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Maj Canton - December 28, 2020





On Tuesday, December 29, 2020 at 8pm (check local listings), PBS premieres AMERICAN MASTERS — LAURA INGALLS WILDER: PRAIRIE TO PAGE, which takes an unvarnished look at the unlikely author whose autobiographical fiction helped shape American ideas of the frontier and self-reliance. Laura Ingalls Wilder, a Midwestern farmwoman, published her first novel at age 65, turning her frontier childhood into the best-selling “Little House” series. The documentary delves into the legacy of the iconic pioneer as well as the way she transformed her early life into enduring legend, a process that involved a little-known collaboration with her daughter Rose. This year marks the 85th anniversary of the publication of “Little House on the Prairie” (1935). Featuring never-before-published letters, photographs and family artifacts, the film explores the context in which Wilder lived and wrote, as well as the true nature of her personality. Wilder has an enduring fanbase and the books and TV program loosely based on them have become cultural touchstones. Though Wilder’s stories emphasized real life and celebrated stoicism, she omitted the grimmer and contradictory details of her personal history: grinding poverty, government assistance, deprivation, and the death of her infant son. In recent years, Wilder’s racist depictions of American Indians and Black people have stirred controversy. This engrossing documentary, also available on the PBS Video app, is a must see for LITTLE HOUSE fans and Bonnetheads everywhere.


Victor Garber narrates, with Tess Harper reading Laura Ingalls Wilder and Amy Brenneman reading Rose Wilder Lane. The film includes original interviews with Caroline Fraser, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her Wilder biography; Pamela Smith Hill, author of “Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life” plus actors from the beloved TV series LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, Melissa Gilbert (Laura Ingalls Wilder), Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson) and Dean Butler (Almanzo Wilder). Historians and scholars provide additional perspectives on Wilder’s life and legacy.



This past summer TV Tango participated in a PBS' LAURA INGALLS WILDER: PRAIRIE TO PAGE virtual press event with two of the cast members from LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. Here are a few highlights (edited for clarity and readability) from that panel.



Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls Wilder in LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE

Question: You have lived with Laura Ingalls Wilder all your life. Was there a lot more for you to learn about her in this documentary?

Melissa Gilbert: I am constantly amazed how much more there is for me to learn because I have had the opportunity to come at the Little House stories in so many different angles in so many different ways. As a nine-year-old child I had read the "Little House in the Big Woods" and then I got the show and then my focus was the scripts and where we were going with that for ten years. And we strayed pretty far from the truth of the books, which also strayed far from the truth of the actual experience, because we had to create this whole world that television shows have a tendency to do. I got to revisit the stories when I did the musical version of "Little House on the Prairie" and play Caroline's Ingaalls. I got to go back to the books and the subsequent books that had come out about all of them to see the whole experience through a new set of eyes. So that really was fascinating for me. And I have done a great deal more research. Every time a Laura book comes out, I buy it and read it and try to learn even more of what was going on. And it's really extraordinary to see the whole arc of that family's life and, from my perspective, to see how Caroline and her experience and her fears and her biases and her issues informed Laura and how different she was from her mother, and then consequently how Laura's experience informed Rose, but how different Rose was from her mother.

Melissa Gilbert

Question: What is your ongoing relationship with Laura the author? What did you find really surprising and interesting about her as a person?

Melissa Gilbert: When I first read Little House in the Big Woods, it was a school assignment, actually. I absolutely loved it. I read it with my mom because they had been her favorite books growing up, so she was so excited, when I got the assignment, to be able to sit with me and read it with me. I just thought Laura was this incredibly fun, spunky, spirited girl she actually reminded me a lot of myself at that time. The way she wrote her descriptions of life and food especially and games and sights and sounds and the world around her were so vivid. I could see myself there it really got my imagination stirred up. I wish I could say something deeper than this about what surprised me about Laura, but really what surprised me about Laura is how tiny she really was. She was a tiny little woman. She’s a giant influence, not only in my life, but in the lives of everybody all over the world and in America especially. So to think of her being this tiny little diminutive woman was just shocking to me.

Alison Arngrim as Nellie Oleson Dalton in LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE

Question: Nellie Oleson is such a stand out character among the books, how it was it to portray a person who often is hated and how your relationship with that character has changed over the years?

Alison Arngrim: As a child actor, I had always rather liked villain characters, so it did not bother me when I got the part. I was thrilled. It was fun. I had not read the books before I got the show. I had no idea what a Nellie Oleson was until I got to the audition and read the sides and looked at the script and said, "Oh, God, this girl is terrible." And then I read the books after and was fascinated with this character that Laura had to change the name and use three different people because she didn't want her to come after her because she was still afraid. I enjoyed playing her very, very, very much. And I still enjoy the reaction that I get from fans. That people 45 years later are still fascinated with this character and still hate me. I love it, yes. After the show, I was like, good, great, that's done, whee, but then the rest of the world didn't feel that way. I tried to get away from it, and then very quickly went with the -- if you can't beat them, join them. Because the show still stands it is still a good show. It is still a good character. As an actress, I wanted to get away from it, but it didn't really work that well. Everyone from the show has amazingly overcome their typecasting, their stereotyping as child actor and gone on to do a lot of really amazing stuff. It is shocking how well as a group we have done, Melissa and I and the others.

Laura Ingalls Wilder in 1937

Question: What do you think about this airing during this period of our history where people might be looking for something comforting?

Melissa Gilbert: I can tell you that since March of this year, since the world and our nation in particular have been dealing with this pandemic, I began hearing more and more on social media from people saying, "I am rewatching LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. It is bringing me so much comfort. I am finding my way through." And then as time wore on and things started trending like the episode "Quarantine" and the episode with the other quarantine, and then after the incident with George Floyd and everything really became incendiary and important people rediscovered the episode with Todd Bridges and people started telling me all the time, "I am rewatching LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, because of this and because this story in the series reminds me of where I came from." So I think when we get to December and we have this opportunity to see this extraordinary documentary, I think it is going to be, again, another source of great comfort and a reminder of where we came from. I mean, these are people who built the nation and a reminder of how that is done, and that's only done with community and love and understanding. And the other thing I think people are going to get is a real understanding of who Laura Ingalls Wilder was and why she felt it important to tell and share these tales from her childhood. I think they'll be fascinated to know that she's very relatable.

Alison Arngrim

Question: Can you think of anything from that time period that you wish we were still doing?

Alison Arngrim: I found that it was fun to wear the costumes and live the life and eat the food and talk about all these things while we were doing the show, but I was never so happy to get home at the end of the day and come back to modern times. I personally am very glad that I wasn't born in the 1800s. And I understand people's fascination with it, but I think also in reading the books the reality of just how hard everything was. I do not need to bring any of that back to this time period.

Melissa Gilbert: I'm the opposite. My husband and I bought some land in the Catskills with a little hunting cabin that we converted into a second home and knew that we were going to plan to garden, get chickens and that would be what we were going to do, eventually build a barn and have horses and goats and all of that. And then the pandemic hit, and so our timeline moved up. Not only did it move up, but also it became a DIY project. We had to build the garden, build the raised boxes, plant the garden, care for the garden, build a system to water the garden, build security for the garden, and build the chicken run, the chicken coop to raise the chickens, care for the chickens, build the electric fence around the chickens to keep the bears off the chickens, and I have never had more fun in my life. We get up early in the morning and we are absolutely filthy by 10am And I am absolutely gleeful all this time and I have no desire to go back to the city except and I will agree with Alison on this to see my dentist every six months.


Laura Ingalls Wilder signing books for children.


Laura Ingalls Wilder's first book.