Friday, February 13, 2009

Happy Birthday Almanzo!

On February 13, 1857 James and Angelina Wilder welcomed a son. They named him Almanzo James Wilder, and he joined the other Wilder children: Laura Ann, Royal, Eliza Jane, and Alice on the Wilder farm in upstate New York.

All his life, Almanzo wanted to be a farmer. In Farmer Boy--the only book of the entire Little House series dedicated solely to Almanzo--we read of young Almanzo's life growing up in the red farmhouse that has been lovingly restored by the Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder Association. This classic children's tale centers around Almanzo trying to prove to his father that he is old enough to have his own colt. And in the end, after much work and determination, Almanzo succeeds.

We don't hear about Almanzo again until The Long Winter--my favorite of all the Little House books--where Almanzo and Cap Garland risk their lives to find seed wheat to feed the starving town of De Smet, SD that has been cut off from supplies because the trains won't make it through until spring.

Spring finally comes to the prairie, and there are church socials, dances, and "literaries" to keep everyone entertained. We read of Laura and Almanzo's meeting in Little Town on the Prairie and how Almanzo began escorting Laura home. Then when Laura is forced to take a job in Brewster to help pay Mary's tuition at the blind school, The Happy Golden Years tells us of Almanzo driving Laura back and forth from Brewster because she was homesick and of the sleigh rides they shared together once she was home for good. And who could forget Almanzo's suprise return on Christmas Eve when he was supposed to be in Minnesota with Royal.

Farmer Boy and the books of Almanzo and Laura's courtship are filled with fun times, but The First Four Years has a decidely different tone. Published after Laura's and Rose's deaths, this book chronicles the first four years of the Wilders' marriage--which was filled with disappointments and sorrow. Lost crops, illness, and the loss of their home and son did not allow for the healthy dose of optimism that is prevalent in the other Little House books. And we realize how difficult the pioneering era truly was.

On the Way Home details Laura, Almanzo, and Rose's trip from De Smet, SD to Mansfield, MO, where they would spend most of their married lives. Here, the Wilders prospered, Laura became a journalist, and wrote her Little House books.

It is impossible for me to enter into a discussion of Almanzo Wilder without mentioning Dean Butler, who portrayed Almanzo on the classic television show, Little House on the Prairie. Dean's version of Almanzo captured the strong, silent man from Laura's books. He brought to life, Almanzo's love of the farm and his horses, and even his ability to push through adversity and make a life for him and his family.

Dean has maintained the connection to his Little House on the Prairie roots. Dean has produced some of the bonus content for the Little House DVDs and the majority of the new bonus content found on the Little House on the Prairie Mega-Pack. In addition, Dean and Legacy Documentaries released a documentary of Almanzo Wilder's childhood, based upon Farmer Boy. You can find my review of Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura here.

On Almanzo Wilder's 152nd birthday, we remember the boy growing up on the farm in New York. We think fondly of the dashing young man who courted Laura and won her heart. During the month of love, our hearts are touched by the effort and care Almanzo built into Rocky Ridge Farm that he shared with Laura for many years. And lastly, we are thankful for Laura's loving portrayal of her husband in so many of her books.

Happy Birthday Manly!

Monday, February 9, 2009

New Laura Ingalls Wilder Title from LIW biographer John E. Miller

While searching the Internet for the cover art of Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder by John E. Miller, I discovered that Miller recently came out with another Laura Ingalls Wilder title published by the University of Missouri Press.

Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane: Authorship, Place, Time, and Culture (Dec 2008) analyzes the fascinating partnership between mother and daughter and addresses two of the most controversial issues for Wilder and Lane fans: how much did Rose contribute to Mama Bess's Little House books and how did Laura truly feel about the Indians.

For more on this title, visit the University of Missouri Press online at

February Featured Book of the Month

Many biographers write about Laura Ingalls Wilder, but few discuss her life in its historical context as well as John E. Miller. In Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, Miller focuses on the Wilder's years in the Land of the Big Red Apple--Mansfield, Missouri--from 1894 to 1957.

Through the use of Wilder's unpublished biography, letters, newspaper articles, and other doumentary evidence, Miller discusses how Laura Ingalls Wilder the pioneer and farm wife became Laura Ingalls Wilder the author.

Miller discusses Laura's relationship with her daughter Rose, Laura's writing career prior to the publication of her Little House series, and her life on the farm, to build a complete picture of Laura, and shows how Laura's personal life and experiences shaped her books.

For all these reasons and more, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder by John E. Miller is February's Featured Book of the Month.

I own the hardcover version of this book, but a paperback version with a new cover was released in 2006.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Happy Birthday Laura!

"Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs."

With these opening words from Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder secured her place in the world of children's literature.

I'm sure most of you know the story by now. At the age of sixty-three, Laura was saddened to realize that so many people she knew and loved had passed away and that the things they did and the dreams they had might be forgotten. So, at her daughter Rose's request, Laura sat down at her desk and wrote the stories of her childhood.

Even though the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, Virginia Kirkus, an editor at Harper's realized the potential of Laura's story, and once published, Little House in the Big Woods was praised by critics across the country.

What Laura had seen as a one-book adventure of the Ingalls's life in the Big Woods, turned into an eight book series, with the ninth book, The First Four Years, being published after her death.

On Laura's 142nd birthday, we think fondly upon the little girl who lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin in her little grey house made of logs. We thank Laura for sharing the spirit of the pioneering life with generations of children worldwide. We feel blessed that her books have been turned into movies and television shows that allow us to appreciate the life the Ingalls and Wilder families lived. And lastly, we are thankful for those whose continued interest in Laura's life brings us new ways to discover the world of the Little House all over again.

Happy Birthday Laura!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Character Profile for Almanzo James Wilder

Anyone who knows me, knows that Almanzo Wilder has long been one of my favorite Little House on the Prairie characters. While not the most complex of people, Almanzo's temper and stubborn pride could get the better of him at times.

As I began compiling this character profile, I thought about the wonderful ways in which Dean Butler made the Almanzo from Laura's books real to me. While Dean's physical appearance--most notably his height--did not resemble the real Almanzo's, I've always felt Dean captured the essence of the strong, quiet man that I've read about in Laura's books and the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder biographers such as William Anderson, John E. Miller, and Donald Zochert. Dean might not have known it, but some fans of the show noticed how he tucks his napkin into his shirt, as Almanzo did in Laura's books. I've long wondered, but never have had the courage to ask Dean about that crooked smile Almanzo sports, usually when talking with Laura. It's the mannerism that I mention in almost all my fan fiction stories because it is what makes Almanzo unique to me.

I hope you enjoy my impressions of Almanzo Wilder as portrayed by Dean Butler in Little House on the Prairie.


The moment Almanzo Wilder came into town looking for his sister, the new school teacher, Miss Wilder (Back to School), Laura Ingalls’s life was never the same. Stumbling over her words, Laura was immediately attracted to Almanzo, who was several years older than she. Perhaps it was Almanzo’s twinkling blue eyes or his full mane of wavy blonde hair that captured her attention. Or perhaps it was the crooked smile that often crept across his face.

But no matter what caused Laura’s love at first sight attraction, one thing was certain—she was going to make Almanzo Wilder see her as a woman one day.

Not many attractive young men wandered into Walnut Grove, so when Mrs. Oleson catches a glimpse of the tall, strong Almanzo, she immediately sees a suitor for her daughter Nellie. Having given Nellie a restaurant and hotel for a graduation gift, Harriet invites Almanzo to supper. When Caroline refuses to work on Sunday to prepare a meal for Nellie and her potential beau, Laura offers to help out. Seeking to wipe out the competition for Almanzo’s affections, Laura laces the cinnamon chicken with cayenne pepper and Almanzo storms out after his first bite.

By this time Almanzo and Laura call each other Manly and Beth. He gave Laura her nickname after she mistakenly called him Manly instead of Mannie, and as Laura is quick to point out, it's a grown up nickname-—much to Charles’s dismay. And in some ways, this might give Laura the wrong impression of their relationship. But when Nellie exacts her revenge, Laura discovers that Almanzo only sees her as a little girl, and is heartbroken.

Laura would have other rivals for Almanzo’s affections, namely snippy Christie Norton (Annabelle) and Sara in Silent Promises. All Laura can hope is that Almanzo waits until she gets old enough.

Mr. Slater and his son Bart come to Walnut Grove and the schoolhouse is turned upside down (The Werewolf of Walnut Grove). When Miss Wilder is unable to maintain control at the school, the school board decides to replace her, and the Wilders plan to move on. Beth and Manly share a touching conversation where Almanzo admits that he will miss his young friend. Luckily Laura convinces the children to stand up to Bart and he agrees to behave so that Miss Wilder can return to school.

But as soon as Perley Day Wilder saunters into Walnut Grove, things begin to change between Beth and Manly (Wilder and Wilder). Charles sees Perley Day as the perfect suitor for Laura, and out of spite, Laura invites Perley Day to supper. It is Perley Day who points out to Almanzo that Laura isn’t a little girl, and perhaps the wheels start turning in Almanzo’s mind that Perley Day might be right.

The relationship between the Wilder brothers is tense. Perley Day is living a less than desirable life and has hurt the family. When Barnum is injured, Almanzo forces Perley Day to leave town and then takes Barnum to the Ingalls’s barn. Having spent all night tending to Barnum, when Charles tells Almanzo that it looks like the horse will be fine, an excited Almanzo embraces Laura and kisses her on the top of the head, saying, “We did it Beth. We did it.”

And it is at this moment that Charles realizes Almanzo will be playing a larger role in his daughter’s life…even though Almanzo doesn’t know it yet. Charles has never been thrilled over Laura’s fascination with Almanzo because of the difference in their ages. Perhaps seeing Almanzo as a rival for Laura’s affection in some odd way, after watching Almanzo forfeit an arm wrestling match to save his horse, Charles finally accepts him.

Right before Laura’s sixteenth birthday, Laura earns her teaching certificate and is given a job in Curry (Sweet Sixteen). Almanzo agrees to drive her back and forth to work because Charles is busy with work and the farm. While at first telling Laura that her new clothing and hairstyle don’t make her look grown up at all, when Almanzo returns to pick Laura up at the end of her first week, he admits she looks older.

Almanzo is confused by this sudden change in Laura, or more accurately, by how he suddenly sees her. He nervously asks her to the church social, to which Laura says she’ll have to think about it, adding to Almanzo’s confusion.

After punching one of Laura’s students because he thought he was making advances to her, Almanzo has a heart to heart talk with Mr. Ingalls and admits his growing feelings for Laura. At the social that night, Beth and Manly have another sweet conversation and share their first kiss. Their courtship has begun.

But it won’t be an easy one. Almanzo finally works up the courage to ask Laura to marry him, but he doesn’t want to wait until she turns eighteen (He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not). When Charles insists they wait, Almanzo leaves Walnut Grove and moves to Sleepy Eye. A heartbroken Laura keeps busy helping Mary and Adam set up the new blind school, but they don’t have enough money to pay for the building.

Unbeknownst to Laura, Almanzo takes a second job to help cover the rent. When Almanzo comes down with pneumonia, Charles brings Laura to Sleepy Eye to care for Almanzo, who admits he’ll wait two years or twenty years to get married.

Almanzo’s stubborn, prideful side appears again in the episode, Laura Ingalls Wilder. When he loses his first crop and the land that he had bought to build a home for Laura, he won’t allow her to take a job in Radner to help get him back on his feet. Their engagement is called off twice before they finally reconcile and get married at the blind school in Sleepy Eye.

Eliza Jane has now moved to Minneapolis, so Almanzo and Laura settle in the white house that he used to share with his sister. Early married life is filled with disagreements, a visit from two impossible nephews, and a separation while Laura moves into the hotel to support her mother in helping to get women the right to vote. But it will be Almanzo’s illness and paralysis that tests their marriage like nothing before.

Now awaiting the birth of their first child, Laura has no idea how deeply into debt they are, and it is possible that the Wilders will lose their home (Days of Sunshine, Days of Shadow). Distraught over how poorly things have turned out, Almanzo can’t seem to find the will to get better and prays he’ll die. Eliza Jane’s surprise visit does nothing but hamper Almanzo’s recovery. It takes a tornado wiping out the house and Laura giving up and retreating to bed, before Almanzo is able to find any hope of making a good life for Laura and his newborn daughter, Rose.

This will not be the last test of their marriage, however. The Ingalls family moves to Burr Oak, Iowa and Almanzo’s older brother, Royal—now a widower—returns for a visit with his daughter, Jenny (Times Are Changing). When Royal dies of heart disease, the Wilders take Jenny in. Jenny tries to kill herself so that she can be with her parents and later she nearly drowns while trying to retrieve her locket from the swimming hole (Marvin’s Garden). Laura, Rose, and Jenny are taken hostage by an unstable neighbor (Rage) and the railroad threatens to come right through their property (The Empire Builders). The Wilders welcome a son, but he soon dies and Rose comes down with small pox (A Child with No Name).

The Wilders are thrilled when Charles and Caroline pay a visit to Walnut Grove, but that visit soon turns tragic when the railroad once again threatens to take over the town. Even though the Wilders have made it through many trials in the first few years of their marriage, this is truly The Last Farewell for them in Walnut Grove, as they are forced to blow up the house they inherited from a rich widow, say goodbye to all their friends, and watch as their beloved town is blown up, one building at a time, so that the railroad gets the message.

Almanzo’s story will always be closely interwoven with Laura. While we get a glimpse of his early life in the episode A Christmas They Never Forgot, it is his relationship with Laura that propels this character forward. A young man who has always depended upon his older sister, when he must take a stand for his family and start over, he does so strongly, on both feet. While at times, stubborn and full of pride, for the most part Almanzo is an easygoing, happy man who loves being a farmer. And even when he is forced once again to start over after the railroad takes everything that is precious to him, he holds onto hope for the future, a future that includes his beloved Laura and their children.