I first came across Sarah’s website Trundlebed Tales when casually googling “Laura Ingalls Wilder blog” during lunch one day at work (ok, it wasn’t lunch but a reallly boring meeting). After rereading the Little House series over the course of 30 years and slowly sifting through my library’s shelf of biographies, memoirs waltzing around the homesteads and collections of letters I decided to seek out my LIW tribe online. That google search did not disappoint! Clicking through the nonprofit, corporate and homesite web pages I found Trundebed Tales. Sarah has streamlined discovering Laura Ingalls Wilder from the Little House series to the academic and descending into just plain fun. Her site includes pathfinders for children and adults, lists out Laura articles, online links, even a call to arms (Sarah is seeking out photocopies of any fan letters that Laura may have answered during her lifetime). I reached out to Sarah via Twitter to discover how she found Laura Ingalls Wilder, more information on the speaking programs she offers and what changes she has seen this cultural icon undergo since she began her own research.
Sarah grew up on a family farm that celebrated “agriculture not agribusiness” a backdrop perfect for reading the Little House series. Her mother’s friend had recommended the books and through garage sales a complete set was located. She quickly began “playing Laura” learning various skills described in the book. When I inquired as to her favorite book, she had the most nuanced answer I’ve ever heard. She views the set as one continuous narrative however she enjoys the individual stories found in Plum Creek and believes The Long Winter as the best designed. With her childhood is it any wonder she would get a BA in history education and a Masters of Library Science. Trundlebed Tales was eventually created and has become a Laura Ingalls Wilder empire with a podcast, blog, links to academic sites, articles and Sarah’s live programs. She is also the former President of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association, listmistress for the Country School Association of America, serves on their board and has taught continuing education classes at two community colleges and a training sessions for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Burr Oak, Iowa.
It was Sarah’s programs I found so enticing when I initially came across her site. What better way to combine a love of research then to educate new and old Laura Ingalls Wilder fans during this incredible period of American history. These programs range from general LIW biographic storytelling to specific niches, like food history, and can be delivered at LIW conferences, home sites, museums, libraries and schools. Laura Ingalls Wilder has a broad reach of fans from the book series to the television show to the real life biography of a woman which spans a time period of traveling in a covered wagon to flying in an airplane. Sarah is always accessing which programs work or don’t quite hit the mark with her audience and adjusting them.With Laura Ingalls Wilder “you find in it what you bring to it”, something I am guilty of myself as I took a deep dive into the culinary programing Sarah was creating.
“In the Kitchen with Laura” combines Laura’s biography with culinary history. From the 1930’s to present kitchens have pushed cooking/home economics into a science with recipes and measurements versus pioneer cooking which was “the art of substitutions”. Cooking was by look or feel and most families had 5-8 steady recipes they used again and again. I remember on By the Shores of Silver Lake when Ma is perplexed thinking about measurements when sharing her biscuit recipe with Rev. Alden’s new charge. The feel of the dough, the smell, the look of the bubbles and rising were so ingrained she didn’t need to measure each time she made them for her family.
Delivering these programs have allowed Sarah witness two key changes in her audience: the cyclical nature to Laura’s fans (book, tv, person) and to the changes in school education. For example, if you don’t grow up in a house that has home cooked meals the description of Caroline Ingalls’ iron spider vs frying pan wouldn’t connect with you as a reader. Children today have such a different relationship to food, underlying knowledge of history and farming that you cannot assume a program’s audience would immediately understands all of the content’s leaps into the past. Sarah saw decline when the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 was introduced as it shifted cross discipline teaching into linear units that could be measured and tested. Previously teachers could use Laura Ingalls Wilder as a cultural touchstone to discuss the environment (farming, dust bowl), government (homestead act, land policy, migration), etc and spend a semester slowly teaching the world the children live in using Laura as the jumping off point. It’s noticing these subtle shifts that keeps Sarah’s programs so relevant to all of her audiences.
While I loved discussing food science and history I had to ask about Sarah’s recommendations for the Laura fan that wanted to begin learning more about this incredible pioneer. It’s a question she gets a lot and she is very careful in how she answers it. As she said earlier “you find in it what you bring to it” and she always follows up the recommendation query with another question. What did you like about the books? This helps her direct the person to the right resource. For me it would be the Laura cookbook, for someone else it may be the new book Laura’s relationship to nature. For a general easy reading biography without footnotes she recommended: Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography by William T. Anderson. For a detailed, comprehensive dive into Laura’s life John E. Miller’s Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder is her steady choice.
With the recent overwhelming success of Pioneer Girl, (the autobiography Laura initially set out to write and was never published) we saw a resurgence of Laura books that covered the environmental to the political aspects of her life. Publishers were willing to take a renewed chance on the Laura audience and a slew of books quickly released. It’s a patterned response Sarah has seen repeat every decade. The biographies by Anderson and Miller were followed by 1st person narratives of authors discovering the Little House world and homesites. The American Girls dolls and books of the 90’s paved the way for Little House chapter prequels surrounding Martha, Charlotte, and Caroline. I remember as a child discovering the Rocky Ridge series that followed the perspective of Laura’s daughter Rose. These additions were easy, enjoyable reads as a child but they do not have the structure, themes and voice that made the Little House series so successful .
I would add a personal recommendation with a new extensive biography Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. She isn’t afraid to add her own analysis to the established timeline and was incredibly well researched. I’ve read every bio at this point and learned more detailed nuance with her book then any other. Prairie Fire also just recently won the Pulitzer Prize in biography. Don’t skip over the acknowledgements at the back of the book either; you’ll find Sarah is thanked for her research contributions!
I am incredibly appreciative that Sarah took the time to speak with me and was so patient during app glitches and life interrupting my publishing schedule. It’s not often that you can find someone that shares such a specific fandom and appreciates it from all the angles of academic research down to pop culture references. As you delve into this world, I dare you to not recognized a reference to, book 6 of the series, The Long Winter during extended storm coverage in North America. Scroll through Instagram and you’ll notice the hashtag #lauraingallswilder is permanently attached to any outfit with a maxi skirt or floral pattern. It’s a wink and nod that only a few appreciate but it’s a devoted following with amazing people to meet along the way. I’ve tried to link to the original books, blogs and websites I’ve referenced as often as I could throughout this article to make your own spiral into the covered wagon easy going. Please start with Trundlebed Tales as I’m sure you’ll enjoy Sarah’s podcast and writing as much as I do. It’s so rare to meet someone that appreciates learning how to quilt or make the perfect loaf of salt rising bread. Find your tribe friends!