In mid-March this year, I was sitting in the snack area of the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair in Saint Petersburg, Florida, watching people go by. Suddenly, in a city where I knew no one, I spied a familiar face.
“Bill,” I said tentatively as I continued to watch him. Raising my voice, I said, “Bill Anderson—is that you?” And proving that the world is indeed a small place, he turned to me and repeated my question: “Nancy Koupal—is that you?”
And so, Bill (from Michigan) and I (from South Dakota) discovered that we take winter vacations in the same area of Florida. The fact that we’d met at a book fair did not surprise either one of us. Sitting down to talk like the old friends we are, Bill asked, “How’s your book about Big Woods coming?”
“It’s finished and at the printer,” I offered, referring to Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction (released May 30, 2023).
“You know,” Bill said, “there is a great story of Carrie reading Little House in the Big Woods to Grace when the book first came out.” He then directed me to an article in the Huron Daily Plainsman of April 7, 1932, just one day after the official release of Wilder’s first book.
At the time, Carrie Ingalls Swanzey (Mrs. D. N. Swanzey) was visiting her sister Grace Ingalls Dow (Mrs. N. W. Dow), who was convalescing in a Huron, South Dakota, hospital. Then, “just off the press,” the Huron newspaper reporter announced, came Little House in the Big Woods, a book written by Carrie and Grace’s sister Laura Ingalls Wilder. Wilder told of a time “long before Mrs. Dow was born,” when the Charles P. Ingalls family lived in the Wisconsin woods. “With Mrs. Swanzey reading, and probably stopping to add reminiscences of her own,” the reporter continued, “Mrs. Dow was taken back to the childhood days of her sisters,” back to “the little cabin [that] stands miles from any neighbors and remote from any settlement.”
The Huron Daily Plainsman article offers a brief glimpse into the real lives of Wilder’s two youngest sisters. Carrie, who had been born in Kansas in August 1870, is an infant as Little House in the Big Woods opens and was so little involved in the narrative of Wilder’s book that its editor, Rose Wilder Lane, initially removed her from the story (fortunately, Wilder reinstated Baby Carrie before publication). Any “reminiscences” that Carrie might have added while reading the novel to Grace must have been limited, for she was only three and a half years old when the family moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota in 1874. Grace, who was not born until the Ingalls family traveled to Iowa in 1877, had probably learned of those early days only through her father’s stories. But now, the newspaper reporter concluded: “Being ill in a hospital has its compensations when one may travel into the woods and live the childhood days of long ago. At least Mrs. N. W. Dow . . . finds it so.”
It is satisfying to think of the two sisters discovering Wilder’s book together, and I thank Bill Anderson for bringing the article to my attention.
―Nancy Tystad Koupal