The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes That Inspired the Little House Books

Countless children--girls in particular--grew up romanticizing the frontier life through Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series. In addition to a prairie life of log cabins, covered wagons, shanties and earthen dugouts, Wilder's works offer a fascinating study of the American West before mass settlement. "For many of us, Wilder's books introduced us to a life in and dependent on nature," writes horticultural designer Marta McDowell (Emily Dickinson's Gardens; Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life) as she considers the landscapes that the Ingalls and Wilder families inhabited.

McDowell combines history, travelogue and a how-to gardening primer, weaving the memories and gardens of her own Midwestern family with Wilder's: "As so often occurs with Laura Ingalls Wilder's writings, her memories evoke my own." At her disposal are historical maps, photographs, botanical drawings, original illustrations by Helen Sewell and Garth Williams, and the ample descriptions of scenery in the series. Through these, McDowell examines Wilder's relationship to her environment and its importance as a historical document of the ecosystems of the American West. She also touches upon how the region's overreliance on wheat production contributed to conditions leading to the Dust Bowl--contrasting the early failures of settlers in South Dakota, Kansas and Minnesota to the successful, sustainable farming methods employed by the Wilders at their settlement at Rocky Ridge Farm in the Missouri Ozarks. McDowell's exhaustive research adds scientific context to the legacy that Wilder's books preserve. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant

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