Wilder’s Aesopian Fable of the Naughty Boy and the Yellow Jackets

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

Helen Sewell drew this depiction of Charley Quiner’s run-in with the yellow jackets.

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.

Laura Ingalls Wilder at Christmas 2022

Earlier this month, I wrote about wolves howling in the night. But as I sit down to write just before Christmas 2022, the wind is making all the noise, howling long and loud, day and night. As the arctic storm closes Interstate 90 and the highways into Pierre, I feel as if I have been transported back to the Dakota Territory of 1880–1881. While, so far, the electric heat has provided a steady warmth, back-to-back blizzard conditions have begun to empty the grocery shelves, if one is desperate enough to venture out into the wind for eggs or milk or bread. My two daughters are stranded in Arizona until Christmas Day, and my husband and I will spend a lonely Christmas Eve without kith or kin. So I have turned for company to the many Christmases and Christmas Eves of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Wilder shares at least one Christmas celebration in each of her Little House novels. In Wisconsin, when she is four, Laura receives her first doll and makes pictures in the snow with her cousins. Wilder next shares a Christmas feast among the James and Angeline Wilder family in New York State, where Almanzo “ate and ate and ate. . . . till he could eat no more” (Farmer Boy, p. 325). On the Kansas plains, the Ingalls family’s next Christmas is sparser as Laura worries about whether Santa Claus can find them out on the prairie. Mr. Edwards saves the day, hauling Santa’s gifts across the swollen creek just in time, carrying sweet potatoes in his pockets to add to Christmas dinner. In Minnesota, the author shares three Christmas holidays with readers, welcoming new horses in the first instance, attending the church Christmas tree giveaway in the second, and then celebrating Pa’s narrow escape from disaster after he was caught in a blizzard on the way back from town the next year. He survived for three days in a snowbank, eating the girl’s Christmas candy and the oyster crackers but bringing home the oysters still frozen solid. As the family settles in on Christmas Eve, Pa notes that the wind is rising: “‘We will have another blizzard before morning.’ ‘Just so you are here, Charles, I don’t care how much it storms,’ said Ma” (Plum Creek, p. 335).

The Ingalls family gathered around the stove for warmth during the Hard Winter of 1880–1881. Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle, 1940.

In Dakota Territory, each year is punctuated with at least one Christmas dinner or preparation for a dinner. In 1879, the Boasts—Robert and Ella—unexpectedly arrive in De Smet on Christmas Eve, where the Ingalls are staying alone in the Surveyor’s House. A jolly Christmas and New Year’s celebration with these new friends follows. In The Long Winter, the Ingalls share homemade and store-bought gifts over a makeshift feast with the last of the milk and two cans of oysters. This skimpy meal is balanced by a full turkey dinner when adequate groceries and the Christmas barrel finally arrive in May. The following holiday season, Wilder unexpectedly earns her teaching certificate amid the family’s Christmas preparations, and in These Happy Golden Years, Almanzo returns to De Smet from an extended absence, arriving on Christmas Eve with a bag of oranges to add to the Christmas dinner.

Throughout all these years and Christmases, the Ingalls family rejoices in being together, in making do with small gifts and sometimes hearty and sometimes meager feasts, and in delaying gratification until everyone can be present. It is a heartwarming message to take into this blustery holiday season of 2022 when families like mine are struggling to get together under difficult and dangerous conditions.

Stay safe wherever you are and have a wonderful holiday season.

―Nancy Tystad Koupal

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.


Summer 2022 Progress Report

Another summer is drawing to a close here on the Northern Great Plains, and I am pleased to report that Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction is almost finished. This fourth book from the Pioneer Girl Project concentrates on the writing and editing of Wilder’s first novel, Little House in the Big Woods (1932). If all goes well, it will be released in the late spring of 2023.

Once again, watercolor artist Judy Thompson has created an original work of art for the cover of Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction. Titled “Sugaring Time in the Big Woods,” the painting shows Laura standing in front of a team of horses near her Grandpa Ingalls’s home deep in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. A “sugar snow” falls softly over the scene. In chapter 7 of Big Woods, Wilder explained that the weather turned cold after a few warm, springlike days. The next morning, “the ground was covered with soft, thick snow. All along the branches of the trees the snow was piled like feathers” (pp. 118–19). Pa explained that it was called a sugar snow because “this little cold spell and the snow will hold back the leafing of the trees, and that makes a longer run of sap” (p. 127). And more sap meant more maple sugar.

Ordering information for the new book will be available after the first of the year.

―Nancy Tystad Koupal

The Revised Texts Wins Design Award

The South Dakota State Historical Society’s third Pioneer Girl Project installment, “Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts” written by Laura Ingalls Wilder and edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal, has been selected for the Association of University Presses Scholarly Typographic award.

The annual AUPresses Book, Jacket and Journal Show, is in its 57th year of honoring academic publishers around the world. This year a virtual display of all winners can be found at design.up.hcommons.org.

“I was especially pleased to discover designers who find ways to break free from traditional typography—not just to call attention to themselves, but to enlighten the content, or simply to delight the reader,” said Stephen Coles, a juror for the 2022 awards.

For generations, the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder have defined the American frontier and the pioneer experience for the public at large. “Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts” presents three typescripts of Wilder’s original “Pioneer Girl” manuscript in an examination of the process through which she and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, transformed her autobiography into the much-loved Little House series. As the women polished the narrative from draft to draft, a picture emerges of the working relationship between the women, of the lives they lived, and of the literary works they created.

Koupal and other editors of the Pioneer Girl Project provide a meticulous study of the Wilder/Lane partnership as Wilder’s autobiography undergoes revision, and the women redevelop and expand portions of it into Wilder’s successful children’s and young adult novels and into Lane’s bestselling adult novels in the 1930s. The three revised texts of “Pioneer Girl,” set side by side, showcase the intertwined processes of writing and editing and the contributions of writer and editor. In background essays and annotations, Koupal and her team of editors provide historical context and explore the ways in which Wilder or Lane changed and reused the material.

“‘Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts’ makes fresh observations that are sure to jump-start new debate and discussions centered on the writer-editor relationship between Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane,” writes Wilder scholar and bestselling author William Anderson. “The annotations provide great documentary background and reveal the behind-the-scenes work that led to the now classic Little House series.”

Wilder and Lane’s partnership has been the subject of longstanding speculation, but “Revised Texts” is the first work to explore the women’s relationship by examining the evolution of surviving manuscripts. Showcasing differences in the texts and offering numerous additional documents and handwritten revisions, the editors create a rich resource for scholars to use in assessing the editorial and writing principles, choices, and reasoning that Lane employed to shape the manuscripts for publication. Readers can follow along as Wilder grows into a novelist that “no depression could stop.”

Wilder (1867-1957) finished her autobiography, “Pioneer Girl,” in 1930 when she was 63 years old. Throughout the 1930s and into the early 1940s, Wilder utilized her original manuscript to write a successful series of books for young readers. Wilder died in Mansfield, Missouri, at age 90 on Feb. 10, 1957.

Koupal is director and editor-in-chief of the Pioneer Girl Project. She received an M.A. in English from Morehead State University in Kentucky and did postgraduate work in American literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She founded the South Dakota Historical Society Press in 1997. Koupal is also the editor of “Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder.”

The South Dakota Historical Society Press is committed to producing books reflecting the rich and varied history of the Northern Great Plains. “Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts” is available for $49.95 plus shipping and tax and can be purchased through most bookstores or ordered directly from the South Dakota Historical Society Press. Visit http://www.sdhspress.com or call 605-773-6009. For distribution information, contact orders@sdshspress.com. Find out more about the Pioneer Girl Project at pioneergirlproject.org. For information about membership in the State Historical Society, visit history.sd.gov/membership.

Jeff Mammenga


Wind and Snow

On the Great Plains in January and February, the wind howls through the open spaces, sending snow and tumbleweeds scudding across the prairie. In town, the wind hurls itself at buildings, searching for a way in through any crack or cranny. Or so it seems to those of us who listen and watch as nature blasts and rattles the windowpanes. Laura Ingalls Wilder characterized the wind as doing “its best to blot out the town” of De Smet. In her autobiography, Wilder’s ability to give personality and malign intent to such natural elements foreshadowed the antagonistic role that wind and snow would assume in The Long Winter. In Pioneer Girl, however, Wilder immediately foretold the end of the story: “Here in his ages long war with the elements,” she wrote, “Man won though it was a hard, long battle.”1 In editing her mother’s autobiography, Rose Wilder Lane omitted this line, recognizing that Wilder had gotten ahead of her story.2

Wilder did not make the same mistake when drafting the novel she originally called “The Hard Winter.” She used each human encounter with a storm to increase the tension surrounding the battle with nature, as in this scene from Chapter 13: “‘I beat the storm to the stable by the width of a gnat’s eyebrow,’ [Pa] laughed. ‘It just missed getting me this time.’ . . . Pa sat by the fire in the front room and warmed himself, but he was uneasy and kept listening to the wind.”3 For all her ability to thus personify the storm by giving it human traits and motives, Wilder recognized that human beings could not successfully “battle” the storm but must simply endure it. As yet another blizzard rages “loud and furious” toward the end of The Long Winter, Pa reminds Laura that the storm “can’t beat us! . . . It’s got to quit sometime and we don’t. It can’t lick us. We won’t give up” (p. 311).

Pen and ink drawing for The Long Winter, Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle, 1940. Detroit Public Library

Hunkering down to outlast another winter on the Northern Great Plains, I take comfort in the fact that the Ingalls family and many others before and after them have refused to give up as wind and snow swept across the landscape. Like them, I’m grateful for a warm shelter and a cup of hot broth when the wind rattles the stovepipe and sends its frigid fingers around the windowsills and into the cracks.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

  1. Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), p. 210.
  2. Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal et al. (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2021), pp. 290, 293n19.
  3. Wilder, “The Hard Winter” manuscript, p. 119, Rare Book Collection, Detroit Public Library, Detroit, Mich.