adolescent, Laura revealed in Pioneer Girl, the original autobiography that formed the basis for the books, that he was actually left behind in Kansas when Pa traded him for some horses and ponies. When writing the book, Laura decided to have Jack die peacefully in his sleep—perhaps in a way she could control, as opposed to the uncertain fate of her real-life dog.

3. MARY INGALLS PROBABLY DIDN'T HAVE SCARLET FEVER.

A phot of Mary Ingalls' grave marker in South Dakota
Ross Griff, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Everyone knows the story of how Mary Ingalls contracted scarlet fever and lost her sight permanently. Except she probably didn’t. Dr. Beth Tarini, a professor and pediatric and adolescent medicine specialist, obsessed over Mary’s diagnosis from the time she was a child, then discovered in med school that scarlet fever can’t blind someone.

But viral meningoencephalitis can—and Tarini thinks that Laura and her daughter, Rose, attributed the blindness to scarlet fever either to make the story more accessible to kids or because the disease may have already been familiar from other novels like Little Women. She even published an academic paper about it [PDF]. (In real life, Laura wrote Mary had "spinal meningitis," which she crossed out and replaced with "some sort of spinal sickness. I am not sure if the Dr. named it.” She also wrote that the blindness was caused by a stroke, but Tarini deemed a stroke unlikely since there were no other signs of one.)

Mary may not have gone blind from scarlet fever, but she did lose her sight. She ended up attending the Iowa College for the Blind, where she could take classes like civil government, botany, and piano tuning. Mary was an adept student and put the industrial training she got there to good use: After Pa died, she made fly nets to help the family earn more money.

4. THE INGALLS FAMILY HAD GUESTS DURING THE LONG WINTER.

Houses were small in the pioneer era, but that didn’t mean that they were all devoted to single-family living. During the “hard winter” of 1880-81, the Ingalls family took in a couple named Maggie and George Masters. George was the son of a family friend and Maggie was his new wife, who had married him in an apparent shotgun wedding situation. “Maggie didn’t want the baby to be born at her folks’ and disgrace them,” Laura wrote in a letter to her daughter, Rose. “George’s folks were mad because he married her.”

The Masters family were not the best of houseguests. In her notes to Pioneer Girl, Ingalls scholar Pamela Smith Hill explains that Maggie had her baby in the house without the assistance of a doctor, and the newlyweds ran out of money and kept wearing out their welcome. “Times like this test people,” wrote Laura, “and we were getting to know George and Maggie.”

So why aren’t they in The Long Winter, the award-winning book that relates the story of a winter so extreme, the blizzards lasted six months? Chalk it up to authorial savvy: Laura felt it would dilute the power of a family stuck inside their house, forced to face the elements as a unit.

5. NELLIE OLESON WASN'T A REAL PERSON.

Alison Arngrim And Bob Marsic In Episode Of 'Little House On The Prairie'
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

If there’s a villain in the Little House books, it’s Nellie Oleson, the snooty brat who torments Laura when they're girls and tries to steal Almanzo from Laura when they're young women. In reality, though, there wasn’t a single Nellie Oleson. She is thought to have been a composite of three real-life people named Genevieve Masters, Nellie Owens, and Stella Gilbert. Laura had unpleasant run-ins with all three, interactions she apparently never forgot.

BONUS: “ALMANZO” WASN'T PRONOUNCED AL-MAHN-ZO.

Laura gives her beau, Almanzo, a sweet nickname in the books: Manly. (She also referred to him as “the man of the place” in real life.) That’s for good reason—his name was pronounced Al-MAN-zo, not Al-mahn-zo.

The wrong pronunciation apparently took hold through the confounding influence that was the Little House on the Prairie TV show—a polarizing pop culture phenomenon that also introduced inaccuracies and anachronisms like adopted children and basketball into the fictional Ingalls family.

'Turdsworth': Lord Byron’s Not-So-Affectionate Nickname for William Wordsworth

GeorgiosArt/iStock via Getty Images
GeorgiosArt/iStock via Getty Images

For those of you who thought William Wordsworth was a not-so-subtle pseudonym meant to further the literary brand of a certain 19th-century poet, think again: William Wordsworth’s real name was actually William Wordsworth.

The fitting, alliterative moniker makes it hard to forget that Wordsworth was a wordsmith, but it also made him an easy target for mockery at the hands of other Romantic era writers.

Some of it was the type of clever wordplay you might expect from England’s elite poets. In an essay for the London Review of Books, Michael Wood highlights the time that Samuel Taylor Coleridge sent his poem “The Nightingale” to Wordsworth, writing, “And like an honest bard, dear Wordsworth/You’ll tell me what you think, my Bird’s worth.”

While Coleridge’s witty rhyme poked fun at Wordsworth in a playful way, not all of his contemporaries were quite so kind. As Literary Hub points out, Lord Byron referred to Wordsworth as “Turdsworth.”

Byron’s jab sounds like something you’d hear at an elementary-school kickball game, but, then again, the eccentric poet was never one to adhere to anybody’s expectations—during college, for example, he often walked his pet bear around the grounds.

As for the word turd itself, it’s been around much longer than you might have realized. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it derives from the Old English word tord, meaning “piece of excrement,” and it’s been used as a personal insult ever since the 15th century.

If fecal-themed nicknames aren’t really your thing, here are 42 other Old English insults that you can fling with abandon.

[h/t Literary Hub]

The New York Public Library’s 10 Most Checked-Out Books of All Time

Popartic/iStock via Getty Images
Popartic/iStock via Getty Images

To celebrate the 125th anniversary of the New York Public Library’s opening in 1895, a team of library experts decided it was only fitting to highlight the perennially popular books that have contributed to its success.

They pulled the circulation stats on all print and digital formats of books, analyzed factors like length of time in print and presence in the library catalog, and came up with a list of the library’s 10 most checked-out books of all time.

Topping the list was Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day, the charmingly illustrated, timeless tale of a young boy discovering the wintry wonders of a snow day. It’s been in circulation since its publication in 1962, and it’s far from the only children’s book on the list—in fact, six of the top 10 most borrowed books are meant for a young audience, including Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. As the library explains, this is partly because shorter books have quicker turnover rates, and partly because certain children’s classics appeal to a wide range of readers.

And, of course, it would hardly be a “top books” list if it didn’t include at least one of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone came in ninth place, with 231,022 checkouts. One children’s book, however, is conspicuously missing: Margaret Wise Brown’s peaceful bedtime story Goodnight Moon, published in 1947 and seemingly read by just about everyone. According to the NYPL, Anne Carroll Moore, an important children’s librarian at the time of the book's publication, despised the story, so the library didn’t add it to the catalog until 1972. (They gave it an “honorable mention” designation on this list.)

Books can also rack up high circulation numbers if they’re often used in school curriculums, like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, or cover themes that appear (and reappear) in current events—which might explain why George Orwell’s 1984 has been checked out a staggering 441,770 times.

See the rest of the top 10 below, and find out which books made the NYPL’s 2019 most checked-out list here.

  1. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats // 485,583
  1. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss // 469,650
  1. 1984 by George Orwell // 441,770
  1. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak // 436,016
  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee // 422,912
  1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White // 337,948
  1. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury // 316,404
  1. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie // 284,524
  1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling // 231,022
  2. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle // 189,550

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER