5 Ways the Little House on the Prairie Books Stretched the Truth

Lorie Shaull, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Lorie Shaull, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

There’s nothing weirder than learning that one of your favorite stories didn’t really happen that way. For the thousands of devoted fans of the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder (who was born on February 7, 1867), that problem is particularly acute. After all, the books are based on real events—but events that are also largely fictitious. Where does history end and fiction begin? 

1. THE INGALLS FAMILY DIDN'T ALWAYS HEAD WEST.

From the moment the Ingalls family sets out in their wagon and leaves the Little House in the Big Woods, the Little House books show an unceasing push West. Real life and Manifest Destiny don’t always line up, though, and in fact the Ingalls family tracked back and forth several times before setting down in De Smet, South Dakota.

The Ingalls family’s first stop after Wisconsin was Independence, Kansas (with a possible stop in Missouri), where they built a “little house” on the open prairie. But the land was not theirs to settle: It was owned by the Osage people [PDF] and the Ingalls family, like thousands of other settlers, were squatters waiting for the Osage to be driven out so that the United States could take it over. It’s not entirely clear why the Ingalls family left, but instead of continuing west they went back to Wisconsin.

Next, they went west again, this time settling near Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Then, financial difficulties, illness, and a plague of locusts forced them to move on. They went to visit family elsewhere in Minnesota, but while there, Laura’s 10-month-old brother, Freddie, died after a sudden illness. Then they continued on to Burr Oak, Iowa, where they ran a hotel. The Ingallses then backtracked to Walnut Grove, where Mary lost her vision, then went west again and eventually settled in what is now South Dakota.

Nonetheless, Laura and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who heavily edited and helped develop the first books, decided that the fictional Ingallses should always move West. The result is a sense of wanderlust and movement that gives the series its structure.

2. JACK, LAURA'S DOG, DIDN'T LEAVE KANSAS.

Aw, Jack! Laura’s happy little puppy pal! Though faithful Jack tracks the fictional Laura through the books until she becomes an adolescent, Laura revealed in Pioneer Girl, the original autobiography that formed the basis for the books, that he was actually left behind in Kansas when Pa traded him for some horses and ponies. When writing the book, Laura decided to have Jack die peacefully in his sleep—perhaps in a way she could control, as opposed to the uncertain fate of her real-life dog.

3. MARY INGALLS PROBABLY DIDN'T HAVE SCARLET FEVER.

A phot of Mary Ingalls' grave marker in South Dakota
Ross Griff, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Everyone knows the story of how Mary Ingalls contracted scarlet fever and lost her sight permanently. Except she probably didn’t. Dr. Beth Tarini, a professor and pediatric and adolescent medicine specialist, obsessed over Mary’s diagnosis from the time she was a child, then discovered in med school that scarlet fever can’t blind someone.

But viral meningoencephalitis can—and Tarini thinks that Laura and her daughter, Rose, attributed the blindness to scarlet fever either to make the story more accessible to kids or because the disease may have already been familiar from other novels like Little Women. She even published an academic paper about it [PDF]. (In real life, Laura wrote Mary had "spinal meningitis," which she crossed out and replaced with "some sort of spinal sickness. I am not sure if the Dr. named it.” She also wrote that the blindness was caused by a stroke, but Tarini deemed a stroke unlikely since there were no other signs of one.)

Mary may not have gone blind from scarlet fever, but she did lose her sight. She ended up attending the Iowa College for the Blind, where she could take classes like civil government, botany, and piano tuning. Mary was an adept student and put the industrial training she got there to good use: After Pa died, she made fly nets to help the family earn more money.

4. THE INGALLS FAMILY HAD GUESTS DURING THE LONG WINTER.

Houses were small in the pioneer era, but that didn’t mean that they were all devoted to single-family living. During the “hard winter” of 1880-81, the Ingalls family took in a couple named Maggie and George Masters. George was the son of a family friend and Maggie was his new wife, who had married him in an apparent shotgun wedding situation. “Maggie didn’t want the baby to be born at her folks’ and disgrace them,” Laura wrote in a letter to her daughter, Rose. “George’s folks were mad because he married her.”

The Masters family were not the best of houseguests. In her notes to Pioneer Girl, Ingalls scholar Pamela Smith Hill explains that Maggie had her baby in the house without the assistance of a doctor, and the newlyweds ran out of money and kept wearing out their welcome. “Times like this test people,” wrote Laura, “and we were getting to know George and Maggie.”

So why aren’t they in The Long Winter, the award-winning book that relates the story of a winter so extreme, the blizzards lasted six months? Chalk it up to authorial savvy: Laura felt it would dilute the power of a family stuck inside their house, forced to face the elements as a unit.

5. NELLIE OLESON WASN'T A REAL PERSON.

Alison Arngrim And Bob Marsic In Episode Of 'Little House On The Prairie'
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

If there’s a villain in the Little House books, it’s Nellie Oleson, the snooty brat who torments Laura when they're girls and tries to steal Almanzo from Laura when they're young women. In reality, though, there wasn’t a single Nellie Oleson. She is thought to have been a composite of three real-life people named Genevieve Masters, Nellie Owens, and Stella Gilbert. Laura had unpleasant run-ins with all three, interactions she apparently never forgot.

BONUS: “ALMANZO” WASN'T PRONOUNCED AL-MAHN-ZO.

Laura gives her beau, Almanzo, a sweet nickname in the books: Manly. (She also referred to him as “the man of the place” in real life.) That’s for good reason—his name was pronounced Al-MAN-zo, not Al-mahn-zo.

The wrong pronunciation apparently took hold through the confounding influence that was the Little House on the Prairie TV show—a polarizing pop culture phenomenon that also introduced inaccuracies and anachronisms like adopted children and basketball into the fictional Ingalls family.

8 Proper Facts About Jane Austen

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

More than 200 years after her death, English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) continues to be celebrated for her sharp, biting prose on love's various entanglements. The strong female characters in books like Pride and Prejudice and Emma are as resonant today as when Austen first pressed her pen to paper. Though her bibliography totals just six novels (alongside some unfinished novels and other works) in all, Austen's books and her insightful quotes have been subject to hundreds of years of analysis and—for the Austen die-hards—numerous re-readings. For more on the writer's life, influences, and curious editing habits, take a look at our compendium of all things Austen below.

1. Austen's dad did everything he could to help her succeed.

Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire, England on December 16, 1775 to George Austen, a rector, and Cassandra Austen. The second-youngest in a brood of eight kids, Austen developed a love for the written word partially as a result of George's vast home library. When she wasn't reading, Austen was supplied with writing tools by George to nurture her interests along. Later, George would send his daughters to a boarding school to further their education. When Austen penned First Impressions, the book that would become Pride and Prejudice, in 1797, a proud George took it to a London publisher named Thomas Cadell for review. Cadell rejected it unread. It's not clear if Jane was even aware that George approached Cadell on her behalf.

Much later, in 1810, her brother Henry would act as her literary agent, selling Sense and Sensibility to London publisher Thomas Egerton.

2. Her works were published anonymously.

From Sense and Sensibility through Emma, Austen's published works never bore her name. Sense and Sensibility carried the byline of "A Lady," while later works like Pride and Prejudice featured credits like, "By the Author of Sense and Sensibility." It's likely Austen chose anonymity because female novelists were frowned upon for having selected what was viewed at the time as a potentially lewd, male-dominated pursuit. If she was interrupted while writing, she would quickly conceal her papers to avoid being asked about her work. Austen was first identified in print following her death in 1817; her brother Henry wrote a eulogy to accompany the posthumous publications of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.

3. She backed out of a marriage of convenience.

Many of Austen's characters carry great agency in their lives, and Austen scholars enjoy pointing to the fact that Austen herself bucked convention when it came to affairs of the heart. The year after her family's move to the city of Bath in 1801, Austen received a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither, a financially prosperous childhood friend. Austen accepted but quickly had second thoughts. Though his money would have provided for her and her family (and, at the time, she was 27 and unpublished, meaning she had no outside income and was fast approaching Georgian-era spinster status), Austen decided that a union motivated on her part by economics wasn't worthwhile. She turned the proposal down the following day and later cautioned her niece about marrying for any reason other than love. "Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection," she wrote.

4. She took a decade off.

Because so little of Austen's writing outside of her novels survives—her sister, Cassandra, purportedly destroyed much of her correspondence in an effort to keep some of Austen's scathing opinions away from polite society—it can be hard to assign motivations or emotions to some of her major milestones in life. But one thing appears clear: When her family moved to Bath and subsequently kept relocating following her father's death in 1805, Austen's writing habits were severely disrupted. Once prolific—she completed three of her novels by 1801—a lack of a routine kept her from producing work for roughly 10 years. It wasn't until she felt her home life was stable after moving into property owned by her brother, Edward, that Austen resumed her career.

5. She used straight pins to edit her manuscripts.

Austen had none of the advancements that would go on to make a writer's life easier, like typewriters, computers, or Starbucks. In at least one case, her manuscript edits were accomplished using the time-consuming and prickly method of straight pins. For an unfinished novel titled The Watsons, Austen took the pins and used them to fasten revisions to the pages of areas that were in need of correction or rewrites. The practice dates back to the 17th century.

6. She was an accomplished home brewer.

In Austen's time, beer was the drink of choice, and like the rest of her family, Austen could brew her own beer. Her specialty was spruce beer, which was made with molasses for a slightly sweeter taste.

Austen was also a fan of making mead—she once lamented to her sister, "there is no honey this year. Bad news for us. We must husband our present stock of mead, and I am sorry to perceive that our twenty gallons is very nearly out. I cannot comprehend how the fourteen gallons could last so long."

7. Some believe Austen's death was a result of being poisoned.

Austen lived to see only four of her six novels published. She died on July 18, 1817 at the age of 41 following complaints of symptoms that medical historians have long felt pointed to Addison's disease or Hodgkin's lymphoma. In 2017, the British Library floated a different theory—that Austen was poisoned by arsenic in her drinking water due to a polluted supply or possibly accidental ingestion due to mismanaged medication. The Library put forth the idea based on Austen's notoriously poor eyesight (which they say may have been the result of cataracts) as well as her written complaint of skin discoloration. Both can be indicative of arsenic exposure. Critics of the theory say the evidence is scant and that there is equal reason to believe a disease was the cause of her death.

8. She's been cited in at least 27 written court decisions.

As Matthew Birkhold of Electric Lit points out, judges seem to have a bit of a preoccupation with the works of Austen. Birkhold found 27 instances of a judge's written ruling invoking the name or words of the author, joining a rather exclusive club of female writers who tend to pop up in judicial decisions. (Harper Lee and Mary Shelley round out the top three.) According to Birkhold, jurists often use Austen as a kind of shorthand to explain matters involving relationships or class distinctions. Half of the decisions used the opening line from Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." The sentence is often rewritten to reflect the specifics of a case: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a recently widowed woman in possession of a good fortune must be in want of an estate planner," as one 2008 tax court case put it.

Others invoke characters like Fitzwilliam Darcy to compare or contrast the litigant's romantic situation. In most cases, the intent is clear, with authors realizing that their readers consider Austen's name synonymous with literary—and hopefully judicial—wisdom.

5 Facts About Shirley Jackson

Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Midcentury American writer Shirley Jackson has long been known for her spooky short story "The Lottery," which caused widespread controversy when it came out in The New Yorker in 1948 and continues to appear in short story anthologies today. Her equally haunted novels are less widely read. But now that her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House has been turned into a hit Netflix series, her work is on its way to a critical and popular revival more than 50 years after her death. (A well-reviewed 2017 biography as well as new releases of some of her short stories and previously unpublished writings in the last few years have no doubt helped.) If you’re just catching on to Shirley Jackson mania, here are five things to know about the master of gothic horror.

1. Many modern writers cite her as an inspiration.

Shirley Jackson has a number of fans among modern writers. Stephen King has called The Haunting of Hill House one of the two "great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years,” and he has said he wrote The Shining with Jackson’s The Sundial in mind. Writers like Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates sing her praises, and Donna Tartt has called her stories “among the most terrifying ever written.” Sylvia Plath was a fan, too, and hoped to interview her during summer internship at Mademoiselle in 1953. It didn’t work out, but Plath would go on to write works with plenty of parallels to Jackson’s.

2. Shirley Jackson was her family's chief breadwinner.

Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was a writer, too. A literary critic who taught literature at Bennington College, it was his job that brought the couple to the small Vermont city, where Jackson often chafed at being placed in the role of faculty wife. Yet it was Jackson’s work that supported the family. (Like many wives of her day, she also did all the cooking, cleaning, taking care of their four kids, and driving the family around town—as one of Hyman’s former students wrote of him, “Stanley never did anything practical if he could help it.”) In addition to the fees she earned selling short stories and novels, Jackson had a lucrative career writing lighthearted essays on motherhood and family life for women’s magazines, which she eventually parlayed two successful memoirs.

3. She claimed to be a witch.

In keeping with the haunted themes in her writing, Jackson studied the history of witchcraft and the occult, and often told people she was a witch—though that may have been in part a publicity tactic. As Ruth Franklin writes in her 2017 Jackson biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life:
"During her lifetime, she fascinated critics and readers by playing up her interest in magic: The biographical information on her first novel identifies her as ‘perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch, specializing in small-scale black magic and fortune-telling with a tarot deck.’ To interviewers, she expounded on her alleged abilities, even claiming that she used magic to break the leg of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, with whom her husband was involved in a dispute. Reviewers found those stories irresistible, extrapolating freely from her interest in witchcraft to her writing, which often takes a turn into the uncanny. ‘Miss Jackson writes not with a pen but a broomstick’ was an oft-quoted line."
It’s not clear whether she actually performed any magic rituals, but she referenced them often, usually in a tongue-in-cheek way. She often joked with her editors about bringing about victories for her favorite baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, through her magical abilities. Her interest was definitely real, though. She started studying witchcraft while writing a paper as a student at the University of Rochester, and later took up tarot reading. Her personal library was filled with hundreds of books about witchcraft, and in 1956, she wrote a children’s book, The Witchcraft of Salem Village, about the history of the Salem witch trials.

4. She considered becoming a professional cartoonist.

Jackson wasn’t just good with words. She loved to draw, and even considered becoming a professional cartoonist at one point, according to Franklin. While her favorite subjects were cats, she regularly made minimalist, humorous sketches of herself and the people around her (particularly her husband), keeping a kind of cartoon diary of her life. “They’re Thurber-esque in style, but they’re kind of edgy, too,” her son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, told The Guardian of the drawings in 2016. “There’s one in which she is trudging up a hill carrying bags of groceries, and my father is sitting in his chair, reading. ‘Dear,’ he says, without bothering to get up. ‘You know you’re not supposed to carry heavy things when you’re pregnant!’” Some of these drawings are held with Jackson’s papers in the Library of Congress, including sketches she made of how she imagined the layout of Hill House. Her unpublished illustrated ABC book for kids, The Child's Garden of New Hampshire, is also held there.

5. She died before finishing her last novel.

Jackson died unexpectedly from heart failure in 1965 at the age of 48. (At the time, newspapers listed her as 45, as she often lied about her age, perhaps to minimize the age difference between her and her husband, who was two years younger than she.) A significant chunk of her work has been published since her death, though. When she died, she was in the midst of writing a novel, Come Along With Me, which was published in its incomplete format by her husband in 1968. In 1996, Laurence Jackson Hyman found a crate of unpublished stories by his mother, and, with his sister, Sarah Hyman Dewitt, turned them into a collection called Just an Ordinary Day. In 2015, they edited and released Let Me Tell You, a collection of stories, essays and lectures from her archive that were mostly unfinished or unpublished at the time of her death.

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