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LITTLE CON ON THE PRAIRIE

IT’S AN irony that the sweet, gentle, and heartwarming stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder are associated with literary piracy. At the heart of this Little Con on the Prairie are two people: the author’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, and one of Lane’s not-quite grandsons (and the bad boy of the tale), Roger MacBride.

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Caroline Fraser, Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2017.

Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder is reviewed in “O Pioneers!,” an article by Patricia Nelson Limerick in The New York Times Book Review, November 26, 2017.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867–1957, American writer, teacher, and journalist. Author of The Little House series.

Laura Ingalls was a genuine pioneer kid, born in a log cabin seven miles north of the village of Pepin in the Big Woods region of Wisconsin. She was a descendent of Delano stock, an ancestral family of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There is irony in this too, as you’ll learn anon.

The Ingalls moved from Wisconsin when Laura was two, stopped in Rothville, Missouri, and settled in Osage territory, Kansas, near what is now Independence. So a rumor goes, unbeknownst to them, their homesteading was illegal. In 1871, they moved back to Wisconsin’s Big Woods for the next three years. The family’s experiences gave Laura inspiration for Little House in the Big Woods, 1932, and Little House on the Prairie, 1935. In the books, Laura fudged her age older by several years to make specific childhood memories more realistic.

Little House on the Prairie, 1935, one of nine volumes in The Little House Series.

Other family relocations made for other novels. On the Banks of Plum Creek followed in 1937, this fourth family history taking place around 1874. The Long Winter, 1940, described the family’s harsh winter of 1880–1881 in De Smet, South Dakota.

Laura met Almanzo Wilder in De Smet. She brought some tranquility to her family saga in Little Town on the Prairie, 1941, and These Happy Golden Years, 1943. Laura and Almanzo were married in 1885; she was 18; he was 28.

Laura and Almanzo Wilder, c. 1885.

Rose, their first and only surviving child, was born in 1886. Memories of the Wilder family’s challenges inspired the book The First Four Years, published posthumously in 1971. All told, there are nine books in what’s known today as The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

The literary tale becomes complex, in light of the collaboration of Laura and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. In her book review, Patricia Nelson Limerick notes, “… in an arrangement both she and her daughter seemed to understand and embrace, Wilder would pass these drafts on to Lane, who would tear into them, editing, adding and deleting.”

“Tracking this process,” reviewer Limerick continues, “Fraser puts an end to the persistent assumption that Lane was the ghostwriter of her mother’s books…. Wilder provided a base of plainspoken language and deeply felt storytelling; Lane embellished, shaped, and ’heightened the drama.’ ”

This was no problem until the matter of Wilder’s literary estate became relevant. Notes Limerick, “Her will was simple, leaving all her ‘copyrighted literary property and the income from same’ to her daughter, who was childless. After Lane’s death, the intellectual property was to move to the library in Wilder’s hometown of Mansfield, Missouri.”

However, Limerick continues, “… on several occasions, Lane had gone all-in for the practice of inventing fictive kin, recruiting young men as surrogate sons without legally adopting them.”

Along comes Roger MacBride, an ardent young conservative whose political views much appealed to Lane. Indeed, back in 1935, Lane had written to a friend, “I could kill Roosevelt with pleasure and satisfaction. If living got too much for me that I wanted to die, I would go to Washington first and kill that traitor.”

What? A Delano kin??

Roger Lea MacBride, 1929–1995, American lawyer, political figure, writer, and television producer.

Roger MacBride called himself “the adopted grandson” of Rose Wilder Lane. His political career was mixed: A Goldwater Republican, he failed in gaining the party nomination in the 1964 Vermont governor’s race. In 1972, MacBride served as treasurer of the Republican Party of Virginia, but became known as a “faithless elector” when he jumped ship to the Libertarian candidate running against incumbent Richard Nixon.

MacBride was the Libertarian candidate for U.S. president in 1976. He rejoined the Republican Party in the 1980s and helped establish the Republican Liberty Caucus. MacBride chaired this group from 1992 until his death in 1995.

If this isn’t enough to generate MacBride opinions a’plenty, let’s go back to 1956: Appreciating his “promoting a conservative antigovernment agenda,” Lane had designated MacBride her sole beneficiary. And, Limerick notes, “After Lane’s death in 1968, MacBride ignored the terms of Wilder’s will and transferred her copyrights to himself.”

After MacBride’s death in 1995, the Mansfield, Missouri, library renewed the legal argument that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s will gave all rights to the library upon Lane’s death. According to Wikipedia, “The ensuing court case was settled in an undisclosed manner, but MacBride’s heirs retained the rights.”

In a MacBride obituary, David Boaz of the Cato Institute wrote, “In some ways he was the last living link to the best of the Old Right, the rugged-individualist, anti-New Deal, anti-interventionist spirit….”

Yes, and yet a Little Con on the Prairie too. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

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