“Small Presses Celebrate Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 150th Birthday”

The national publication for book sellers and publishers, Publishers Weekly, featured the Pioneer Girl Project yesterday. Read the story from Claire Kirch below.


This year marks the 150th anniversary of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birth on February 7, 1867, and two small presses are marking the occasion by publishing books offering new perspectives on the life and times of the beloved author of the Little House on the Prairie series.

The South Dakota Historical Society Press kicked off the anniversary year in May by publishing Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal. Koupal isn’t only the editor of this collection of 11 essays examining the life and times of the Little House on the Prairie books: she also is the director of the press, which published Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography.

The book was an instant bestseller, selling out of its 15,000-copy initial print run before its pub date. It became the hot—and hard-to-get—title of the 2014 holiday season—even though it clocked in at 472 pages and cost $40.

To date, Pioneer Girl has sold more than 165,000 copies and is in its 10th print run. In comparison, SDHSP’s second bestselling title, Tatanka and the Lakota People, has sold about 15,000 copies. Print runs for SDHSP titles typically range between 1,000–5,000 copies.

Despite the success of Pioneer Girl, Koupal insists that it wasn’t just the hope of publishing another bestseller about an author that people can’t seem to get enough of that steered her towards publishing Pioneer Girl Perspectives, which to date has sold 7,500 copies and is still in its first print run.

“We wanted more perspective moving forward with a textual study of Pioneer Girl,” she explained. “Why is she so popular? She wasn’t even a supporter of women’s suffrage and women’s rights.”

The first essay in the collection, “The Speech for the Detroit Book Fair, 1937,” is the transcription of a presentation Wilder made during a literary event held inside a Motor City department store. It is one of the rare occasions during which Wilder spoke publicly about her life and her books, and the speech includes reflections upon the world beyond the prairie and the famous little houses she lived in as a child.

Koupal said that she worked hard to make the essays accessible to the kinds of readers who snapped up copies of Pioneer Girl. The essays examine Wilder from various angles, and boast such intriguing titles as “The Strange Case of the Bloody Benders: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and Yellow Journalism” by Caroline Fraser and “Little Myths on the Prairie” by Michael Patrick Hearn. As an added treat for Wilder fans, the long-time attorney for the Little House Heritage Trust, Noel Silverman, for the first time discusses Wilder in a Q&A with Koupal in “Her Stories Take You with Her: The Lasting Appeal of the Little House Books.” His take on why Wilder is still so popular? It’s because her tales emphasize interdependence among members of a community rather than independence. “[Wilder’s] narrative says that I can build a better house, faster, if Mr. Edwards will help me, in return for which I will gladly help him build his house,” Silverman states in the Q&A.

Pub Weekly

Read more at publishersweekly.com.

 

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Wilder!

Today, February 7, 2017, is the 150th anniversary of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birth. It is an important date for readers of the Little House series and for all of us at the Pioneer Girl Project, and it got me to thinking, how did we begin celebrating birthdays?

The true origin of the birthday celebration is lost to history, but we can say that the party started in Egypt, and the Greeks added the candles. However, these ancient celebrations were not like our modern birthdays; they were reserved for gods and goddesses only. It was not until the Romans came onto the scene that the common people began to commemorate their own births. In the eighteenth century, German bakers made cakes popular, and the industrial revolution brought dessert to the masses. Finally, in 1893, two women, Patty and Mildred Hill, created a tune that Robert Coleman would turn into “Happy Birthday to You” in 1924.1 The modern birthday basics were set.

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Division of Pomology U. S. Department of Agriculture, 1887

So, where does a little girl on the American frontier fit into all of this? For starters, I find it interesting to note that Wilder’s childhood birthdays could not have included the fiddle rendition of “Happy Birthday” that I always imagined they did in my youth. In fact, in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, Wilder’s birthday episodes are minimal. During the Ingalls family’s time in Wisconsin, Wilder remembered: “After awhile I had a birthday. I didn’t know anything about it until when I got up in the morning, Pa played spank me, . . . one for each year. Then he gave me a little wooden man he had whittled out of a stick. Ma and Mary gave me a rag doll that Ma had made and Mary helped dress. And I was a great girl 4 years old!” (p. 41).2

Not until Wilder moved to De Smet did she experience her first birthday party, given for a boy named Ben Woodworth, and in true introvert fashion, she “felt very awkward.” She did have a good time, though, recalling: “The long dining table was set and ready when we got there. It was beautiful with its silver and china its beautiful linen tablecloth and napkins. At each place, on a pretty little plate was an orange standing on end with the peel sliced in strips half way down and curled back making the orange look like a golden flower. I thought them the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, even prittier than the birthday cake in the center of the table” (p. 251). Oranges were a luxury on the frontier, as was the oyster soup that the Woodworths served along with a “generous piece” of cake. Afterwards, the young people played games. “We went home early well pleased with the evening” (p. 252), Wilder remembered.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society

Generally, Wilder’s youth occurred before birthday celebrations became popular in the United States. As time went on, annual birthday parties became a normal part of people’s lives. Wilder even dressed up to commemorate her eighty-fourth birthday at the library in Mansfield, Missouri, in 1951.

So, today, let’s wish a fine and modern happy birthday to Laura Ingalls Wilder from all of those whose lives she touched.

Jennifer McIntyre

1. Todd Van Lulling, “This Is Why You Get To Celebrate Your Birthday Every Year,” huffingtonpost.com.

2. Wilder was actually five at the time.