Laura Ingalls Wilder on her porch in Mansfield, Missouri, circa 1910.
Wilder in 1937 at age 70
Wilder signing books for young fans
Mary McDonagh Murphy
When producer-director Mary McDonagh Murphy set out to make a documentary about Laura Ingalls Wilder for PBS's American Masters, she knew the story would strike a deep chord — and not just with fans of the author's Little House on the Prairie books.
"Her life was nothing short of remarkable," Murphy says. "She endured hardship and poverty but had the grit to overcome it. And her work ethic was extraordinary. She didn't start writing the books until she was 63 and kept at it for the next 10 years. Even if you didn't read and fall in love with Little House as a child, you've got to give it up for Laura Ingalls Wilder."
Murphy did devour the books as a girl, but she admits the idea for Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page, which debuted December 29, came from another diehard fan. That was director and historical consultant Chris Czajka, with whom she'd worked on her acclaimed 2012 PBS documentary, Harper Lee: Hey, Boo, about the author of To Kill a Mockingbird.
"He knew everything, from the number of copies in print to how many fans Wilder has on Facebook," she says. But getting the project off the ground wasn't easy.
"It took a long time and several attempts before we got an NEA grant, and once we did, we had to figure out how to film the documentary. It's hard doing anything about a writer, since there aren't a lot of action-packed scenes, and finding archival material was also a huge challenge."
Trying to replicate the hardscrabble landscape of Wilder's time — she based the books on her family's experiences in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota and Iowa in the late 19th century — was almost impossible, Murphy adds. "I've never used them much, but thank goodness for drones. It was the only way we could capture big sweeping shots of the prairies."
Fortunately, she got access to Rocky Ridge Farm, the picturesque home in Missouri where Wilder wrote the entire eight-volume series. And there were great visuals at LauraPalooza, the biannual conference near the Ingalls family homestead in Wisconsin, where fans get into frontier mode and wear calico skirts and bonnets.
Shooting started in the summer of 2019, but Murphy only recently finished, thanks to the coronavirus, which brought things to a halt. "We shot the last interviews in people's backyards," she says. "Now we have to figure out how to make those look like everything we'd already done. Covid is testing our pioneer spirit!"
Wilder remains a source of inspiration. "Rereading her as an adult, you can see the stoicism and strength, which you don't see as a child. And even though our interpretation of pioneer history has changed, her writing is universal and touches people on an emotional level. At the end of the day, her books are about a close, happy family, which is what we all want."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 12, 2020