Wolves Howling in the Night Redux

We learn that wolves “lived in the Big Woods” in the opening chapter of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novel based on her life in 1870s Wisconsin. As she contemplated her cozy family from her trundle bed, she heard a wolf approach the house and begin to howl. “It was a scary sound,” she told her readers, but she was safe inside the family’s cabin. Pa and Jack, the bulldog, were on guard, and the wolves would not get past them. One night, Pa let her look out the window at two wolves who “pointed their noses at the big, bright moon, and howled” (Big Woods, pp. 2–3). Wilder shared a variation of this same story in Little House on the Prairie (pp. 96–98). Both episodes derive from the first pages of her autobiography, Pioneer Girl, where she recorded her memories of Kansas in 1869–1871.1 In fact, the opening chapter of Wilder’s book about Wisconsin borrows essential details, including Jack himself, from her life in Kansas, illustrating one of the ways in which Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, reframed autobiography as autobiographical fiction.

Illustrator Helen Sewell depicted the wolves howling outside of the Ingalls family’s cabin.

In the summer of 1930, trying to market her mother’s writing, Lane began to piece together a picture book based on Wilder’s life in Wisconsin, stringing together episodes from Pioneer Girl. She opened it by enhancing the details her mother had shared about the Wisconsin wilderness. She focused on the remoteness of the Big Woods and the menacing predators—wolves, bears, and wildcats—that roamed the forest. However, while Wilder had recorded stories of panthers and bears in Wisconsin, she remembered little about wolves there. No problem. Lane simply plucked them from the opening pages of Wilder’s recollections of Kansas. From Lane’s point of view, the images were too dramatic to leave out. “One night Pa picked me up out of bed,” Wilder had recalled, “and carried me to the window so I could see the wolves. There were so many of them all sitting in a ring around the house, with their noses pointed up at the bright moon, howling as loud and long as they could, while Jack paced before the door and growled.”2

When Wilder began to expand the picture-book manuscript into a chapter book in February 1931, she accepted her daughter’s opening of the novel and the transplanting of Jack to Wisconsin, but she changed the wolf story so that it contained only two wolves rather than the whole pack.3 From her point of view, the story would remain “true” because it was based on a real incident and had “actually happened.”4 Caroline Fraser has shown that Wilder learned this concept of “true stories” from Lane, who employed it in her journalistic career. In Lane’s case, it often led to the “invention” of facts.5 Within the Little House series, however, it reflected Wilder’s acceptance of the underlying reality of incidents as long as they happened to her, her family, or someone she knew at some point. For example, she would tell Lane in 1937 that an incident in The First Four Years was “true but happened to a friend of mine.”6 In transplanting the wolves to Wisconsin and altering their numbers, Wilder was employing the freedoms that fiction allowed while remaining true to her memories of wolves howling in the night. Although she might not have been consciously planning ahead, Wilder’s limiting the number of wolves in Wisconsin also allowed her to reuse her memories of the entire pack when she wrote Little House on the Prairie three years later.

―Nancy Tystad Koupal

  1. Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), pp. 1–5.
  2. Ibid., p. 5.
  3. Koupal, ed., Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, forthcoming in 2023), part 1, notes 3, 6-7, 9.
  4. Wilder to Almanzo Wilder, Sept. 11, 1915, in West from Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder to Almanzo Wilder, San Francisco, 1915, ed. Roger Lea MacBride (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), p. 47.
  5. Fraser, “The Strange Case of the Bloody Benders: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and Yellow Journalism,” in Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2017), p. 32.
  6. Wilder, note to Lane in “First Three Years,” p. 39, Box 16, file 250, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.


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