‘American Masters’ focuses on Laura Ingalls Wilder

Rick's Reviews

“American Masters” takes a sweeping look at Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Photo courtesy of PBS)

(KGET) — Melissa Gilbert was only 10 years old when she started portraying Laura Ingalls on the television series “Little House on the Prairie.” It’s a role she would continue to play on the show and in TV movies for over a decade.

Gilbert has gone on to appear in a host of other TV and film projects ranging from “Batman: The Animated Series” to “Secrets and Lies.” But, there’s been no role with which she has been more associated than the one from her “Prairie” days.

Despite nearly a lifetime of being connected to the character, Gilbert continuously has been surprised by new information she has found in regards to the woman who wrote the “Little House” series. A lot of that new information will be revealed in the next episode of the PBS series “American Masters: Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page” slated to air at 8 p.m. Dec. 29 on ValleyPBS.

Gilbert, who is an executive producer of the look at Wilder, started reading the “Little House” books when she was 9.

“Then I got the show and then my focus was the scripts and where we were going with that for ten years,” Gilbert says. “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 angle. And, 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.”

“American Masters: Laura Ingalls Wilder” is an unvarnished look at the unlikely author whose autobiographical fiction helped shape American ideas of the frontier and self-reliance. Ingalls was a Midwestern farm woman who in 1935 published her first novel at age 65.

The documentary looks at the legacy of the iconic pioneer as well as the way she transformed her early life into an enduring legend, a process that involved a little-known collaboration with her daughter Rose. It features never-before-published letters, photographs and family artifacts.

Those interviewed for the production include: Caroline Fraser, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her Wilder biography; Pamela Smith Hill, author of “Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life”; Wilder historian William Anderson; and Gilbert.

Alison Arngrim – who played Nellie Oleson on the TV series – also is featured. Her character was one of the most disliked especially by the fans of the books who call themselves Bonnetheads.

“As a child actor, I had always rather liked villain characters, so it did not bother me when I got the part,” Arngrim says. “I was thrilled.

But I had a weird experience, 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.”

Wilder wrote eight books in the “Little House” series starting with “Little House in the Big Woods”. The books chronicle the adventures of a family struggling to survive on the American frontier and have inspired four generations with the courage and determination of their heroine.

Her stories emphasized real life and celebrated stoicism but she omitted the grimmer and contradictory details of her personal history: grinding poverty, government assistance, deprivation and the death of her infant son. Wilder’s racist depictions of American Indians and Black people have stirred controversy in recent years, and made her less appealing to some readers, teachers and librarians.

Gilbert read “Little House in the Big” as a school assignment. Not only did Gilbert like the book but she was also happy to discover the series had been her mother’s favorite books while she was growing up.

“She (Laura) actually reminded me a lot of myself at that time. But then also the way she wrote her descriptions of life and food especially and games and sights and sounds and the world around her was so vivid,” Gilbert says. “I could see myself there, and it really got my imagination stirred up.

When I went back later in the subsequent books I have read and the research I have done and the projects that I’ve worked on, I would say what surprised me about Laura is how tiny she really was. She was a tiny little woman. Her being this tiny little diminutive woman was just shocking to me.”

“Laura Ingalls Wilder” is part of the 34th season of “American Masters” on PBS. The series looks at the lives and creative journeys of our nation’s artistic giants.

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