Among the literary influences that surface in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House novels are three classics: the Bible, the Brothers Grimm, and Aesop’s Fables. Recent studies have explored Wilder’s religious beliefs and how they influenced her writing (Stephen Hines, John Fry) and her employment of fairy tale elements (Sallie Ketcham), but Wilder’s use of Aesop receives less attention. As an annotation in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography puts it, however, Wilder and her father “knew their Aesop.” In their telling of the story of Charley Quiner’s encounter with yellow jackets in a harvest field in Wisconsin, father and daughter alluded to Aesop’s classic tale about the shepherd boy who repeatedly cried wolf to alarm the villagers. When the wolf actually arrived, the boy was not believed, and he suffered the consequences because “there is no believing a liar, even when he speaks the truth.”1
Charles Ingalls is the original source of the story of Charley Quiner, and he is the one who first couched it in its Aesopian framework. “When I was a girl at home, my father came in from the harvest field one day at noon and with great glee told what had befallen my cousin Charley,” Wilder recalled in 1919. Charley had accompanied his own father and his uncle Charles to the field, where “he lagged behind . . . and then began to scream, jumping up and down and throwing his arms around.” When the men rushed to him, thinking he was hurt or bitten by a snake, the boy laughed at them. He fooled them three times, but when he screamed a fourth time, they ignored him. Finally, as he kept yelling, they found him jumping up and down on a yellow jacket nest and badly stung. Wilder, who was using the analogy in 1919 to explain why Germany was “morally bankrupt” after four years of broken pledges, concluded, “Boys or men or nations it seems to be the same, if they prove themselves liars times enough, nobody will believe them when they do tell the truth.”2
In Pioneer Girl and Little House in the Big Woods, Charles Ingalls again regales his family with the story of the naughty boy and the yellow jackets. He ends the tale with, “It served the little liar right” (PGAA, p. 53). Tucked up in her trundle bed in Big Woods, Laura Ingalls also contemplated the issue, concluding that she “didn’t understand how Charley could be a liar, when he had not said a word” (BW, pp. 210–11). Wilder’s youthful bewilderment, which she first recorded in Pioneer Girl, finally finds its appropriate audience. Young readers of eight to ten can still relate and feel superior to five-year-old Laura’s puzzlement over the unspoken lie.
―Nancy Tystad Koupal
1.George F. Townsend, trans., Aesop’s Fables, 1867, reprint ed. Aesopica: Aesop’s Fables in English, Latin & Greek. mythfolklore.net/aesopica/Townsend/index, no. 74. See also Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), pp. 53–54n88.
2. Wilder “The Farm Home,” June 5, 1919, in Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist: Writings from the Ozarks, ed. Stephen W. Hines (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007), p. 187.