Caroline Ingalls – What Laura Left Unsaid

by | May 19, 2018

Seven years ago this month, I was terrified, my finger poised over the send button on an email to Little House Heritage Trust.

—Author, Sarah Miller

I’d done my homework — read hundreds of feet of microfilm containing thousands of pages of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s handwritten manuscripts, her then-unpublished memoir, Pioneer Girl, and correspondence with her daughter and Aunt Martha. I’d driven 2,792 miles to Missouri, Kansas, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa, to see the sites of the Ingalls family’s lives, where they were born and where they were buried.

Caroline Ingalls – What Laura Left Unsaid

Photo courtesy of Sarah Miller

All of this because I’d been captivated by the Little House audiobooks. I’d never been more than a casual fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but when the owner of the bookshop where I worked listened to one and came back raving about how great it was, I tried one. And the next…and the next… As I listened, I began to hear more than what I’d read on the pages as a child. The way Cherry Jones voiced Ma’s words, her tone and inflection — as well as my own adult perspective — made me realize how much Laura Ingalls Wilder had left unsaid, especially where her mother was concerned.

Caroline Ingalls

Caroline Ingalls

There’s a moment in Little House on Prairie when Pa is a day late returning from a trip to town, 40 miles away. Laura wakes in the night to find Ma sitting in her rocking chair with Pa’s pistol in her lap, keeping vigil for his return. I can still tell you the intersection where I was sitting when I heard that scene and realized for the first time that for all her outward calm, Ma is barely holding it together. 

That woman was my age, I realized, and not only that, it turns out the real Mrs. Ingalls was pregnant with her third child the year her husband decided to pull up stakes and settle the family in Kansas. Can you imagine? From then on, I couldn’t stop wondering what her life had really been like.

Charles and Caroline Ingalls

So I compared Wilder’s novels with biographers’ research, learning where fact and fiction melded and diverged. I read histories of the Osage Nation by John Joseph Mathews, Louis Burns, Willard Rollings, and Garrick Bailey, as well the 1870 and 1871 annual reports of the Board of Indian Commissioners. I pored over the diaries of women who had traveled west by wagon in the 1800s.

Ingalls Family circa 1891

The more I learned about the realities of the Ingalls family’s history, the more I began to realize that Caroline Ingalls was the glue that held her family together. Laura Ingalls Wilder herself admitted that Pa was “no businessman,” as well as “inclined to be reckless.” When Charles’s schemes for a better life further on failed, Caroline Ingalls took up the slack. And believe me, there was a lot of slack. For years they struggled against poverty, disease, and the elements. Yet the Little House series is renowned as emotional comfort food for generations of readers. How is that possible? I suspect the answer lies in one critic’s observation that “the Little House books breathe serenity. Their distinguishing characteristic is that they tell of great adventure and hardship with great peace.” (1) Ma is the embodiment of that serenity. How did she do it? And what was it like to carry that responsibility? That’s the story I wanted to tell.

I’d set my heart on writing Ma’s story and put in months researching pioneer life — everything down to learning to crochet, wearing a corset, sewing a calico dress, lending a hand in butchering livestock and wild game, rendering lard, frying salt pork, and roasting a rabbit — without ever realizing that the decision to write this book did not belong to me. It belonged to Little House Heritage Trust.

Caroline Ingalls – What Laura Left Unsaid

Calico Dress - Photo courtesy of Sarah Miller

It took me two weeks to write that letter, and at least two more days to summon the nerve to send it. Then there was nothing to do but hope. Looking back, I wish I could sit down next to that fretful version of myself and pat her hand while she waited for a reply…then a request for sample chapters…and a decision that seemed like something out of a dream or a prayer. I did not have the audacity to imagine how supportive the Trust would be, nor how willing to peer beyond the veil of childhood nostalgia to explore the real-life territory Laura Ingalls Wilder herself chose to leave uncharted.

Photo Courtesy of Sarah Miller

People have asked if it felt like Laura Ingalls Wilder was reading over my shoulder as I wrote Caroline. I don’t expect anyone will believe me when I say that I don’t ever recall wondering what Laura would think of what I was doing, but it’s true. What I did wonder — daily, even hourly, some days — was what Caroline Ingalls would think. She was an intensely private woman. There were things Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t learn about her mother’s childhood until after Mrs. Ingalls had died. And here I was, conjuring up things like childbirth, and the intricacies of her feelings for her husband. The solution, in the end, was to be both honest and gentle — as Mrs. Ingalls herself was.

Caroline Ingalls – What Laura Left Unsaid

Sarah Miller chats live with Little House on the Prairie Fans:

Sarah Miller began writing her first novel at the age of ten, and has spent the last two decades working in libraries and bookstores. She is the author of two previous historical novels, Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller, and The Lost Crown. Her non-fiction debut, The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century, was hailed by the New York Times as “a historical version of Law & Order.” Sarah lives in Michigan.

48 Comments

  1. Chris McEvoy

    What did the real Caroline Ingalls die of anyway?

    Reply
  2. Rosie Lowe

    I am definitely going to order the book. I spent my life reading all of the Little House books and it was obvious Laura idolized her father. Reading “Prairie Fires” was a real eye opener. Laura went back to DeSmet when her father was ill and dying and that was her last visit to DeSmet. When Caroline died Laura had not seen her in more than 20 years. Makes me wonder. Caroline must have been extremely tired of all the moving and poverty by the time they settled in DeSmet, which was another failure for Charles. Then he began talking about going to Oregon. What was he searching for? Laura of all the Ingalls girls certainly had a horribly hard life, working from a very young age. Nothing like the books or the highly rated Landon show, which I detested.

    Reply
  3. Francine BOLLA

    J’ai, moi aussi, été étonnée que Pa mange plusieurs crêpes et du lard. Ne pouvait il pas en demander un pour sa famille !

    Reply
  4. Diana A Rodriguez

    I just got done watching American Masters about Laura Ingalls Wilder on PBS, which I loved!! There was a part where the death of Caroline was discussed & Laura wrote an article about it. A quote from her article was highlighted about memories, which touched me deeply. I am trying to find the article. Where can I find it?? Thank you!

    Reply
    • Saz

      I think you can find this article in “little house: a sampler” – a book of carefully curated articles by Laura and Rose. It’s a lovely, underrated book.

      Reply
  5. Kami Robey

    I loved the “Little House” books when I was a child and wanted to share the love I felt for them with my niece, when I was older. As I reread the books, I was shocked at how differently I saw Mr. Ingalls now that I was an adult. I remember reading “The Long Winter” and when “Pa” went across to the Wilder’s store and while his wife and children were starving across the way, he sat down and had pancakes with the Wilder Brothers. I began to wonder then what Caroline’s life had really been like.

    Reply
    • Rachael Gardner

      I don’t think it should have to be said that Mr. Ingalls was starving, too … and working hard labor on all clear days. Even if I was starving, I don’t think I would begrudge my husband a few extra pancakes (and he has a hard labor job, too).

      Reply
      • Lena Kellar

        I fully agree..

        Reply
    • Miss X

      PErhaps he needed strength after the long way over there having been in TWO Polar vortex winters myself, AND the winter of 78 white tornado hurricane winds when I was a very small child, I can tell you snow exhausts you. He was replenishing so he could bring food back to them.

      Reply
  6. Shelly Turner

    Very interested in your book. My mother was always pointing out Ma’s viewpoint and i, as a child in the 50’s knew she was the real hero. I don’t recall now to quote from which book but didn’t Ma try to convince Pa to go west to Oregon? The tv series was fun to watch but as a family knew the inaccurate nature of facts. Inferiated my mother

    Reply
    • Miss X

      I was in my late 40’s before I read confirmation of what I had thought (and acted out when I payed Caroline Ingalls) and that is that Caroline was near a nervous breakdown or broke down after being hauled all over the country over and over, with dirt floors and all the insects and things there were and having to live in the side of a hill dugout (literally) over and over again. For the kids it must have been scary but still, there was a ‘wooppee’ excitement portion to it, but for CAROLINE, oh the poor woman. HOW did she not demand to go back East to Massachusetts where her well-of family originated? It was MA or another new england state. How did she tolerate the terrible poverty when she herself, ancestor-wise, came from very well off people in Scotland?? No wonder she was telling the girls to be ladylike.

      Reply
  7. Janice

    I love the Little House On The Prairie shows/seasons. My husband bought them for me.
    I am sure that I know a lot of it by heart now. I can listen to it, without being in the room, although I rewind it a great deal when I miss something.
    I grew up in an area where my dad trapped and hunted. We lived for the most part off the land. Took fur traps to sell. Fished in the summer and winter. I have brothers that still hunt and trap. Maybe this is why I love the shows as I feel I am part of them. I would love. To travel to see Laura Ingalls Wilder Museums. Although being a senior now. I doubt I will get that chance. I have many books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, one by Rose Lane and am still looking for books by Laura’s mother and grandmother. I am fascinated.

    Reply
  8. SHIRLEY SNEED

    I love Little House on the Prairie I love Michael Landon I watch the show back in the 70s, and I still watch it my mother said she doesn’t like Little House on the Prairie, but you know what that’s okay because my mother used to like The Waltons and I did not like the Walton but I like little house on the Prairie and I still watch it as of this day, and I am 54 years old love you Michael Landon Laura Mary Carrie Caroline I love you all so much thank y’all for coming into my home

    Reply
  9. Lawrence Perondi III

    Loved the show, felt it was how I was growing up in la trobe california living on 10 acres for a year I had to feed the cow and rabbits, we had horses pony’s and donkeys lots of dogs and cats and a pig a goat chickens ducks and geese drink spring water right out the creek in shingle springs, I’m 50

    Reply
  10. Rita S Magee

    I as well live in Tennessee. I have all 9 seasons of little house. I am 43 yrs old and I grew up watching little house on TV. I now have a granddaughter who is 4 months old and loves to watch Laura and hear her voice. We are in the process of watching it all over from the beginning as we speak.
    I do wonder why Charles and Caroline didn’t marry in real life because they sure make a great team and family for little house. They probably know more about each other than their own real family and friends actually do.

    Reply
  11. Stock Kim

    Thank you Sarah for your book! They say it’s a good book when you think about it for a long time. I read your book this summer on a road trip to Montana. (It helped me imagine a pioneer lifestyle such as Caroline’s). I am 66 and have always wanted to be part of the Ingalls family (big Little House fan)but I think I was brought back to reality! Passed it on to my 86 year old mom who is reading & been enjoying it.

    Reply
  12. Hope

    Me too! Well sort of. I just want to be an Ingalls girl. Victor is good at acting, but I’d prefer Michelle or Milssia maybe Michael.
    Every time I think about Isaiah Edwards I just sing old Dan Tucker was a fine old man he washed his face in a frying pan combed his hair with a wagon wheel died with a toothache in his heel and so on … Ma was very pretty Mary and Laura got that from their Ma. The last thing, Laura was named after her pa’s ma. Why? Because they could move their feet fast.

    Reply
  13. Cheryl

    I too just finished watching the whole Little house on the praire beginning to end. I love it. I missed so much when it was on TV. Michael Landon was wonderful. My family thinks I’m nuts. I am now watching Highway to heaven with Michael Landon and Victor French (mr Edwards)
    I too think i would like to read Caroline. I live in Tennessee and my favorite place to visit is cades cove in the smokies. Walk through all the old houses and churches and imagine what it was like to live there.

    Reply
  14. Danielle

    I am also watching Little House on the Prairie again as a 45 year old…. The hallmark channel started playing it from the beggining and I am DVR’ing every episode. it is amazing how much I am learning from the show watching it as an adult. I am very interested in reading “Caroline’s story”. Luckily our library has it in, and I will start reading it tonight.

    Reply
  15. Iris

    I’m watching Little House on the Prairie again..& it leaves me with comfort & peace. In this crazy world we live in, this simple show portrayed so well..It’s also, nice to know other’s are cherishing these shows. I am also contemplating ordering Carolyn.

    Reply
  16. Rosie Suarez

    “Little house on the prairie” is my favorite series of all time. As a true christian, I feel at peace watching something without foul language, misconducts and violance with the exception of “Sylvia” and ” rage” but these things happen in the real world. I was 12 years old when I first watched this series and now at 47 thanks to roku, I bought all 9 seasons plus the last 3 episodes. I can watch it over and over. It never gets old. I believe that If Michael Landon would have stayed on as “Charles Ingalls”, the show would have lasted longer ( just my opinion) yet I was a faithful viewer til the end. I wish there were more shows like this one. I know that the series is not exactly as Laura Ingall Wilder wrote them in her books, but the way Michael Landon and friends wrote them, works for me.

    Reply
  17. Sandra Mitchell

    Was. Caroline. Installs. Pregnant. When. They. Left. Pepin,wish.?????? And. Moved. To. Kansas.

    Reply
    • Seth

      No. They left Wisconsin in 1868 and moved to land they had purchased in Rothville, Missouri. They traveled with Ma’s older brother Uncle Henry and Pa’s sister, Aunt Polly and their family. Uncle Henry and Aunt Polly decided to move back to Pepin; Charles and Caroline decided to move on to Kansas. Caroline would have been pregnant during the move and settling in Kansas. A few weeks after Carrie was born (and she and Caroline were still recovering from malaria) the Ingalls decided to return to the Big Woods, because the farmer who had bought their farm, defaulted on the payments.

      Reply
  18. kathyford

    tv show little on the praitrie
    how go mary blind
    from kathy
    witrte back to me

    Reply
    • Lee Flowers

      The real Mary got very sick and went blind afterwards. They did not have good medicine and doctors like we have now.

      Reply
  19. Beth

    My daughter (11) and I just finished the little house series and I cam across this book. I see that it is listed on amazon as an adult book. Is it appropriate for pre-teen readers? I plan to read it regardless myself, just trying to determine if it appropriate to read aloud to her as I did with the Little House series. Thank you

    Reply
  20. Susan

    I absolutely loved reading this book! You made Caroline come alive. I love her even more!

    Reply
  21. Sarah

    I really enjoyed this book! I was sad to come to the end of it though. Tell me you plan on continuing her story. There are so many more moments in Caroline’s life that I would love to see brought to life through your wonderful words.

    Reply
  22. Heidi

    I loved the book after reading and listening to the audio books many times. I had wondered more about women’s life during this time and this book gave me a greater insight. Is there any plans to cover another of the books in the series from Caroline’s perspective? I would be the first in line to read it!

    Reply
  23. Ruth

    I got this book for Christmas after I fawned over it in a bookstore! It’s lovely, I felt my self admiring Carolyn so much. I know I could never have had her strength and blind TRUST in Charles. Having to leave safty and family for a covered wagon and a maybe better life….recommend to all little house fans. Now in my fifties I am rereading those books I so loved as a child.

    Reply
  24. Carla

    Why is there no book about Pa Ingalls growing up and meeting Caroline?

    Reply
  25. Winnie

    Absolutely thrilled at having such a title to return to the Ingalls with, I ordered this book. I am disappointed to say that this is the most depressing book I have ever read and the testimony to Caroline’s privacy is dashed as unnecessary descriptions such as the condition of her nipples and milk letdown are repeatedly thrust upon the dedicated LIW reader. I know pioneer life was unrelentlessly tough and garnered need for strong individuals capable of withstanding heartbreak, stark fear, and disappointment. However, I respectfully need more evidence than unrelated individual diaries and inspired materials the author used as base for her imagined dialogue. I think to absolutely portray Caroline’s inner story, more personal facts needed to be available. For example, I have always thought how hard it was for “Ma” to say goodbye to the Big Woods and her support system of
    family… but to say “would Charles and the girls be enough?” insults Caroline’s stamina, mental capability and heart. I think this endearing wife and mother was dedicated to her Charles and children fully and was not the selfish thinking mental case revealed in this book. This book should be retitled “The Misery of Caroline” – and I am glad to finish it to be done with it. Surely the true Caroline Ingalls did have SOME joy in her life. I do give this review with respect to the author’s idea for focus, however, I too felt that I needed to stand up for Caroline’s dignity with her possibly looking down over my shoulder as well. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Rosie Lowe

      I think you are wrong. I just finished the book and there is no way you can tell me that Caroline had a wonderful life. She followed Charles from state to state, lived in complete poverty and tried to give her daughters a good life. I believe if she had joy in her life it was in her children, not in being dragged from pillar to post. I saw lots of Caroline’s dignity in the book. And I am sure there were times Caroline had some issues that may have driven her to some form of mental illness. who would not go a little crazy living in a dug out, one dirt room with dirt and spiders always falling on you? Living in a very tiny log cabin in Indian territory? I have seen the rebuilt cabin and it was extremely tiny for 5 people! Caroline ‘s story is indeed a hard one to read but she was a woman to be admired.

      Reply
  26. Erica

    On pinterest you can now find images of many of the Ingall’s death certificates including Caroline and Charles. They sadly shed some light on Carolines later years for me. I expected to see heart failure listed as the cause of death for Pa/Charles Ingalls, but I was surprised to see that Ma’s/Caroline’s cause of death was listed as Senility…..she was Senile. We know of it as dementia or Alzheimer’s now, but whichever one was the cause, I sincerely hope she didn’t suffer it too long. It’s known that Grace and her husband came to live with Ma and Mary some years before Caroline died, but I always thought it was due to her being slowed down due to old age. I know dementia and Alzheimer’s are not uncommon afflictions at all to the elderly, but it’s just so hard for some reason to think of “Ma” Caroline being afflicted by it as well.

    Reply
  27. Charlene Zacks

    I want to know more about Caroline Ingals!

    I think Laura looked alot like here.

    Was she snything like Karen Grassle’s portrayl?

    Reply
  28. Toni

    I am reading the book now and it is just wonderful. Thank you for writing this book.

    Reply
  29. Dotti Giles

    The back story of you interest in writing about Caroline Is fascinating. I eagerly look forward to reading the book.

    Reply
  30. Sally

    Got an advance copy and gobbled it up…interesting to have adult “spin” on book I’ve read over and over

    Reply
  31. Russ

    Very well written book, nicely done.

    Reply
  32. Emily D.

    It’s a fantastic book! I’m already on my second time through it!

    Reply
  33. Alyssa

    i love little house on the prairie

    Reply
  34. lisa benham

    How much is the book

    Reply
    • Angela England

      You can see a lot of pricing and shipping options at one of our favorite online retailers, Amazon.com http://amzn.to/2rZFhSY

      Reply
  35. Aida Douglas

    It sounds like a very good book. I’ve always loved ma Ingalls and how brave she was and what a caring mother she was to her four daughters. Can’t wait for the book to come out.

    Reply
  36. Shirley Carothers

    I can hardly wait to get the book.

    Reply
  37. دوست

    Dear Mrs. Miller, Thank you for have wrote this book.

    Reply
  38. denise

    sounds like a wonderful book

    Reply
    • Marianne

      Caroline is an extraordinary book! Loving it! Caroline would be pleased!!

      Reply

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  1. DiscoverNet | The True Story Behind Little House On The Prairie - […] the website Little House on the Prairie argues, Caroline often had to pick up the slack left by her…
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