The Little Girl in the Big Woods—Wilder’s Fairy-Tale Setting

Caroline Ingalls (seated left), Eliza Quiner Ingalls (standing), and Martha Quiner Carpenter (seated right). Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society

When Laura Ingalls Wilder began to expand the picture-book typescript “When Grandma Was a Little Girl,” she discovered that Rose Wilder Lane had placed her Wisconsin home farther north than it had actually been. At the same time, Wilder recognized that Lane had accurately captured what Wilder termed “the glamor” of the deep woods, and she immediately reinstated the classic opening from her original memoir, “Once upon a time years and years ago.”1 From this beginning, Wilder “grafted elements of European fairy tale directly onto a real place and time,” turning the Wisconsin woods “into America’s own enchanted forest.”2 Wilder’s affinity for the forest of her childhood echoed her aunt Martha Quiner Carpenter’s appreciation for it. In spite of predators, Carpenter wrote, “we were glad to get out in [the] woods. . . . [It] was beautiful to be out there with birds and other small animals of the forest and to hear the . . . music of the wilds with the beauty of all the rest of the landscape[;] it would carry you away and you would forget yourself and rejoice that you were there to see and have it all.”3 These same sentiments underlie Pa’s experience in the final chapter of Big Woods, when he fails to shoot at a bear because “I was so much interested in watching him, and the woods were so peaceful in the moonlight, that I forgot all about my gun. . . . until [the bear] was waddling away into the woods” (BW, pp. 234–35).

The fairy-tale setting of the woods, as Carpenter indicated, included the inevitable predators—bears, mountain lions, and wolves. While all these creatures inhabited the Big Woods, Wilder’s wolf in the first chapter of Big Woods originated in Kansas, where Wilder remembered “a long, scared sound, off in the night, and Pa said it was a wolf howling.”4 In changing the wolf’s location from the Kansas prairies to the Wisconsin woods, Lane enhanced the scene with this line: “Grandma knew that wolves ate little girls.”5 Studies suggest that wolves avoid people and attack only when rabid or otherwise provoked, but, as Lane knew in adding this line to her mother’s story, and Wilder recognized in letting it stand in the novel (BW, p. 3), wolves do eat little girls in fairy tales. In “Little Red Riding Hood,” literary critics often construe the predatory wolf as “a metaphor for sexually seductive men.” Conversely, the wolf “can also be read as a hybrid figure who crosses the boundary between wilderness and civilization.”6 As biographer Caroline Fraser has argued, in Wilder’s work, wolves symbolize freedom at the edge of a vanishing wilderness.7 No matter how the wolves are understood, Wilder’s first novel relied on her readers’ familiarity with fairy tales to see the glamor and magic of the setting. To make sure that readers made the connection between Laura Ingalls and the classic fairy-tale heroine, illustrator Helen Sewell portrayed her in a red hood in the colored frontispiece of Little House in the Big Woods.

―Nancy Tystad Koupal

  1. Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), p. 1 (compare with BW, p. 1). For Wilder’s comment about the glamor of the woods, see Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2023), p. 64.
  2. Sallie Ketcham, “Fairy Tale, Folklore, and the Little House in the Deep Dark Woods” in Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2017), p. 214.
  3. Martha Carpenter to Wilder, Sept. 2, 1925, Box 14, file 204, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.
  4. Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal et al. (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2021), p. 6.
  5. Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction, ed. Koupal, p. 64.
  6. Maria Tatar, ed., The Annotated Brothers Grimm (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2004), p. 145n4.
  7. Caroline Fraser, “Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Wolves: On the Politicization of Wilder, Author of Little House on the Prairie.” Los Angles Review of Books, Oct. 10, 2012.



1 thought on “The Little Girl in the Big Woods—Wilder’s Fairy-Tale Setting

  1. So glad to share this post from the Pioneer Girl Project!
    This post talks about the beginning of the creation of what would become PG and the LH books.

    Aunt Martha’s letters to Laura in 1925 were eccential to Laura and Rose.

    I am working towards a historical marker sign at Aunt Martha’s birthplace and the home site of Henry Newcomb and Charlotte Wallis Tucker Quiner in Richmond, Indiana.
    She played an important role in the development and construction and creation of the LH books.


    Ingalls-Wilder-Lane Historic Alliance

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