If Laura is the author and protagonist of the Little House books, Pa is her muse and the series’ catalyst. His wanderlust drives the Ingalls ever onward (if not precisely westward) in search of unspoiled land. He sets the overarching plot of all the books in motion. Pa had a “wandering foot,” Laura wrote. He bristled when settlers grew “too durned thick.” After just a couple years in De Smet, Charles told Ma, “I would like to go west. A fellow doesn’t have room to breathe here any more [sic].” The Ingallses had barely gotten over the Long Winter. Survival was not a luxury they could afford to scorn. Ma put her foot down, and the Ingallses stayed put. Did Pa think any place he settled would remain wild and still yield a prosperous farm?
Laura inherited her father’s love of wild places. For her, the prairie’s wildness was intricately wound up with her love of family. In 1923 on her homestead in Missouri, she had a realization while picking a sunflower in a meadow: “As I looked into its golden heart such a wave of homesickness came over me that I almost wept. I wanted mother, with her gentle voice and quiet firmness; I longed to hear my father’s jolly songs and to see his twinkling blue eyes; I was lonesome for the sister with whom I used to play in the meadow picking daisies and wild sunflowers.” Years away from the Dakota prairie had made her heart grow fonder. The nostalgia drove her to put pen to paper.
The Wilders, Laura and Manly, had been forced out of the Dakotas thirty years earlier by pure economics. The couple traveled southeast to Mansfield, Missouri–hardly untrammeled wilderness but full of natural beauty, nonetheless. Laura lived the rest of her long life–six more decades–at their Rocky Ridge homestead. Her own child, Rose, inherited Pa’s restlessness, if not so much Laura’s love of wild places. Rose spent a long life searching, like Pa, for she-knew-not-what. Dissatisfaction was her default emotion; anywhere-but-here her fallback position. After traveling for long stretches, she was always drawn back to Rocky Ridge…where she would grow restless and eager to move on within days!
Rose settled on Albania as her favored escapist locale. Tellingly, she was attracted by its pre-modern qualities. Then and in her later life, she looked backward, to the lost world of the past, for the utopia she sought. Once, while traveling the by-roads outside the capital of Tirana, she, her friend and their servant stayed out long enough to catch the sunset. It was
very brief; not an Albanian sunset at all. The mountains were sliced off along their tops, neatly, in a straight line, by a dark blue mist that covered the eastern sky. Beneath this line, between the nearer mountain peaks, the far valleys and farther mountain peaks were revealed in sunshine. They were vaguely beautiful–something as lovely as our waking dreams of lands we shall never see.
The sight prompted her to philosophical musings that stayed with her for years: “We continue to cling to the belief that when we see them [dream lands] they will be beautiful, but an implacable circle of reality moves with us wherever we go.” Rose seemed to acknowledge, wisely, that her constant searching, her constant striving, was largely futile. It didn’t put an end to her quest, though. She kept grasping until she found a cause that could give her life purpose.
Fifteen years later, while helping her mother draft her eighth and final book in the Little House series, Rose perceived an opening in the narrative in which to insert her Albanian insight. The text from pages 152-153 in These Happy Golden Years reads as follows:
Sometimes on Saturday, Laura walked westward across the prairie to Reverend Brown’s house–on his claim. It was a long mile and a half walk, and she and Ida made it longer by going to the highest point of the rise of ground beyond the house. From there they could see the Wessington Hills, sixty miles away, looking like a blue cloud on the horizon.
“They’re so beautiful that the make me want to go to them,” Laura said once.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Ida replied. “When you got there they would just be hills, covered with ordinary buffalo grass like this,” and she kicked a tuft of the grass where the green of spring was showing through last year’s dead blades.
In a way, that was true; and in another way, it wasn’t. Laura could not say what she meant, but to her the Wessington Hills were more than grassy hills. Their shadowy outlines drew her with the lure of far places. They were the essence of a dream.
Walking home in the late afternoon, Laura still thought of the Wessington Hills,…. She wanted to travel on and on, over those miles, and see what lay beyond the hills.
Thus the defining wanderlust of father, daughter, and granddaughter came together in a timeless work of literature. Indeed, the passage–and the books in toto–speak to a defining quality of the American spirit: a restlessness and a drive that impels us ever onward–sometimes rashly, sometimes boldly–to seek the necessary, the inspiring, the new.
Thank you, Ingallses and Wilders for that shared experience. Thank you, Rose. Thank you, Laura. Thank you, Charles.
- Fraser, Caroline. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2017.
- Holtz, William. The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993.
- Wilder, Laura Ingalls. The Happy Golden Years. New York: Harper Collins, 2004 (1943).