Lazy? Lousy? Really?

Something that has always bothered me in the Little House books is the whole Eliza Jane debacle. I couldn’t figure out why Laura presented such a bleak picture of her sister-in-law.

Part of the reason for that is the timeline.

Let me back up. Through the eyes that Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author, allowed for us as readers, what do we know about Eliza Jane Wilder?

She was bossy.
She was a know-it-all.
She was a terrible teacher.
She was easily manipulated by her students (say, Nellie Oleson).
She was overly emotional.
She wanted to take over Laura’s wedding.

Does that about cover it? If I have missed anything, let me know.

Aside from smoothing over the blacking-brush situation in Farmer Boy, Eliza Jane Wilder is never redeemed. Even in Little Town on the Prairie, as an adult, she is presented as merely an exponential version of that bossy, unlikable big sister we first met in Farmer Boy.

And let’s remind ourselves: this is all through Laura’s filter. This is only what Laura chose to share about this person. I don’t know about your marriage, but if I published what essentially amounts to a character defamation of my husband’s sister, he’d have something to say about it.

Which leads me to think that either A) Almanzo didn’t read the books, or B) he didn’t care. Him not reading them seems plausible enough. But if he didn’t care, there had to be a good reason.

Let’s look at the timeline:

1881 (according to Little Town on the Prairie, which was off from the real date by a year): Laura is taught school by Eliza Jane Wilder, the sister of the man who will become her husband.

1885: After courting for three years, Laura marries Almanzo Wilder.

1899: James Wilder, Almanzo’s father, dies shortly after losing most of his fortune investing in rice crops in Louisiana on the advice of Eliza Jane.

1903: Laura and Almanzo send their daughter, Rose, to live with Eliza Jane in Crowley, Louisiana to attend and graduate from high school.

1904: Rose leaves home for Kansas City, MO, and is essentially gone for good.

1930: Eliza Jane Wilder (Thayer Gordon – she married twice) dies.

1932: The first book in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, Little House In the Big Woods, is published.

1933: Farmer Boy, the second book in the series, detailing the childhood of her husband, is published—this is where we first meet the character Eliza Jane.

1935-1940: The next four books in the series are published.

1941: Little Town on the Prairie is published; we meet Eliza Jane again, this time as an adult, teaching school to Laura’s class.

At the time of the writing of Little Town, Eliza Jane has been dead for about a decade. It’s been almost forty years since Laura and Almanzo entrusted Rose to her care for the girl’s last year of schooling. By all accounts, Rose grew to deeply respect and admire her unique, eccentric, and politically active aunt.

Why would Laura choose to defame her sister-in-law’s character in this way? It seems out of left field to me. A case could be made that it was Rose’s suggestions that led to EJ’s character development—but if Rose expressed any untoward feelings toward Eliza Jane, I’ve missed them. I’ve toyed with the idea that Laura and Almanzo, or even Rose, resented Eliza Jane’s meddling in the elder Wilders’ investments and blamed her for the drain of their fortune—and her father’s subsequent death. It wouldn’t be that hard to accept Rose being angry about her parents losing an inheritance, since she took such responsibility for her parents’ financial support. But the big loss happened in the late 1890s, before Rose was sent to Crowley.

Did Laura and Almanzo simply value Rose’s education that much? Or were they OK with EJ then, and only later on resented EJ’s influence on their young, impressionable girl—who would follow her Crowley stay by leaving home, for all intents and purposes, permanently?

I go around and around in my head. I simply cannot come up with a plausible explanation as to why Laura chose to turn her sister-in-law into a pariah. In the book series, even Lib “Mrs. Brewster” Bouchie has mitigating factors—you can almost understand why she acts as she does. And Nellie, ever the villain, is ultimately revealed to be a lot poorer than she lets on, which brings a different level of understanding to her behavior. (And let’s remind ourselves of one very interesting commonality these two characters shared: Their names were changed.)

We never get this understanding with Eliza Jane. In Farmer Boy, we understand her actions because we know she’s just a child, and later on we even like her when she tells Almanzo “You’re the only little brother I’ve got.” (Which he wasn’t, but I digress.) But Little Town, written just eight years later, gives us no such escape hatch. Instead we’re left with the enduring image of the incompetent teacher who then (in These Happy Golden Years) has to face the humiliation of her most troublesome student joining her family—and they won’t even let her help plan the wedding.

I’m out of ideas. Anyone else?

Posted in Farmer Boy, Little Town on the Prairie, Minor Characters in Little House books, Rose Wilder Lane, These Happy Golden Years Tagged with: ,
86 comments on “Lazy? Lousy? Really?
  1. Beth says:

    I don’t have any answers but I have often wondered the same thing. I wondered why Almanzo would let his sister be portrayed so badly unless he really didn’t care for her himself. I also wondered why Laura and Almanzo would let Rose live with EJ after EJ lost the families money and why Rose let EJ be portrayed the way she was (knowing that Rose had some input to the books and knowing that she admired EJ).

    I wonder if there are any letters between Rose and Laura during the time she wrote LTOTP that may shed some light???

  2. dawn says:

    Is it possible that it was just true? That she was annoying and meddling? Maybe they didn’t see it as defamation because maybe (who knows) they used to talk about that horrible school experience and heck, maybe Eliza Jane would say, “I know, I was AWFUL!”

    • Maddir says:

      EJ was mean to thin and sickly Carrie. She picked on Carrie and made her rock the desk. Laura hated her. It’s bet clear in LTOTP.

      • Carolyn Tainter says:

        I agree on how she treated Carrie. The first time was when she and another little girl made mistakes in spelling. The other little girl was sent back to her seat to relearn the lesson and she made Carrie go up to the blackboard to write the words she missed 50 times each. When Carrie looked like she was going to faint, Laura stood up yelling MISS WILDER CARRIE’S GOING TO FAINT ! Good for Laura to finish the writing. I think Eliza Jane was not only unfair to Carrie and that she should have made the other little girl write the words and have Carrie sit down. That woman was a B I T C H !

    • Kim Howell says:

      Laura didn’t care for ejw because besides the needling she treated almonzo like her son rather than her brother and she would go against Laura who pretty much was the head of the house hold, that is when Eliza wasn’t around

  3. Kim says:

    I’ve always thought that Rose suggested portraying Eliza Jane that way because it would provide a good storyline. I’m sure it was true to an extent, but she probably wasn’t as horrible as she was made out to be. Laura probably felt guilty about the way she was written, but she did allow Rose to make quite a few of the literary decisions. It’s an interesting topic, regardless of what the real truth may be.

  4. Wendy says:

    Ooh, this is a good one.

    I think it’s very possible that Almanzo didn’t read the books, or didn’t read much of them. From what the biographies say, he doesn’t seem like much of a reader, and seeing as how Laura didn’t read much of Rose’s work (or so Rose believed), he might not have ever seen the objectionable passages at all. If there’s anything he would have objected to, that is.

    I agree with Kim: there are some pretty good narrative reasons for having Eliza Jane stay Eliza Jane in LTOTP. From the start it’s pointed out that Miss Wilder is related to the dashing guy with the fancy horses, which makes both Laura and Nellie hope that they can be friends with her (and as a reader, don’t you have high hopes yourself?). And then, when Miss Wilder and Nellie become close around the same time that Almanzo starts to pay attention to Laura, there’s certain level of complication that wouldn’t have existed had the nasty school teacher simply been Miss Bossy-Fictional-Character.

    There’s no telling whether this was a deliberate decision on Laura’s (or Rose’s) part, but maybe Laura felt that something would have been lost by giving EJ a fictional stand-in, whereas there was really nothing to lose in changing Mrs. Bouchie’s name and making Nellie Oleson a composite character. I tend to think she had more reason to change the names of unrelated people like the Bouchies and the drunk guy walking down Main Street (her best friend’s dad!), than of the people in her family. She might not have wanted to chance upsetting whatever unknown Bouchie descendants were out there, but she when it came to Eliza Jane she probably knew the extent of the risk involved in mischaracterizing her a bit. By the time LTOTP was written, Eliza Jane was gone, and there were must have been only a handful of people who knew her, all of whom either agreed with Laura or else Laura felt she could contend with them.

    Also, while we look at the books and see a (somewhat fictionalized) account of people who once lived, I wonder if Laura and her family saw it a little differently, that what Laura was doing was just writing stories, not recording people for posterity. (Certainly Ma and Pa were, but they were central enough to be fully fleshed out.) Maybe it didn’t occur to Laura or Rose that these stories would endure the way they have, or fully grasped that the version of Eliza Jane that appears in the books would be the one that has lasted.

  5. Kelly Hunt says:

    I think it’s important to consider a couple of things:
    EJ was long gone before she was immortalized as the bossy big sister, teacher, and later sister-in-law.

    It’s not unreasonable to think that perhaps she DID posess these qualities?
    Perhaps they were magnified to promote the character of Eliza Jane for the books?

    I have a brother with similar qualities and while I love him, he rubs everyone the wrong way at times. He would make a terrific character for a book… perhaps as a cantankerous cowboy in a western? I don’t think it would surprise anyone in my family to see him written out in ink. It’s hard to defend someone who is outward about their behavior.

    On the other hand, perhaps Rose simply saw an opportunity for the type of character that was needed to set the stage for Laura’s needs?

    Good question!

    Kelly

  6. Sandra, you bring up such good things to think about, I don’t have any answers, but I like the questions. Thank you for this post.

  7. Beth Halbrooks says:

    I have wondered about this through the years as well, and think that RWL must have had some impact on Eliza Jane Wilder’s character development. Perhaps she explained the necessity to her parents for a complex character that helped the storyline, and EJ was certainly that in real life. I think that Almanzo must have trusted Rose’s literary judgement just as Laura did.

    There is a lot of food for thought with this question and probably we will never know for sure.

  8. Barb says:

    Reading this I find myself wondering if that’s just how Almanzo saw EJ, too…sibling stuff…and if that’s how he saw her, then chances are that’s how Laura saw her..as far as schooling…sometimes we overlook stuff for opportunities, right?

  9. Thanks for asking a question about which I’ve always wondered myself.

  10. Tracy says:

    This is a great question. I guess I’ve always beleived that Almanzo had some input about EJ’s character since the first time we meet her is in Farmer Boy – his story. I always thought Laura would’ve asked Almanzo questions, or at least runthings past him, when telling about HIS life! Also, I’ve read Free Land, and Rose alone did a number on the character in that story based on EJ. I, too, would think that any letters between mother and daughter about this character would be interesting to read. Great question!!!

  11. Denise Marie says:

    I’ve always wondered about it, too, and came up with the kinds of reasons that have been posted here… It’s interesting to see others wondering the same thing!
    :^)

  12. Cheryl says:

    Wow, 11 posts before mine. I think this is a record here on BLH.

    I don’t have any answers either but I have always admired the real life EJ. While she was teaching school in town, she was doing her best to hold down a homestead claim. A lot to tackle for a single woman.

  13. Laura says:

    Interesting subject! I didn’t have time to post yesterday, but my thoughts are pretty well covered here in everyone else’s posts. Like Cheryl, even though I disliked the book character, Eliza Jane, I had to admire the independent way she lived her life.
    Also, I like to think that Laura would not have portrayed her in such a way if Almanzo did not approve.
    I have always questioned why, if the disliked her, did they send their only daughter to live with her? I would wonder if they thought it was the only way for her to finish her education.

  14. Katherine says:

    Excellent question.

    My thoughts are that although Laura sent Rose to live with Eliza Jane, she may then have resented EJ’s influence on Rose. Rose never returned home. She became a very independent woman, as was EJ. Was this due to EJ’s example and influence? Did Laura resent this? Would Laura have preferred it if Rose had had a more traditional life – and more children?

    However – if Rose had such an influence on the content of the books, why would she have allowed her aunt to be portrayed so negatively?

    All three of these women seem to be angry characters to me. And I think their anger gives them energy and determination. Maybe it’s an outlet for Laura’s anger to depict EJ as a meddling, bossy girl and woman with poor judgment.

    And I don’t think one of my brothers would stick up for his sisters and not defer to his wife’s opinion!

    Katherine

  15. Dr Laura says:

    I too think that the Eliza character was important to the plot development in LTOP and later in HGY. She brings depth to the school house scenes and provides an ally for Nellie that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. To me it heightens the romance between Almanzo and Laura because of the conflict between Laura and EJ. We also know that Laura did exaggerate characteristics sometimes and we also know that she was describing EJ as a teacher from a child’s memory–I’d hate to see how I will be described as a principal in some child’s memoir.

    Also, I would agree that there are many families that have difficult relatives. I have some in-laws that I wouldn’t want to be around for any length of time but I wouldn’t hesitate to let them care for my child. I think EJ had opportunities available where she lived that weren’t available in Mansfield. Additionally, Rose was miserable in Mansfield. I think it was a salvation to Rose to have an aunt to go to that could provide her with a more cultural progressive education. I’m guessing that she may have seen her aunt as someone she could look up to at a time when she was clearly embarrassed by her parents and her circumstances–so could it have been jealousy on Laura’s part as well?

    Finally, do we know what Almanzo’s mental state was in 1941? He died only a few years later and was quite old. Perhaps he wasn’t aware or just flat didn’t care. He may have underestimated the depth of popularity of the books and of course probably couldn’t imagine that 68 years later people would be discussing his feelings on that new fangled Internet!

    So, no answers, no scholarly thoughts, just speculation on my part.

    Dr. Laura

  16. Lauri says:

    I read in one biography that Laura and Almanzo were at their wit’s end before they sent Rose to live with EJ. Did EJ hold it over their heads afterwards?
    We have a family situation now where if anyone wrote a book, one person and spouse would wish they were characterized like Eliza. While I can’t imagine any of “the boys” writing it, I can’t see them preventing it as it would be more true than not, if that makes any sense.

  17. I look on the question as being about fiction writing. Laura was writing, and Rose was helping her to shape, fiction. Fiction based on true life, but fiction, a long children’s novel, that subtly developed in degree of difficulty. There can be no question that they knew exactly what they were doing. By then Laura was a seasoned writer and Rose a seasoned writer and editor. They were professionals. They knew their market. Their great work was no accident, but something they rewrote and honed endlessly, on Jane Austen’s artistic precept that “an artist does nothing slovenly.” They discussed and pondered over everything in it, down to the most minute details, not all of which were factually accurate, but fictionally appropriate.

    The Laura who wrote the book was not the girl who, when she had a bad time in her first school and wrote to Mary, “of course she did not write of anything unpleasant.” She was not writing nice letters to family. She was not even *being* nice. She was writing a deceptively simple book that was actually underneath the surface very artful and sophisticated, with elements balanced just so, by both her thoughtful production and Rose’s editorial rearrangements. They knew very well that a children’s book with only “nice” characters is a bland bore. What children, in reading the series, don’t absolutely delight in the meanness of Nellie, the nastiness of Eliza that makes Almanzo throw the blacking brush at her, and later, the boringness and craziness of Preacher Brown who makes Ida feel like “only” an adopted child? These character shades are memorable, and add an infinite amount of color. What’s more, they even make the “nice” characters seem nicer! What if everyone was sweet like Mary? But even Mary has her undercurrents (“I was being vain and proud and I deserved to be slapped for it”). Even the controlled, mature “good” woman Ma isn’t always perfect. She was unpleasantly prejudiced against Indians, she thought Laura should wear her corsets all night, she could often be a priggish pain (like Mary, who is “her” daughter, as Laura is Pa’s). These books would not be the same without the spice of enjoying Eliza as the bullying big sister whom we all recognize, and Eliza, the wrong-headed schoolteacher who clashed with the strong-willed adolescent Laura. What is a novel without conflict? Laura and Rose knew this very well. Laura the writer actually shows some moments of sympathy for Eliza: remember how young Laura felt in her first term of teaching school, when the recognition came to her that this was how Miss Wilder, who failed to teach the school in De Smet, felt. And she determines not to let that happen; it’s a maturing moment. Eliza actually taught Laura by bad example.

    Why did Laura sacrifice Eliza on the altar of lively fiction, when she was a family member? Well, clearly she had never liked her. She didn’t like her bossiness, the way she took charge of people and situations and made things happen, right or wrong – and when Eliza’s judgment and bossiness were the direct, devastating cause of the Wilder family losing their fortune, this must have seemed the catastrophic final proof of her faults. Having been exasperated by Eliza all her life, she didn’t feel constrained to be “gentle” to her in writing, or rein it in. What came out when she wrote about Eliza, reflected how she felt about her. Almanzo had suffered from Eliza too. We don’t know how Rose suffered from her when she was her student, but she certainly didn’t stop the unpleasant portrait of Eliza from being written – so we may guess. Plenty of resentments there, both old, and comparatively recent.

    If your question, then, is why did Laura send Rose for education to a woman she disliked so much, there may have been some good reasons. Rose at that age was, I gather, an almost unprecedented handful. She writes she was experimenting with sex at an early age. She ate up all the learning available to her in a stunningly short time. She was wild. She was headstrong. Laura, who had been brought up by Ma and learned how to curb herself, how to behave, how to conform, how to be a lady, and Almanzo, who probably left the “hen” department to his wife, doubtless were at their wits’ end knowing what to do with this out-of-control girl. And they had few options. Rose was bursting to get off the farm and out into the world. She was an uncontrollable force. They had no money. What to do with her? It’s not a stretch that they might have thought, “Send her to Eliza. Eliza is strong-minded enough to deal with her, plus she can offer her more education than we can. Let her try.” I would imagine Eliza was used as a kind of desperate, “tough love” school. After all, Laura knew that Eliza would be a decent teacher (“She is a good scholar. She knows what is in the books”), and might, at best, provide an educational opportunity and some discipline for Rose. It’s the kind of thing you do when you’re beside yourself with a problem child who’s too much for you!
    And Laura herself actually learned a lot from Eliza, even if it was only by negative example. (“If wisdom’s ways you wisely seek…”) Maybe she wanted Rose to get a dose of that, to show her what could happen when a strong minded woman didn’t have good judgement. Laura may have seen Eliza all over again in Rose, and wanted to show her the dangers – consciously or unconsciously. But I bet she knew what she was doing, all right.

    And thirty years later, who was left to care if Eliza was unflatteringly portrayed? Not Laura, Almanzo and Rose. Was Eliza’s son still around?

    I see I’m pretty much just repeating what others have said, but I was pondering, too, and wanted to send this off!

  18. Tracy Smith says:

    One question: did the incident with Carrie and the thumping chair really happen? If so, I can understand Laura never really forgiving her for that bit of cruelty.

    And I would imagine that Almanzo probably had quite a few stories to tell Laura during their marriage about how difficult his sister was, to build upon the negative first impressions Laura had of her.

    By the way, I’ve been lurking here for awhile, but had not felt motivated to comment until now.

  19. Indra Naidoo says:

    I think that the dislike for EJ stemmed more from the Carrie incident than anything else. Laura flamed with resentment then and carried it since. I can understand that. Remember Laura is not writing objectively. What bugged me though is Ma and her treatment of Laura. I don’t know if any of you got the feeling that Laura was being used. Every time something was needed for Mary, Laura was expected to work and fulfil that need. Even when it came to housework, Laura was expected to pull her weight more than anyone else. Everytime help was required in town Ma, who by the way appeared as though she hardly left home,would volunteer Laura’s availability. Even with clothes Laura had the other end of the stick. The only time Laura was summoned back home from a job was Mary came home and She was in need of Laura’s company.

    • Rosie Lowe says:

      You know I really love your comments. To this day I still re-read all the Little House books and the characters of Mary and Ma really irritate me. Mary would have driven me crazy and unlike Laura I would have smacked her. I also think Ma put entirely too much responsibility on Laura. Everything was about Mary. Certainly the family sacrificed to put Mary in college but for what gain? She came home after 8 years and remained home for good. It is also my understanding that as Mary aged she became hard to handle. Both Laura and Carrie moved on with their lives and Ma and Mary ended up living alone after Pa died. Although according to the books Laura did not want to teach she was more or less made to simply because Mary could not. Could Mary have remained at the school in Vinton and taught there? More than likely not as Ma wanted her home. I think Ma was a very complex woman who truly ruled the home and I doubt she deferred to Charles. Obviously Laura adored her father and it is also obvious he was in a house filled with females. Ma had her streak of hatred towards Native Americans too. I wonder too if Laura wanted more independence and was held back by her mother. Of course we may never know but frankly Mary and Ma did irritate me!

    • TLW says:

      I felt the same way. That everything was being heaped on Laura. But what else could they do in some cases, not all. Carrie was too frail, Grace was too young. Freddie died, so they had no son to help with the heavy work.

      In “The Long Winter”, it was said that until the lean-to was so covered with snow that it insulated it, they didn’t have Mary helping with the hay-twisting until then because it was too cold. When Laura taught her to twist the hay (even though it was hard to do because she couldn’t see) she managed to learn how to do it.

      I’ve wondered if Mary had other health problems beyond the blindness. I read in the preface to “West From Home” that Mary had neuralgia in the nerves of her face that she had to have an operation for. Probably caused by the same fever that blinded her. So maybe it was something that could have been made worse by getting too cold.

  20. Seth says:

    I have read the “Little House” books since I was in elementary school, as well as Roger Lea McBride’s historical fiction “Rose Years”, and supplemental books by “Little House” scholar William Anderson. In McBride’s works, he portrays Eliza Jane as an annoying and intrusive woman, but not one that Laura loathed. McBride was Rose’s adopted grandson and inherited the rights to the “Little House” books. They were very close and she told him many stories of her childhood that he based his series on.
    Eliza Jane could be described as the or sister-in-law from Hell, but I don’t think she was deliberately portrayed as a nasty and irredeemable person. She had certain ideas of how other people should live. Like Rose in her later years.

  21. Asa says:

    Oh, what an interesting question, and what an interesting site this is, new to me! I am a Swedish Little House-fan and, like some other commentators above, have always disliked the EJ of the books but liked the person one gets to know in e.g. William Anderson´s “A Wilder in the West”. Personally, I think both Laura and Rose might have been a bit jealous of EJ! In a time when most women were largely dependant on their parents or husbands, EJ made a home of her own, had an interesting career in Washington, then married and had a son at the age of 44. Neither Laura nor Rose got both a working life and a family of their own. Despite her hard struggles, EJ can be said to have got the best things out of life. Also, she seems to have had a better financial position than Laura and Almanzo.
    Even if we like our relatives, it is easy to make comparisons and find life unfair. Both Laura and Rose had lost a baby son, while EJ got one despite marrying so late in life. Who would not be jealous? Probably EJ was not the best of teachers, and probably Laura and she did not get on very well, both being headstrong. But I still think there is more to it than that.

  22. Micheline says:

    We know Laura wrote to schoolchildren that ‘I never did like Eliza Jane much’, but does anyone know if Eliza actually disliked Laura in real life? It could have been just a personality clash, from all accounts EJ had a strong personality and someone like that is easier to demonize in fiction. People probably either really liked or really disliked Eliza, and for a woman of that time to have a strong personality would have stirred particularly strong reactions in people. So many events in LIW’s books were altered or fictionalized that I wouldn’t take anything Laura wrote as historical fact! The desk-switching incident in LTOTP was probably invented, as “Nellie” (Genevieve Masters) had actually shown up in town a year or two prior to Eliza’s teaching term. Also, Laura’s father was only on the schoolboard for a month, and again that was 2 years before EJ was teaching there. So that takes away the basis for ‘Nellie’s’ lies to Miss Wilder that initiate her animosity towards Laura. The changes make a great story, but I agree with the character defamation post here. Whether Laura did it maliciously or simply saw it as a writing technique is anyone’s guess. As for the desk-rocking thing with Carrie, I have to say that reading that again as an adult made me laugh it was so over-the-top! We’ll never know for sure but to me it sounded a bit too Southern Gothic to be true. Anyone read Rose’s story about the little girl in Florida nearly being poisoned by her strange backwoods Aunt Molly? Rose really did have an Aunt Molly in Florida! Maybe Eliza Jane got off easy! Whatever LIW’s intentions, she has created stories so interesting we are still pondering them, and her depiction of her sister-in-law has inspired us to find out about the real-life Eliza Jane, a person who I find incredibly interesting and admirable.

  23. jen says:

    I agree the assault on character of Eliza was intentional, by the time Little Town was written, Laura’s books were wildly popular and folks were often asking about the characters. My guesses are that there was lifelong resentment for the loss of the Wilder fortune, capped by Eliza encouraging Rose’s independence. I’ve often wondered if moving in with Eliza was really Laura and Almanzo’s wish or if Eliza set it up with a young teenage Rose in her own communication with the girl and without Laura and Almanzo’s blessing. Nothing will anger parents more than someone else meddling in the raising of their children.

    I also find it interesting that Laura chooses to make a character of Eliza in her books but not Almanzo’s sister Laura, who as I understand also lived in DeSmet and worked with Laura sewing for some time during These Happy Golden Years.

    There are other real characters that don’t benefit from fond Ingalls Wilder memories…Mr. Foster to some extent, the Brewsters for sure, but especially Reverend Brown and his long, stupid sermons…with Laura wishing he’d say something interesting. Who else did Laura not like?

  24. Jane says:

    I too, have thought about this for many years, but here is my take on it. Every family has a difficult aunt or uncle or cousin or sibling. Some people are just difficult. Every family has someone you dread seeing at Thanksgiving and Christmas and pray you don’t get stuck next to them at the dinner table. It may not be that they are bad, or evil or even that you don’t respect them or trust them, they are just difficult.

    Look at the history of both families. If I’m not mistaken, both are direct descendants of Mayflower Pilgrims. I don’t have time to page through all of Deb Houdek’s work on the geneaology right now, but I believe I remember seeing that some time ago. http://www.dahoudek.com/LIW/ingalls/aqwg03.htm#1441C
    So you’ve got two families who descend from people who are willing to take on tremendous risk and hardship to live out what they believe. If Eliza Jane inherited that backbone, that would be something that would both make you respect and trust her highly, and something that would make you not want to sit next to her at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Now take a look at Rose. Rose is famous for having had a highly successful career at a time when most women didn’t. She was a founder of the Libertarian movement and a friend of Ayn Rand. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rose_Wilder_Lane She is also notable for having divorced at a time when most women didn’t. This is another strong-willed, out-spoken woman cut from the same cloth as Eliza Jane. They were two of a kind. This is also a woman who built a house on her parents farm, for her parents, against their will. It was the very latest style in Connecticut, I’m sure, but it wasn’t their style. They lived in it for a while, then quietly moved back into their own house and abandoned it. Rose used it when she was home.

    Lastly, take a look at Laura. She is hardly a shrinking violet herself. What kind of a woman would slap an Indian in the Dakota territories in the 1880’s? She’s lucky to have walked away from that alive, but I think perhaps the reason was first, that the Indians were so startled and second, that they recognized her fierce bravery and respected it. It is notable to that Almanzo and Laura competed with each other all their years in Missouri to see who could make the most money off their part of the farm, Laura with her chickens and eggs, Almanzo with the dairy cows. That is how Laura came to be a writer: by writing about her success as a farm wife in the Missouri Ruralist.

    My take on it is that poor Almanzo, who was no coward himself but seems to have been a gentle soul, first was bossed around by his sister, then he married someone rather like his sister, and then he had a daughter perhaps even more out-spoken than his sister. The relationship between he and Laura seems to have been affectionate, based on her letters while she was visiting Rose in San Francisco, but I would imagine she could be a bit sharp when riled too. Understand that I’m saying this with a great deal of affection for Laura, but with an understanding too that she was human, and all humans have flaws. I would also note too that Laura had a fierce loyalty toward people she loved. This is most notable in that she fell for Cap Garland first (I’ve read this elsewhere, but you can also see it in the way she describes him), but when Almanzo came courting her and Cap courted Mary Power, she kept it to herself. Later, when Mary rejects Cap, Laura decides to stick with Almanzo anyway. She was too loyal to both Mary and Almanzo to risk hurting someone. But what I find rather sad was that when Rose was interviewing him late in life, he told her that his life had been mostly a disappointment to him. What a sad thing to say to your daughter. But he’d intended to be a prosperous and well respected farmer like his father, and weather, poor soil, bad economies, poor health and lack of sons had all been against him having any success.

    I find it interesting to note that for three generations in Laura’s family, no boys survived early infancy. Her only brother died at five months, her only son died at three weeks and her only grandson, Rose’s son, died in infancy too. It makes me wonder if there was a lethal gene on the Y chromosome in that family. Ma had a brother, but that was the last male in the family to survive to adulthood. I guess we’ll never know, since the family died out.

    • TLW says:

      Ma (Caroline Quiner) had 3 brothers. The oldest one Joseph was killed in the Civil War I think. The next one Henry married Pa’s sister Polly. Then there was Thomas, the one that visited them in DeSmet. Her sisters were Martha, Eliza Ann who married Pa’s brother Peter, and then her half sister Lottie Holbrook.

    • Sean Bostick says:

      The Y Chromosomes of the boys were not the cause of the male deaths since each baby had a different one. Perhaps a linking Ma’s X chromosome to a Y chromosome caused something lethal to happen which in turn was inherited by Laura and later Rose.
      Ma’s sisters all had sons live to adulthood, I believe. Maybe it could have just been one of those coincidental events not related to each other.

      • Melanie Stringer says:

        Most historians will tell you that infant (and maternal!) mortality was very, very common prior to the mid-20th century. Most families lost at least one child, and many lost several. It’s quite likely the loss of these particular children in the Ingalls and Wilder families was not due to any specific abnormal genetic cause.

  25. Heidi says:

    I am 43 years old and reading the LH books to my children now, after having read them myself as a child. These questions regarding EJ have been haunting me, and I am so glad to see that others are wondering about them, too! I think there may have been some embellishment to EJ as a villain, but I also think there is a lot of truth and that EJ must have done something really bad (like the rocking desk incident and/or the rice farm failure) to cause a lifelong dislike and resentment on Laura’s part. But I cannot help but wonder about Almanzo’s take on it. He seems much more easy-going than Laura, and perhaps, as others have mentioned, he just didn’t care. It’s hard to imagine writing about a relative that way, though. Even if they were already dead and gone!

  26. Kinzi Jones says:

    Ladies, thank you all so much for this little education!

    Like the previous commenter, I am now reading the story to my daughter, after having read it to my sons a few years back, before I was a regular Google user.

    Tonight, after reading “These Happy Golden Years” to her, I got curious about both EJ and Nellie Oleson, adn I am so glad there were other curious fans out there.

    I have nothing new to add, but thank you 🙂

  27. Claire says:

    There’s a lesson here — don’t piss off a writer!
    I believe events happened as Laura portrayed them. While EJ was alive, Laura might have been too intimidated to bring up the school days, but as we older, we get bolder… and those school-era resentments have a way of bubbling up later in life. Laura said she’d never forgive Miss Wilder for what she did to Carrie (rocking the desk). And she never did forgive her! As for Almanzo, what could he say? He probably knew better than to get in the way!

  28. Sylvia Gardiner says:

    Imagine my shock when I discovered that a dear friend of mine during my early teenage years who died in an accident when we were in our twenties was the great-granddaughter of Eliza Jane. I was a huge fan of the Little House books, but somehow I never mentioned it to Claire. My friend was Claire Lynn Thayer. Her father was T J Thayer. He was Walcott Thayer’s son. After reading all these posts, I wonder if her family resented Laura’s portrayal of their ancestor.

  29. Martha says:

    The comment that Almonzo wasn’t much of a reader is belied by the facts. Look up, ‘A Little House Sampler’ to get some perspective on LIW and AJW’s later life. The time that Rose was sent to EJ’s was one year after Charles Ingalls’ death. Perhaps they considered having her go to South Dakota, but wanted to spare Caroline’s feelings and stress level. Almonzo’s health may have been a factor as well. The stroke left him with good days and bad…it could’ve been a bad year. BTW, Rose returned home regularly, between trips and jobs. Her letters show a close devotion to her parents, not the assumed estrangement alluded to in some of the above posts.

  30. Kate R says:

    Rose didn’t like her either! In Freeland, Rose’s best novel, and the one to read if you are in any doubt who could write in the family ( it was Laura), Eliza pops up again, all fancy frocks, resentment, and manipulation. She is accompanied by a dodgy character called Gaylord who I think must be a version of Thomas Thayer crossed with poor old Royal. Rose does let her Eliza escape Dakota and go West, but it is very striking that she doesn’t bother to change Eliza’s name anymore than Laura did. The betrayal of the family patriarch – he’s a hero in ‘Freeland’ – clearly cut deep.

  31. Lois says:

    I wondered about this, too. But when you read “Farmer Boy”, you notice that Eliza Jane is always trying to do the right and responsible thing. When the Wilder parents go off on vacation and leave the children to tend the house, the other three children want to make ice cream, while EJ is saying, “No, first we have to make the beds and wash the dishes.” It says a lot about her character that her parents trusted her enough to run the house in their absence, and later take financial advice from her. In spite of her bossiness, this portrait of her as a child is actually very favorable.

    In DeSmet she comes off as more of a pathetic character, obviously losing control of the schoolhouse situation. Funny…re-reading the stories as an adult, one sees characters and situations in quite a different light. How lonely must she have been to share that “Lazy, Lousy Liza Jane” story with someone like Genevieve Masters/’Nellie Oleson’?

  32. Lois says:

    Another thing: I wonder if there may have been some jealousy between Laura and Eliza Jane. The latter was, after all, another woman in Almanzo’s life, and one with long-standing authority over him. EJ had besides distinguished herself as a homesteader, teacher, feminist, professional, businesswoman. Laura was only a farm wife, at least until her stories brought her fame. Maybe her characterization of EJ was her way of wittling this dominant woman down to size.

  33. TLynn says:

    Good insights Lois.

  34. Elaine says:

    First, i would ask you to excuse my english (i’m french).

    I’m glad to have found this website! I’m asking the same question for years.

    My question is: Is anybody asked Laura when she was alive? She met (as well as Rose) a lot of media people (the press) at the time, talking about her books.

    I would also like to say that it seems to me that Laura was a very independant woman too. But, unlike EJ who was avant-gardist, Laura was very conservative. Maybe the clash comes from there.

    Au plaisir,

    Elaine B. – Montréal.

  35. Althea says:

    One thing that always cracked me up was the difference in the way EJ was portrayed in the book and in the television series. In LTOTP, the students can’t wait to get rid of her. In the series, the kids rally to save her job when the class bully tries to run her out because they “didn’t want to lose a good teacher.”

    I kind of think that EJ was basically a good hearted individual, but as the eldest daughter she was expected to be one of the more responsible children. Consequently, I think she learned to be bossy, overbearing, meddlesome, and had a way of getting on nerves (I remember being a kid reading the series and just wanting to smack her). Her mother evidently wasn’t shy about putting her in her place when she needed it, as illustrated by the cups and saucers story. And I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons Almanzo started courting Laura was to piss her off.

  36. admilkmaid says:

    My own take is that Eliza Jane Wilder was a very strong personality. Not always wise, but very very bright, accustomed to command, and practically fearless. I too adored the portrait of her in Rose’s novel FREE LAND. It is of a piece with all the other stories. Almanzo (David in the book) is driven crazy by her. I laughed out loud several times.

    I didn’t think Laura or Rose made her a villain. I thought they made her a character. From all accounts Eliza Jane WAS a character.

    I also believe that Laura, Rose, and Eliza Jane were, in very different ways, very strong, very intelligent women and not surprisingly there were tensions among all three. Laura, raised by Caroline to suppress her feelings, was the most able to “pass” as your average farm wife. However none of that means they didn’t also love each other. To me there is no question why Rose would be sent to live with Eliza Jane for 9th grade. Those two were peas in a pod! Smart and difficult and not interested in farming!

  37. JoAnn says:

    I have been reading Little House all my life it seems, my daughter also reads LH, in addition Martha, Charlotte, and Caroline and the Rose years.
    I remember when EJ shows up at Rocky ridge farm and Rose finds Laura hiding in the barn. EJ is driving Laura nuts. I had a sister in law that drove people nuts. I don’t think they do this on purpose, it’s the way they are. If you read the Rose years, where Rose goes off to Crowley to live with EJ and Wilder you get a different angle. Here EJ is a caring sort, a great Mom to Wilder, raising Wilder without the benefit of a father in his life. You really see EJ as a brave fearless woman, who tells of living on the claim with two pistols under her pillow at night, as DE Smet claim area is ruthless and wild. EJ claims she almost killed herself trying to keep up the claim. And she suffered ill health (as her brother Manzo did as well) for the rest of her life. EJ was kind to her servants and for civil rights way long before that was fashionable in the South. You kinda forget your reading about the same woman. She truly feels it is her duty as an older sister to educate Rose in an Academy. EJ believes that it’s her cross to bear for loosing her father’s fortune in LA. In the Rose books Pearly does make the rice fields profitable with new irrigation methods. So profitable that Pearly invites Laura and Manzo to visit and stay as the weather is warmer in the winter than in the Ozarks. I wouldn’t call EJ lazy, just misunderstood.

  38. Jessica says:

    Guys, “Big Woods” was written as a book for children. Rose contemptuously called these “juveniles” in her correspondence. To me it isn’t such a mystery…she made for an interesting character and these were children’s books. Rose, and probably Laura, and certainly Almanzo, likely never considered that anyone would be parsing over these books 40-50 years after they both left us, much less blogging, conferencing and writing books about our experiences with their books!

  39. admilkmaid says:

    Thanks, Jessica. Does it bother you, for some reason, to find that many of us “guys” do get pleasure from thinking about these issues?

  40. Todd says:

    This is a fascinating message string. I wanted to clarify a few things various members have said. First, Eliza Jane wasn’t the eldest daughter; Laura Ann was. Second, Eliza jane didn’t teach/school Rose in Louisiana; Rose attended an academy that taught Latin and went all the way to 12th grade – mansfield schools only went to 8th grade at that time. Rose merely lived with Eliza Jane.

    Also, still waters run deep. Meaning that Almanzo was more involved in the character development of his family members than many think. He may not have been an avid reader, but he was smart, and loved to tell stories himself. Laura piqued his brain extensively for Farmer Boy and for the way of life on big, prosperous farms. The Ingalls and the Quiners never achieved that level of success, so Laura couldn’t describe them from memory or personal experience. Same holds true for describing farm machinery. She did help Pa and Almanzo with farm work, but the intricate details of machinery and farming methods weren’t something she had extensive first-hand knowledge of either.

    I think there was a lot of resentment in Laura and Almanzo towards Eliza Jane, for different reasons – laura for the school episodes, Almanzo for dealing with her growing up. I also think the loss of the family fortune would have affected Almanzo more than Laura. Almanzo knew the life of prosperity and successful farming; Laura did not.

    I think they sent Rose to school in Crowley simply because there was nowhere else to send her (cheaply) to get an extended education. If they had had another choiuce, I’m certain they would have utilized it.

    I think Almanzo played a big part in the way Eliza jane was portrayed. He wasn’t in school being taight by his sister, so he would have to defer to her version of events. But the way Eliza jane had treated him over the years, and done the family wrong at the turn of the 20th century, I am sure he had no problem backing up Laura’s version of his sister.

    There, my 2 cents’ worth 😉

  41. John Bass says:

    Rose is basicly responsible for E.J.’s (fictionalized) charcter in these books. In real life, Eliza wasn’t THAT bad. E.J.’s charcter was definately fictionalized, because Laura would not want to talk (or write) anything negative toward her sister-in-law. I think it was done to enhance the excitment and charcter of the books. Rose loved E.J. dearly, and they had great times together in Crowley. And, Rose did not attend a special academy or anything like that in Crowley, but it was a simple, normal, regular high school, CROWLEY HIGH SCHOOL. This school DID however offer subjects that were not offered in Mansfield, Missouri’s school. Rose also mastered 4 years of Latin, in just one year there. She translated a story from English to Latin, which she read during the 1904 graduation exercises at the Grand Opera House in Crowley, where she also worked and helped out at. At one point or another, someone mislead people by saying that Rose ‘wrote’ a story in Latin, but she only translated a story in Latin. I personally think that E.J. had alot to do with Rose growing up to being the amazing, gifted person that she was! After staying with E.J., Rose realized there is MUCH MORE to life than boring Mansfield. Although, she called Mansfield home, forever. But, me too — why Lazy, Lousy Liza Jane? Rose? Was it that amusing? And striking? Definately fictionalized charchter! -John Bass (IWL)

  42. Monica F says:

    You know, I really think part of the books portray her that way simply because it is great drama, and therefore lends itself to the sales of the books. It does seem out of character for Laura to do such a thing just for money though. My thoughts are that perhaps Laura never forgave her. As “ma” told her in Little Town on the Prairie, “Laura, have you no forgiveness?” . I believe forgiveness was a real struggle for Laura, especially when it came to the mistreatment of Carrie.

  43. Steve says:

    The Miss Wilder of the books always seemed to me to be a very unhappy person, and today may very well might be diagnosed with a psychological disorder (I won’t hazard to guess which one). When they introduced Eliza in the television series, I thought “Oh, no!”, because I was expecrting a repeat of the Eliza from LTOTP. Surprisingly, this Eliza was very different, and probably more like the real Eliza than the one in the books. This Eliza’s behavior was totally understandable: she was tense, and strict, but underneath a lonely woman. Unless LIW’s “Pioneer Girl” is ever published, we’ll probably never know the truth.

  44. Rosie says:

    I read all the comments with great interest. To this day I still reread all the “Little House” books and I am in my 60s! As for my thoughts on Eliza Jane Wilder. I think Laura Ingalls Wilder may have embellished her stories for the sake of entertainment. For example, in the books she really does not speak clearly of the age difference between herself and Almanzo Wilder. And with good reason. I think there had to be some villain or villainess in the stories to add interest. I think Eliza Jane was given that role by Laura. I too did not like the portrayal of Laura and her push of responsibility once Mary went blind. I think Caroline Ingalls always must have favored Mary to the chagrin of Laura. And of all Laura’s writing how wonderful Charles Ingalls was, he was a failure as a farmer. Caroline was definitely a hater of Native Americans. Nellie Oleson may have truly been a brat but obviously Laura was terribly jealous of her. But all of these people were written as characters in a fictional/historical saga written to entertain. I truly looked forward to the television series but truthfully I was terribly disappointed in it. Michael Landon made Charles Ingalls a joke. He made the entire family and the stories Laura wrote a joke. all the adoptions of more children? When the real Ingalls family struggled to get by year after year he has them bringing more children into the home. Ridiculous. He could have stuck by the books and really had a wonderful series. Instead he embellishes the series for his own sake and makes it a joke. Eliza Jane Wilder may not have been the nicest woman on the planet but she was also a woman ahead of her times. I think Laura may have resented this. I wonder too about Laura and Almanzo as parents to Rose. Obviously they seemed dedicated to each other but my reading about Rose and the relationship she had with Laura seems they were not the closest of mother and daughter. I choose to read the books and see pioneers making the best of a very hard life. Go visit the “Little House on the Prairie” in Independence, Kansas. I did in May of this year and it is a real eye opener. A very small one room cabin, which housed 2 adults and 3 children. The books make the homes the Ingalls family had seem much larger, although not overtly poor. But they really had very little and made do with what they had. Eliza Jane, along with teaching took on 160 acres of land. A strong and determined woman if any thing. Frankly I like all of the characters in the books, except for Caroline Ingalls. She most of all puzzles me. It is always Laura she has doing some kind of work and m
    Mary her pet, the golden girl, is her golden child, who she wants to go to college no matter what the sacrifice. Yet she hates Indians. Then she scolds Laura to “forgive”. Eliza does not puzzle me but Caroline sure does.

    • Anonymous says:

      Rosie, Mary was blind and therefore was unable to do a lot of work. If she was not, Ma probably would have Mary do a lot of work. Also, since there were no sons, she had Laura help Pa. Laura honestly didn’t mind because she hated being stuck in the house anyways and thought “man’s work” was more interesting than a woman’s.

  45. Deborah says:

    I agree with the posters who believe that EJ’s treatment of Carrie may have been something Laura could never forget or truly forgive. If she had, she’d have left that chair rocking scene out.
    I know this-if a teacher or anyone else had bullied one of my little brothers I couldn’t get past it. And we were in school in the early 1960’s !

  46. Carol says:

    I just read all the Little House books. The First Four Years was very strange to me (I know it was published after Laura’s death from notes). In this book, I think Laura’s true personality comes to light. Her dissatisfaction with Almanzo’s attempts at making a farm in De Smet come through loud and clear. She seems impatient with the housekeeping and generally pissed off. She wants to hire help to do the cooking, the house cleaning, and even someone to take care of Rose. Almost like a more well adjusted version of crazy Mrs. Brewster. The fact that keeping house was so idealized in the other books creates quite a contrast with Laura’s attempts at it as an adult. I also read on the internet that she never visited her mother after her father’s death, which is bizarre if true.

    • Seth says:

      Laura not visiting was for a couple reasons. 1. She and Ma loved each other but were not as close as Laura was to Pa and Mary was to Ma. 2. The 1910s and 1920s was a time when traveling was more difficult, time consuming and expensive. DeSmet is almost 700 miles from Mansfield. A train journey home to DeSmet would have taken a day and a half, perhaps two. When you left relatives and moved across country, you very well may never have seen any of them again. Laura was needed to help with the farm and housework; remember when she went to San Francisco for the World’s Fair in 1915 for 2 months? She was there to report on the Fair for the local newspaper, not just sight see and Rose and Gillette assisted Laura and Almanzo in paying for it. Also people in some families just aren’t as close as other families. Even just a few years ago, when one of my great-aunts died, my grandfather he said he was saddened but they just were never that close. And with even the siblings that he was close to (he was one of 8), he hadn’t seen them in several years when they died; the opportunity to travel to see them just wasn’t there. Everyone has people in their family that they love but aren’t especially fond of. You’re saddened when they pass away because they’re family but some less so than others.

  47. Rong says:

    I’m inclined to think that some of the characters are imaginary characters or characters based on several people (just like Nellie).

    Laura may just have incorporated the negative behaviours of several people (or possible, a few of her sister-in-laws) just to make things seems more black-and-white and simpler to understand. Remember, the story is not only meant for adults, but for children as well, and anything too complicated about human behaviours and relationships may be too difficult for them to understand.

  48. Elaine says:

    As a teacher myself for several years, once at a very “difficult” school, I could empathize with Laura’s depiction of Eliza Jane. I didn’t think Eliza was “demonized” by Laura’s story — merely shown as spinning emotionally out-of-control as she saw her ideas on the education of children drastically failing and yet, typical for her determined (read stubborn) temperament, she refused to admit her mistake and change course. All of this was supposedly augmented by the whiles of “Nellie Oleson,” who succeeded in getting Eliza to view Laura as the culprit for her troubles.

    Several people have mentioned that Laura may have felt jealousy toward Eliza; I think that Eliza may have felt a little threatened by young Laura. After all, Eliza as the teacher was rapidly losing control of her school, but popular young Laura could supposedly control the boys if she wanted to (remember how she told them not to put a pin on the teacher’s chair and knew that they would listen to her — and later took some of the responsibility for their rowdiness on herself because she had chosen to “smile at naughtiness”?) Eliza had poor ideas for this prairie school which she was too stubborn to modify, then further got on the wrong side of the student body by making friends with unpopular Nellie instead of well-liked Laura. Eliza probably felt extremely frustrated by her inability to get on a better relational ground with her students and took that frustration out on popular Laura, whom Eliza had become convinced was her enemy, and her beloved little sister Carrie — which was unwarranted and rather immature, but quite human.

    Having taught, I can see most of this happening (though I didn’t have any experiences quite as catastrophic as Eliza’s!) I also think Laura as the grown-up writer and later a teacher herself had a pretty good understanding of what Eliza was going through. However, to keep the simplistic tone of the children’s novel, she presented the story through the eyes of a child, dramatizing the events to make a great read — and not watering down their effect by pausing to give perspective or retell the story through Eliza’s eyes. After all, as has been stated, Eliza Jane was dead by the time that Laura wrote the books, and much of the actual blame for the situation was passed on to “Nellie Olseson’s” lies.

    In reading the book to my own children, I noticed that they expressed their anger over Nellie Oleson’s actions and accepted Laura’s admission that part of the situation was her fault for making some cutting remarks to Nellie (which were later misrepresented to Eliza Jane). I don’t think my young children would have understood the nuances of Eliza Jane’s perspective of the experience, and I imagine that is why Laura did not include this “side of the story” in her book for children.

  49. Susan says:

    Hm, I always thought that in LTOP Eliza Jane was portrayed the way (the fictional?) Laura saw her at that time: A teacher hindering her education by her incompetence at keeping the discipline, a hindrance to her getting to know Almanzo better – because “Nellie” had already formed that necessary relationship with the teacher – and finally an ally to Nellie, the “enemy”.

    Reading on, in THGY we get Laura’s interesting musings about how she can realate to EJ after she has faced difficulties with her class as well – and her class was much easier to discipline than EJ’s both due to the students’ age as well the sheer number of students and “unruely” students.

    Maybe this was indeed the way Laura remembered EJ as a teacher.
    A factor may have that Nellie made friends with EJ.
    We have been reading since “Silverlake” about Laura contriving plans to “go rinding behind those beautiful Morgans”. Then comes along Nellie, making friends with Teacher, spoiling all of those fancy plans. So to Laura EJ with her ways and her friendship to Nellie was an hinderance to get to know both Almanzos and his horses better. Laura might have even perceived her as standing in her way of doing so.
    Had Almanzo had a different sister, perhaps Laura would have been introduced to him much earlier.
    At least this is what I read between the lines in LHOTP.

    But I find it important that Laura as a student and admirer of Almanzo portrays oder perceives EJ differently than Laura as a teacher and future wife of Almanzo.

    Okay, we’re back to critical feelings toward EJ when it comes to the wedding; but on the other hand, there EJ isn’t portrayed that badly – she wants the best for her brother, just she does not consider the money.
    Isn’t it normal that one wants all the family to attend a wedding and make it a big one?
    Laura and Almanzo, on the other hand, just don’t want to let his family on to their money troubles.

  50. Susan says:

    Another factor might be that the fictional Laura could let out all her stress at EJ as a scapegoat. Probably EJ was not the sole reason for that stress – there were worries about Carrie’s health, money troubles, worries about her relationship with Almanzo, worries about her teacher certificate etc.
    By blaming most of the stress on EJ and being thus allowed to discuss it freely with her friends she had an outlet that she probably wouldn’t have allowed herself otherwise.
    She is not allowed to discuss her worries of Almanzo getting engaged to someone else, of being able to keep up with friends who had more money for name cards, fancy dresses and hats, worries about having to go somewhere else and teach unknown children, worries about being able to cope with disciplinarian problems as a teacher, worries of earning enough money for the family, worries about Mary or missing Mary in general etc.
    Maybe she focused on EJ, in the novel and possibly in RL, to give all this stress a name and let it out, at least verbally, on someone?

  51. edith says:

    So I think the fact that Almanzo still went and courted Laura after I’m sure hearing stories from his sister about how awful Laura was just proves that he did not care what his sister thought. Almanzo was friendly with Pa and knew the family. He probably saw that Laura was a hard worker. And certianly did not believe any of the stories his sister may have told him. There is always sibling rivalry and EJ was probably portrayed as she was…bossy and overbearing. As for the facts…I read somewhere that everything Laura wrote about was true bit didn’t necessarily happen in the order she wrote. I only wonder what EJ decendants think because all these years later children read these stories as literal facts and adults sit and debate and analyze every detail.

  52. Shelley Hanson says:

    I loved reading LH books when I was young and tried to reread them as an adult. When I read them now I sense such a longing and sadness in Laura. All of us have a story, it’s just that Laura was able to capture hers. She loved her family and described them well.

  53. Susan says:

    @ lori

    >>I read in a mag. article that laura did ,she told the interviewer she left a lot of true happenings out of all her books so they would be suitable for children.<<

    I'd find it interesting to do a read-along of Pioneer Girl, now that it is available to everybody, and perhaps also compare it to the books. 🙂

  54. Paula George says:

    My fiancé is Eliza Janes great great grandson. His grandmother was Betty (Thayer ) later Huey . Eliza jane was her grandmother. His name is Jason Fails. He has told me what his grandmother spoke of her grandmother was that that Eliza jane was a strong, stern person. She was the only unmarked woman around in her day that was able to homestead land as a single woman. That says something considering the times. He said his grandmother had fond memories of Eliza jane as well. She was kind, funny, and believe it or not until her parents went bankrupt, she and Almanzo were close, which was an ongoing issue for Laura. They believe everything Laura wrote to be true, but these were small incidences throughout many years of fun, loving, family times. Her family believes that Laura mistook her strength and boldness and knack for pulling everything together in business and otherwise as bossiness. But she was very serious too. She could be hard as nails and from the way my fiancé tells it her granddaughter, his grandmother, and mother were the same way. Their strong wills and opinions often pit them against one another and my fiancé lived through this feistiness between his mom and grandma his whole life. He believes the same strength and strong will existed between his great great grandma eliza jane and Laura. His mother and grandmother have both passed away which is sad but his memories of his grandma telling her memories about eliza jane are stories we tell our beautiful 7 month old every night. Eliza janes family line lives on. My fiancé Jason Fails has the pioneering spirit of his ancestors. He is sadly the only one in his family with it. He is the spitting image of Almanzo and eerily his daughter from another marriage looks just like eliza jane. Our daughter looks just like daddy too. He hunts, fishes, prefers to sleep under the stars, wood works, he just built a pergola for picnicking in our back yard. He amazes me everyday. He is the living legend and every bit like Almanzo from Farmer boy. Reading the book is like reading his childhood too. His mom raised him on a farm in Raymond California in a small little house. It’s great that people still care about his family and we are in the process of putting together a reality show based on us raising our daughter as close to pioneer as possible . If you have any questions you can reach us at my email address. Remember the past is so important to the future, and the past is never really gone as long as we carry on , we allow our families to continue on long after they are no longer with us!

  55. Angela says:

    How happily amazed I was when I found this site! I am 50 years old and still read the LH books occasionally. I try to dig up all the info on LIW that I can find.

    I too wondered about EJ and why if she was such a horrible person that Laura and Almanzo would send Rose to live with her to go to school. But after reading the Rose Series, finishing of course with “Bachelor Girl”, I too can see that Rose was what at the time could be considered a “wild child”. I agree with the fact that perhaps LIW and AW sent her there simply because they had no other option to keep her out of trouble.

    In the Rose series, he tells about Rose keeping company with an older gentleman who courted her with buggy rides and dinners in restaurants. And in an above post I read that it was said she experimented with sex early. When I read the series I thought “Ma and Pa Ingalls would have had massive heart attacks if they knew their grand daughter was living the lifestyle she was.”

    To sum it up I believe that EJ was taking Rose in and sending her to school for threefold reasons:

    1. To make up for the horrible way she had treated Laura as a teen.
    2. To compensate Almanzo for destroying the hope of getting any inheritance by causing his parents to lose their family fortune
    3. To try to help her brother and sister in law control an out of control daughter (but only resulted in making things worse.)

    But after all, this is just my opinion…

  56. Donald Huey says:

    Eliza Jane was my great grandmother. My mother used to tell me stories about her Grandma Gordon. She would spend weekends with her during the 1930s and she had nothing but fond memories of a woman she greatly admired. EJ, always the teacher, instilled in my mother the virtues of having a career and being able to stand on her own feet, and my mother was in many ways a carbon copy of her. Knowing the kind of woman my mother was, I can easily see how women with less independent spirit and women with equal independent spirit would butt heads and/or slink away and write unkind things about them after their death. EJ and her granddaughter Bettie Mae Thayer Huey are in heaven relishing the fact that long after they departed this world people are still talking about the impact they made during their lives.

  57. Stephenie says:

    Perhaps Laura felt Eliza was responsible for Rose’s decision to not go home after she finished high school? It would be hard to have your only child leave so soon, especially a daughter at at time when women did not go off adventuring independently.

    I think Laura may have taught my great grandfather Clyde Perry. She mentions him as a 7 year old boy when teaching on the Perry claim. It may not be the same person, but it’s the right time for my great grandfather to have been a boy starting school. He and his father and family were in Minnesota and possibly the Dakotas at that time before moving to Kansas, then later homesteading in Wyoming.

    As for Charles being a failed farmer… My family farms wheat in Wyoming and Nebraska. Hail and drought are so common for losses that it’s always a remarkable year when a full crop is harvested and when there are not significant losses to hail. I think over the last 30 years they have only been able to harvest half of what they have planted, losing the other half to hail or drought. There are stories of my grandfathers suffering epic losses to hail for 8 years in a row. One of my grandfathers worked in road construction during the Fall and Winter to make enough money to keep the family (my father, aunt & uncle) from starving. Both my grandfathers were successful farmers and eventually enjoyed a great deal of comfort. The main thing that made them successful was their perseverance, and hedging their “bets” on the crop with other streams of income. It’s tough business. They had livestock, side businesses and in the worst of times worked for other people. Had they cut their losses and moved away after a few years of hardship, they would not have remained farmers and gotten jobs in some city somewhere, likely Denver.

    While reading I felt Charles moved them away from a couple of places prematurely when in one or two more years, they would realize a gain. But the Ingalls usually did not have help from family and sometimes when they did, it was what made them move. I think they took a long time to recover their losses from Indian Territory. I don’t think it strange or a failure that Charles Ingalls had to work as a carpenter and any other job he could do. Now farmers joke that they can make it if their wife has a good job teaching or working at for the county. Charles was both fortunate to have the work available and in my opinion successful because he was skilled, resourceful and hardworking. My mother always says farmers don’t like casinos for fun because they gamble every year with their crops and it’s true. Farming is unpredictable at best.

    I really relate to the Little House Series and read them to my children. Laura’s stories remind me of my grandmother’s and grandfather’s stories of our own families experience in the same parts of the country. I am able to show my children little artifacts of that time that still sit around the farm or my mothers house which brings it alive for them. It’s a wonderful series and I never tire of it. Learning about how the story lines up with the reality is interesting too. My God son is a Wilder but no one seems to know from which part of that very large family.

  58. Abe Bush says:

    I agree that Charles was a failure as a farmer, but as others have pointed out he had no control over weather and grasshoppers. But some of the decisions he made caused many of their problems. i.e. moving them to Indian Territory without bothering to check to make sure they had a valid claim site, and instead just randomly building a cabin where it happened to strike him to build? It wasn’t secret knowledge back then that the whole area bordered the indian territory, and one stop at the local homestead claim office would have indicated where he could or could not set down stake.

    It also strikes me that it probably wasn’t the best decision to move everyone all the way back up to Wisconsin after being kicked off their land, instead of starting over elsewhere nearby where the farming was still good (no big woods, no back breaking stumps to clear), and everything they had was very inexpensive since Charles did all the work. For crying out loud instead of living 40 miles away from Independence, they could have moved closer to town and built a homestead there…closer to medical care and schools which ma wanted instead of packing up and going back where they started.

    Another bad decision was moving back to Walnut Grove after leaving the first time…knowing the grasshopper plague was not yet over as the previous year they were still there and had all laid eggs all over the land. So it only makes sense that trying to restart farming back in Minnesota would have also been a failure, but they did it anyway instead of leaving Burr Oak in the dead of night and many unpaid bills still due. Probably another reason Laura left the whole Burr Oak experience out of her books since they literally left town knowing they owed a lot of people money which they would never be paying back.

    While Laura does describe a few sparse incidents with Liza Jane in a negative light, I must admit Liza Jane added spice to the overall sweetness in the stories…and makes them interesting and fun. I remember when my 3rd grade teacher read us the entire series, one chapter per day right after lunch (as long as we successfully remembered the name of the next day’s chapter, or we didn’t get read to that day!), everyone sat on the edge of their seats all through much of Little Town On the Prairie and These Happy Golden years, because there was more excitement and drama than in most of the previous books.

    But I don’t remember hating Liza Jane as much as she created excitement and interest. While Mary could be bossy and annoying because she was also as good as gold, and almost a prissy goody two shoes sort of character, Liza Jane flat out made people mind and made Manzo mind along with them. I also think it’s funny how even Royal — the older sibling — even seemed to obey her when it came right down to it. Remember, Royal seemed even more meek and mild mannered than Manzo did, as illustrated in These Happy Golden Years, satisfying himself with running a feed store and whittling while Almanzo went out and saved the town from starving while Royal sat in the warm store whittling.

    My overall impression of the characters was that Nellie Oleson was a conniving, devious, spoiled rotten little brat, but Eliza Jane was an overworked, distraught, but intelligent strong willed woman who was trying to single handedly make her own place in this world.

    I seriously always thought of pa as being “the biggest loser” in the entire series, in spite of Laura’s attempts to portray him as a wonderful, close to perfect provider and father. But really, when it comes down to it she portrayed him as hard working but feeble minded (or at least lacking common sense and/or wisdom), he just did a marvelous job singing, and playing the fiddle. And he was made light hearted by always being cheerful, saying “I’ll be jinxed”, and breaking into song all the time.

    I also think Eliza Jane was given way more attention than say Laura Wilder, who wasn’t even mentioned after Farmer Boy even though she was always described in a favorable light. But in spite of working with Laura in real life, she wasn’t even given one sentence in any of the books after Farmer Boy other than Almanzo mentioning to Laura that he has a sister named Laura…and how he never liked the name. How rude!

  59. janis says:

    It was fun to find this site again. I, too, was always surprised that Laura had written negatively about her husband’s sister–though I did think those stories really spiced things up!

    Now that Pioneer Girl has been published, we can see that Laura did write negatively about Eliza Jane as a teacher in PG–before any of the LH books. I noticed that many people (men and women) at that time and in that place became teachers–having been a teacher myself, it’s no easy job, and it must have been very difficult for many of them with limited resources, multiple grades & ages in one room, and older “part-time” students. They didn’t have teacher training–they just took an exam and, if they scored well enough, got their teaching certificate and then could be hired to teach–in small communities desperately needing teachers. There were lots of different teachers Laura mentioned–turnover was big, apparently–maybe teaching was a way to get some money in order to go on to do what they really wanted to do.

    Just because EJ was not a very good teacher doesn’t mean she wasn’t strong and capable. The notes in PG reveal that she didn’t finish her term teaching–whether she chose to quit, as she said or they fired her.

    I’m sure Laura always smarted from having the teacher turn against her (much of what’s in LTOTP about it was also in PG, including EJ telling the school board that Laura was the cause of the trouble–and EJ admits there was trouble, which does seem to show she was unable to handle it!).

    I have no doubt that–somewhere along the line–Almanzo would have been aware that EJ was portrayed negatively in the Little House books. Readers used to stop by Rocky Ridge Farm to meet Laura and Almanzo, and someone would have mentioned it, if not family.

    It could be that Laura & Almanzo were unhappy with EJ (I believe they also lost money from EJ’s financial advice, and had to live in Mansfield longer to raise more before they could move to RRFarm permanently), but as noted, it seems odd they would then send Rose to live with EJ and finish school–unless EJ was the only relative living in a city big enough to have high schools. Seems like Rose always came first to them.

    I’m not sure that they expected to keep Rose “down on the farm” forever. Times were changing back then. They’d both come from wanderlust families–especially Laura–and had traveled a lot in their married life (remember Florida?) before settling in Missouri. I personally don’t think there was resentment against EJ because Rose chose to leave Missouri. It’s definitely a possibility, though!

    Thanks for this post! It’s fun to speculate.

  60. Max says:

    One of the many things I could relate to about Almanzo when I read Farmer Boy at the age of eight was he had two older sisters — one of them quite bossy indeed! (I did not learn that there was a Laura Wilder until recently.)

    As other posters have remarked, the Little House books are biographical fiction. They are novels. They are not academic biography or history. Thus, LIW wrote her books as riveting stories, rather than discussions of facts.

    A poster named Lois commented in 2011 that perhaps Eliza Jane’s parents encouraged her, as the elder daughter still at home, to take a maternal and supervisory role with her younger siblings. All waking hours were busy hours on the farm. Older children taking on some of the parental burden would have been helpful, and perhaps necessary.

    Little Town portrays the cattiness of young ladies competing for the attention of eligible young men. LIW shows the reader a great deal of adolescent insecurity and teenage social craft in the schoolhouse. Think of the chapter (I can’t remember which one) in which Cap brings daily parcels of sweets for the girls. LIW sublimates a good deal of sexual frustration via Cap and his candy. LIW was born in the Victorian era and wrote her books in the 1930s and 1940s. She wasn’t Judy Blume. Describing the lust of a 14-year-old girl was out of the question, especially in a “juvenile.”

    Thus, the Eliza Jane we meet in Little Town is written from a frustrated teenager’s perspective, and such perspectives are often unkind.

  61. Lorena Caler says:

    I’m wondering myself, where Almanzo disliked his elder sister, Laura Ann, if the character of EJ was a compilation of Laura Ann and a few other people on top of the losses of the inheritance among other things.

  62. Anonymous says:

    I have a younger cousin who I used to be very protective of when we were younger because she was dealing with insecurities.
    Eliza was sort of being a bully so I don’t blame Laura for never forgiving her

  63. Doris says:

    I don’t see Laura write Eliza Jane as a “bad person” but more of a story of what happened. Nellie was trying to suck up to the teacher to ride behind her brother’s horses. There was a confrontation between Laura and her teacher and she is the girl that ends up riding “behind” his horses.

    If you will notice two things in the books Almanzo says his sister often spoke of Laura so I’m assuming not bad things or if they were maybe that made him curious about Laura. Also when Laura went to teach school away from home she did think to herself (when she thought the students were against her) “was this how Miss Wilder felt.

    To me this does make an interesting twist on an interesting story with an unusual twist at the end. JMO

  64. Julie Kinser says:

    I agree with many of the opinions which feel that Laura & Rose were appealing to a youthful audience, & you also see that reflected even stronger in the tv series with the usual poetic license, as a very old maid, unattractive, both physically& charactely Eliza Jane, even though archives indicate very clearly that she was just the opposite, a very attractive looking woman. I believe Laura& Rose made a conscious decision to portray Eliza Jane as an interesting character combining the negative aspects of how they viewed her & exaggerating both her personality to match her physicality, in order to develop a more fascinating & love to dislike obstacle that would further enhance the sweetness of young Laura, adding spice to the story of Alonzo & Laura’s courtship.Laura knew she was writing true stories of what life was like in the pioneer days & how the subject itself would greatly appeal to that first generation of readers, whose grandparents were part of that era of building the west, with the excitement every child likes to read about cowboys & Indians & covered wagons. From that perspective of painting a historical narrative; I don’t believe she really viewed a hindsight attitude that her personal life would be so closely associated with that of her stories & picked apart as we are doing now. Laura’s purpose was to bring her adventures from a past, yet fascinating era in history, come alive in a fun & jump off the pages for her young readers to experience in a real way, & in curbing Eliza Jane’s character traits in such a fashion, she was adding more flavor to the story. I think that Eliza Jane’s personal life & true personality would come under such scrutiny, was the very last thought on Laura’s mind, if it ever even occurred to her at all. On the other hand, it is very rare to develop a character totally alien from that of a real person, especially when Laura was writing from personal experiences. Therefore, there has to be some basis for Eliza Jane’s the person & the development of her character in the books. I do believe that we have all chased that rabbit down too many holes, in digging for the reasoning & trying to point fingers at a specific conflict between the family & Eliza Jane. The reality, at least in my opinion, is that it is simply a matter of Laura weaving her adventures of real life on the prairie as a wonderful narrative for children of all ages, her realization that that era of covered wagons was a thing of the past that needed to be recorded from one who lived through it, share it with what she could appreciate would have an eager audience for generations to come. I don’t believe she anticipated the long reaching interest there would be in her & those portrayed in her books, as specific historical figures, just a representation of them

  65. Brittany says:

    I just re-read all the Little House books for the third or fourth time. I was curious what Eliza Jane thought of Laura by the time she found out she was marrying her brother. This site popped up in my google search. Personally, I think everyone is reading into everything way too much. It’s a story. A children’s story. What I’m really wondering is what Laura really left out of her courtship with Almanzo. From her accounts, they barely spoke to each other on their buggy and sleigh rides and she had made it quite clear she didn’t want to marry a farmer or even get married at all. So…what changed? She hardly seemed in love with him. Maybe it’s just me.

    • Melanie Stringer says:

      I think the reason people discuss the topic so thoroughly is directly related to the fact that the books are semi-autobiographical, but also are literature, employing many literary devices in storytelling, just as any other quality literature does. Further, with the additional documentation and research that is available on the Ingalls and Wilder families, there is a lot of additional information about the history of the real people who served as models for the characters in the literature. Eliza Jane had a powerful influence on Rose, so she was clearly a fixture in Almanzo’s and Laura’s lives, too. After all, they sent Rose–their only child–to stay with her in Crowley, Louisiana, to finish her education.

      As for Laura and Almanzo’s courtship, perhaps the reason so little is discussed in the novels is precisely because they were written for children? Perhaps the thought was that children wouldn’t want much detail? I think much of the motivation in their relationship is subtle but clear, as he is presented as being a solid, reliable person who thinks of others before himself and who treats her with great respect and kindness.

    • Savvy says:

      In literature and film, it seems the thing is to have a character say no to something, so that when they say yes, it seems that much sweeter and important. This goes just as well for a no when they initially said yes. Don’t mess around in your personal life. It’s also possible they really had those conversations.

  66. Kathy Leon says:

    So happy I found this site! I’m in my early 60’s and have read the Little House books to my child, my nieces and nephew, and now my Grandchildren.

    I cannot express enough my relief finding out that I am not alone in my obsession over these stories and the characters; looks like I’m as normal or ascrazy as the next person…Thank God!

  67. Savvy says:

    It’s always bothered me that she has been portrayed as an insufferable person on the one hand, or as a likable but unlucky old maid in the TV series. She may well have lost control of her classroom. From my understanding, she didn’t even want to teach, but needed to support herself while she proved her claim. She must have been something else! I would encourage people with questions to read her rather unglamorous account of homesteading “A Wilder In The West” which has her own writings sent to the Homestead office or some such office.